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Budding Scarlett

The Big Issue, January 19-25 2004
By Phil Hoad

Scarlett Johansson's star is in the ascendancy, and currently shining brightly in Girl With A Pearl Earring. But Phil Hoad finds someone just as excited by the upcoming US elections as the Oscars.

Come this time of the year in Los Angeles talk turns to trophies. "I think everybody in Hollywood is a little nervous [about the Oscars] now," says Scarlett Johansson. "The ballots have gone out and everybody's crossing their fingers. I'm excited to go - I've never been before. I feel very privileged, corky as that sounds - it's a Hollywood tradition. Though I hear the ceremony's a bit dull."

If it's worth anyone's while weathering all the Billy Crystal banter, it's worth Johansson's. Depending on how the nominations go, the 19-year-old actress could be in the running for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for her brace of A1 performances in Girl With A Pearl Earring and Last In Translation. Whatever happens, she's ready to rock the red carpet and then the Vanity Fair party. The dress ("It's top-secret!") has already been chosen: Right now, it's the calm before the storm. It's just after midday in LA and Johansson's just out of bed (I have insider info that she's "not a morning person"). Two days ago, she finished A Good Woman with Helen Hunt, based on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, and is on down time. It's been a transformative few months: a quietly thrumming reputation - earned from scarily accomplished roles in Ghost World and the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There - went into full roaring nitro-fuelled career overdrive thanks to a complementary pair of performances.

Lost In Translation, where she stars with Bill Murray, you probably already know about; Girl With A Pearl Earring, based on the Tracy Chevalier novel, is a fictionalised account of the genesis of the eponymous painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. It's a much chillier, more a restrained film, directed by first-timer Peter Webber, but it shares themes with the Sofia Coppola film - estrangement being chief among them. Johansson only had 10 days between finishing Translation in Japan and arriving in Luxembourg for Girl..., and says she carried emotional freight between the two.

"I don't know necessarily that I had a choice about it - I felt a bit crazy coming off Lost In Translation and I just stayed like that. There's something about being in Tokyo that makes you feel very foreign and alienated."

All of which was very "helpful" in inhabiting her role: that of Griet, a young Protestant girl who, forced to work in Vermeer's Catholic, brat-strewn household, forms a chance psychosexual bond with the painter, her pale, luminous visage eventually inspiring his famous work. She says she did no research for the role, had no "particular interest in the lives of 17th-century maids" and wasn't that inspired when she saw the painting in the flesh in The Hague.

But it doesn't matter: her performance is discreet and totally attuned. Johansson insists that she doesn't seek out "great truths" when she selects her films, she just tries to make sure her performances are truthful. This seems to be her great, intuitive skill, the one that's teleported her, integrity intact, to the top of the feeding pack of young Hollywood actresses.

She conveys depth naturally, the right emotions - always breaking over her features. There's a great moment in Girl..., when, having narrowly escaped rape by Uermeer's patron; she finds herself under the equally exacting gaze of the artist as she poses. Pursuing aesthetic satisfaction, he bids her: "Lick your lips!" Worse actresses would have swirled tongues around coyly, but Johansson awkwardly draws her bottom lip underneath one and pulls it back out: unexpected, reticent, perfect.

Understatement's one of her best tools and, while she's a friendly conversationalist, she also seems to reserve something for herself. Her sense of humour is droll and ambiguous. When I confess to revelling in Hollywood A-listers being outed by the cameras as four-letter-word-chewing sore losers on Oscar night, she responds wryly, "That's always a joy, isn't it?", and suddenly I'm not sure I haven't become the punchline of the joke.

She grew up "around the city" in New York, with three siblings, including her twin brother Hunter (she's the eldest by three minutes). She was a driven sort of child; apparently, as a three-year-old asked by her mother why she was upset, she replied: "I have a fire in my brain!" She says she was always a "ham" looking to perform, and aged seven threw a tantrum in the offices of the talent agency who had just picked up older brother Adrian and turned her down. Aged eight, she was auditioning for commercials and she first hit the Hollywood radar as a teenager, opposite Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer. (He fitted her out with her "13-going-on-30" media calling quote.) Her mother Melanie used to accompany her on film sets when she was a minor ("It's amazing what a comfort having a mom around is!"), but Johansson's her own mistress now. She says she enjoyed teasing Colin Firth on the set of Girl With A Pearl Earring; reminding her that, despite the 24-year age gap, her film career was as long as his. She's quick to answer when I ask her if she ever feels naive about anything in Hollywood: "Not in the industry; no. l feel like I can't be naive about anything in the industry."

Johansson will have to wait until February 29 for the industry's verdict on her and the potential golden statuettes. Maybe there'll be space for them in her newly outfitted LA flat, which she's busy working on at the moment with her architect father. "I've got to look at fixtures today. Tomorrow, it's lighting. Then, wallcovers. And someone's bringing wood samples over. I like to shop, so it's a dream come true!" You can imagine her luxuriating over the possibilities, like Holly Golightly planning a party. It's going to be modern and minimalist in the living areas. The bedroom will have a "steamship-bordello feel".

Other plans include producing and starring in an adaptation of Marjorie Morningstar, a book (previously filmed in 1958 with Natalie Wood) her mother gave her about an aspiring actress. After A Good Woman, she's due to work on corporate comedy Synergy and she has two other films out in 2004: A Love Song For Bobby Long, with John Travolta, and teen crime flick Perfect Score.

Admittedly, she is going to find it hard to sustain the impact she's made in recent months, on film at least - press her and you'll find her attentions may get directed elsewhere. She talks passionately about American politics and wanting to get people to vote. "I think a lot of people turn their backs to a lot of what's going on and are more interested in, y'know, who Britney Spears is making out with than the fact that people are dying in Iraq."

Johansson's contemplating sallying forth from her own steamship bordello to get stuck in, come the campaigning for the presidentials. She says she'll be backing Howard Dean to become the Democrat presidential candidate. "I would probably attach myself to a cause, if there was one I strongly, strongly believed in. I'd want to do it in the right way, put time and effort into it. We'll see when it gets to the elections, how involved I'll wanna be."

Girl With A Pearl Earring is out now.

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