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Girl with a Career on Fire

Elle US, June 2004
By John Colapinto

The very private, very self-possessed Scarlett Johansson riding a Hollywood high like that of few teenagers before her, talks with John Colapinto about the wages of fame and tabloid attention, being mad about fashion, and life in L.A.

Scarlett Johansson is learning about the nasty side of fame - right before my eyes. It happens during lunch in Hollywood, when she makes a cell phone call to her mother-manager to ask the name of a movie that has slipped her mind. Johansson's mom, Melanie, says in a panicky voice so loud that my tape recorder picks it up, "Did you see what's in the Star?"

"No," Johansson says calmly. "What's in the Star?"

"A whole article about how mean Sofia and Bill were to you!"

That would be Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray, the director and costar of Lost in Translation, the movie that last year vaulted the 19-year-old Johansson to A-list, redhot, lt Girl star status. And tabloid fodder.

"Oh, that's terrible," Johansson says. "Are you serious?"

"Yeah," her mother says breathlessly. "And how they froze you out -"

"Oh, how awful," Johansson says, then listens as Melanie reads out quotes from an anonymous "production insider" who said that Murray and Coppola were "ganging up" on Johansson on the set and cruelly excluding her from social get-togethers after the cameras stopped rolling.

"Oh my God!" Johansson cries, finally losing her cool. "Are you serious?"

"Yeah," her mother says.

Then Johansson pretends to slough off the item as typical tabloid fantasy. "Oh, that's very funny," she says to her mother. "Hysterical."

But if Johansson can be blasé about the story, I'm finding it hard to be. Like millions of others, I watched Murray fail to mention Johansson when he won a Golden Globe award. Then Coppola repeated the slight at the Academy Awards. You've got to wonder why they would so pointedly ignore the superb performance of an actress whose contribution was as integral to the ineffable magic of that movie as either of theirs. I assume Johansson must be stung by the omissions. But she doesn't let it show.

She sits in the low-key Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard looking the perfect picture of the stylishly hip young artist-actress, dressed bohemian-luxe in an oversize men's sweater, jeans, and a pair of cream and black Chanel ballet flats. On her right wrist is a diamond-studded bracelet that matches the ring on her right hand. A dedicated fashion follower, Johansson says, "I like clothing. I can shop like none other. You'd be surprised." She's listed Marc Jacobs, Chanel, and Gucci among the labels that make her "drool." Today her ever-changing hair is short, dyed strawberry blond, and pulled back in a scarf to reveal a dazzling makeup-free face dominated by a pair of ludicrously lush lips. The purity of her skin puts me in mind of the other extraordinary role she played last year, as Griet, Vermeer's muse in Girl With a Pearl Earring, a performance that solidified her status as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood, an artist of thrilling depth, range, and subtlety.

"I'm a very private person," she warns in her oboe-deep voice, pulling her feet up onto the edge of the banquette so that her knees form a bulwark between us - international body language for "Keep your distance." Still, she handles with aplomb my questions about the gossip that threatens to obscure her accomplishments. Asked about the Star story, Johansson says laconically, "People will always speculate about the 'actual behind the scenes.' If you let what everybody says affect you, you'd be a total basket case." She admits that Coppola spoke to her sparingly on set but says that they had a "silent communication." Of Murray, she says that she's always been a huge fan. "I think we both felt kind of awkward," she adds, since they plunged into filming just moments after meeting for the first time. It's an awkwardness that worked beautifully in a movie about two lost souls tentatively merging far from home - which makes you wonder whether the supposed "freezing out" of Johansson on set was in fact a strategy on the part of a director who needed her leading lady to seem alienated and alone. I'd love to check this theory with Coppola, but she was "unavailable" for comment.

So was a roster of Johansson's costars, who declined to be interviewed about her - a collective silence that, given other whisperings along the Hollywood-Manhattan grapevine about temper tantrums and other high-handed behavior, has some suggesting that fame is going to Johansson's head. ("Starlet" Johansson is one unkind nickname circulating.)

Johansson admits that the recent frenzy of attention has been an "adjustment." She broke up with a long-term boyfriend and six months ago relocated to Los Angeles, where she's no stranger to the club scene. But she denies going off the rails and laughs away suggestions that she's become (as she puts it) "some kind of heroin-chic party animal." Regarding a widely published gossip item saying that in the wee hours of the morning before this year's Oscars, she was spotted with 37-year-old Benicio Del Toro in the Chateau Marmont hotel, behaving in a way that suggested they were more than friends, she simply chuckles. "Of course I know Benicio, and he's a fabulous guy," she says. "Apparently there was somebody with us in an elevator, and we were making out or having sex or something - which I think is very unsanitary:" Which isn't, of course, a denial. But the notion of Johansson hooking up with a man almost twice her age somehow is not as shocking as it might be were she any other teenager. On-screen and off, her dry wit, poise, and sophistication verging on jadedness make her seem a natural object of fascination for middle-aged guys (Murray in Translation, Colin Firth in Pearl Earring, and John Travolta in the upcoming A Love Song for Bobby Long).

