So what’s it all about? Well, like Pi, his 1998 breakthrough indie feature, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a drama about an obsessive protagonist poised on the brink of madness while pursuing perfection. Like Requiem for a Dream (2000), his critically acclaimed sophomore effort, Aronofsky’s latest film focuses on the desperate frenzy of a character whose fantasies are intruding on reality. And like The Wrestler (2008), his sentimentally gritty tale of a has-been grappler who repeatedly returns to the ring, Aronofsky’s much buzzed-about drama about a ballerina who gets in touch with her dark side is the story of an artist who quite literally suffers for the sake of art.
“Of course,” Aronofsky admits, “the big difference—the really interesting difference—is that one is about the highest art on the planet and the other is about the lowest. In fact, most people wouldn’t even call wrestling an art. Yet the athletes who do that sacrifice their physicality for their art. So I think there’s definitely a connection.”
Actually, one could argue that all of Aronofsky’s films are connected, in that each one—even The Fountain (2006), the Brooklyn-born auteur’s phantasmagorical romance—is about a kind of madness. In the case of Black Swan, the discombobulation begins when Nina Sayers, a sexually repressed ballerina played by Natalie Portman, lands the plum assignment of performing the lead role in a New York City dance company’s production of Swan Lake. Relentlessly driven by her ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) and her own barely contained demons, Nina pushes herself to physical and emotional extremes to prepare for the role.
But her efforts are not quite enough for choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who insists that Nina, a dead-solid perfect choice to convey the innocence of the White Swan, must also find a way to master the dark sensuality of the Black Swan as persuasively and expressively as Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer who’s trying a little too hard to be Nina’s new best friend.
For the 27-year-old Kunis—heretofore best known for her co-starring role in “That ’70s Show”—the role of Lily is at once a golden opportunity, and a demanding challenge. But, then again, it takes a lot to intimidate this particular actress.
Born in 1983 in the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union, Kunis moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1991 and, one day after her arrival, was enrolled in a local elementary school without knowing a word of English. She did not merely survive, she thrived, mastering a new language—and, not incidentally, learning to act—in time to be cast as an all-American teen when “That ’70s Show” premiered in 1998.
Kunis and Aronofsky recently sat down to chat with MovieMaker about their collaboration on Black Swan, and the specific challenges each faced during production. But the questions—and the answers—required a certain amount of discretion, lest the following Q&A be littered with spoilers. Yes, Black Swan is that kind of movie—the kind you should see for yourself before anyone else tells you too much about it.
Joe Leydon (MM): It’s difficult to ask very specific questions about Black Swan without giving too much away. So at the risk of sounding too vague: Was it difficult to portray a character who might not always be real, who might—or might not—sometimes appear on-screen as a manifestation of someone else’s fears or desires?
Mila Kunis (MK): I think the difficult part of that was for Darren. It wasn’t so difficult for me, because I never had to think about whether the character was really there. I just went through the scenes, doing whatever he told me to do.
MM: But did he tell you to play certain scenes with a different intensity?
MK: I think in every scene we played her every which way possible. You could never really predict what we’d be doing the next day in regard to playing the character. What we might focus on originally during rehearsal might be one thing, but once we started shooting it, Darren was incredibly creative.
Darren Aronofsky (DA): Mila could always be counted on to bring whatever she was doing to a level where it seemed very real. She was always very truthful and honest and present. It was my strategy to always try all the different ways that it could be played. We wanted to play it with sweetness, we wanted to play it with some conniving, we wanted to play it more ephemeral—we tried it all those different ways so we’d have all those options in the editing room.
MM: Were there some days you were less worried about realism than others?
DA: Every day, we tried to get as much as we could. Sure, there are certain scenes that are less real… But in general, we just tried to create as much a range of options as possible, so that we could play around in the editing room after we figured out exactly what was going on. The goal was to get the actor to give you each direction clearly and truthfully. That was never a problem with Mila.
MM: In this Internet era, it’s practically impossible for anyone to walk into a movie without knowing a lot—maybe too much—about it. In a more perfect world, what are the only things that people would know about Black Swan before seeing it?
