SAN FRANCISCO — The sound system was on the fritz in Russian technology billionaire Yuri Milner's $100-million, 30,000-square-foot mansion in Silicon Valley.
Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres had been served. The guests had taken their seats in Milner's home theater. And Ashton Kutcher was ready to screen "Jobs," the new film in which he plays the late chief executive and co-founder of Apple. The audience was a who's who of the technology industry, including venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla.
Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk was the one who rolled up his sleeves and fixed the audio. On the screen, Kutcher appeared as a young Jobs in the early and troubled years of his journey from his LSD-laced days at Reed College in Portland, Ore., to the formation of Apple, his ouster and victorious return.
"I can't think of a more skeptical audience than Silicon Valley when it comes to a movie about Steve Jobs," said Nirav Tolia, chief executive of the social network Nextdoor.
Film industry observers were skeptical too. Vanity Fair's post announcing Kutcher's role was titled "How to Handle the News of Ashton Kutcher Being Cast as Steve Jobs Without Giving Up on Hollywood."
But when the lights came up at Milner's house, Kutcher found himself before an appreciative audience. At one point, as he and costar Josh Gad took questions, Kutcher choked up as he spoke about how deeply personal the role was for him.
"Of all people," Tolia said, "Ashton could do it because he is one of us."
The Hollywood heartthrob not only plays dotcom billionaire Walden Schmidt on CBS' "Two and a Half Men" but he is also co-founder with Madonna manager Guy Oseary and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle of the venture capital fund A-Grade Investments.
In taking on the role of Jobs, Kutcher didn't have to "learn how to channel being an entrepreneur," said Tolia, whose Nextdoor network is one of Kutcher's investments. "Acting is his vocation. Technology is his avocation."
"The role was the perfect convergence of my craft and my interests," Kutcher said.
As soon as he heard about the part — even before he met with director Joshua Michael Stern — Kutcher started preparing to play Jobs.
"When I read the script, the idea of someone playing him who maybe didn't care made me just want to jump at the role," Kutcher said. "I knew it was going to take a while to figure out who this guy was, where he was coming from, what made him tick. I figured if I started studying who he was, the worst thing that could happen is that I would learn a lot about Steve Jobs."
By the time Stern walked into Kutcher's Los Angeles home for their first meeting, the actor had already begun to subtly master Jobs' speech patterns and hand gestures, even the slope of his back and the way he walked by bouncing on his toes.
"Without being showy," said Stern, who directed "Neverwas" and "Swing Vote," "he was becoming the man."
Stern hopes Kutcher's star power will help the independent "Jobs" stand out among summer blockbusters when it opens Aug. 16 — and in comparison to Aaron Sorkin's still-uncast big-budget adaptation for Sony of Walter Isaacson's biography "Steve Jobs."
Kutcher, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Jobs, says he was determined to understand Jobs' flashes of genius and his stubborn, uncompromising nature.
"I have a lot of friends and colleagues in the tech space and a lot who knew Steve," Kutcher said. "I wanted them to feel like what was being represented was true to them."