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Scarlett Fantastic

Harpers & Queen UK, February 2005
By Charlotte Sinclair

Hollywood's hottest starlet, Miss Johansson trills numbers from South Pacific between shopping sprees in Superdrug, kissing a chihuahua and discussing 'the post-mortem look'. Charlotte Sinclair is charmed by the former tap-dancing tot turned smouldering screen goddess.

On a bright November morning, Scarlett Johansson trips into an LA house perched high above the Hollywood smog, her chihuahua's lead tangling around her ankles. She talks at a gallop in a husky contralto. 'Do you like my dog? She's a teacup chihuahua puppy - Maggie. It's funny...' She pauses, a tiny frown puckering her brow. 'I never thought I would like little dogs. But a Korean woman offered her to my mom at a hair salon. When she called me to come get her I drove, like, crazy fast!' Scarlett kisses the dog's stomach with her indecently voluptuous lips. The native New Yorker, who gave exquisite and critically lauded performances in last year's Lost in Translation - for which she picked up a Bafta and two Golden Globe nominations - and Girl with a Pearl Earring, was the most significant breakthrough actress of 2004. No other young actress in recent years has so confidently, or justly, laid claim to their place in Hollywood, and with at least three major films released this year, Johansson's acting career ('Eleven years in the making,' she reminds me) will surely continue to gather pace.

Three days away from her 20th birthday, Johansson is a petite five foot three, with green eyes set into a luminously pale, heart-shaped face. There's a faint scar above her left eyebrow from an old piercing, and she wears a clear stud through the tragus cartilage in her ear. In a grey hoodie, layered vests, faded blue skateboarder shorts, a gold skull necklace and Converse trainers, Johansson looks the antithesis of the classic, grown-up glamourpuss we see on the red carpet.

Any preconceptions are also confounded by her effusive chatter: 'Wait, can I just tell you a story before we get started?' She pushes a pair of sunglasses through her white-blonde hair. 'I was shopping yesterday and I chose a bunch of stuff, including this great zip-up top made out of vintage Nike sweaters. I'm at the till and on the phone at the same time, and I look down at the receipt and the sweater costs... $1,400!' Johansson screams, although surely she can now afford such luxury. 'I practically dropped my cell phone while I was gawking at the bill. But obviously I'm too embarrassed to say anything, so I ask the guy why it's so special and he says [she mimics an effete voice], "It's this one guy. He only sells here and Tokyo. It's totally exclusive. Incredible, isn't it?'" Johansson shakes her head in disbelief. 'Christ,' she exclaims, 'I wanna find this guy and just say, "What the fuck?'" She laughs, stabbing her finger at the imaginary designer. So what did she do? 'I bought it, of course.' Johansson waits a couple of beats for comic effect. 'But I'm getting my assistant to take it back.'

Having an assistant is just one of the benefits of Johansson's nascent fame; however, it has not been without its drawbacks. Fiercely aware of the rumours that have attached themselves to her (that she is a demanding man-eater who only dates men 20 years her senior - likely the result of an alleged fumble with Benicio Del Toro in a lift), she refutes them with a subtle but pointed humour. While being photographed in the garden, she adopts an austere English accent and pronounces a litany of assumptions about herself. 'Scarlett Johansson is a diva. She only dates men over the age of 30. I hear she's dating Freddie Windsor.' It's another wisecrack, but one with bite, and I can't help but think it's a warning shot to me, the journalist. 'For some reason, people like to make things up about me. I've read so many ridiculous things: like, apparently, a businessman offered me ú185,000 to DJ at his daughter's party!' she says, astounded. 'I've never spun a record in my life; it was totally fabricated. But those things about Freddie, and made-up relationships with people I've never even met, can be really hurtful,' she sighs. 'I could go around and sue everybody, but it's a waste of time and you only feed the fire. I think I can slip under the radar a lot of the time. And if all else fails,' she adds, 'wear giant sunglasses.'

