The face of the moment

Telegraph Co UK, December 5, 2003
By SF Said

With two major movies out in January, 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson is set to establish herself as one of the great screen actresses. She talks to SF Said

It's the middle of the London Film Festival and Scarlett Johansson has been doing interviews for three days solid. Her face is all over the newsstands, on the covers of every magazine. She's still only 18, but this is very definitely her moment.

She's here to talk about not one but two films, both of which are being released in January. Girl With a Pearl Earring, based on Tracy Chevalier's novel, is a traditional, handsomely mounted costume drama starring Colin Firth as the Dutch painter Vermeer and Johansson as the maid who becomes his muse. Lost in Translation, by contrast, is the latest slice of cutting-edge cinema from Sofia Coppola – an exquisite, postmodern Brief Encounter, pairing Johansson with Bill Murray as strangers in the Tokyo night.

She commands the screen effortlessly in both films, as compelling a presence in 17th-century Delft as in 21st-century Japan. She is their still, silent centre, for though she has little dialogue to work with, you always know what her character is feeling. It's this restrained, understated emotional power that makes her perhaps the most promising star of her generation.

"Less is more, that's my mantra," she says in her gravelly New York voice. "I'd rather not be over the top. Some actors like to do a lot of screaming! Then they whisper… and then they scream again! And it's like, all right, you're getting the point across, but it's really tacky. I guess I don't want to be a big dork," she sighs.

No one could accuse her of that. She is the face of the moment not just because she's beautiful, and cool, and capable of reducing grown men to embarrassing raptures. It's because she seems to understand cinema in a way that only the really great ones do – Julianne Moore, say, or Isabelle Huppert.

These are actors whose craft is such that they must be considered equal partners in the filmmaking process, as creatively important as writers or directors. Asked once why he thought Julianne Moore was special, Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes revealed that most actors are only interested in their own parts.

The good ones also grasp what other actors are doing. But Moore wants to know about the camera movements, the colour schemes, the very frames within which she works, the better to serve the film as a whole. Johansson seems to be the same.

"On Girl With a Pearl Earring," she recalls, "I was there every day, in every scene. I got there before the crew and I left after them at night. I knew every detail of what was happening in that film. I guess because I want to be a director, I'm always asking things like, 'What are you doing with that light?' "

She started acting young, making her theatre debut at eight in an off-Broadway play with Ethan Hawke. Her big film breakthrough came with The Horse Whisperer when she was just 13. Robert Redford described her then as "13 going on 30", but she remains unjaded enough to get excited about her co-stars: Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There, and now Colin Firth and Bill Murray in her latest movies.

"One of my favourite scenes in Lost in Translation," she says, "is where Bill Murray is standing in an elevator, looking in the mirror, and he looks awful – and he does this face that's like, 'Woah! How did this happen?' It's just a look he gives, a very small instant, that for me is unforgettable.''

It's this attention to telling gestures that lies at the heart of Johansson's own performances. It all happens in her face: flickers in the eyes, the lips, little intakes of breath. It's hard to think of another actor her age who seems so comfortable with silence and space, who is able to make it more eloquent than words.

"I'd much rather not fumble with cheesy bad dialogue," she says. "What could fill the void of silence in Girl With a Pearl Earring? 'Vermeer, your hair is so long!' You know? I just don't know what you would say.''

She plays it down with deadpan humour, but it's a brave actor who doesn't want dialogue – particularly if their most distinctive feature is their voice. And Johansson's husky tones have earned comparisons to Lauren Bacall. She seems almost dismissive of such claims, though.

"It's just the way it is," she shrugs. "I mean, what do you do? It's your voice. Somebody said today, what does it make you feel like when people say you have this sexy voice? Well, it's nice that people think a part of you is sexy or interesting or different – that's flattering – but I really didn't do anything. My parents' DNA just made it!"

One thing she will take credit for is knowing how to pick a role. She is rapidly becoming a star whose choices are worth backing, whose presence suggests something worth watching. What does she look for in a part?

"Obviously you're trying to better your career, so there are lots of factors," she says. "The director, the actors, the script… But you're going to be sacrificing so much time to make a movie – time you could otherwise spend watching Rikki Lake and eating doughnuts – so the most important thing is, is it going to be a nice, fun experience? I know that sounds kind of simple, but it's true.''

And what of her own desire to direct? What kind of films can we expect from her, and when?

"I appreciate all different kinds of movies," she says, "whether it's Being John Malkovich or Oklahoma!. I was thinking of making a combination of the two, actually… No, I think I will write stuff. I've got a lot of different stories floating around in my head; I just need time, some months with nothing going on. But it'll be soon.''

'Girl With a Pearl Earring' opens on Jan 16, 2004; `Lost in Translation' opens on Jan 9.