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Tech guru, married to film royalty – Ashton Kutcher’s more than a pretty face

Charlie Sheen’s replacement on Two and a Half Men plays dumb hunks and is married to Demi Moore. And he could soon be ridiculously rich

Life often imitates art, but perhaps never as strangely as in the current case of Ashton Kutcher, the puppyish actor best known for playing dumb but good-looking characters in US sitcoms and Hollywood movies. Tomorrow night Kutcher, 33, who is married to A-list actress Demi Moore, will replace Charlie Sheen’s old role on the hit TV show Two and a Half Men. Kutcher will play an internet billionaire – a role tailor-made for an actor who is, in fact, one of the savviest and best known investors in California’s supercharged Silicon Valley.

Kutcher has carved out a reputation as a master of the highly complex and ultra-competitive start-up scene whose celebrity touch – and millions of dollars in potential investment funds – can turn a company from idea to reality, send share prices soaring and net a huge financial reward at the same time. He has already earned millions of dollars with his canny investments, some of which are a closely guarded secret. “People think pretty highly of him in the Valley. It is kind of unique that a Los Angeles actor is involved in the Valley tech scene,” said David Gorodyanksy, co-founder of tech start-up AnchorFree and a tech adviser to the San Francisco mayor’s office.

It is a script that is almost too unlikely to be real. To most people Kutcher is still the IQ-challenged jock Michael Kelso on the 1970s-set comedy That 70s Show. Or, if you prefer his less-than-stellar cinematic work, he is the stoner on the 2000 hit movie Dude, Where’s My Car? In that movie he played, you guessed it: a dude who had lost his car. But Kutcher’s other career in Silicon Valley now overshadows his Hollywood one. Soon Kutcher might not just be playing an internet billionaire. He might become one.

Last week San Francisco played host to the annual tech start-up jamboree known as TechCrunch Disrupt. It is a huge conference that grew out of the TechCrunch news blog, where hopeful start-ups, and the powerful financial investors that they must woo, gather.

Deals are made and contracts signed. Some young hopefuls will leave the conference and become millionaires. Their products may change the way we lead our lives. Others will go back to their basement and get programming again.

Kutcher, of course, was there. He sat on stage, complete with stringy beard and a floppy black hat, and opined on the nature of investing in start-ups. He may have looked like a dilettante actor but his pronouncements were pure tech. “I think, ultimately, the technology that is appealing is really just mimicking life, right?” he told the audience. “In some way, shape, or form, it’s either taking historical data, collecting and organising it, and delivering it to us in a more efficient way, or in some way, shape, or form it’s advancing the speed [at which that happens].” Hard to imagine a stoner dude searching for his misplaced car giving that speech.

But for those still longing to see a bit of the old Kelso, Kutcher also spoke in more familiar terms. As when he described problems that the internet was having in predicting what people liked in terms of behaviours and products, when software was based mainly on past behaviour or purchases.

Internet programs, Kutcher explained, were still missing some vital human elements from their data-crunching. “It’s like a new car. You get a new car and it’s really new, and you know you really like it. And you like it for a while, but eventually you want a different car. Or it’s like an ex-girlfriend. You always tend to go out and date a girl that’s the exact opposite of your ex-girlfriend,” he said.

But there is a clear and concise business mind behind such simplistic metaphors. Kutcher has now invested in some 40 different tech projects through his Katalyst fund or as an individual. They include some of the biggest names in internet technology, such as phone service Skype and AirBNB, which has allowed hundreds of thousands of people all over the globe to rent out their spare rooms to holiday-makers. But alongside those big names are little known hopefuls like Zaarly, which aims to help people buy and sell goods in their local communities. It is an often bewildering ecosystem of bleeding-edge technology and financial risks. But insiders say the riches on offer are plentiful in an industry that has learned the lesson of the spectacular tech bubble (and subsequent collapse) of the 1990s. “The Valley has really come back stronger than before. People are now making money as well. That is what is different from the late 90s,” said Gorodyansky.

That Kutcher should master this scene is in some ways not entirely surprising. He was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and though he had a reputation in college as a party animal he also majored in biochemical engineering, hardly a subject fit for someone with no aptitude for science and maths. Indeed, he only left college after being spotted by a model talent scout. From there he went into modelling and acting and eventually ended up in Hollywood.

But Kutcher would not be the first actor whose public roles disguised their inner lives. Peter Sellers battled with depression. Sylvester Stallone gave a shockingly sensitive performance as an overweight loser in Cop Land. Mel Gibson nearly always played the dynamic good guy hero in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, but his private life has been found to be a mess of anger and religious-focused angst.

“He is clearly not like some of his roles. Ashton is a very smart guy and someone who has a lot of business savvy,” said Noah Levy, a senior news editor at In Touch Weekly magazine.

So Kutcher, hamstrung by his acting roles, found another way to express himself: technology. The first hint was his early recognition of the power of the emerging social networking site Twitter. Kutcher rapidly became one of the most popular users of the site, winning a competition with CNN to become the first person to net one million followers. Last week he had a staggering 7,614,430 Twitter users still following his regular updates. In the modern world of communications, he is fully aware of the power such reach gives him. Indeed he has not been shy of using his celebrity power to help his investments, whether by supportive tweets or direct endorsements. “He plays the dumb hot guys but he has become someone with a magical investment touch,” said Levy.

But Kutcher’s blurring of the lines between his fame and his personal tech investments has not been without its problems. Last month Kutcher guest-edited a special online version of the magazine Details called “The Social Issue”. In it were profiled numerous tech companies and start-ups. The coverage no doubt provided a vital boost for those firms. But there was a problem: Kutcher had investments in some of them and had not been explicitly clear about it. A New York Times story suggested that the Federal Trade Commission, or even the Securities and Exchange Commission, could end up investigating Kutcher and possibly pursuing charges.

The matter quickly blew over and left Kutcher unharmed but it did – briefly – cause a flutter to his otherwise seamless travel through the tech universe.

Critics of Kutcher’s acting abilities might be thankful for that. There are not too many legions of fans queuing up to praise such standard multiplex fare as My Boss’s Daughter, What Happens in Vegas or Killers. “He has never really got that much recognition for his acting,” said Levy. But Two and a Half Men is one of the most popular brands on American television. In the wake of the Charlie Sheen debacle – he was fired from Two and a Half Men amid allegations of drug, alcohol and domestic abuse – Kutcher’s debut this week will be a momentous occasion in US TV history and millions are likely to tune in to see how he does.

Having now established himself as a tech entrepreneur, Kutcher might be about to rejuvenate his acting career too. Underestimating Ashton Kutcher seems like a risky game to play. He’s married to Hollywood royalty; he is a successful Silicon Valley investor; and he now has one of the biggest acting opportunities in American celebrity.

It’s clearly Ashton Kutcher’s world. The rest of us are just living in it. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds