It Girl has stars in eyes

Toronto Star , September 7, 2003
By Peter Howell

Scarlett Johansson has been getting rave reviews, but meeting celebrities like Neil Young can still leave her breathless

Scarlett Johansson could lay claim to being the It Girl at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, since she possesses glamour and star potential to spare. But she doesn't yet have this festival-storming thing down pat.

The 18-year-old Johansson co-stars with Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola's offbeat romantic comedy Lost In Translation, an early favourite for the audience award. She has the title role in Peter Webber's gala drama Girl With A Pearl Earring, which tonight makes its world premiere at Roy Thomson Hall. She's also been making waves at the Venice Film Festival, which ended yesterday with Johansson winning the best actress award in the new-faces category.

Johansson is the one people are supposed to gawk at and get star-struck and tongued-tied about. It's not supposed to be the other way around. But she's been doing some celebrity stalking of her own.

"I met Neil Young last night!" she boasts, volunteering the information yesterday at the start of an interview.

"That just triggered it for me. It was at the after-party for Lost In Translation and he was in the corner of the restaurant at the bar. I was so nervous, I didn't even want to go in. You do this for so long, and you become sort of glazed over about people. But occasionally, once in a while, you meet those people who make you so nervous. It's like, `Omigod! It's Neil Young! Wow!'"

The mind reels at the thought of philosopher rocker Young, laid-back and denim-clad, being cornered in a bar by this blonde firecracker, who for this interview is dressed to kill in a sexy white camisole set off by glam shoes that are pointy enough to take out the eyeballs of hovering paparazzi.

But Johansson undoubtedly charmed Young, as she has the many directors and actors who have happily worked with her, since she first began making films at the tender age of 8. (She made her debut as one of a gaggle of kids in North, Rob Reiner's 1994 children's fantasy.)

Since that time, Johansson has steadily acquired screen time and rave notices. Among other things, she was the young equestrian, Grace, who fought back from serious injury in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. She was the Lolita-like Birdy in the Coen Bros.' The Man Who Wasn't There, the girl who bewitched Billy Bob Thornton's character. She also played Thora Birch's geeky friend Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World.

She's hardly made a wrong step in a career that amazingly has already stretched a decade, and which shows no sign of slowing down. Johansson chooses her roles carefully - she's avoided predictable teen comedies - but she throws herself into any character she takes on.

Her acting range demonstrated in Lost In Translation and The Girl With A Pearl Earring could hardly be broader. In Lost In Translation, she plays a lonely young bride, left alone in a Tokyo hotel room by her photographer husband. She becomes fascinated by a middle-aged TV star, played by Murray, who is also lonely and at the same hotel.

In The Girl With A Pearl Earring, set in the Netherlands of the 17th century, Johansson plays a timid maid named Griet, who becomes both the employee and the muse of the famed painter Johannes Vermeer. She's an extrovert in one movie and an introvert in the other, and she had no problem at all sliding between them. "They're so different, but I don't know if I have a different kind of acting for them," she says.

"I'm an actor who is playing with whatever limitation I have, whatever I've been given. I'm just taking it as it comes. I wouldn't say I had to change my `style.' It's not like being a musician who plays in different ways ... It's about playing characters who are believable, even if they're unusual characters."

Johansson clutches a child's Hello Kitty pillow as she talks, a souvenir she picked up on her trip to Tokyo to make Lost In Translation. But it shouldn't be confused with a security blanket. Her "omigod!" encounter with Neil Young notwithstanding, she is completely comfortable working with stars and directors who have been making movies a lot longer than she's been around.

"It's fun when you work with somebody who has a great background behind them, and you respect their work. It's an honour and it enables you to just have a good time. Instead of being intimidated, you go with it and you create beautiful music and have a good time. That's why I feel so important to be able to just sit down on a couch with Billy (either Murray or Thornton), and say, `Hmmm, let's make another movie together. What can we do? What can we have fun with?'

"I've just worked with John Travolta (for the coming A Love Song For Bobby Long) and the two of us are so excited to be in a film together. We just work well together. We gel. We bring good stuff out of each other. We make each other feel like it's a big shindig."

Whew.

That's a lot of experiences for a woman not yet in her 20s, who also harbours ambitions to some day direct her own movie, and to be the mother of three children - she really thinks ahead.

But one thing she hasn't thought about before, until the subject is brought up, is how her characters so often seem to be on the verge of falling into a sexual relationship, yet never quite achieve consummation.

"I never really thought about it like that," Johansson says, reflecting for a moment. "I don't read scripts and say, `Oh, she doesn't have sex in this, so it's okay by me.' I'm a very open person, and I'm very comfortable with my own sexuality, so it's not that I need the repression in projects I do. I guess it's by the will of whomever. It just kind of works out that way.

"I'm always looking to do projects that are new and interesting ideas and things that I would pay to go and see. I wonder, ultimately, if this is going to be a film that's going to be fun for me to do. That's the bottom line."

It all seems so very fresh to her, despite being a decade in the business. Besides retaining a fan's ability to be star-struck, she has resisted becoming jaded about the grind of doing a succession of interviews at movie festivals, first in Venice and now in Toronto.

She jumps up from a chat with the Star and proclaims she's ready for more. "Okay, who's next?" she says. "Bring 'em on!"

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