Scarlett fever hits L.A.

Toronto Star, January 9, 2004
By Peter Howell

Johansson, 19, likened to young Lauren Bacall
Writers, directors now planning films around rising star

Frankly, Scarlett Johansson does give a damn.

The newly blond young star of Lost In Translation and Girl With A Pearl Earring is particular about the parsley on her chicken sandwiches, which her media wrangler is getting for her to munch on between interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"Can you ask them not to put parsley on any of the sandwiches?" Johansson asks, smiling sweetly as she clutches her favourite Hello Kitty pillow to her breast.

"Okay, groovy!" she says, when told her parsley request will be honoured.

Her sincere use of "groovy" and her obvious delight at being able to call up hotel room service for sandwiches suggest that Johansson hasn't yet become jaded or bored with the celebrity grind.

Not that you would expect her to be that way, having just turned 19 - even if she did grow up in a bi-coastal and big-city whirl between her New York father and her Los Angeles mother.

But if ever a girl could be described as being old beyond her years, it would be Scarlett Johansson. The rapidly ascending actress with the sultry Lauren Bacall voice is already the veteran of 17 movies, including three opening this year (Girl With A Pearl Earring arrives next week, followed by The Perfect Score on Jan. 30). She has impressed many a top director and famous actor with her poise and lack of guile, and she's nobody's fool. She's as particular about her film roles as she is about her parsley.

She made her film debut at age 8 in North, Rob Reiner's 1984 children's fantasy, working as one of a gaggle of kids opposite Elijah Wood, who would later soar to fame as fearless Frodo in The Lord Of The Rings. At age 11, she was juvenile kidnapper Manny in Lisa Krueger's cult hit Manny & Lo, putting restraints on Mary Kay Place. At 13, she played injured equestrian Grace in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. At 15, she was geeky goth Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World. At 16, she was Lolita-esque Birdy in the Coen Bros.' The Man Who Wasn't There, bewitching and befuddling Billy Bob Thornton.

And now she's in two of the most talked-about films of recent times: Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, bound for Oscar glory for its off-kilter romance between Johansson's character Charlotte and Bill Murray's Bob; and Peter Webber's Girl With A Pearl Earring, the artful interpretation of a Vermeer masterpiece, in which Johansson's character Griet is wooed by Dutch painter Vermeer, played by Colin Firth.

"They're so different, so unbelievably different," Johansson says of the two films.

"They were both really hard work. Lost in Translation we shot in 27 days, six days a week, 13 hours a day. It was crazy. And the same for Girl With A Pearl Earring. I was working crazy hours ... I was in every scene in the film. Both experiences were overwhelming but fulfilling."

Charlotte is outgoing and adventurous while Griet is completely repressed. It's quite a stretch between the two. but that's perfectly fine with Johansson.

"I don't think I've ever done a real genre film, other than offbeat sorts of films. Lost In Translation, I think, is very classic. People categorize it as `alternative,' but it's actually like a classic love story.

"And you take Girl With A Pearl Earring, which is sort of a huge epic kind of production, but the story is small and the character is small. It's not like this Joan of Arc sort of character. She's very real, I think ... and I want to play characters that are believable, even if they take an unusual approach."

An approach like the May-December age gap (34 years in real life) between Johansson and Murray in Lost In Translation, and a similar span between her and Firth in Girl With A Pearl Earring. In neither case does it seem all that weird that the older man would be attracted to such a bright young woman, or vice-versa.

"I think in Lost In Translation Sofia always saw the two of us as being a Bacall and Bogart. She wanted my ch aracter to be very classy, and Bill's character to be suave and gentlemanly and charming, which he is. He's very dapper."

Does she like the comparisons to Bacall? She smiles at the idea, but only a little bit. "I try to be original. I've got my own thing."

But her "own thing" obviously appeals to older men. Her third film due out this year is A Love Song For Bobby Long, which plays her opposite John Travolta, with another 30-year age difference. It's a pairing she sought, since she loves the story and has long wanted to work with Travolta.

So far, though, her roles haven't really been about sexual entanglements. The romance is mostly chaste and mostly in the head. She insists there's nothing deliberate about that.

"I never really thought about it like that. 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. I'm very comfortable with my own sexuality, so it's not that I need the repression in projects I do ... it just kind of worked 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, you know?"

She's been fortunate - and very smart - to have dodged the teen-flick tar sands that have claimed so many budding stars and starlets. It's hard to climb upward from an American Pie or a Road Trip."I avoided them. I let other people take those things. I have a friend who is in American Pie and he's very funny, but I couldn't see a part in that movie that I would want to play. I actually didn't mind that movie, but there wasn't any part that I thought would be really juicy."

The Perfect Score is about teenagers, but it's not your average teen movie. It's about a plot by college students to scam their way to success by forging their SAT scores. "The good thing about The Perfect Score is that it's an ensemble cast, but my part (Francesca) is a real character. I got to really design her look as a bomber chick kind of girl. In American Pie, as far as I remember, they're all kind of plain. They're not really for me."

She has already reached the stage where writers and directors are planning their films around her. Sofia Coppola says she thought of pairing Johansson with Murray after seeing an earlier film with Johansson.

"I really liked her in that movie Manny & Lo, when she was a little girl," Coppola said in a separate interview. "I really like the quality in her voice."

Johansson appreciates all the attention, which includes critical kudos from Boston and Los Angeles this year for her work in Lost In Translation and much talk of a possible Oscar nomination. It means she'll continue to get good roles and eventually, she hopes, get to direct her own movies. The girl doesn't want for ambition.

"It's nice," she says. "That just means it enables me to do more projects that I love and get more great movies financed and made. I can't wait to direct my own movies. Just give me a little bit of time."