The Ashton Kutcher phenomenon

Bright young actors, not aging stars, are grabbing up the hottest roles this fall
The Ashton Kutcher phenomenon
CBS; FOX; Keystone Press; Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

When CBS announced that Two and a Half Men had signed Ashton Kutcher to replace Charlie Sheen, the executives were probably hoping it would be a unique piece of news: a young movie star, who had just made a successful film with Natalie Portman (No Strings Attached), coming back to television. But it simply became part of a larger story about the new fall season. Instead of the usual tactic of snapping up aging movie stars—like William H. Macy on Shameless, or Glenn Close on Damages—the new U.S. shows for the fall season are full of feature-film actors in their twenties or early thirties. Actors normally graduate from television to movies, but many young actors this year seem to be realizing that, as Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry puts it, “TV can be extremely helpful to an actor’s career, and quite lucrative in its own right.”

And so when Canadian networks fought over who would get to simulcast other new U.S. shows this fall, they were fighting over shows starring these young movie people. Citytv snapped up 2 Broke Girls (which CBS executive Nina Tassler touted as her “highest-testing pilot ever”) with Kat Dennings from the summer blockbuster Thor. The same network took The New Girl (touted by its own production company as one of its “highest-testing pilots ever”), in which Zooey Deschanel will go from playing adorably quirky movie characters looking for love to playing an adorably quirky TV character looking for love. CTV got the ’60s period drama Pan Am, one of several attempts to copy Mad Men (even though Mad Men doesn’t get many viewers); it will star Christina Ricci of The Addams Family fame.

It’s no surprise that television networks want to get movie stars to headline their shows. Though there has been a lot of talk about TV being better or more prestigious than movies (“TV is replacing movies as elite entertainment,” wrote critic Edward Jay Epstein last season), no one really seems to act like they believe it: “On the food chain of entertainment,” wrote sitcom writer and blogger Ken Levine, “it goes like this: movies, television, street performing, radio. Movies look down at television. Television looks up at movies with awe.” When Sheen was fired from his show, TV Guide said that the producers felt the only possible replacement would be someone bigger than a mere television star: “They were going after movie stars,” an anonymous insider told the magazine’s Michael Schneider.

That’s because a television star is mostly just a national or even regional phenomenon; a U.S. movie star is worshipped all around the world, and can lend instant credibility to a project. And it’s not as if movie stars are unsuited for TV work; many of them come from that world in the first place. Kutcher was on That ’70s Show when he was in his twenties, but left after his movie career started to get big; many other current movie stars, like Tom Hanks, left TV for movies and never looked back.

Until recently, the movie stars who went back to TV did it because their movie careers were over. Kutcher’s illustrious predecessor became a sitcom actor after it was clear there would be no more movies like Platoon. Even before signing Kutcher, the producers courted a middle-aged, fading film star, Hugh Grant. That would be a typical story of a washed-up movie star returning to TV, just like 57-year-old Tim Allen, who is coming back to TV with Last Man Standing. These are people who made a lot of movies, including successful ones, but may now be considered too old to be feature-film leads. For a fortysomething actress like Halle Berry, who is in talks to star in a cable series called Higher Learning, television is the best chance to keep getting lead roles. But Kat Dennings is 24, and still has almost six years to go before hitting the point at which Hollywood considers women “too old.” What’s in it for her?

It could just be a sign that movie stars are becoming washed up even earlier than they used to. Lowry points out that despite the hype surrounding them, these people failed to become “major movie stars, for the most part.” Instead they’re actors who haven’t become box-office draws on the level of the biggest movie stars: Dennings’s part in Thor, for instance, is secondary in importance to Natalie Portman’s. Ricci often makes little-seen, low-budget movies. And Zooey Deschanel’s latest film role was in the flop Your Highness, playing second fiddle to—of course—Natalie Portman. In movies, these stars would have to deal with the fact that Portman gets to star in everything, leaving the wisecracking best friend roles for all the other young women. In television, where the networks are actively trying to launch more shows aimed at women, they can be top-billed stars.

Television is also a chance for young actors to make a lot of money while not facing the same kind of pressure they do in the world of feature films. Both Kutcher and Dennings are doing live-audience sitcoms filmed entirely in a studio, which Levine described as “the absolute easiest and best acting gig in the history of show business” because “you don’t have to travel. You can have a life.” Even on a drama like Pan Am, which requires more location work, Ricci will be able to spend most of her time filming in New York City, rather than going around the world to make a film like Speed Racer (shot in Germany) or her upcoming Bel Ami (which took her to Budapest). Amanda Peet, who concentrated on movies in her late thirties and is now back on TV in the show Bent, told ABC News that now that she has children, “I think a lot more about location” when it comes to working.

TV may also give actors a degree of power that is usually reserved for the biggest movie stars—like Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. While movie actors are often subject to the whim of powerful directors, who can make them do multiple takes of scenes and extend their schedules, TV directors are mostly powerless, concerned with getting the show filmed quickly and cheaply; though Kutcher will still have to answer to Sheen’s former boss, creator Chuck Lorre, he may be more influential than he was on the set of some of his films. And TV networks and studios are sometimes willing to give producing deals to their actors in return for their services. TV Guide reported that Kutcher was a natural choice for Two and a Half Men because “his production company, Katalyst, is already set up at Warner Bros. TV’s Warner Horizon division.” By signing with TV networks and studios, actors have the chance to produce successful series, the way Salma Hayek did with Ugly Betty or Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) with Hot in Cleveland. If Kutcher stayed in movies, the best he could do might be something like his 2010 self-produced flop, Killers.

But there are risks for actors when they go into TV. The star of a failed big-budget movie can get a TV series easily, particularly when they’re competing with actors who are known only for television supporting roles or theatre. But if they star in a TV series and it flops, they may be damaged goods for their movie careers. Observers can point to many movie stars who couldn’t get work after they did a failed TV series; Chevy Chase’s disastrous talk show killed both his TV and movie careers for almost 20 years. Still, Lowry is one observer who thinks such risks are overstated: “This might have been more of an issue a decade ago,” when television was even less prestigious than it is now. Today, even full-time movie actors usually aren’t guaranteed a steady stream of big-budget movie starring roles, and have to take lower-paying roles in cheaper movies to build their reputations. “Why would the ‘risk’ be any greater than doing an indie feature?” Lowry says.

On the other hand, if the TV series is a hit, the star has a chance for the ultimate payoff: becoming a bigger movie star than he or she ever was before. A thirtysomething Sarah Jessica Parker gave up a reasonably successful movie career to become the star of a show called Sex and the City, and a few years later she was able to appear as the top-billed star of features, including Sex and the City features. That may be the best reason for Kutcher or Dennings to do a TV series. If it pays off, they can get their due from a movie industry that didn’t make them big enough stars. It’s a revenge plot worthy of a movie—or a TV show.