Australian InStyle, March 2005
By Damien Woolnough
Being named after one of film's most enduring heroines may have destined Scarlett Johansson for stardom. She sure makes us give a damn about her characters and is unlikely to be gone with the wind
Veterans of the red carpet have been known to lose their cool in the maelstrom of Hollywood's hectic awards season. The supernova explosion of parties and hordes of paparazzi test the stamina of action stars and pilates-toned actresses but in the eye of this year's glittering storm sits Scarlett Johansson, projecting an enviable aura of calm.
"It's really not that hard to pull off," Johansson says conspiratorially in the throaty whisper that has become increasingly familiar following roles in films such as Girl with a Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation. "In the breaks you try to have fun and catch up with friends," she continues. "Then when the cameras are on you, just pray that you're not chewing with your mouth open. Believe me you can tell when the cameras are on you." With that the whisper dissolves into a giggle revealing that this serious talent is not taking everything too seriously.
"It can be a strange experience but I do think you have to show respect for the people who have invited or nominated you [for an award]," she says, quick to gather her signature air of composure. "If you've got to go to [industry events] you might as well create a look." At the Golden Globe awards, two days before our interview, Johansson's look was one of oldfashioned Hollywood glamour-Rita Hayworth meets Marilyn Monroe. With blonde hair coaxed into bewitching curls, full lips painted a brilliant red and her hourglass 1.63-metre frame wrapped in a Roland Mouret gown, Johansson not only lived up to all expectations, she was ravishing.
Today the expensive trappings of glamour have been removed, leaving a 20-year-old with a preference for jeans and T-shirts. "At heart I am a casual kind of girl," Johansson admits. "Often there's a point on awards nights or before premieres where your hair is done, the make-up is finished, they're zipping you into your dress and you think, 'Why can't I wear my sweat suit?' But there's nothing wrong with a bit of glamour." And, she adds, you can be glamorous without wearing something restrictive - "without wearing a corset!"
It's Johansson's ability to hint at something intriguing beneath a glamorous surface that made her a natural choice to represent the Calvin Klein fragrance Eternity Moment, and has the likes of Tom Cruise keen to work with her (Johansson co-stars in Mission Impossible 3; filming is scheduled to begin mid-year).
Cinema audiences probably first recognised her elusive allure in Robert Redford's 1998 film The Horse Whisperer. Then 13 years old, Johansson captured the pain and anger of a girl left maimed after a riding accident. Despite the film credits' claim to be "introducing" Scarlett Johansson, this ingenue of Danish descent had been acting since making her professional debut off-Broadway in Sophistry with Ethan Hawke, at the age of eight. Her film career actually began two years later with the made-for-children fantasy North. Acting, she says, is "really all I know how to do. It's all I've ever wanted to do. When I was just three years old I was one of those singing and dancing kids. I was desperate to be like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz or singing on that trolley in Meet Me in St. Louis."
While Johansson looks set to follow Garland's yellow-brick road to fame, the closeness of her family and an innate maturity provide some protection from the excesses of stardom that tormented her childhood hero.
She talks fondly of her divorced parents, Karsten, a building contractor, and Melanie, who acts as her manager, and she recently shared the red carpet with her twin brother, Hunter, at yet another awards night. Johansson also has two older siblings: a brother, Adrian, and sister, Vanessa, who shares her pleasure in making jewellery. "It's not really a hobby," Johansson says. "I don't really have time for hobbies. I can be slightly obsessive, so making jewellery is probably my therapy." The Johansson children were raised in New York but since the success of the Sofia Coppola-directed Lost in Translation, in which Johansson innocently charmed the world-weary smirk off Bill Murray's face and drew new combinations of admiring adjectives from critics around the globe, Los Angeles has become her second home. "It's actually a nice place to be," she concedes, staring out from her apartment at a brilliant Californian sunset. "That is, if you can't be in New York. At least you can head to the beach for the weekend and lots of my friends live here. At its heart it's an industry town and people can be savage, but it's where the work is."
Work is the overriding motivation right now for this disciplined performer who has three films - In Good Company, A Good Woman and A Love Song for Bobby Long - screening in Australia this year. "It was fun," Johansson says of filming the comedy In Good Company, in which she plays the remarkably ordinary Alex Foreman. Alex is the rapidly maturing daughter of Dennis Quaid's middle-aged character Dan, a businessman who has problems dealing with a much younger boss played by Topher Grace (That '70s Show).
"It's very difficult to find movies where young women are portrayed honestly," the actress says. "This was a thoughtful and funny script. It promised to be a really good experience and, despite having to do so many takes, it was. It's rare for all of the elements to come together with ease in a movie such an incredible feeling."
Capturing the normality of Alex was a challenge for Johansson, but on careful reflection she says her most difficult and rewarding performances have been in Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2003 opposite Colin Firth, and A Love Song for Bobby Long, which was co-produced by her mother.
"These are both films where I was playing someone quite different from me and where I had to give everything I had to the part. In Girl with a Pearl Earring I wore a period costume and spoke with an accent. I remember not talking during the day so that I could concentrate on the character. We were working 14-hour days but it was an amazing journey that really ripped something new out of me."
A Love Song for Bobby Long offered different challenges, with the movie languishing in pre-production for four years because of problems with financing, but the pay-off was the eventual casting of Johansson's dream co-star, John Travolta.
"He is such a star," she says of the man who came to fame before she was born. "He has something about him that is just incredibly attractive. It's a quality that goes beyond what you can see. Very few actors are like that now."
When asked whether she considers herself a fully-fledged star, Johansson replies: "I am not really good at evaluating my own performances." Anyway, you get the sense that for this youthful movie veteran stardom isn't the goal.
"Acting is something I've always been passionate about," she says, "but I guess it became a career for me when I graduated from high school and I could be proactive about looking for parts and scripts that interested me."
Occasionally, she says, the toll of shooting back-to-back movies surfaces in the form of doubts that can't be deflected by therapeutic jewellery-making sessions.
"Sometimes I think I should take time off to have a second career where I could do something completely different," she says wistfully. "Something that's physically demanding. Perhaps I just need to spend a few hours a day learning karate or becoming a female wrestler."
Wrestling's likely loss will be the cinema-goer's gain. Although she's aware that her long experience with the industry can sometimes manifest in apparently jaded remarks, it is when talking about her craft that Johansson conveys true exhilaration. It's then that her voice, usually deep and reminiscent of Lauren Bacall's breathy banter, rises with girlish excitement as she talks about current projects.
"At the moment I'm filming The Island [with Ewan McGregor] which is a big production," she says. The futuristic action drama has Johansson playing Jordan Delta Two, a clone trying to escape her destiny as spare parts for the human race. "Every day I walk to work onto these enormous sets being operated by a crew of 300 people. Everyone is breaking their backs to get things done while the lights are burning. You're a part of something quite big.
"When I walk onto that set I sometimes have to remind myself that I have a one-in-a-billion opportunity to experience this. I know I'm pretty lucky. It may be all I know how to do, but it really is all I've ever wanted."