THE SITCOM STAR SET TO BECOME A BILLION-DOLLAR TECH PLAYER
1997, Bill Clinton was the 42nd consecutive Caucasian male to be US President. Silicon Valley was in its infancy with Apple’s ‘Think different’ campaign just launched and Google registered as a domain name. Meanwhile, Ashton Kutcher was winning the Fresh Faces of Iowa modelling contest. Kutcher’s prize was instant recognition, his foppy hair and boxer-brief bod soon splashed across Calvin Klein ads. Such exposure then bagged him a part in That ’70s Show and fame garnered pace with roles varying from 2000’s idiotic Dude, Where’s My Car? to 2004’s fawed sci-f thriller The Butterfly Effect. Both were unexpected box-offce successes; both had Kutcher’s growing popularity to thank. His stock rose further in 2005 when he defed a 15-year age gap to marry ’80s darling Demi Moore. By the time he’d Punk’d every celebrity under 30 and replaced a not-so “winning” Charlie Sheen as the lead in Two and a Half Men in 2011, Kutcher was one of the most talked-about, and followed, stars in the world. Yet, as he’s grown older, amid fame and celebrity, the 38-year-old’s greatest role has been minding his own businesses, plural. As an actor, Kutcher’s forte is comedy. So it’s funny that while he missed the mark for portraying Steve Jobs in the 2013 biopic Jobs, he’s done a pretty decent ‘job’ of mirroring the former Apple boss’ savvy to fnd success in tech. Spotify, Uber, Shazam, Airbnb and Soundcloud share two things in common. They’re all likely to be on your phone, and they’ve all been invested in by Kutcher’s venture capital frm, A-grade Investments. “I look for companies that solve problems in intelligent and friction-free ways,” Kutcher’s said, and his nous is telling. In 2011, he predicted wearable tech would be big. You only have to look at your wrists now to know he was on the money. And Kutcher’s techy fngers are wedged in many more pieces of digital pie. Last year, he expanded his portfolio by co-founding Sound Ventures, to target start-ups and put more money into funds that raise followon rounds, and he also set up A Plus, a technology-based digital media company that delivers content “with a focus on positive journalism”. We’re hoping this article might well land there. Kutcher’s handsome looks may have been the foundation of his career, but it’s this forward-thinking intelligence that’s enabled handsome returns and a reputation as one of the most cerebral members of the Hollywood squad. Nineteen years on from that modelling moment and Hillary Clinton is running to become America’s frst female President, to succeed the frst of African-american ethnicity. Apple is now the world’s most recognised brand in a tech sector worth trillions, and Ashton Kutcher’s a man married to Mila Kunis, worth north of $250m and rising. Yes, much has changed. With his new Netfix show, The Ranch, debuting this month – a topical, innuendo-laden sitcom about a dysfunctional middleAmerican family who run a ranching business – we fgured it time to check in and chew some good ’ole American fat and fnd out where he, and the US of A, are at in 2016. Dialling, ringing, someone picks up: “Hi, how you going? I said ‘How you going’ because that’s an Australian thing, right?” Kutcher’s in the mood – this’ll be fun.
GQ: Let’s talk about your new show, The Ranch. It’s pretty funny. AK: I like the way you say it, it sounds like The Raunch. It can get raunchy in places, a little raunch on The Ranch. GQ: Why, thank you Ashton. Tell us what it’s about? AK: Family, country music, throw in a bottle of Jim Beam, and between those things, maybe a little bit of God, and you’ve just about got everything covered. GQ: Three of our favourite things. How did the show happen? AK: I was fnishing Two and a Half Men and ever since Danny [Masterson] and I did That ’70s Show, we’d been talking about working together again. We started a conversation with the [writers] Don [Reo] and Jim [Patterson] about how the world’s become so politically correct and that it’s hard to do comedy the way people used to do comedy. GQ: So that was the starting point? AK: Yes. Jim created this bat-shit bonkers guy – Beau, Sam Elliott’s character – who’s middle America, conservative, has smalltown values, and the world’s changing all around him but he refuses to comply. Then we surrounded him with his family and sons. Most shows like this make fun of people from those places, so instead, we set out to put our arms around them and laugh with them at the rest of the world – that was the heart of the comedy and of the show. But the thing that attracted Danny and I was that it’s about family. Every great sitcom has been about family, or rather, a dysfunctional one, so the show’s about their small, stupid disagreements and fghts, and how they resolve them.
