Ashton Kutcher on Iowa: 'The more places I go, the more I realize how great it is here'
Years ago, Ashton Kutcher left Iowa wanting to escape the small towns and endless farmland that surrounds each.
Now, a worldwide success at age 39 and a father of two, he seems pretty happy to be home.
"I left Iowa wanting to get out of Iowa, and the older I get the more I want to come home," he said in an exclusive interview with the Register on Saturday evening. "In part, because the more places I go, the more I realize how great it is here, and the more I realize that I almost owe everything of who I am to where I come from."
The eastern Iowa-raised Hollywood superstar appeared at the Ron Pearson Center in West Des Moines on Saturday night to receive the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award, an annual honor given by Drake University to “individuals who demonstrate good character as a role model.” Outside of acting, Kutcher, 39, is known for multiple philanthropic efforts, including co-founding (alongside Dallas Clark) the Iowa disaster relief organization The Native Fund and Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, which uses technology to combat sexual exploitation of children.
Character and parenthood are intertwined, something Kutcher makes clear when discussing the award.
“I think the one thing that you realize the minute you become a parent is that character is the one thing you can give them as a parent," he said. "You can actually, materially impact that … and then everything else becomes their choice."
WATCH HIS FULL SPEECH:
See the full speech as actor and Iowa native Ashton Kutcher accepts the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award at Drake University's An All-Star Evening in West Des Moines
The “That '70s Show” and “The Ranch” star was born in Cedar Rapids and spent his high school years in Homestead; he made his West Des Moines appearance alongside wife and fellow star Mila Kunis. Kutcher's mother, Diane Portwood, and her spouse, Mark, as well as his father Larry and his spouse, Colleen, were also in town to see one of Iowa's most celebrated bring home the award.
On fatherhood, Kutcher said there are three Iowan values that impact how he raises his children: A general kindness, always keeping your word and showing good work ethic. Kutcher and Kunis welcomed their second child, a son, Dimitri Portwood Kutcher, into the world last November. The couple became parents to a girl, Wyatt Isabelle Kutcher, in 2014.
"There’s an earnestness and an honest-ness here that lacks in a lot of other places in the world," Kutcher said. "People aren't afraid to work and aren't afraid to work really hard. They understand that working hard actually gets you there."
That earnestness was on display Thursday when Kutcher and Kunis surprised students at Oskaloosa High School. When addressing the students, he delivered a short, galvanizing message: "Just because you're a kid from Iowa, don’t think you can’t have big dreams."
It wasn't his first time impacting Iowa schools: In 2016 he surprised teachers in more than 100 Iowa schools by fully funding every DonorsChoose.org project open in the state on that day. DonorsChoose is an online crowdfunding platform teachers use to finance classroom needs. Kutcher said he wanted to let the students know that you can build "the next great thing," no matter where you're from.
"What I suggested to those kids is (that) they don’t limit the scope of their pursuits to the things that see that already exist," he said.
Kutcher received the Pillar of Character award in part due to the launch of The Native Fund, which works primarily in disaster relief for Iowans. Kutcher said he could see the locally-based nonprofit extend the model in place to other states and more causes.
First, he said, the organization must continue to grow capital. After that could come expansion into new regions and different causes.
"For us right now, it's about raising a significant reserve capital fund for disaster relief," Kutcher said. "And then really identifying for ourselves what constitutes disaster relief. Who actually needs disaster relief? And how do (we) build this so it's not some wonky entitlement plan that grows and gets sloppy? ... This is all about helping people. It's not about doing for people."
Actor and Iowa native Ashton Kutcher talks about future plans for the disaster relief charity The Native Fund he started with fellow Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character award recipient Dallas Clark. Michael Zamora, Rodney White/The Register
The discussion wasn’t completely dominated by Kutcher’s character and philanthropic efforts; when asked about the Hawkeyes' football prospects in the fall, he smiled and laughed.
"That’s a set-up," he laughed. "I know a set-up when I see one."
Notable attendees for the “All-Star Evening” featuring Kutcher and Kunis included Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Super Bowl-winning former NFL tight end Dallas Clark, Drake University president Marty Martin and “The Bachelor” alum Chris Soules, a news release said. Past recipients for the award include Hayden Fry, Fred Hoiberg and Shawn Johnson.