Ashton Kutcher isn't smiling. He is as nervous as hell. He is on the Sundance red carpet for the world premiere of what may be seen as his biggest risk to date, playing the iconic Apple founder Steve Jobs, a man who means a lot to the actor as he adores the kind of technology Jobs created. It was perhaps fortuitous that the tall, lanky Kutcher looks so much like Jobs in his early years. Still at this point, having not yet seen Josh Stern's movie, simply titled jOBS, it remains quite a conundrum. Here we have one of the world's highest paid actors placing himself in the hands of a director best known for two turkeys, Swing Vote (2008) and Neverwas (2005) and a screenplay by Matt Whiteley who has no credits whatsoever.
I get to speak with Stern first. How did he decide which bits to show? “When you're doing anyone's life you have so much to pull from, so our decision was to portray him as best we could and to let the story tell itself. We didn't try to answer every question about him and hopefully the accumulation of the movie, of the life, will give you a feeling about the man. My hope is that audiences are left with an emotional connection to who he was. Ours is just what we felt was this portion of his life from age 22 till his mid to late 30s.”
Next up is Josh Gad, the actor who plays Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jobs' close friend in his youth who created the technology for the early Apple computers. Gad, who hilariously admits he is fat like Wozniak, hears my accent and goes nuts.
“I studied out there at NIDA for a semester and I loved it,” he says of his time at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. “I want to go back so bad and every time I hear the dialect I am like, take me home!”
Why did he like NIDA so much? “It was just a completely different approach and style of training that I really appreciated that was more all-encompassing of film as well as stage. A lot of conservatories don't do that.”
Gad brings his considerable talents to the role of Wozniak. He's a good talker too and goes into full PR mode on the carpet.
“I knew nothing about Steve Wozniak other than seeing him on Dancing With The Stars,” he recalls of the 2009 US series where Wozniak showed himself to be hilarious and quite the showman in pink satin shirts. “After I signed on to the film I made it my duty to literally pore through hundreds of hours of footage, I read his book [iWoz] twice, I read the Walter Isaacson book and just tried to fully immerse myself and honour him while at the same time honouring this dramatic story that we are telling. The movie is not a documentary, it's an interpretation of events as they happened.”
What was it like working with Ashton? You are obviously good bros? (They'd just shared a bear hug while posing for the cameras.)
“Honestly it was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had, he blew me away. I've worked with a lot of incredible actors, but I've never seen the level of commitment that he brought. Everybody down the line was so unbelievably impressed and had to raise their own work ethic to match what he was doing. He threw himself so unapologetically into the thrall that he had no choice than to go to some dark places with the character. To play alongside somebody like that is always great, because it's all about reacting and there was so much to react to.”
Finally along comes the boyish Kutcher, an actor known for lightweight romantic movie comedies and lightweight television comedies. At 34 he really has something to prove.
“I've played in dramas before,” he notes, “but the challenge was to play someone who is so fresh in our minds. People a year ago were talking with this man and watching him present things and do things. It's not like I've ever seen Abraham Lincoln walk into a room, but I've seen Steve Jobs walk into a room. So everyone has a right to be a legitimate critic because he was very public. It's terrifying to play him especially since he's someone who is so admired. But the more research you do the more you discover he was a flawed human being just like everyone else.”
Given his love of Twitter and new technologies, Kutcher, also the owner of Apple stocks for ten years, had to do less research than other actors might.
“When I was preparing for the film I could still work on product development for technology companies and I would sort of stay in character but I didn't feel I was compromising the work I was doing. I think my comments to some of the companies I work with became a little bit more direct and confident, but it was actually cool.” He has worked with men who knew Jobs well. “Being able to go on about technology and stuff that I already care about while working on a movie was great.”
Before the premiere Wozniak came out with some criticisms of the movie even if he'd only seen a brief excerpt. He noted that Gad's clothes were too “professional”, that it was he and not Jobs who had “ideas of computers affecting society”; and that the “personalities are very wrong although mine is closer.”
While he may be correct in his assertion that the film overplays Jobs' technical ability in the beginning, his opinions may be compromised as he is being employed as a consultant by the other Jobs biopic, which is being developed by The Social Network's Aaron Sorkin and is based on the Isaacson biography.
“I don't think they have a script or anything yet,” Kutcher says hesitantly. “I don't see it as a rival movie until they have a screenplay and I don't think it's going to be the same at all. From what I've heard they are doing like three scenes of his life and I doubt that it will be the same scenes that we had.”
As jOBS finally screens in the giant Eccles auditorium the audience is pleasantly surprised. It may not look like the most expensive movie ever but the gritty look suits the period and Stern has done a surprisingly good job at putting it all together, with never a dull moment. Kutcher, possessing Jobs' trademark slouch and mannerisms has the audience rapt and Gad is terrific as Wozniak. The film may be saccharine, particularly towards the end, but at least Whiteley's screenplay mentions Jobs' meanness with money, particularly in terms of child support for his first child, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, and then cutting out his old friends who helped him in the beginning. Mostly though his personal life is glossed over—this may well be Sorkin's emphasis—and the film instead focuses on Jobs' astounding ability to stick with the plan, on his single-mindedness and his ability to bounce back after he was shut out of Apple. That numerous spectators were gleefully filming the proceedings with their iPads and iPhones said it all.
Well aware that he was there to promote the film, Kutcher at the post-screening Q & A mentioned his adopting Jobs' fruitarian diet, which received enormous play in media around the world.
“The fruitarian diet can lead to like severe issues. I went to the hospital like two days before we started shooting the movie. I was doubled over in pain. My pancreas levels were like completely out of whack. It was really terrifying ... considering everything,” meaning the fact that Jobs's 2011 death at age 56 was the result of pancreatic cancer, which can be related to diabetes, stress and sugar intake. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. At the film's after party Kutcher offered more details. “That was really painful,” he told vulture.com. So why'd he do it? “I wanted to know who he was.” Hopefully the actor in Sorkin's movie shows a little more restraint.