It's easy to see why Scarlett might be a target of tabloid interest. Until last year, the actress had been quietly carving out a career in films such as The Horse Whisperer, opposite Robert Redford (who said of her: 'She's 13 going on 30'); and Terry Zwigoff's cult film Ghost World, playing a disaffected teen opposite Thora Birch. Born on 22 November 1984 to a film-producer mother and Danish architect father, and named after the fiercely determined heroine of Gone with the Wind, as a child Johansson was as strong-willed as her namesake. Scarlett thanked her mother during her acceptance speech at the Baftas, for 'schlepping me to auditions', and buying her hotdogs afterwards. But she stresses that she didn't feel she'd bypassed her childhood. 'Oh my god, are you kidding? I was a total ham, if you can believe it: a huge ham. I was one of those three-year-old singing, dancing kids. I liked to tap-dance and vocalise.' She trills out a loud 'Laaaaa', with accompanying show-hands. 'Some kids play softball; I wanted to be on Broadway - playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.'

Scarlett has always striven to land offbeat roles. She even fired an agent who pressurised her into taking mainstream parts. After The Horse Whisperer, I got a whole slew of scripts about girls who were horseback-riding champions who then got some fatal disease - all these Cinderella stories,' she has said. Eschewing roles with conventional box-office appeal, she found favour with Hollywood's new guard, and parts such as Billy Bob Thornton's ill-fated seductress in the Coen Brothers' film noir, The Man Who Wasn't There (2001).

It took just one lunch meeting for Sofia Coppola to cast the then 17-year-old Johansson as the lead of last year's hit Lost an Translation. 'She makes you feel like she has been around the world. She had a coolness and a subtlety that you would not expect,' Coppola said. Scarlett plays Charlotte, an ethereal 22-year-old philosophy graduate stranded in Tokyo, whose brief encounter with Bill Murray's fading actor, Bob Harris, leads to an unconsummated love affair. It's a bittersweet film, and Scarlett's nuanced performance of unsated desire makes the age-gap relationship not only believable but also beautiful. As Sofia said: 'She can convey emotion without saying much at all.'

The same could be said of her performance in Peter Webber's adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, set in 17th-century Delft. Johansson came straight from the 27-day Lost in Translation shoot to play Griet, the maid who becomes a model for the painter Vermeer, played by Colin Firth. Despite being present in every scene, Griet barely utters a word throughout the film. Instead, Johansson's face becomes the medium of expression, and, with a few lingering stares, she conveys an extraordinary range of emotions. Webber said of her: 'I just found myself fascinated by her presence. I just saw that I could do a close-up on her and I could tell what she was thinking.'

In contrast to her muted characters, Scarlett is exuberant on our shoot, singing - with a total lack of irony - 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair' from South Pacific, or an improvised song about her dog ('who shits on my carpet') while dancing in the pair of four-inch wedges she's chosen to wear with a baby-doll dress. Scarlett takes the role of fashion stylist frequently during the day's shoot, examining the rail of clothes we've brought for her with a discriminating eye: 'If I wear the sunglasses, then the necklace is overkill, don't you think?' Her style veers from elegant (Alberta Ferretti satin gowns and red lipstick for premieres) to sexy urban chic (Proenza Schouler hot pants, or a beaded Roberto Cavalli mini-dress for the Brit Awards). 'I think New Yorkers are incredibly fashionable, and I like clothing and design of every kind. I've been fortunate to be involved with great fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton [whose last campaign Johansson starred in], and Calvin Klein [for whom she is the face of the perfume Eternity Moment], as well as having friends in the business, such as Tara [Subkoff], who often gives me pieces from Imitation of Christ to wear.'

Johansson is a born entertainer; every shot is an opportunity for a skit. Climbing into the boot of a white Rolls-Royce, she parodies fashion speak: 'Spring forward: the post-mortem look. Accessorise with a burlap sack.' Barefoot, and wearing a long white dress split to the waist, her hair teased into an electric shock of blonde ('I look like a cotton bud'), she sprawls wantonly on the grass. 'I'm that girl who gets drunk and left behind at the prom.' Slipping into character, she slurs: 'Hey, hey! I paid my 60 bucks. Now where's my fucking limo?'

