The actor teams up with '70s Show' costar Danny Masterson for a countrified comedy
Nope, That ’70s Show isn’t back, but, yep, Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson are hanging out together on a sitcom again. The duo star in Netflix’s The Ranch (debuting April 1), a multi-camera family comedy created by Two and A Half Men executive producers Don Reo and Jim Patterson. Kutcher (who’s also an executive producer of the show) plays Colt, a high school stud quarterback turned flailing semipro player who heads back to Colorado to help oversee the family ranch, where his also-ran brother, Rooster (co-executive producer Masterson), has been toiling away for years with their old-fashioned, headstrong dad, Beau (Sam Elliott). Adding to the dysfunction, their outspoken mother, Maggie (Debra Winger), lives in a trailer behind a bar that she owns, but is still married to Beau (and occasionally romantic with him). Here, Kutcher tells us a little bit about life on The Ranch.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You and Danny have remained close friends over the years. Had you been talking about doing a project together for a while?
ASHTON KUTCHER: Ever since we were on ‘70s, we’ve been talking about doing something again, and we kind of batted around a bunch of ideas over the years, and both of us got busy. When I had a pretty clear signal that we were wrapping up Two and a Half Men, he and I started having a conversation: “All right, this is our shot.” We were talking about this is our chance to reunite and do something again together. I mean, he was really my first friend in Los Angeles, so it’s pretty cool.
Then, at exactly the same time, Don and Jim — they were the head writers at the time on Two and a Half Men — were talking about how much we were just having a really good time making that show, and should we figure out something else to do together? So it was all pretty serendipitous. We wanted to figure out a way to do a sitcom again, but really disrupt it and do something totally different that people hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t interested in just doing another pat sitcom. I was interested in doing something that was irreverent, not only tonally but also just irreverent to the medium in general, because it’s a medium that people love, but it really hasn’t changed in for however long. But everything else is changing, and the digital medium is changing. And on a day-to-day basis, I spend so much time with different companies disrupting industries, and we really wanted to see if we can just disrupt the sitcom.
So how will it disrupt the sitcom?
Most of these sitcoms that we see, they’re set on one of the coasts — whether it’s Seinfeld or Two and a Half Men — and tonally they’re very metropolitan. The first thing that we wanted to do was set it in small-town America. It’s the middle of the country, the heartland, and those are the people that probably enjoy these shows the most, yet nobody makes content for them. I don’t think the success of Duck Dynasty was an accident. I think that show was successful because it spoke to a specific audience that can relate to that life.
That was step one: Who’s our audience? And we feel like that’s our audience. We wanted to exemplify that life, so it’s small-town America, which is the first slight irreverency in it. The other thing is, “What are the values of those people in small-town America?” It’s conservative. It’s the red states. It’s God and country and ‘Merica, and we felt like that was the audience that we could speak to, where most shows would make fun of that audience. We are that audience, and so we embraced it, and it is the culture of our characters. So I think it’s culturally disruptive.
We decided to take it to Netflix because they really let you make the show you want to make, and we knew we wanted to try some different things. We want these people to talk like real people, so this show has really irreverent language in places, and it’s not your same old family sitcom. It’s definitely got a little bit more edge to it. Also, because on Netflix we don’t have a 22-minute time limit, we can make a show that’s got more story. Our shows are about 30 minutes. There’s a lot more content there, and there’s more thoughtful storytelling, and there’s heartfelt moments. Another part of the convention that we’ve really broken is with music. There’s country music in it. It’s not a show about country music, but there’s music that lies underneath the scenes that I think changes the emotional dynamic of the show. And then we’ve lit it differently. We’ve built a different kind of set that has never been seen. A lot of the show plays outdoors, which is unconventional for a sitcom. We’re breaking a bunch of rules, but at the same time, it’s a family sitcom about fathers and sons, and what it’s like to live in that town you just want to get out of.
You two hang out all the time, but what was it like to be back onstage with Danny? Was it trippy? Did you click right back into it?
It’s trippy for a couple reasons. I remember sitting there right before we were about to take all the action on the first scene where we’re back on the stage together. My heart was pumping, and I had chills and everything else, but when you look across the stage and you see your best friend going through that same thing, there’s a comfort in that, because we know that we don’t have to act. We know that we can just be there together and that every piece of little tiny history that we’ve had over the last 20 years is there and present, and these two guys have that same thing. My favorite scenes to do are the ones that it’s the two of us together just shooting the s—, because it’s just so real and so us and so natural, and I think it comes off like that. It’s sort of a peek into our exact relationship in some ways.
How would you describe Colt, and what do you like most about playing him so far?
