B.J. Novak and Ashton Kutcher talk ‘Vengeance’

In 2003, just before he found fame as Ryan Howard on NBC’s The Office, a then-unknown BJ Novak landed his first big break when Ashton Kutcher hired him for his MTV celebrity prank show Punk’d.

“This show was great acting training because you only had one take, you had to be really convincing and funny, and the other person wouldn’t know you were acting,” says Novak, who wreaked havoc on people like Missy Elliott as Kutcher’s accomplice with the hidden camera , Usher and Hillary Duff. “It’s still the funnest job I’ve ever had.”

Cut to today and Novak has now returned the favor with his writing and directing debut Vengeance, giving the actor-turned-tech-investor-activist Kutcher his first big-screen role in nearly a decade.

A hilariously funny neo-noir that takes aim squarely at the zeitgeist, Vengeance, which hits theaters Friday, stars Novak as Ben Manalowitz, a pretentious New York writer who travels to rural West Texas to host a true crime podcast investigating the overdose death of a former romantic date. There, Ben Kutchers meets Quentin Sellers, a record producer and self-proclaimed cowboy philosopher, who charms Ben with his insightful thoughts on social media, storytelling, and the widening divide between red and blue America – before things take a darker turn.

On a recent evening in downtown Los Angeles, The Times spoke to Novak, 42, and Kutcher, 44, about their improbably tortuous career paths, the dangers of social media and bridging the country’s cultural divide.

BJ Novak

BJ Novak makes his directorial debut with Vengeance.

(Michael Tyrone Delaney / For the Times)

BJ, what was going on in your career when you were cast in Punk’d?

Novak: I tried to make it stand-up, and after about a year of bombing and open-micing, I started to get some traction. I got a shareholder meeting on MTV and it led to an audition on Punk’d. I want to explain to the younger generation how big MTV was at the time – it really was the Mecca of cool and Punk’d was the hottest show at the time. I really couldn’t believe it.

Ashton, what do you remember about casting BJ?

Coachman: We must have auditioned over 100 people for this second season, and when we saw BJ we were like, “I think we’ve got our man.” His first sketch was that Hillary Duff got her driver’s license and he was the driving instructor. I remember how it unfolded and BJ just had it. From there he went on this run, which was all gold.

Novak: Punk’d is really the reason I got the job at The Office. [Executive producer] Greg Daniels was interested in me as an actor and writer, but it was a tough sell. So we showed the network a script I had written and my tape of Punk’d and they were hooked.

[To Kutcher] I remember seeing you later at a party [talent manager] Guy Oseary’s house and you yelled across the room, “You’re welcome!” As for my career.

Coachman: Did I really do that? I’m such a—. My wife has that [Mila Kunis] is now like, “Shut up. Stop.”

Novak: I thought it was funny. I knew the sense of humor you were aiming for.

All these years later, what made you think Ashton was right for the role of Quentin Sellers?

Novak: I wrote the role in my mind for Peter Sellers. So I really wrote it for someone who didn’t exist and wanted to surprise people. I thought, “Well, people think they know Ashton, but they’ve never seen that side of him on screen: the intellectual powerhouse, the producer, the analytical side, the dramatic side.” I thought that might be the Blitz that the film has to turn on its head.

Ashton, it has been almost a decade since you have played such an important role in a film. What made you decide to register?

Coachman: I run a large mutual fund and have been investing in early-stage start-up technology for the past 15 years, and I was at a point between that and running our nonprofit that I just lost the fun of acting. Then this script came along and it really embodied what I thought was the state of America as it is now, with a perspective on the shores and another perspective in the middle of the country, and both sides belittling each other. I really liked it.

Then I was ready to come and shoot the film and I got an early signal from Davos that this COVID thing was like a real thing.

Ashton Kutcher

Ashton Kutcher makes his first big screen appearance in years in Vengeance.

(Michael Tyrone Delaney / For the Times)

Novak: Listen to this secret agent.

Coachman: My friend in Davos said: “Close the hatches. Go home. Don’t go.” I called BJ and said, “Are you guys shutting down production?”