Speaking about a set in Nevada she's just returned from, she deadpans: 'The place was deserted except for a casino and a brothel. Apparently, the prostitutes there give blowjobs for Doritos.'

'What? Ranch flavour?' asks the photographer.

'Cheese, gotta be,' she giggles. So far, Scarlett's roles have not displayed this comic streak, and it comes as a welcome surprise. In the sunshine, Johansson writhes up to a sculpture, borrowed from the artist's studio in the house, pretending it's a suitor. 'Buy me,' she coos. Scarlett has a potent sexual confidence. She is slim, not skinny, with enviable curves. 'Aren't pomegranates supposed to be aphrodisiacs?' she asks, languidly. 'You should know, sweetie,' replies the make-up artist.

Even the walls of the house are littered with sketches of buxom nudes, providing an ideal backdrop for Scarlett's seductive poses. It was no coincidence that Coppola chose a lingering shot of Johansson's bottom to open Lost in Translation. As she lies on the lawn for the photographer, the wind blows her skirt up at the back. 'My ass is making its debut,' jokes Scarlett. 'Oh no,' she recalls nonchalantly, 'it's done that already.'

After burning so much energy during the shoot, Scarlett is tired but attentive as she sits opposite me in a corner of the studio, wrapped in a grey wool rug, her legs spread across the sofa, her dog on her lap. The hood of her sweater is pulled up over her hair, and she looks young and fragile. The wisecracks are replaced with sincerity as she talks about her new film, In Good Company, which also stars Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace. Quaid plays Johansson's father ('He's gorgeous - for an older man'), demoted at his firm in favour of twentysomething Grace, who then falls in love with Johansson. It's a comedy with a message that Scarlett feels strongly about. 'It's about how youth is pushed into these huge corporate positions that they're not prepared for,' she says, 'and how the experienced people who have been there for years are being pushed out.' Johansson shakes her head. 'My scenes with Topher felt very real. It's hard to capture a realistic relationship with someone on film. Most sexual relationships in films are really stereotypical and fake. It's very rare that you see a film in which you recognise something that you've been through,' she says.

So how does she create this authenticity on screen? 'By nature, people want things from each other. I try to think about what my character would want from the other person. The audience has to find something they like about the character. For me, being outlandishly aggressive is obnoxious; even if you are aggressive with your sexuality, you have to have a strategy of some sort. I don't know necessarily that I look for characters that are just a little bit sexy or have that underplay. It mightjust leak out,' she says, grinning. 'I did a love scene this summer. A lot of people get nervous. I try to be relaxed, because, after all, it's your work. There are those first few takes where you're like, "This is awkward," and it's hot and you're almost naked, but if someone catches sight of your bare breasts, you think, "Let them have it and enjoy it for the day,"' she laughs.

After perhaps being typecast as the romantic muse for men of a certain age (given her roles opposite Bill Murray, Colin Firth and Billy Bob Thornton), it must be refreshing to have a love interest of her own age in Topher Grace. 'It's not something I really think about; it just happened that way,' she says. 'I've been very fortunate to work with older actors who are incredibly talented. It's a compliment. Hopefully, people see my sexuality as not something that can be put into a box, not just being like a young girl. Maybe it's larger than that.' Her boyfriend, the actor and Vogue Homme cover star Jared Leto (whom she's reportedly been secretly dating since April), is 13 years older than her, but she won't be drawn on the subject. However, the latest group of eminent men enchanted by Miss Johansson includes John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Woody Allen. She starred in Allen's secret London project, filmed over the summer, and became a favourite on the party scene (where she met Freddie Windsor). 'I loved London,' she enthuses. 'I went to Notting Hill and ate at the Electric Brasserie. I visited the museums and hung out in Soho and the Curzon cinema. I don't think I ever left Harvey Nicks, ever. And I am really impressed by that store Superdrug.' Seeing me baulk, she squeals, 'My god, I would spend, like, $200 in that place! Every time I went in there I was picking up products.' I ask her how she found working with Woody Allen. 'It was a dream come true. I'm not supposed to say that. He was an ogre, according to him. He can say such wonderfully horrible and rude things - it's such a joy. Maybe it's the masochist in me, but we have a very similar sense of humour.'