He’s a very confident guy. He’s had a 15-year failed football career, and the highlight of his life was his high school state championship. So he comes home, a little bit with his tail between his legs, not unlike a lot of 30-year-olds that go off and they get their college degree, and they try to get a job in this world where getting a job is pretty tough no matter what degree you have, and you end up living with your parents when you’re 30-something. He’s living out that failure that we all fear when you go off to do whatever you’re going to do. So there’s a little bit of regret and remorse about having to move back home and about being forced into this decision. But he still has that confident arrogance of a small-town hero. Everybody in this town knows who he is from the state championship that he won them, but they also know who he is because he’s made some headlines for doing some other stupid s—. From my perspective, it’s a guy who’s trying to reclaim the greatness that he had in his senior year in high school and reclaim his place in his family and in his town.
And how would you sum up the relationship dynamic between Colt and Rooster?
The Rooster has stayed at home, and he’s the guy who’s stayed back to help run the ranch while I was off living this pseudo-illustrious life. He’s the guy who’s been doing all the grunt work for the last 15 years and gets very little praise for it. Now I’m coming home to try to reclaim my place in the family, and there’s a little bit of him that is excited because he gets his brother back, but then a little bit of him that’s pissed off because he’s not the golden son anymore. While I was gone, he got to be the golden son, and now I’m back, and he’s not. Our relationship is contentious, but the history of Danny and my friendship bleeds into the characters. They’re best friends, but they f—ing hate each other.
On top of the ’70s reunion angle, you have Sam Elliott and Debra Winger, who offer different points of entry and attract a different audience.
Let me tell you about Sam Elliott. Tombstone is one of my all-time favorite movies. I remember when we were doing press for ‘70s Show right when we started, and [series co-creator] Bonnie Turner was talking about how they cast Kurtwood Smith to play the father role. They were still doing 3rd Rock from the Sun, and they cast John Lithgow as the patriarch character of that. She was talking about how with those two characters, she found these two guys who were known as these badass, mean, angry — the villain guys — and brought them in as the patriarch characters, and that there’s something naturally funny about that. So when we were casting Sam Elliott, as soon as his name came up, it sparked like, “Oh my God. That’s that guy.” I’m actually afraid of Sam Elliott in real life a little bit — and we addressed it in our first episode — but there’s a sense that that your dad could always whip your ass, no matter how old he is. And you get that immediately from Sam. His comedic timing is exquisite, and in the moments that are dramatic — this show plays a lot more drama than you’re going to see in a regular sitcom — he’s so honest and pure and real. I get chills when I’m working with him because it’s just an honor….
We knew that we wanted to hire great actors, and that great actors can deliver funny when they have the right worlds. We wanted the comedy in the show to come out of character comedy and not just jokes, and both [Sam and Debra] have done nothing but deliver on that promise…. I got on the phone with [Debra during the casting process], and had an hour-long conversation about this character and what we were trying to do. She has two grown boys, so I think she understands what a mother has to do to manage their sons. When I was talking to her on the phone, she was not afraid to say exactly what she thought, about anything, just slam it out and jam it out. Her natural predisposition towards telling you what she thought is the character, and there was something about her that was slightly unpredictable. That unpredictable nature made her this firecracker in this town where everything is really predictable; you know what roads you’re going to drive on today, and you know where the sun is going to rise and where it’s going to set. But she’s this woman who’s running the bar in town and has all the information. And everybody’s horror stories and everybody’s ripped-apart insides get laid on her bar, and we had to have something that was going to be absolutely unpredictable in the show. Debra naturally had all of those qualities, and we just thought: “This is it. That’s Mom.”
Are the parents caught in the middle of their sons’ relationship? Or the other way around?
[The brothers] are reverting back to all the stupid s— they did when they were kids, and Sam Elliott’s character is barely keeping this ranch afloat, and he’s doing everything in his power he can. He needs their help to do it, but needs it begrudgingly. He’s kind of like the Archie Bunker of our show. When we were conceiving what this show is, the one element that we really wanted was that Archie Bunker voice. We wanted a character that could be totally irreverent without knowing that he was being irreverent, and so that’s where Sam Elliott’s character is. He’s this rancher kind of caught in time. He doesn’t use the Internet, and it’s like he’s caught in between the world changing and trying to keep his organic ranch alive. Then his relationship with our mother is a contentious one as well, where she’s moved out of the house and is now living in an Airstream trailer behind the bar that she runs. She’s a tough chick that is one of the only people that’s not afraid to tell him like it is. So they have this really unconventional marriage happening where they’re together — but they’re not together.
But they’re still hooking up?
They’re still hooking up and they’re still married, but they’re not together. I mean, it’s a real f—ed-up family. That is the steadfast thing from sitcom convention that works, whether it was Cheers in a bar or Two and a Half Men’s two brothers living in a house together or the friends in That ‘70s Show, or Roseanne. At the heart of every one of these great shows is a f—ed-up family that’s just like ours, and people will be able to see their family relationships in the characters in the show.