Lost and found

Democrat and Chronicle, September 25, 2003
By Jack Garner

Johansson exudes a star quality that belies her age

TORONTO -- One Toronto newspapers called Scarlett Johansson the "It Girl'' of the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. Another labeled her "a muse for every man.'' And Newsweek's David Ansen writes that the 18-year-old actress is well on her way to being indelible.

It's all true. After seeing two distinctly different Johansson performances in the span of 24 hours, I knew I was witnessing the birth of a star. She has obvious intelligence and talent and a distinctive beauty that's loved by the camera. And her dialogue is uttered with soft conviction by a surprisingly deep and husky voice that just adds to her originality and her seductiveness.

This must be how an earlier generation felt when Lauren Bacall arrived on the scene. And, like her, this 18-year-old will still matter when she's 28, 48 and 68.

While other 18-year-old up-and-comers blend together in the week's teen comedy or horror flick, Johansson is making her name as a disappointed young wife on the road in Tokyo in Sofia Coppola's sublime Lost in Translation. And she's following it with the portrait of a 17th century housemaid who inspires a famous painting in The Girl With the Pearl Earring, a lovely film about the painter Vermeer, due in December. Both performances are marked with subtlety, restraint and maturity.

Johansson says she's never felt the need to chase after typical teen fare, looking for jobs. After all, until just recently, she was in high school, living at home, and didn't need to take jobs to support herself.

She could wait for the right stuff - like a tale of May-September friendship in Tokyo and a drama about a famous Vermeer painting.

Now Johansson is stretched out on a sofa in a Toronto hotel room. She wears a light, white cotton dress, countered with high brown boots. Her hair is platinum blonde - unlike anything she's yet worn on screen.

"I did it a few days ago after my last job,'' she says. "I just felt like a change.''

She apologizes for yawning and for sprawling on the sofa - three days of festival events and interviews can have that effect. But she's appreciative of the attention her two films are bringing her.

"When you love making films, you get the bug,'' she says. "It's a crazy lifestyle, but it's the most funest, most exciting thing going.'' Her use of the word "funest'' is about the only during the interview she actually sounds like an adolescent. Otherwise, you'd swear you wear talking with the 30-year-old movie veteran.

And, in truth, the Manhattan-born Johansson has been acting for 10 of her 18 years. She started at eight, as one of the youngsters in Rob Reiner's North. And she had five other movies under her belt before she made waves as the traumatized young rider in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer.

Since then she's appeared in the cult favorite Ghost World alongside Thora Birch and as the piano-playing girl who bewitches Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There.

But her performance opposite Bill Murray in Lost in Translation will surely elevate Johansson to the A-level. Murray has never been better and is likely to get an Oscar nomination and Johansson makes a perfect partner in nearly every scene.

"We didn't get a chance to rehearse. We met in Tokyo and the next day we started acting. But since we were playing characters who just happened to meet each other in Tokyo, it works,'' she says.

Did the veteran comedian throw any unexpected improvisations her way?

"He did surprise me, he threw some stuff at me. I didn't improvise back with dialogue, but I did with my reactions to him. It's hard when somebody doesn't tell me what he's going to do. I can see my surprise in my face a little bit in the final print.''

And unlike most actors, who give lip service to the joys of improvisation, Johansson isn't convinced.

"The trouble with improvisation is that sometimes more of you is likely to come out than the character you're playing, which isn't always great.''

Johansson decided she wanted to act about the age most girls are deciding what dress to put on Barbie. She persuaded her parents to let her attend young people's classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute.

"I always wanted to perform. Nobody in my family was involved in theater. But I liked to perform the way some kids like to play musical instruments. I was happy when I was being a big ol' ham.''

By the time she was eight, she was in an Off-Broadway play and cast in the film North. "And I loved every minute.''

But don't tell her she missed a "normal'' childhood. She's not having any of that.

"That 'growing up fast' thing depends on the parents you have. If you have parents that look out for you, that should never happen. My parents have always been liberal and lenient, but responsible. I was able to explore all kinds of things like theater and ballet. I never felt limited. But I was never irresponsible. I'm like a big old lady.''