GQ: Do you worry people mightn’t pick up on the sarcasm, and instead think Beau, who’s something of an anti-obama Republican climate change denier, is actually being championed? AK: Here’s the thing, you’re immediately casting people who have conservative values as ignorant, but they’re not, they’re just people with conservative values. Climate change is something that’s good to be brought up, but my character [Colt] counterpoints the argument with Beau and so it’s not like we’re sitting there saying climate change isn’t happening, period. There’s someone who is pushing back against that and that’s kind of the point of my character. GQ: So who would Beau be voting for in this year’s US election? AK: I guess he’d vote for Jeb Bush, given Donald Trump is a Wall Street billionaire mogul type of guy. But the truth of the matter is, he’d probably write down Ronald Reagan for the 20th time. GQ: Talking of the election, what’s the actual appeal of Trump for so many Americans? Is it that he’s unafraid to voice what many think? AK: Right now, the lure of Donald Trump is that
he’s thoroughly entertaining. He’s a well recognised man and people who feel like they’ve touched his products somehow think they know him. There’s probably a large part of the country that shares his perspectives, but it’s really still too early to say whether he could be elected.
GQ: The media has certainly played its part.
AK: Trump sure knows how to win a headline. He pulled out of a Republican debate in February – had any other candidate pulled out, the media would have been, ‘Nah, so what.’ Because it’s him, the headlines were all about him. It just goes to show how powerful media is and how badly media can screw up political legislations.
GQ: Going back to The Ranch, it’s a Netfix production. The script jokingly makes reference to it, but what’s your take on the global success of the streaming site?
AK: It’s interesting, we could have taken this idea anywhere but there’s only one place I did take it – Netfix.
AK: We wanted to break the mould of what a sitcom is, and in doing so we changed the lighting – usually sitcoms are lit really brightly, and when you’re watching you’re like, ‘Why is every light in the house on.’ So, we wanted to make it more realistic. And we didn’t want to follow the network language constraints, where you can’t speak like people actually speak.
GQ: So you wanted to disrupt what is a staid TV format?
AK: Exactly. Normal sitcoms are 22 minutes long, we wanted to disrupt that and tell more of a story, so our show runs between 28 and 30 minutes an episode. But we couldn’t do any of these things on a network. We felt maybe, just maybe, Netfix would give us permission to do that, and to not hire comedians to play the other roles, but hire legit actors like Sam Elliott, and they did that. Netfix are incredible creative partners, they allow you to be innovative, allow you to think outside the box, and allow you to push the boundaries and the status quo, which is wonderful.
GQ: And what’s your take on streaming’s infuence over traditional TV models?
AK: Netfix is a company that runs on data and at the end of the day, I feel like data and science win, which is the DNA of that company. They make choices based on data-driven decisions and from what I can see, it’s producing incredible programs. I would challenge any network to have as many viable, high-quality programs as Netfix does right now.
GQ: The Ranch being one. We appreciate the shout out to Australia in the form of mocking Ugg boots. Do you own a pair?
AK: I do own a pair of Ugg boots, absolutely. They’re like preferred movie-set wear.
GQ: Nice. And what else do Americans generally associate with Australia?
AK: There’s the classic, ‘Foster’s is Australian for beer’, which is a huge commercial in the United States but we know better, we know that BV is Australian for beer. It’s BV right?
GQ: It’s VB actually, Victorian Bitter.
