Scarlett Fever

The Sunday Times - Culture, January 4, 2004
By Fiona Morrow

She's everywhere - and she's hot. With two films out in two weeks, Miss Johansson is contagious, and she and her attitude are coming to a screen near you.

Scarlett Johansson is, as they say, the bomb. She's got it all: looks, brains, a killer voice, attitude and a career in the ascendancy. She may have turned 19 only recently, but, oh, my, Miss Scarlett has it all going on. I spot her in the lobby of the Dorchester, salivating over a watch heavily bedecked with jewels. "I love that," she enthuses. "It's so tacky, it's fantastic." A moment later, she is sashaying over to the lifts, clicking her fingers, belting out show tunes: "A kiss on the hand may be quite continental ..."

With two big films opening this month, she has plenty to sing about. First up is Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, with the movie version of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring opening a week later. Either film would be considered a great calling card for an up-and-coming young actress. Starring in both has catapulted Johansson directly into the limelight. Not that she has exactly been hiding her light under a bushel: Johansson has been making movies since she was a child. The Horse Whisperer, The Man Who Wasn't There, Ghost World - it's not a bad CV for a teenager. But with her latest additions, Johansson makes the big leap from child actress to adult star. And she makes it look so darned easy.

Flopping onto a chintz sofa in one of the hotel's suites, Johansson is top-to-toe street cred: jeans tucked into Ugg boots, powder-pink batwing sweater and diamanté-encrusted pink shades. Her face is simply ginger-peachy: alabaster skin, green eyes and a mouth to die for. It's perfectly pink and pouty, pure sex. It's no wonder that both her agent and her mother screamed in horror when she mentioned that she might get a lip piercing: people have been hanged for. Then there's the voice: a low-pitched, cranky beast with a permanent frog. As a child, Johansson was constantly being asked by casting directors if she had a sore throat. All grown up, she has filled out behind it beautifully: think Lauren Bacall, only more so. But can she act? And how.

In Lost in Translation, she plays Charlotte, a girl recently married and left adrift in a Tokyo hotel room by her busy photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Disorientated by the cultural difference, she is also out of step with her louder, shallower American contemporaries, eventually finding solace in friendship with Bob Harris, a jaded middle-aged actor (played to perfection by Bill Murray). She's even quieter as Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, silenced by her low social standing as maid to the Vermeer family. The artist (Colin Firth), however, recognises that Griet's waters run deep, and the pair's mutual attraction is stoked with furtive glances and intense, repressed sexual tension. "Yeah, but if she was given the chance, I don't think Griet would be so quiet," says Johansson.

She is in every scene of Girl with a Pearl Earring, save one. The film has hardly any dialogue, and its power rests on Johansson's ability to say everything through her expression. Luckily, she is more than just a pretty face. "I'm a modern girl," she says, somewhat superfluously. "I was born and raised in New York City, I've been working for 10 years and - I know it's cheesy to say you bring life to something, it's so obvious a thing to say - there are certain aspects of my modern lifestyle that contribute to the character. I think I give her the willpower to survive, to succeed." She raises her eyebrows in mock challenge and adds: "I'm no flimsy maid."

She sure ain't. Griet holds such an allure for Vermeer that he risks everything by making her his muse. "The film really gets across the intensity of her relationship with Vermeer," explains Johansson. "And it does it with just the most comfortable amount of being completely decent." The eyebrows arch once more before she laughs. "Everybody's been saying: 'Where's the scene where Vermeer watches Griet wash her breasts?' I'm like: 'C'mon, is this soft porn?' But obviously, when you're making a film, everybody wants to accentuate the sexuality of it - the blatant sexuality."

Although Lost in Translation's Charlotte is a 21st-century girl, in some ways she is far more buttoned up than Griet. "Yes," Johansson says, "I think Charlotte is a quiet person. She's thoughtful and introverted. She needs Bob to help her through her depression. No, it's not even a depression: she's just in a kind of funk. She needs that shove from Bob because she can't do it on her own, whereas with Griet, you feel she could battle the whole world."

