Johansson Plays Hungarian Immigrant in 'American Rhapsody'

Ian Spelling

"You know the way some little kids want to become firefighters and actually grow up to be firefighters because it's been their dream for their whole life?" Scarlett Johansson asks. "That's me, but with acting."

"Sometimes you don't know why you have a passion for something. It's just there. I was performing as a toddler when I was 3 or 4. I remember going to a talent agency with my siblings and they only wanted my brother. I was devastated. I wanted it so bad. I still really don't know why. I guess you could say it's my calling."

Johansson, a 16-year-old New Yorker with a voice like whiskey and talent to spare, started acting professionally before she turned 8. Her credits include "North" (1994), "Home Alone 3" (1997), the pivotal role of Grace MacLean in "The Horse Whisperer" (1998) and the current art house hit, "Ghost World", Terry ("Crumb") Zwigoff's dark comedy about disaffected teens.

She is currently appearing in the independent feature "An American Rhapsody," which follows the journey of Suzanne from Eastern Europe to Los Angeles in the early 1960s. After years spent in Communist Hungary with a loving family, teen-age Suzanne arrives in America, where she meets her biological parents (Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn), soaks in rock music and raging male hormones and attempts to come to grips with her past.

"My mom grew up in the '60s'", Johansson says by telephone from her mother's Los Angeles home. "I've heard about the '60s my whole life and studied the period in school. I studied the Cold War, too, so I was aware of the storyline's political background. But I really didn't take the time period into consideration too much. I played the character. You put on your clothes, get your flip and your eyeliner, look in the mirror and you're a different person."

Eva Gardos, the film's writer-director, based the drama on her own childhood experiences. Johansson reports that having Gardos around helped her tremendously.

"She was able to say, 'This is how it felt to be in this circumstance. I remember this clearly. I remember this conversation, this argument with my mother'", Johansson says. "But Eva also came to the conclusion that as much as it's her story, the film isn't an autobiography. "

"Elements of the story were fabricated a bit, like the relationship with the boyfriend", Johansson says. "And other things were made pretty because it is a movie."

"An American Rhapsody" opened to mostly positive reviews and is now in limited release, rolling slowly across the country.

"I just hope people can relate to it in some way, to this young woman growing up, to this relationship between a mother and a daughter", Johansson says.

"I love when I see a movie and it's like you're not even in the theater, but you're right there with the characters, in their world, and going through the experience with them. That's what I hope to take away when I watch a movie, and I hope that's what people experience when they see a film - any film - I'm in."

Like "Ghost World", "An American Rhapsody" is a tiny independent feature. "Ghost World" opened the same weekend as "Jurassic Park III," yet found an audience and is exhibiting a surprising degree of staying power in a marketplace where films open huge and then fade fast.

Johansson stepped into both "Ghost World" and "An American Rhapsody" fully aware of their limited potential. And she's rooting for "An American Rhapsody" to repeat the success of "Ghost World."

"When you take a project, there's a whole process that comes with it", she says. "You try to think of the project and not of the long run, not of what it might do at the box office. First, it's 'Is this a good script?'"

"I thought the 'American Rhapsody' script was decent, which is saying more (for it) than the other 500 scripts I just threw away. Then there was a first-time director attached. That's also kind of iffy. For an actor, it can be very frustrating to work with a first-time director."

"But other elements come into play. I heard Eva's ambitions for the project. Nastassja and Tony signed on, and they're two really talented actors. I met with the producers and Colleen (Camp) and I instantly connected. And it all came together."

Johansson will turn up next in the Coen brothers' film "The Man Who Wasn't There", costarring with Billy Bob Thornton and James Gandolfini. Then she'll play the female lead in the sci-fi semi-spoof "Arac Attack." Come mid-September, however, Johansson won't be on a movie set, but rather at a private school in Manhattan, starting her senior year of high school.

"I'm 16", says Johansson, who will turn 17 in November. "What do I want to do in my entire life? That's the question I'll probably be asking myself for a long time to come."

"I want my career to be filled with projects that I have fun doing and feel emotionally attached to and passionate about. As far as exploding into stardom or whatever, the one good thing about being more recognizable is the power you get in the industry. You can do those projects you're really passionate about, and you don't have to take things just to work."