AK: Ah. Yeah it’s funny, the frst time I went there I was like, ‘Well, better fnd a Foster’s,’ and I couldn’t fnd it anywhere.
GQ: So beer and Ugg boots then? Good.
AK: I think beer, I think The Crocodile Hunter, I think ‘Crikey’. There’s a food chain called Outback here that’s like a steak house. So I think there’s some cattle association – Australia has a pretty large cattle market.
GQ: There you go, how can Australians not want to watch The Ranch?
AK: I mean the boys know their way around an Angus… isn’t it like 30 per cent of the grass-fed beef comes from Australia?
GQ: Something like that, we have a lot of cows. Unlike many actors, there’s a lot going on with you – your interests are quite varied. Has that always been the case?
AK: Maybe I’ve always been afraid that I’m not that good an actor [laughs]. I was split when I was a kid – I was in all of my junior high school plays and always had a passion for acting, but I was also really studious and ended up starting a course in biochemical engineering. So I kind of feel like I have a split personality. And when I was working on That ’70s Show, I had a lot of extra time on my hands so, aged 21, I started my own production company. It’s partly born out of workaholism and part curiosity, but I just have this desire to learn new things. The world is so full of interesting things I can’t stop reading and learning.
GQ: For the past fve years or so you’ve been an avid investor in tech companies – Uber and Airbnb being a few. Is it fair to say both have gone about their business to intentionally draw attention to themselves?
AK: I don’t think they draw attention to themselves, attention is drawn to them because they’re great and powerful and they grow quickly. Any time you have a company that is growing quickly, and is impeding upon somebody else’s business, you’re going to have people that are scared shitless and want to do everything they can to trash those businesses because they’re cutting into their proft, their margins and their business.
GQ: People don’t warm to disruptors?
AK: It’s an unfortunate truth, but any time you’re the minority, such as these companies, and you’re starting to grow and take business from other guys, they’re going to cause a lot of fuss. A lot of companies relative to Uber and Airbnb, and plenty of the other companies [Sound Ventures] we’ve since invested in, the minute somebody else starts beating them, they go, ‘You’re playing unfair,’ and then they start lobbying city council members, lobbying politicians, to regulate these companies and that tends to make a lot of media. But the bottom line is, I’m sure Goliath was pretty pissed when he got beat by David – and what happens is these little companies that are smarter, faster, more nimble, which provide a better customer experience, they take business share. So a lot of media and interest is attracted to them. I don’t think they’re going out soliciting any of this bullshit regulation that comes down on them – all they’re doing is providing an extraordinary consumer experience and kicking somebody else’s arse.
GQ: You’ve invested in a lot of start-ups. How important are these companies to America’s future fnancial positioning?
AK: We’re at the beginning of the absolute disruption that is ultimately going to take place. America doesn’t do a whole lot of manufacturing anymore. The businesses of the industrial revolution have moved to other countries and the conventional wisdom goes,
‘Oh we gotta hold on to this manufacturing; we gotta hold on, we gotta hold on.’ But what America continues to do, generation after generation, is reinvent itself in a new category and create [new] categories for business. The minute it stops creating categories for business, it’s screwing itself.
GQ: The Australian government could certainly be more supportive of its start-up culture. Is the US government reacting to this shift accordingly?
AK: I talked with some of the politicians that are running for election in this cycle, and I was disheartened because they were saying we need to regulate the growth of these disruptors so they don’t get out of control and take away jobs – when actually what you need to do is continue to innovate and fund innovation because we need companies that are built on great ideas because that’s what this country is made out of. So what if you offshore some of the manufacturing? The intellectual property, the inspiration for it, still exists in the United States – it’s still built here.
GQ: So politics needs to get with the times?
AK: Yes. The counterintuitive but better choice is to continue to drive inspiring, disruptive businesses and have them come out of the United States, as opposed to having the same disruptive, inspiring businesses come out of some other country. Then what will we become? Then who are we? Then where do we drive value as a country? That’s my personal position and I feel the same thing for Australia – it’s a country that’s built on people who are not afraid to do disruptive things, to try things, and cultures like ours need to drive by not suppressing those things that are successful in inception, just because they change things.