Johansson shot the two films almost back to back. "Each film you do, you're completely in it, then you're completely out of it. Lost in Translation was supercontemporary, it had a totally different vibration. But 10 days after it wrapped, I was in 17th-century Holland." Lost in Translation also had a crazy schedule - 24 days - and in Murray, a star nobody was sure would definitely turn up. "I never knew that Bill was maybe not coming," says Johansson, with a frown. "I assume that if you say you're going to make a movie, you should show up. It just seems rational. So I never knew it was, as the producer later told me, an "Eagle has landed" kind of situation. It would have been very disconcerting."

When he did show up, Murray was, she says, a complete pro- fessional. "Bill is a very serious comedian, he's not Mr Fun and Games. He comes on set and he knows what he expects of himself. It seems he's worked everything out in his head. He just sort of throws it out there. So either you dodge it or you take it in. We were working so crazily that we never had time to become great friends, but luckily we had really good on-screen chemistry - which is just the luck of the draw. It made my job easier. I could just fall desperately in love with Bob Harris, then hope that it was believable."

If life in Vermeer's house is about as far removed from Johansson's real life as is possible, Lost in Translation has plenty to say about the world of which she is a part. There's the obnoxious celebrity photographer, the dim starlet and the older actor, who is in Japan to make whisky commercials. "There's another side to it, of course, that I see - you know, being an actor and a creative person who can appreciate the process of film-making," says Johansson. "But," she adds, "those are all genuine portrayals of a certain side of Hollywood.

"I thought the starlet was funny," she says, grinning. "She's so self-important, giving advice to everybody about their diet and whatever. She wasn't hateful, she was just annoying. I've had experience of that - people trying to be genuinely wacky and crazy, and it's bizarre.

"But people making a fortune selling shampoo internationally - do I disagree with that?" she asks. "Of course not. If nobody's going to see the commercial and you can afford new furniture, what the hell? More power to you." She doesn't see it as selling out, then? "It's not selling out," she snaps. "It's selling shampoo. It's easy money - there's nothing to feel guilty about."

Johansson is about to step into Hollywood's A-list category, which means bigger budgets and bigger cheques. I ask her if she is concerned that her career might set off down a path that she is less interested in, and she looks at me as if I've lost my mind. "I plan on keeping my career the way I want it to be. Does that mean always doing small-budget independent movies? No. Would I do a movie like Jurassic Park? In a heartbeat. I f***ing love Jurassic Park. To me, that is not selling out. Selling out is when you do something that has no redeeming value, something you are doing solely for the money." She pauses before adding: "I read this article on Jennifer Lopez, about how she was being overexposed. Well, you don't get yourself into situations like that unless you want to, or unless you're so vulnerable that people take complete advantage of you."

Until she turned 19 in November, Johansson always had her mother with her, looking out for her and looking after her. Now she's out there on her own. "That's okay," she says, quieter now. "It's nice to get older, I think, to be more independent." It is easy to forget how young Johansson is: working professionally since she was nine has given her more self-confidence and poise than you find in many 30-year-olds. "It's funny, " she says, smiling, "some people have a hard time remembering what they were like when they were 12. I just pop in a video and I know completely."

She is glad to be rid of the on-set schooling, though her higher-education plans are just as unconventional. "I'm not going to Columbia or Harvard," she says, as if the idea bores her rigid. Instead, she is planning to attend a small film school in New York, determined to fit semesters around her schedule. "I'm not going in order to get a degree," she explains. "I'm going to learn about lighting, editing and how to use the camera. I've also signed up for film history." She has big plans: "I want to direct. And I want to learn the technical aspects, because I want to do it the proper way, instead of just going: 'I'd like to direct a movie - I'll get my grandfather to finance it.'" For the moment, however, she has a long list of directors she would like to work with: "Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Christopher Guest. If Scorsese came knocking on my door with a crappy script, I don't know if I'd turn him down, exactly."

As we are winding up, I ask Johansso n about the opening shot of Coppola's film: a close-up of a bottom encased in a pair of pink, slightly see-through knickers, it elicited a huge cheer when the film premiered at the Venice film festival.

"The pink underwear?" she says, laughing. "Yep, that was me." She lies back on the sofa, stretches out with a yawn and grins:

"Oh, yes, I take full credit for my ass."

Lost in Translation opens on Friday, Girl with a Pearl Earring on January 16

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