Is Ashton Kutcher a dim pretty-boy? That's what people wonder. He's played dim pretty-boys to perfection in television and film —...

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WASHINGTON — Is Ashton Kutcher a dim pretty-boy?

That’s what people wonder. He’s played dim pretty-boys to perfection in television and film — starting with naive but likable Michael Kelso for seven seasons on “That ’70s Show.”

Then there’s Demi Moore. Is there something beside his fabulous good looks that made a 40-year-old movie star with three kids and a quiet home life in Idaho fall for and marry a kid 15 years her junior?

As first impressions go, he can be something of an endearing goofball, spilling the soft drink he graciouly offered to fetch for his guest.

And then, over the next 45 minutes, he proceeds to talk about his production company, his forward-thinking Internet development deal, his onetime plans to study biochemical engineering at MIT, and how his MTV show “Punk’d” is, he hopes, more a study of human nature than it is “Candid Camera” with celebrities.

“When you invent a character, then you have to struggle to change people’s perceptions of you, because it comes with a preconceived notion,” Kutcher says. “But I think Olivier said that a wealthy man can always play a beggar, but a beggar can never play a wealthy man. … I think you’re kind of always trying to move on. You try to push it and you wait for people to sort of catch up to you.”

“Doing it right”

Touchstone Films is gambling that audiences will catch up to the idea of Ashton Kutcher as leading man in a drama (his only previous dramatic performance, in “The Butterfly Effect,” was No. 1 its opening weekend at the box office but was critically panned). Not only leading man, but action hero. In “The Guardian,” Kutcher plays Jake Fischer, the top trainee at the Coast Guard’s elite “A-School” for rescue swimmers; Kevin Costner co-stars as an instructor.

“First of all, he’s a great-looking kid,” says Andrew Davis, the movie’s director. “But he was very committed to doing it right and making it real.

“And he’s very smart. He’s going to be hugely in demand. He’s going to have a huge career, this kid.”

“He was a stud”

More than anything, what’s striking about Kutcher is how at ease he is, how little outside perceptions affect him. He’s funny and self-deprecating and wholly realistic.

“Look, it was a stretch,” he says of the decision to cast him. “I know that. I think that’s uncomfortable for anyone.”

Part of the stretch was the physical nature of the role. In order to be believable as an elite rescue swimmer, Kutcher put himself through eight months of personal boot camp, adding more than 10 pounds of muscle and swimming laps weighted down with heavy equipment. He also gave up smoking.

He showed up in shape for a 10-day training session run by Coast Guard instructors. “Ashton, he was a stud,” says co-star Peter Gail.

Once filming started, though, the real challenge for Kutcher was the character development. He wanted to play the part, he says, because “there is something about what these guys do and how they go about doing it. It was magnetic.”

The town outcast

Born Christopher Ashton Kutcher (he was known as Chris), Kutcher has an older sister and a twin brother, Michael, who was born with health problems and had a heart transplant at age 13. He grew up in Homestead, Iowa, population 100. His parents were factory workers.

Most of Kutcher’s teen antics were harmless. But there was one big exception. “I was 18 and I was a really good student and a good kid, and didn’t get in trouble, and then I broke into my high school,” Kutcher says matter-of-factly.

He broke in with a cousin in the middle of the night. They set off a silent alarm and Kutcher was caught trying to get away. He spent the night in jail, and was convicted of third-degree burglary and sentenced to 180 hours of community service and three years’ probation (his record was later expunged). At the time, he had been anticipating acceptances to both MIT and Purdue to study engineering. He had been a football player, a star in school plays, a well-liked, popular guy.

And suddenly he was the town outcast.

“You’d walk down the street and feel people looking at you like, ‘Oh, that’s the kid that broke into the high school,’ ” he says. “Then my girlfriend broke up with me. Then I lost my college scholarships and got kicked out of the National Honor Society and the choir and the play. …

“If you’re that kid, now you’re marked. That’s who you are. I wasn’t stealing money from the school, I was stealing from them. They pay the tax dollars, and that money is what provides things for the school. … You know, you’re not thinking that when it’s 1 in the morning and you and your cousin are [fooling] around after a kegger, going ‘What can we do? What would be fun?’ “

Looking back, Kutcher calls the experience “the best thing that could ever have happened to me.

“Getting in trouble, learning a life lesson — it straightened me out pretty quick,” he says.

At the time, though, he was miserable. He was banned from the prom and other activities, but graduated in the top five of his class.

Leaps of illogic

He wound up at the University of Iowa, and at 19 entered a “Fresh Faces of Iowa” modeling competition on a whim — the big prize was at trip to New York City, and he’d never been to the East Coast — and won. Once he got to New York (“I had to get permission from the judge,” he says, referring to his probation), he realized he could get work as a model and make decent money, so he decided to stay, and chucked engineering. Back home, people thought he was nuts.

“They thought I was making a pretty foolish choice, and they’ve since sort of told me that,” he says. “And, in some ways, I probably was making a foolish choice. But most of the great things in the world come from really illogical decisions.”

Like his marriage. “Absolutely 100 percent illogical” is how he describes getting involved with Demi Moore in 2003. (They wed last September.)

Illogical?

“Well,” he says, “I was 25 years old. I’m hosting ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I’m on the cover of Rolling Stone. I’ve got the number one movie in America (‘Just Married’). Let’s tie myself down! Let me really get tied down, right now!”

He leans in with a look that’s part amusement, part self-satisfaction.

“I don’t think, for most people, that would be a logical decision. And for me, it definitely wasn’t a logical decision. But it’s a decision that I couldn’t help making.”

And what was it about Moore that led him to give up all that youthful freedom and studly potential to become a 20-something husband with three stepdaughters?

“When you find it,” he says, “you’ll know.”

A Hollywood commodity

As Ashton Kutcher sees it, life is good these days.

“I’ve already achieved more than I ever expected,” he says, spreading out his arms. “Anything else is a bonus.”

In addition to “The Guardian,” Kutcher has a second movie about to hit theaters: “Open Season,” an animated film. He voices Elliot, a wisecracking mule deer. He also has a cameo this fall in Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby,” about the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

But Ashton is already a Hollywood commodity — he’s produced two of his own movies and has a strong relationship with MTV, which developed his popular show “Punk’d” and is working with him on other projects as well.

“He’s really articulate and very smart and completely collaborative,” says Rod Aissa, senior vice president at MTV. “It’s nice that the world is catching up to what he’s always been.”

“Punk’d” Seahawk

On the surface, “Punk’d” seems like a practical joke writ large, a realization of the public desire to capture celebrities “as they really are.”

Not so, Kutcher says. “Punk’d,” he explains, is about exploring human nature. And while having a successful “punk” is the goal, what he really loves is when he fails. He cites an upcoming episode in which Seattle Seahawks star tailback Shaun Alexander responds to an obnoxious kid with extreme kindness.