“That ’70s Show” star Mila Kunis had a self-described meet-cute with fellow Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelensky, long before he was elected president of the embattled European nation in 2019.
Kunis — who on Wednesday was named among People magazine’s People of the Year for fundraising efforts benefiting her war-torn homeland — shared the details of their first meeting, which came nearly a decade ago when a remake of the comedian-turned-politician’s TV series “Servant of the People” was being shopped around Hollywood.
“I had a deal with ABC, and I was trying desperately to bring the show to the network. We ultimately got outbid, but in the process, I talked to this actor named Zelensky,” Kunis told the magazine.
“Years later I was reading the news and saw Ukraine had a new president. I thought to myself, ‘A Jewish president? Mazel tov! That name sounds so familiar.’ I searched my emails and was like, ‘I know him!’ ” she said, adding, “Our own little meet-cute.”
The two met again over the years, notably in 2019 when she and her husband, Ashton Kutcher, took a meeting with the leader when he visited the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York. At the time, Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska — an architect and screenwriter — posted about their shared meal on Instagram, describing their conversation about cinema as “fruitful” and including hopes to develop and attract investors to Ukraine’s film industry.
Such plans were likely derailed on Feb. 24 when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in a war that has raged for nine months. Within weeks of the invasion, Kunis, who was born in the former Soviet nation, and Kutcher launched their Stand With Ukraine campaign on GoFundMe
The celebrity couple donated $3 million to the effort and surpassed their $30-million goal within a month. The actors’ campaign benefits global logistics experts Flexport.org, which was commissioned to organize shipments of relief supplies to refugee sites in Ukraine’s neighboring countries of Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova. They also tapped vacation rental company Airbnb, in which Kutcher was an early investor, to provide free, short-term housing to Ukrainian refugees.
In March, when the fundraiser hit the $35-million benchmark, Zelensky publicly thanked the couple for their support and said they were “among the first to respond to our grief.”
“Impressed by their determination. They inspire the world. #StandWithUkraine,” he tweeted, sharing a photo of what appeared to be a video call among them.
“We can’t become desensitized,” the “Bad Moms” star told the magazine. “Helping — not even asking, just doing — should be our standard norm.”
Kunis, 39, said that the fundraiser was one of the first times she’s spoken out about being philanthropic because “there was no other way of getting this accomplished.”
“When we saw [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was going after the entire country, we knew a massive crisis was about to ensue,” she said.
“The luxury of the situation was we didn’t have time to overthink things,” she said of how quickly her fundraiser came together. “Because I’m from Ukraine, I started getting calls from people who [wanted to help and] thought I knew the politics or had an understanding of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] on the ground. That was my realization: If they don’t know who to go to, how will anybody? There were problems we knew we could help solve. So Ashton and I said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ Within 24 hours, we had GoFundMe on board.”
Kunis was born in 1983 in then-Soviet city of Chernivtsi, which is now in present-day Ukraine. The Russian-speaking star immigrated to the United States in 1991 when she was 7. Her family obtained visas as religious refugees after she and her relatives — some of whom survived the Holocaust — saw other people facing anti-Semitism, oppression and lack of opportunity, she told the magazine.
The “Luckiest Girl Alive” star and producer, who shares two children with her husband and former TV co-star Kutcher, said she has ensured that their daughter, Wyatt, 8, and son, Dimitri, almost 6, maintain a connection to their heritage.
“My kids were always going to grow up eating my mother’s food. My parents and I speak Russian to each other, so they’ve grown up with that. They’ve naturally found pride in being half Ukrainian,” Kunis said, admitting that she herself is “very American” but says that she’s grateful for the “‘You’re different, and that’s a cool thing’ sense of identity” approach.
She and Kutcher also make sure their children are informed about some of the global strife.
“[W]e give them enough to understand what’s happening in the world without the details. Do they know that these two countries are at war? Yes. Do they know innocent people are dying? Yes. But we don’t watch the news with them. They don’t need the visuals. We just want them to understand the world is bigger than they are.”
People magazine also named “Abbott Elementary” star and creator Quinta Brunson and Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Hudson among its 2022 People of the Year.