Novak: We were in the middle of a red state. It was quite a distance from Davos. I thought, “COVID-19? This guy spends too much time on technology. No, of course we’re still shooting.” Then of course, the day before he was going to shoot, the whole world shut down and we had to shut down for seven months.

The character of Ben initially has a condescending attitude towards Quentin, assuming that he will be some kind of jerk. Ashton, who is originally from Iowa and moved to LA, did that kind of attitude resonate with you?

Coachman: There is absolutely an urban condescension towards people in rural communities. Growing up in Iowa, I watched people move from the city to the country thinking they could just farm. We’d just laugh like it was City Slickers. They didn’t know how to take care of the livestock. They didn’t know how to fix a fence.

Now that I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, I can see the other side. That’s what’s exciting about the film: BJ’s character traverses this arc in which his current assumptions and judgments become clear as he cares for and has compassion on the humanity of the people in these scenarios.

BJ, you talked about how writing this character was a way of blaming yourself for some of your mistakes. As?

Novak: I had these blind spots and this shallowness and this ambition. I was someone who might want to talk more than listen, who wanted to tell a great story more than find a great story or tell someone else’s story that needed to be told. It was hard to show the sides of me I don’t like. It’s also hard to seriously find good in people and even in yourself. Putting all of that into the character was a challenge, but I’m glad I didn’t just go with the easy choices.

Two actors in one scene

Ashton Kutcher as Quentin Sellers and BJ Novak as Ben Manalowitz

(Patti Perret / Focus Features)

The film comments on social media and the sometimes misleading or unhealthy ways people curate their personas online. Ashton, as the first person ever to amass 1 million Twitter followers and someone who has spent significant time in Silicon Valley, how has your own thinking about social media evolved?

Coachman: I think we spend a lot of time analyzing what social media means and whether it’s right or not. At a certain point you just have to accept it is. I think it’s easy to smack social media for what it’s done. But then you look at various things that we would never be aware of – horrific atrocities happening around the world that we only know about because of social media. So I think it’s a balancing act.

A friend of mine said to me, “Social media used to be a mirror of humanity, and now humanity is mirroring social media.” Which I think is a really interesting twist. As now, we mimic what we see on social media as opposed to social media which is just a reflection of our existence.

Novak: Social media is a sign of what we crave, and what we crave is a good thing. People want to share. You’re less lonely when you post a picture of your lunch because your friends see your lunch and it’s like you’re with your friends. If you want a lot of followers, you want to matter, you want your voice to be heard. These are all good things, and yet somehow they drive us further apart. I believe all of the forces that are pushing us into social media are good things. But it’s an optical illusion, and we need to figure out what to do with that energy instead.

Coachman: The brilliance of BJ’s writing style is that each character has a point and makes a stellar argument from their perspective. We all see on a daily basis how broken the country is, but the beauty of what he has done is that he has shown someone who took the time to listen. And if we all just take the time to listen, maybe we’ll all get along a little better. Then maybe we can actually talk about why we have different perspectives and maybe come to a negotiated solution.

Are you worried that we may have passed that point, that people are too buried in their own bubbles of reality to hear each other?

Coachman: No, after that point was when we had a civil war. We haven’t gotten past that point yet. [Laughs] My guy from Davos says we’re not past that point yet.

Novak: I think everyone is concerned. People have different perspectives on what should be talked about in art and in public. But I think we talk too much about politics when the stakes were never higher. And if we’d talked more about real life and the TV shows we’ve watched or the sports we’ve watched with our family, we’d find that we all lead pretty similar lives and have pretty similar hopes and fears .

You know, sometimes I’ve thought that if Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon today, he would have been under pressure to say something about President Nixon? Aren’t you glad he didn’t? Sometimes you just have to all look at a guy on the moon and say, “Wow.” I want us to do that more. We need some more wows.

BJ Novak and Ashton Kutcher

BJ Novak and Ashton Kutcher

(Michael Tyrone Delaney / For the Times)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-29/bj-novak-and-ashton-kutcher-on-their-new-film-vengeance B.J. Novak and Ashton Kutcher talk ‘Vengeance’

Sarah Ridley

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