GQ: Another topic explored in The Ranch is the controversy surrounding gun laws. Do you own any frearms?
AK: I’m a sportsman myself – I love pulling trap at a gun range and hunting, so I’m not anti-gun for sport. I also have a frearm and if my house is penetrated, and I have to shoot someone, I will, so I’m not anti-gun. I just think we can be smarter about how we own guns and who owns guns. And I think that some of that stuff should defnitely change.
GQ: Do you think it’s possible for America to match Australia’s stance on gun control?
AK: I don’t know. It’s hard to change the Constitution so that’s one thing. It’s written that people have the right to bear arms. That said, those people have the right to bear arms in order to militarise themselves against any sovereign government that was trying to take over. I would fnd it unlikely that the American people, with their shotguns and whatnot, could take on tanks and planes of the American government.
GQ: What’s your take on Obama’s recent legislation on the matter?
AK: What Obama’s put in, for our mental health as it relates to guns, is really smart. I fnd it repulsive that anybody thinks that’s anything other than smart. There’s some regulation that could come down around ammunition and the ownership of ammo because there’s the right to own guns, but you don’t necessarily have the right to own all the ammunition in the world. And the new technology that enables guns to only be able to be fred by the owner, that would be really smart. I also think there’s ways you could use friction from the kickback on the gun to send a GPS beacon from any gun fred in the United States of America, which would immediately be reported.
GQ: Are these technologies something you’d perhaps look to invest in?
AK: A lot of times you want to invest into the trends. I would invest my own personal money because it’s something that I think should happen. As far as investing from my fund [Sound], I don’t know that it would be a prudent decision at this point, only because I feel like there’s so much regulatory hair on this. I feel like the NRA [National Rife Association] is so powerful, and ultimately doesn’t necessarily apply reason to their lobbying efforts. So I feel like it might be diffcult to create a ubiquitous solution that beneftted from some level of a network effect that would allow this technology to grow exponentially, which is one of the core measures of the investments we make.
GQ: What do you make of the NRA?
AK: An organisation like the NRA is so powerful and could, and can, be so good in so much as it protects people’s rights to own frearms – which I think is an important thing to protect. But they should be protecting sane people’s rights to own frearms and there’s a lot of fear propaganda that’s put out by them that says, ‘If they take away one thing, they’re going to take away everything,’ which I don’t think anybody’s trying to do... to clarify, I don’t want to seem as if I don’t think the NRA is a good thing because I think it is, but some of their positions aren’t the best.
GQ: Got it. Is your wife, Mila [Kunis], involved in your investment decisions or do you separate business and pleasure?
AK: Mila probably has the most valuable perspective of anybody in the world to me, and that’s why she’s my wife. When I’m about to make a big decision on investing in something, or I’m sorting out a problem with a company I’m working with or building, we sit in bed and work on our craft together and share everything. She’s a powerhouse, she has a business that is unbelievable and she’s so smart about it – I admire her for her savvy.
GQ: Given all the businesses you run, are you at all interested in popular culture?
AK: I try to have some awareness of what’s going on, you know, great flms propagate great ideas, but I don’t really have a penchant for that stuff. My wife always makes fun of me because we’ll be looking at somebody who’s famous and I won’t even know who they are. She’s like, ‘How do you not know who that is?’, and I’m just like, ‘I literally don’t know who that is.’ I’m kind of a moron when it comes to that stuff.
GQ: And how do you feel about raising your daughter, Wyatt, in this modern world?
AK: [Business magnate] Carlos Slim has this great quote that says, ‘Most people are focused on making the world better for their children when what they should be focused on is making their children better for the world.’ I always found that to be one of the smartest things I ever heard – I believe it and in my list of priorities, it goes: wife, child, everything else.
The Ranch debuts on Netflix April 1