Somewhere between the pot-haze of sitcom Wisconsin and the menacing wing tattoos of a prima ballerina, Mila Kunis has turned into buzz-worthy sex symbol and Marine dream date. But with Friends With Benefits, she has the chance to make another major transformation into a bona fide leading-lady star. What better time to post the perennial question: If Mila Kunis were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: Kunis started on That 70s Show at
1814, and took over as the voice of Meg Griffin on Family Guy not long after. Those shrill-voiced roles kept Kunis in the pop consciousness, but in a white noise kind of way in which you only noticed her when she was gone. (Even her long-term relationship with Macaulay Culkin, which ended fairly recently, was mostly below the radar.) Then came her scene-stealing turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where she played the object of Jason Segel's rebound affection, a cool-girl love interest in the Cameron Diaz There's Something About Mary vein. Diverse opportunities sprang from there: She played a prostitute in the Denzel Washington–led The Book of Eli, a criminal in a bit part in Date Night, and did a wonderful Hills parody with James Franco, but it was her role as the mysterious badass Lily in Black Swan that really elevated her status, catapulting her to the lower ranks of the A-list.
Peers:: Kunis, 27, lags behind Rooney Mara (26), Jennifer Lawrence (20), Olivia Wilde (27), and Blake Lively (23), but they definitely all feel her gaining ground.
Market Value: Up until now, it's been hard to gauge Kunis's individual power at the box office. Kunis's top-grossing movie is Black Swan ($107 million), though that was more a result of Natalie Portman, Oscar buzz, and America's appetite for lesbian nightmare makeout sessions. Eli brought in nearly $95 million, but that's because of Denzel Washington, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall's respectable $63 million was an Apatow/Jason Segel/Jason Segel's penis thing. That 70s Show was never an enormous ratings draw, but its 200 episodes will air in syndication until nuclear winter eliminates the need for goofy coming-of-age sitcoms. But after Swan, the offers kept coming, and we'll be able to determine Kunis's drawing power soon enough. Not only is there Friends With Benefits, she's booked big roles in Seth MacFarlane's directing debut, Ted, across from Mark Wahlberg, and Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful, across from her Date Night co-star James Franco. Meanwhile, the media is onboard with her anointment as leading lady: They're already treating her like a star, giving her covers and photo spreads, and she's working it, going for a Rosario Dawson–esque approachable, tomboy-geek image that's very appealing. She dresses scantily for GQ, but in the accompanying Q&A ranks all the Star Trek series and talks about how she loves a good dick joke.
What Hollywood Thinks: Top agents and managers agree that Kunis is "as hot as can be right now" — but disagree on whether that's hot enough to make it as a leading lady. "She's someone people are drawn to, and that's starting to translate to a more accessible popularity," says a publicist. "I think her star has risen tremendously."
"She paid her dues on that show that gave us master thespians Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher, but she's really a pro; she's gifted," says an agent. "She actually reminds me of a young Myrna Loy."
Continues the agent: "Obviously Black Swan gave her the indie street cred, never mind laser-ing into the minds of every young male alive their favorite lesbian sex scene. But while she's sexy, she's much more accessible and healthy than, say, Angelina Jolie, and she's not in danger of becoming overexposed like Emma Stone, who has three movies coming out in three months. She should reach a bit more — some of these things feel a little cloying — but I love that she hasn't decided what her niche is and I'd certainly like to make her unhappy with her representation."
However, another talent manager of several leading ladies says that it may be premature to dub her the Next Big Thing. "I haven't really wrapped my head around her yet," says the manager. "I haven't seen Friends With Benefits, and so I don't know if she's a leading-lady movie star yet. But I did not feel from what I've seen of her that she was going to step into 'those shoes' — of Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz, Anne Hathaway. I don't know if it's the fault of her reps, but I don't hear her name very often. She's not in the mix chasing after the things that the other top girls are chasing and testing for. She never shows up on that list."
Another issue is that while Kunis was "interesting" in Black Swan, this manager adds, "I don't think she's taken seriously enough as an actor. For drama, it's Rooney Mara, Jennifer Lawrence, Olivia Wilde, and Blake Lively; those are the names. And in the comedy world, there are a whole bunch of other girls who are more proven — she's not Kristen Wiig or Isla Fisher; she's not a broad comedy girl, like Anna Faris — and so she's not really on either list."
The prescription? One agent recommends carrying the weight of an indie as the lead to show off her chops a bit more; in Black Swan, she was the steady, cool presence, while Portman got all the mood swings. The manager agrees, noting, "Both she and Justin Timberlake have both shined in supporting roles, but making that leap to carrying a movie is another thing entirely."
The Analysis: Given her That 70s Show origins, Kunis has come further than anyone could have imagined. The success of Friends With Benefits should be telling for how much further she can go. Not only will it be the first real measure of her box office clout — neither she nor Timberlake have toplined a movie before — it will be the first real test of her pull with women, romantic comedies' natural audience. Right now, Kunis has one-half of the leading-lady dicta down cold: Be the woman all women want to be best friends with, and all men want to sleep with. As the agent pointed out, men dig her: She's one of Hollywood's ultimate crush objects, beautiful, natural, sultry, with some of Scarlett Johannson's earthy sex appeal, but a lot more comedic chops. But as the publicist also pointed out, it's unclear if she's got the stuff to be the next Reese or Cameron: Friends With Benefits should make that a bit clearer.
But even if Friends bombs, it shouldn't be a career deal-breaker for Kunis, though it may cloud her chances as a leading, not supporting, lady. (Almost all perpetually A-list actresses — Jolie being the rare exception — need to be able to fall back on a romantic comedy to score a slam dunk every once in a while.) Kunis has strong material coming up, and, even better, an in with the Apatow gang via Jason Segel. Kunis has a cameo in his forthcoming take on The Muppets, and Segel cameos with Rashida Jones in Friends. Should things ever get dire for Kunis, that's exactly the crew an actor wants to able to hit up for parts.
It may sound odd to say this right now, because in the rush of Friends With Benefits press she's all over the place, but Kunis is the rare up-and-coming actress who could stand to be a bit more exposed. When the Friends With Benefits frenzy is over, she'll have a long breather between release dates. (Ted is scheduled to come out in July 2012.) Kunis shouldn't go low-profile for the whole year, ceding the game to her peers. Fuel she might consider adding to the fire: Indie dramas, an SNL hosting gig or some digital shorts, a 30 Rock cameo, even flexing a little more of the naturalistic comedy chops she showed in Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be great. Kunis certainly has momentum on her side, but her two most recognizable roles right now are as a screechy ditz and a languid dancer; it's time to beef up that résumé.
The Bottom Line: "If [Friends With Benefits] scores, they’ll give her some more shots, for sure," says our talent manager, "but I wouldn't put a lot of money down."
Buy/Hold/Sell: Moderate buy.