From writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash), Third Person tells three stories of love, passion, trust and betrayal, and plays out in New York, Paris and Rome, across three couples. A prize-winning fiction author named Michael (Liam Neeson) has left his wife (Kim Basinger) because of an affair with an ambitious young journalist named Anna (Olivia Wilde). Meanwhile, Scott (Adrien Brody) meets a beautiful and mysterious Roma woman named Monika (Moran Atias), who needs money to be reunited with her young daughter. And ex-soap opera actress Julia (Mila Kunis) is caught in a custody battle for her son with her famous ex-husband (James Franco).
During a conference at the film’s press day, actress Mila Kunis talked about not worrying about how sympathetic her character is, how she drew on the emotional depth of her own mistakes in life for this role, how selfishly gratifying it is to play a character like this, how fun it was to play a mom, that she prefers to turn the emotion on and off while she’s at work and not take it home with her, collaborating with James Franco, and what Paul Haggis is like, as a director. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
MILA KUNIS: I think that sometimes being unlikeable makes you likeable. It makes you human. I don’t think that anybody ever goes into a character thinking, “I can’t play this character because they’re not likeable.” I think that people are different because of the mistakes that they make. How they function after they make those mistakes is what makes everybody special. I think my character is incredibly sympathetic and likeable, for her faults. Actually, I think all of the characters are. But I don’t recall ever going into any project thinking, “I’m a little tentative playing this character because she’s not as likeable as I’d like for her to be.”
You’ve played a lot of characters who are the girl next door or the romantic lead. Was it fun to play someone like this?
KUNIS: Yeah, I loved it. First of all, I wanted to work with Paul [Haggis]. And then, reading the script and having it not be a girl next door character was a relief, so to speak.
What did you draw on for this role?
KUNIS: Everybody has mistakes that they make in life. It’s just relative to who you are and how they impact you. And so, it wasn’t hard for me to figure out a way to get to a place where I understood the character and understood her emotional roller coaster ride. I may not have had a child that I’ve lost, but that doesn’t take away from the experiences that I have had, in my life, that are equivalent to that emotional depth. It was great. Paul allowed me to explore that.
The scene that you have with James Franco, where he confronts you about what really happened with your child. How challenging was that, with all of the intense emotion and the physicality?
KUNIS: You don’t really think about it. It’s not like you think, “I’m gonna really love getting my legs dragged on the floor for the next seven hours.” That’s not really a thought process that you go through. But, it wasn’t something that I disliked. I look at this film as an end to my 20s, so it was like a massive therapy session for myself. It was really selfishly incredibly gratifying. I loved doing this movie because I actually felt like I was doing something that I loved again. You go and do a film with the director and they make you do a character every which way because they don’t trust themselves and they don’t trust you, and they want to ultimately do what I call Frankenstein you together in the edit bay and make a character that they feel comfortable with, six months later. Paul is the opposite. Paul trusts you and empowers you and gives you this great character to play with, so that you can live it for a little while and have this really great therapy session with this character and go through life with her, from all the faults and mistakes and experiences that you’ve had, and empower the character with that. Paul allowed me to do that, so it was the greatest experience. Did I look forward to it? Maybe in a very sick, demeaning way, but not necessarily to be physically dragged on the floor.
KUNIS: It was really fun and different. It was my second time playing a mom. My first time playing a mom was also with James Franco. We had a child that was blonde with blue eyes, that maybe nobody has seen, called Tar. So, we can disregard that. In this movie, we had a baby that was feasible.
What sort of emotional impact does a character like this have on you?
KUNIS: My take on it is that will live it for those 20 minutes that I’m on set and need to live it, but it’s called acting for a reason. That’s just me. Mind you, there are people that are really close to me that use a very different method than I do, and that’s great. I feel like, if I did a good job, I’m emotionally drained by the end of the day. I don’t want to keep living it. I want a glass of wine and I want to go to bed, if that is the day that I had. With this film, every day, I was so emotionally drained by the end of it that I was like, “Oh, lord, Jesus Christ, I just want to go home.” I was just tired. I didn’t even have the energy to be like, “I’m gonna keep on going with my depressed character and take it home.” I didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to think about it. And then, the next day, I would show up to work and be like, “Oh, here we go again.”
But, it’s great. It’s a very selfishly gratifying thing. At lunch, I was read to eat lunch, and then I can snap into it. I do a lot of homework before I show up to set. I’ll have everything done and marked out. My script will have a thousand words on it that ultimately will never make sense to me, six months later. And then, I show up to set and disregard everything, and I just go with the flow of things. A long, long time ago, a director I worked with talked about muscle memory. If you just have the muscle memory and you know your character, inside out, you show up and become present. Things change and it becomes more of a dance with your partner, on set. You’re just acting against a white wall, if you have everything planned out. What’s the point? Then, you’re done. You’re just putting yourself six feet under. I wanna show up and see what everybody else does. That’s my take on it. But, I’m not a trained actress. I didn’t go to Juilliard. No one should listen to me, ever. That’s just the process that works for me, and probably nobody else.
How did you create the relationship with James Franco? Did you rehearse?
KUNIS: James and I got together, but James and I have known each other since we were 23. It’s been a long time. So, we were very lucky, in the sense that we didn’t need to build chemistry. But, we met at [Paul’s] apartment in Italy and talked about the relationship between the two of us. I wouldn’t say it was hard. I think that everybody, at one point in their life, has had a relationship that they wish went different, and that didn’t go as well as planned and there are some repercussions. In this case, those repercussions are a child. You just deal with it the best way that you know how. It’s just all relative.
What is Paul Haggis like, as a director?
KUNIS: Paul is really great. A lot of directors love the sound of their own voice, and they’ll just talk because they can. Paul is a very passionate director, so when he loves something, he’ll scream, and when he hates it, he’ll let you know that you were shit. Either way, you will no. There’s no question. His confidence empowers you to take these horrible risks that sometimes are awful, but in a weird way, it’s great because it allows you to go, “That was fucking shitty. I’m so sorry.” And he’ll be like, “That’s all right, let’s just do it again.” It’s the greatest thing to hear. He’s very to-the-point and straightforward, and I respond well to that.
Third Person opens in theaters on June 20th.