Shortly after appearing on-screen in the new movie "Max Payne," in theaters this Friday, Mila Kunis lapses into flawless Russian. But the 25-year-old beauty didn't spend hours slaving away with a dialogue coach to master the native tongue of her character, Slavic assassin Mona Sax. Kunis can actually speak the language -- she spent the first seven years of her life in the Ukrainian city of Kiev before moving to Los Angeles in 1991.
"It was right at the fall [of the Soviet Union.] It was very communist, and my parents wanted my brother and me to have a future, and so they just dropped everything. They came with $250."
Kunis' father did odd jobs -- painting houses, installing toilets and delivering pizza -- while her mother worked in the back room of a Thrifty drugstore. "Ultimately, I adjusted fairly quickly and fairly well," she says. "But it must have been hard, because I blocked out second grade completely. I have no recollection of it. I always talk to my mom and my grandma about it. It was because I cried every day. I didn't understand the culture. I didn't understand the people. I didn't understand the language. My first sentence of my essay to get into college was like, 'Imagine being blind and deaf at age seven.' And that's kind of what it felt like moving to the States. But I got over it pretty fast."
During a recent interview at the commissary on the Fox lot, Kunis proves that she's achieved more than mere assimilation. The diminutive starlet can't even make her way to a table without being stopped by several colleagues and acquaintances. Fixing them with her striking gray-green eyes, she converses with each for several minutes, proving that she's a pro at the art of the schmooze, even though she claims, "I have a sailor's mouth. I don't know what it's like to not speak my mind."
If Kunis is good at shaking hands, it's probably because she's been doing it professionally since shortly after her arrival in the States. When she was only 9, she was spotted by her future manager in an acting class and landed a job in a Barbie doll commercial. By the time she was 14 (she attended Fairfax High School in L.A.), she was starring in "That '70s Show" -- which aired from 1998 to 2006 -- alongside Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace. She also began voicing the character of Meg Griffin on "Family Guy."
But while her costars and contemporaries landed themselves in the tabloids, she quietly began a relationship with actor Macaulay Culkin (of "Home Alone" fame) seven years ago and briefly enrolled in Loyola Marymount University before deciding that college wasn't for her. "I was left alone" by the press, she says. "I was never famous enough for people to care. I was never a bad kid. I will say I never did drugs. Like, I was a really good kid."
Sharp contrast to 'Sarah'
Kunis insists that to "not have the industry be the No. 1 important thing in life" is her key to staying grounded, but it has become a major demand on her time. Earlier this year, Kunis made her big-screen breakout as the love interest in the comedy hit "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which takes place in the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu's North Shore. "I'm not in the movie that much," she says. "So I would just be in a bikini laying out drinking pina coladas all day and eating burgers. And in Hawaii, when there's 5 a.m. wake-up call, you're like, 'Great!' Because you wake up, the sun is rising, and it's breezy and beautiful. There are turtles everywhere, and you see whales. I cried when we left."
"Max Payne" provided a sharp contrast to this idyllic island shoot. "It was in Toronto during four blizzards, back to back," she says. "So it was cold and dark, and guns were involved."
Based on the third-person shooter video game, "Max Payne" centers on a cop (Mark Wahlberg) who goes on a revenge killing spree after his family's murder. Mona Sax joins forces with Payne after learning that the same killer might be behind her sister's death.
Kunis admits that the movie appealed to her inner nerd. "I played 'Max Payne' at 'That '70s Show' because we had a bunch of video games and game consoles. I [was bad] at it. I like 'World of Warcraft.' I played it for, like, three years. All my boyfriend [Culkin] and I did all day at home was go on these raids. I'd be on my computer, he'd be on his, and for four hours, not a word was said to one another. But 'Max Payne' is a little darker than a bunch of wizards, gnomes and elves running around."
High heels in the snow
Despite the film's darker themes, Kunis insists that the harsh weather affected the mood on the set more than anything else. "I didn't even know what people looked like, because we didn't move indoors for a month. We only shot outside, so all you'd see were people's eyes, because everyone was wearing these parkas. And we went inside, and I was like, 'I don't know who our assistant director is.' "
Unlike the crew, Kunis couldn't dress for the weather. "Tight black shorts and a leather bustier and a black coat-type thing. It's almost impossible to look slightly coordinated in 5-inch heels in snow. But apparently, that's what assassins like to wear nowadays. "I'm not even that short. I look a little shorter than I am. I get into arguments all the time to the point where I've won hundreds of dollars over my height. People don't like to bet $10 in L.A. They're always like, 'I'll bet you 200 bucks.' "
After Toronto, Kunis has been appreciating filming Mike Judge's new comedy "Extract" in Woodland Hills, Reseda and Commerce. "I play a kleptomaniac employee who's a pathological liar," she says.
While Kunis has been working nonstop this year, "That '70s Show" gave her enough of a cushion that she can be choosy about her roles. And she'd much rather play an assassin or kleptomaniac than a damsel in distress or garden-variety love interest. "You've got to base your career on something other than being FHM's top 100 No. 1 girl. Your looks are going to die out, and then what's going to be left?"