No Strings Attached: Casting Natalie Portman

When it came to finding the right actress for the role of the intellectual and emotionally unavailable Emma, the filmmakers stuck gold when actress Natalie Portman signed on. Key to Portman was the intelligence of the script, and she applauded the notion of a romantic comedy that wasn’t dumbed down. “I feel like romantic comedies are often about the girl who has a job at a magazine or in fashion getting a makeover, but this movie is about people that we all know,” says Portman.

In addition to the untraditional premise of the script, Portman also appreciated Meriwether’s character development and her depiction of women. “Liz has a real ear for characters. Each character truly has its own voice–she allows women to be hilarious, interesting and have full ideas, along with the men.”

After an initial meeting with Meriwether about another project–but where she heard about the basic premise for “No Strings Attached” and expressed interest–Portman stayed in the loop during the development phase, which helped Meriwether flesh out the character while keeping Natalie in mind. Meriwether was excited by the notion of writing a comedic character that audiences had never seen Portman inhabit. “We haven’t seen Natalie have as much fun as I think she has had in this role. Throughout her amazing career, we’ve seen her rule empires and shoot laser guns and run around in the subways as a revolutionary, among other things, so I’ve loved making her do silly things. It’s fun to see her be a bit silly and bad.”

Emma is a unique character in the traditional romantic comedy genre, where the female protagonist often has the sole goal of finding Mr. Right and getting married. Contrary to that notion, Emma’s greatest challenge and obstacle is not falling in love. “Emma is a doctor who isn’t looking for a relationship. She has an aversion to attachment, because she has a hard time losing people,” explains Portman.

Watching Portman bring Emma to life was a dream for the writer. “When it comes to Natalie, I am speechless. She’s smart and funny and infuses that into the character. She brings a new female model into the romantic comedy genre, one that is strong but lovable…you want her to find love, but she doesn’t have to lose herself to get it.”

For Portman, tackling a feature comedy was a new frontier, but she felt in good company. “It’s been great to be surrounded by so many professionals at this kind of thing, because it’s not my comfort zone,” she explains. “Making a comedy film is a really different experience for me–without an audience, it’s sometimes hard to tell if something is working or not. Even if those around you think something is funny, they can’t exactly laugh during a take.”

No Strings Attached: Ashton Kutcher

For the role of Adam, Reitman knew he needed to find an actor that was both charming and desirable to women, but could also play insecurity in his romantic explorations. Reitman found his Adam in comedic actor Ashton Kutcher, who had the perfect combination of leading man looks and charm (along with a slight underdog sense of vulnerability) that the role required.

Echoing Natalie Portman’s reaction to the script, Kutcher says, “Liz delivered a screenplay that was authentic, but also ridiculously funny. Most of the time when you read a comedy script, at some point, it’s going to push for the comedy–but Liz’s never reaches for a joke. It’s really a character comedy, and not a generic ‘hijinx-y’ type of film.”

For Meriwether, having Kutcher play Adam was the perfect choice. “Ashton brings a ‘full-of-love-and-life’ openness to the role that perfectly contrasts Emma’s emotional journey–to get her to a place where she will want to open up. You believe it, because if anyone can get your heart to open, it’s Ashton Kutcher.”

“Ashton is really fun, easygoing and playful, and it’s great to get to see how he improvises and plays in the scene,” says Portman.

Kutcher chimes in on his co-star and partner: “Natalie is always prepared, plus she makes interesting choices with her character. And, at the end of the day, she’s a really sweet and giving person. She’s a great partner to have.”

After Emma and Adam’s initial sexual encounter and before any of the NSA parameters are established, Adam is unsure how to approach his long-time friend and decides to show up at the hospital with a gift.

“Early in a relationship, people often feel the need to define it, and sometimes want to put it in a box,” reasons Kutcher. “Adam and Emma go from friends to suddenly having sex–at that point, some might feel the need to reach out with a gift of sorts–so my character brings her a balloon.”

A balloon that says CONGRATS! no less. “We talked about this a lot, and we thought it was funny to think that someone would show up at work with a congratulations balloon after sex,” recalls Meriwether. “I think it was Adam’s way of telling Emma, who hadn’t been returning his calls, that she couldn’t disappear on him. And that if she tried, he would show up at work with a balloon and totally embarrass her.”

After the balloon incident, Emma and Adam establish a set of rules for their new arrangement and embark on their new relationship as “sex friends.” Things get complicated, however, when intimacy begins to find it’s way into their relationship. One such occasion comes after Adam drops by Emma’s apartment to offer his support during her “time of the month” with cupcakes and a mix CD of songs lovingly called the “period mix.” After the evening ends with them spooning, Emma wakes up overwhelmed, having broken one of their NSA rules. “That was a fun scene to write for me, because it was taking the ‘morning after’ that follows a one-night stand and switching things around–it becomes a scene about waking up and being appalled after spooning with somebody,” says Meriwether. “What crossed the line for Emma was the intimacy of it–actually sleeping with somebody without the precursor of sex.”

It is such customary romantic comedy moments viewed through Reitman and Meriwether’s topsy-turvy looking glass that give the leads ample opportunities to generate laughs. The director is more than pleased with the results. Per Reitman, “I’m very proud of the cast of the film. I think certainly our two leads, Ashton and Natalie, are almost iconic representatives of their generation, people in their late 20s and early 30s. We’ve certainly seen Natalie Portman act in a lot of serious films, but we’ve not had the opportunity to see her let it rip in a comedy, but in a human and truthful way–that was what I really hoped to get with her, and I think she delivers in spades. With Ashton Kutcher, he’s more known for broader comedies and for the work that he’s done on television, and my desire was to put him in something where he got to really show what a thoughtful person and what a fine actor he really is. Again, he hits all the right chords beautifully.”