DA: I think it should be a point that people know that it’s a thriller, that there are scary elements and that it’s original and different. People have gotten used to seeing the same thing over and over again. People who aren’t game for something that’s a little bit outside the box may have a hard time with it. And I think you’ve got to go into it with an adventurous spirit.
MM: Are you concerned that, because there’s been so much advance buzz about a certain scene in the film—an intimate scene involving Mila and Natalie—people may be expecting a movie that is more, well, salacious than this one really is?
DA: Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s a very sexy film. A lot of different journalists and critics who have seen the film at this point and talked with me about it say, “How does it feel to have made the most erotic film in America for the last few years?” Which kind of blew me away. When people are saying that, I say, ‘Do you really think that?’ I mean, I know everyone knows about the kiss between the two beautiful women in the film. But I think there’s a lot more that’s going on that’s sexier and as intense, if not more intense. I think the film is filled with a lot of that—it’s a lot about sexuality. It’s about a woman who’s trying to discover her sexuality and unlock it. So I think it’s there throughout the film.
MM: It would seem to me that, to feel comfortable while making any movie involving intense sensuality, or sexuality, an actor would have to have a great deal of trust in his or her director. Mila, how did Darren go about earning your trust?
MK: That’s a good question, because I honestly don’t think I would have done this movie if Darren wasn’t the director. When I was first sent the script, and asked if I would read for it, I was a huge fan of Darren’s. So I trusted him a long time ago. It had nothing to do with this particular project; it was based on his previous work and what kind of director he was. There was never a question in my mind. Then, when you meet him and you get to talk to him, it just kind of made sense.
I don’t know how many directors could have pulled off this movie without making it seem crazy. It was a really hard script to read and wrap your head around. Darren is one of the only people who could have done this film.
MM: In addition to the sexually charged scenes, there are highly dramatic, extremely stylized scenes that present daunting challenges to folks on both sides of the camera. One wrong move, one false note, and you run the risk of having the audience laugh out loud.
DA: Yes, but I think I’ve always walked that tightrope. If you think about it, all my films are on the edge of believability, so I walk that edge all the time. I imagine there were things that we photographed that were over the edge at times, but you just make sure that you’re covered and that you can pull back if you need to.
This film really goes to great heights to push reality—like ballet itself. Ballet is really over the top and extreme. The stories are really overwrought and gothic. They’re like great fairy tales. We wanted to push the level of what people would accept—right to the edge.
MM: Yes, but doesn’t that place a great strain on the actor? I mean, Mila, did you ever worry: “If I don’t do this right, I’m really going to look like a doofus,” or something like that?
DA: (laughs) Well, actually, “doofus” was the exact word that she would always use. She’d always say, “Gee, I feel like a doofus.” And I would tell her, ‘No, you don’t look like a doofus.’ [To Mila] I’m sorry, just teasing. But that is a very good question, because I have a feeling we did have discussions like that.
MK: We did. Actually, a lot. Look, I always have a fear of going in and failing. Or just not being on the same page as everybody else.
DA: I think trying to become a ballerina, or at least to be convincing in a movie as a ballerina, is an extremely difficult task. The fact that she pulled it off so convincingly shows you how hard she worked. She did six months of practice to get her body and her mind to where she could not only do the dancing, but she could also emote as well. That, for me, was the great accomplishment that Mila—and Natalie—pulled off. There’s very, very little trickery in that work. I know Mila was very concerned about how the dancing would look.
MK: Because I have two left feet. But I never had any concern about looking ridiculous on film. There was only one scene that I was really nervous about.
MM: That being?
DA: The kissing scene.
MK: That was the one. And only because of all the sex scenes I’ve ever done, I’ve never done a real sex scene. They’ve always been comical. This was my first sex scene that wasn’t in a comedy, so it was a little different. Also, it was with a really good friend of mine, which added a little more awkwardness. But that was the only scene I felt unsure about.
MM: The story goes that before doing their nude wrestling scene in Women in Love, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed got drunk. Was there any similar inebriation here?
DA: No. I know there have been consistent rumors that there was but, no, everyone was sober. We wanted to just get through it. This may sound ridiculous, but it was very uncomfortable for me, as well. My job is to empathize with actors, so I could feel their discomfort. I think we had two days to shoot it and ended up banging it out in half a day.
MM: Perhaps not the most graceful choice of words in this context.