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Year in Film: Breakout Performances

Four actors and their very good year

Year in Film: Breakout Performances
Fox Searchlight
Mila Kunis

1. RONALD BRONSTEIN
Daddy Longlegs
“I’ve been dreading this interview all day because I don’t know how I feel about it, man,” admits Ronald Bronstein, the Brooklyn-based filmmaker who recently grabbed bigger attention as an actor thanks to his loopy, lovely lead performance as an irresponsible dad in Josh and Benny Safdie’s shaggy dramedy Daddy Longlegs, which earned him a Spirit Award nomination. “The last thing I want to come across is being cynical or bitter, or I have some ax to grind. I know that as soon as I shared the [awards] news with my mother, instantly I had annexed it and it became something laced with anxiety.”

Bronstein wears his neuroses nakedly and speaks a mile a minute, further clarifying that he’s thankful but not desperate to win, that his nerves come from not knowing how to monetize the opportunity, and wondering whether it would crassly go against his values to do so. He finally and humbly points to it all as “complete gross self-absorption” that would “ultimately just cauterize any joy I might take from it.”

As one witnesses the hamster wheel in his brain spinning furiously, it’s tempting to compare Bronstein to his onscreen counterpart, Lenny Sokol—a brash, volatile, frazzled but still strangely charming father to twin boys, with whom he only spends two weeks at a time due to divorce. Though Bronstein has no prior training and says he was bullied into taking the role, he admits to always having a facility for relating to children.

“I know that sounds creepy,” he says, the hamster frantically running again. “My particular way has always undermined my position, in the sense that I can get down on my knees and relate on that level, but then when it’s time for me to stand up and reprimand, I no longer have the authority to do so. The only way to retrench and gain that respect is through anger, and that’s something I brought to the project that I think works.”

At work on his next directorial project—“another wretched character study,” but “completely different” from his uncompromising 2007 debut Frownland—Bronstein resolves that he would definitely act again, if only because the experience was liberating.

“I can only liken it to being an athlete, which I’ve never been. I’ve always been petrified of dancing and I’m not particularly good at sports.”

Favorite Film of 2010: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 sci-fi thriller World on a Wire. “The rep circuit was strong and [that] scratched the itch with the most gusto. Batshit baroque and sort of knowingly dopey, too. Like gourmet junk food.”

2. MILA KUNIS
Black Swan
After eight seasons on the ensemble sitcom That ’70s Show, Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep on acting. Ultimately, she decided to give the big screen a go, nabbing roles in comedies Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Extract. But it wasn’t until Darren Aronofsky’s sinister psychodrama Black Swan that Kunis was able to fully spread her proverbial wings as ballerina Lily—the tattooed, wily, sexually liberated foil to Natalie Portman’s chaste and haunted workaholic Swan Queen. We spoke to Kunis by phone about her professional (and physically painful) transformation.

You dislocated your shoulder and tore two ligaments while filming. Since this is partly a film about process, what was yours like in learning ballet and building your endurance? I did ballet when I was five [through] 10, but it’s not like riding a bike. As great as you are when you’re a kid in a tutu and pink ballet slippers, it doesn’t translate to the age of 26. So I started from scratch and realized quickly that it’s not a sport that you can just pick up. I trained seven days a week, five hours a day, and went on a strict diet to lose as much weight as I possibly could without killing myself. By the end of training, I lost 20 pounds, got on pointe, and was able to [perform a] barre and cross the floor. It was incredibly exhausting and excruciating, and every day I had to come home to take an Epsom salt bath and put on a heat pad. I’m aware it sounds sadistic, but it felt great.

In the film, you play a frenemy to Natalie Portman’s character Nina. Besides looking similar for the purpose of the film’s doppelgänger motif, are you two at all alike? We’re friends, so we have a lot in common. I feel a little strange discussing my friendship with somebody, but I can tell you we like Top Chef, we used to watch Project Runway together, and we like to go antique shopping together. It sounds so mundane!

You’ve probably been asked plenty about your risqué scene with Portman, but what’s more uncomfortable: having sex with your friend onscreen, or discussing it later with complete strangers like me? That’s a toss-up. The thing about doing any sexual scene is that you do it, and then it’s over with. You almost forget about the fact that you’re going to have to discuss it for months on end after it’s all done. So I would say talking about it endlessly would be the harder part. Leading up to the scene, you’re like, “Ugh, here we go, it’s going to happen.” To make it real and authentic, you’re not judging, so you just throw yourself into it. But discussing it feels like prodding into something very personal and private in a weird way, even though it’s onscreen for everybody to see.

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