Certainly there's little of the teen in her artistic tastes. Ask her about music (perhaps her greatest passion outside acting), and she rattles off a list of favorites that you'd expect to hear from a crotchery male music critic. "Oh, you know, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day, Rosemary Clooney, Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Duke Ellington." Favorite actors? Gary Sinise, Christopher Walken, Tom Cruise. (Of Cruise she says, "It's because he's so damn gorgeous that people don't want to believe he's a great actor.") And actresses? It's also mostly a serious crew: Helena Bonham Carter, Juliette Lewis, Meryl Streep. All things considered, I'd say the question should be: Is Benicio ready for her?

But Johansson's sometimes forbiddingly tough and knowing exterior masks a very soft core, her coolness and detachment a necessary defense for a young woman whose nerves lie close to the surface. You see this when she talks about the movie she's about to start, the dramatic comedy Synergy, in which she plays die daughter of Dennis Quaid, a fiftysomething editor who loses his job to a young hotshot (Topher Grace). "There's something about this relationship between Dennis and my character," Johansson says. "There's this tenderness that he doesn't acknowledge about himself but that everybody else sees. And I was on the verge of tears the whole time in rehearsal." Suddenly her face flushes and her eyes well up. Later, when talking about her breakout role in The Horse Whisperer, her eyes again grow moist. "Good actors almost have fewer layers of skin than the rest of us," says Pearl Earring director Peter Webber, "so the emotion leaks out." He points to the moment in his movie when Firth's Vermeer pierces Griet's earlobe with a needle, a symbolic deflowering made especially moving by the single tear that slips down her face. Webber had no idea it was coming. "It was the third take - she just hit the zone and that tear rolled down," he marvels. "There was no fakery or makeup er anything. It took my breath away."

"Whatever you see on my face in a movie is the way I feel," Johansson says, explaining such moments. She adds in a quieter voice, 'I'm not lying to you" - as if falsity in acting were tantamount to a sin.

She may be a natural, but nurture helped. One of four kids (she and her twin brother, Hunter, are the youngest), Johansson was raised in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Her parents split up five years ago. Her dad, Karsten, is an architect and a contractor. Her mother, Melanie, was a housewife but is also a serious movie buff. Johansson and her siblings grew up steeped in Melanie's favorites, such as Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis. "Those musicals got me enthusiastic about performing," Johansson says. She was seven years old when her mother (on a friend's urging) had her and her siblings read for a talent agent. The one to pass the audition was Johansson's 15-year-old brother - who had no interest in acting. Johansson, the only one who would become an actor, was devastated by the rejection.

"I was hysterical," she says. "My mom was like, 'I didn't know you really wanted to pursue this.'" Johansson soon landed an agent, then auditioned "for everything," she says. "Cattle calls. Pounding the pavement at seven and a half." She took weekend acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. At eight she landed her first movie role (in North, with a young Elijah Wood) and followed it with Just Cause, playing Sean Connery's daughter. She was just 10 when she costarred in the quirky indie Manny & Lo, giving an almost eerily accomplished performance as a child runaway. She was 12 when she appeared in The Horse Whisperer, holding her own alongside director and costar Robert Redford. "That was the first time I realized I could manipulate my own emotions," she says of the role, which required her to cry, in tight close-up, much of the time. Offbeat parts in 2001's Ghost World and the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There established Johansson as a cool, cult actress poised to break big. Then came Lost in Translation, with Murray as a washed-up Hollywood star falling in love with Johansson's unhappily married young American woman. Her performance - fresh, warm, free of every acting cliché - hinged to no small degree on an unself-conscious sexiness that is equally a function of the intelligence behind her slightly dreamy-looking eyes as it is of her petite but sumptuously curvy body. Johansson is not overjoyed that sexual allure seems to be a central criterion for success as a Hollywood actress, but she's realistic about it, as she is about most things in her career.

"I think a man has a lot more room there," she says. "Bill Murray is not an incredibly sexy guy in the way that Jude Law might be seen as a sexy guy, but it doesn't really matter. But if I was heinous looking in [Lost in Translation], do I think that people would want to see us together? No. Probably not. Age has a lot to do with it. Men age like wine, and women seem to wilt - in the eyes of an audience."

Which might partly explain why Johansson has been working at such a furious rate. Scrapping plans for college (after graduating in 2003 from New York's Professional Children's School), she has only stepped up the pace of a career that saw her shoot four movies back-to-back last year. She now has commitments for four more films without pause, including Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia and a movie that she herself pitched with a screenwriter friend, Napoleon and Betsy, which again explores the bond between a young woman, played by Johansson, and an older man (Napoleon Bonaparte). She has not had a vacation in more than a year, and there is none on the horizon, especially since she has just signed on to be the face of a new Calvin Klein fragrance, due this fall. Yet she spurns all advice to slow down - even when it comes from someone she describes as an older, "very successful" actor whom she admires. "You feel like saying, 'Look, you keep to your career, and I'll figure out mine,"' she says, then adds with a withering sarcasm reminiscent of that of her Ghost World character, "'but thanks for caring."' Clearly no one is going to tell Scarlett Johansson how to manage her life. That may worry some potential mentors. But not Synergy director Paul Weitz. "I think she's uniquely suited to come through what she's going through," he says. "Fame is corrosive to people who are suspect of their own talent, and she's not." Indeed, Johansson sounds nothing but confident about her future. "Look," she says, 'I'm excited about all kinds of things - Synergy, Black Dahlia. I want to write a movie that I direct. I have projects that I'm developing, and only good, positive things. I just can't complain."


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