She also managed to persuade John Travolta to star in A Love Song for Bobby Long, also out this spring, a film that Scarlett and her mother had been pushing to get made. 'It was a project that I was really passionate about for a few years, and I finally got it moving. My mom produced it.' She adores Travolta ('Ahhh,' she sighs, 'there's not a mean bone in that man's body'), and regards her character, Pursy Will, a down-at-heel, salt-of-the-earth type who rescues Travolta's alcoholic, as one of her favourites. How was it to play trailer trash, I ask? 'Oh, you know,' she deadpans, 'it was a dream come true.' Tom Cruise, meanwhile, was so impressed with Johansson that he cast her in Mission Impossible III. Is she afraid that the blockbuster will ruin her indie-girl credibility? 'I'm doing a huge science-fiction film right now with Ewan McGregor, and Jurassic Park is one of my most favourite movies. I'm not a film snob. I don't think any creative person wants to be labelled the Indie Girl or the Action Star.' Even the stunts for Mission Impossible III didn't faze her. 'Tom is like a stuntman himself, so he was tender with me. I figure, if it's my time to fall off a building and die, then it's my time,' she says, laughing.

Not content with mere movie stardom, Scarlett also wants to direct. A huge epic film or a realistic romantic comedy,' she says, petting the dog in her lap. 'I need the time and the right project. Directing a film takes two to three years to finish.' And she has a surprising lead in mind: Tom Wilkinson, her British co-star in Girl with a Pearl Earring. 'He's a real movie star,' she says, earnestly. Scarlett is also developing Marjorie Morningstar, a remake of the 1958 film starring Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood, that stays closer to the original book about a young woman who falls in love with an older man. It sounds like a familiar theme. 'The actual age difference is not really that huge: 10 years,' she says. 'It's a beautiful film - I mean, it will be, the way I see it in my head.'

Despite the sophistication and New York savvy, Scarlett still acts her age. I cite the gleeful press coverage that ensues every time she does something remotely teenage. 'Oh, I know,' she groans. Scarlett adopts a nasal, news-reporter voice. 'They say, "There's still a glimpse of youth. She fidgets like a teenager." But I still roll around on the carpet. I still wear cartoon Band-Aids - look!' She thrusts her hand towards me. 'I don't walk around saying, "I'm mature for my age." I'm not faking anything.'

Johansson now divides her time between New York and a new apartment in Los Angeles. Being constantly in the limelight must make it hard to unwind, but she is pragmatic. 'I read a lot: Salinger; David Sedaris; Steinbeck; Truman Capote. I listen to music: Björk; Belle and Sebastian; Radiohead; Depeche Mode. My iPod's, like, solid,' she says. 'Everything in there I take full account for, even the South Pacific soundtrack.' Johansson even recently appeared trussed up in lingerie and fishnets to MC for the LA burlesque act Pussycat Dolls. 'It was great. I had this whole character going, and this voice [she affects a lazy Southern ringmaster drawl], "Gentlemen, hold onto your hats! Ladies, hold onto your gentlemen!"'

She reflects on her luck as the room darkens in the twilight. 'I'm able to make money doing what I love, and I don't have to make any exceptions. I'll never stop making movies. Hopefully I'll be able to end up as beautiful as Vanessa Redgrave, and as incredible at that age as she is.' It's an unusual ambition for a Hollywood starlet. But then, Scarlett is anything but usual. As she leaves, zipping Maggie into her sweater, looking like any other Californian teen, she begins to sing in a low voice: 'Nobody Does It Better'. It couldn't be more apt.


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