Girl with the Golden Touch

Moviemaker, Winter 2004
By Doug Atchinson

Double Golden Globe nominee Scarlett Johansson is in the moment.

The first time I saw Scarlett Johansson was in Manny & Lo, the 1996 Sundance hit in which she played a prepubescent kidnapper. What struck me initially was the voice. That low, froggy hush of a voice. And then there was the utter lack of pretense of her performance. She seemed incapable of forcing an emotion. Was this simply the unassuming nature of a child actor? Or did this kid really have something?

A few years later, when Natalie Portman opted out of The Horse Whisperer, Johansson proved herself a more than capable pinch hitter, holding her own alongside Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas. But it wasn't until 2000's Ghost World that I really saw the fulfillment of the promise she'd shown in Manny & Lo. As Thora Birch's pragmatic best friend, Johansson shuffled through the morose adolescent milieu of Ghost World with a hilarious comic detachment and deft self-assurance. She was comfortable. She was funny. And, again, she showed that uncanny ability to never overplay a choice.

At 16, she'd escaped the tenuous rank of child actor. Her unique beauty was blossoming, with lips that were not so much pouty as pensive and eyes that were more accepting than inviting. But was she destined to inhabit that particular realm of indie cinema once ruled by Parker Posey? Or did Hollywood have a place for her admits its teen comedies and gross-out spectacles?

Well, if current successes are any indication, Hollywood is definitely ready for Scarlett Johansson. Having just received Golden Globe nominations for leading performances in both Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring-and with lead roles in no fewer than five feature films on the horizon-the 19-year-old has graduated from prodigy to bona fide star.

In Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's frothy paean to jetlag, Johansson plays an ignored young newlywed who finds a partner in commiseration in hotel-bound actor Bill Murray. They forge an unlikely alliance that gives way to a yearning based not in carnal attraction but mutual respect.

And as Johannes Vermeer's maid and muse in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johansson accomplishes the enormously difficult task of projecting desire and an artistic temperament in a world where class restrictions are suffocating that merely removing one's cap is treated as a revolutionary act. With hardly any dialogue, Scarlett's Griet navigates the treacherous waters between Vermeer's jealous wife and venal mother-in-law to inspire one of the painting's most revered works.

It is this performance I was most eager to discuss with the young Ms. Johansson. And I got my opportunity when MM asked me to sit down with her while she was briefly back from Italy, where she'd been shooting A Good Woman, with Helen Hunt.

I waited for her at a corner table in the ritzy dining room at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. She was supposed to do a series of interviews later in the day to promote Girl with a Pearl Earring and I was assigned her "breakfast spot." I worried a little when our designated meeting time passed, and her publicist kept popping in to tell me Scarlett was stuck in traffic. Having just relocated to Los Angeles from New York, she was apparently unfamiliar with L.A.'s diabolical road congestions.

But my concerns were quelled when I saw a tied-back bubble of bright blond hair (lightened for her role in A Good Woman) bobbing quickly through the crowd of international travelers. Piping apologies, she slid into the booth across from me and ordered a bagel with real cream cheese. ("Non-fat cream cheese is just awful.")

Sporting a patina of jet-lag haze reminiscent of her role in Lost in Translation, those same pensive lips, those same accepting eyes, and an easy sense of humor gave her a simple, unaffected charm. After extolling the virtues of Starbucks carrot muffins and giggling at my confusion her disdain for "plane" food (airplane food, not "plain" food), she took off her jacket, looked comfortable in a simple white T-shirt and settled back for our conversation.

Doug Atchison (MM): Well, first of all, congratulations on the Golden Globe nominations. I was really thrilled to see your name come up twice.

Scarlett Johansson (SJ): Thank you so much. It's really unbelievable. I'm having a hard time realizing exactly what this means. I didn't plan on going out that night. Now I have to figure out what to wear.

MM: Are you going to the ceremony with your mom [who is also her manager]?

SJ: Well, the cool thing about this double nomination is I get three extra tickets rather than one ticket. So I'm going to go with my mom, who of course was the first person I asked, and my agent and my lawyer. The four of us are quite a team and, believe it or not, it will make for an incredibly entertaining table.

MM: You've also been recognized by some of the critics organizations. Are these kinds of things important to you?

SJ: I think it's important to feel like your work is recognized. What's amazing to me is that I'm very young, and with both of these films competing with each other in some sense, it's quite an honor to be recognized for both. But I try not to put to much emphasis on thinking about those kinds of things, because I think you're always bound to be really disappointed. The expectation of something like that just feels very wrong.

MM: Were Lost in Translation or Girl with a Pearl Earring out when you left for Italy?

SJ: Lost in Translation came out like the day I left. It's funny to come back here. Because people keep saying things to me like, "What it's like to be an It Girl?" I don't know. I just don't feel very It Girlish. But things have changed, like when I got into meetings with studios…. And try to shop projects that I want to develop.

MM: Are you actively trying to produce?

SJ: I have, yeah. Producing is something we-I mean my mom and I…

MM: She manages and produces with you?

SJ: My mom is a force of nature. She's incredible. Not only is she a beautiful person and wonderful to be around-not a stage mom and not psychotic in that way-she's also an incredible businesswoman. We've been a team since the very beginning, when she bought me hot dogs after my first audition.

MM: Does she read all the scripts offered to you? Does she go out and look for projects?

SJ: She does all of those things. My mom read scripts. There were so many crappy scripts, it's unbelievable. We're doing a remake of Marjorie Morningstar at Focus.

MM: Oh, the Natalie Wood movie. How did that come about?

SJ: Well my mom gave me the book as birthday present because she loves it. And I read it and thought, 'Oh my god, this is me,' and I called her and told her 'I'm Marjorie Morningstar,' and she said, "I know you are." I said, 'Why don't we make a movie out of this?' So my mom sussed it out, found out who had the rights and we worked our asses off and shopped the project around to the studios a couple of months ago. Now it's being developed at Universal/Focus. I hope to be in pre-production by the end of the spring.

MM: So you've been doing this since you were a little kid. I want to ask you about the decisions you made early on, because it just doesn't happen by accident that people get to where you are. You and your mother-perhaps your mother-must have very specific ideas about where she wanted you to be at this point.

SJ: Actually, believe it or not, my mom has always been very separated from that. Because I was never financially supporting my family, I never had pressure to do anything other than stuff I just felt was kind of cool. I don't watch teen movies, so I never really wanted to do that.

MM: Did you always, since you were an embryo, want to act?

SJ: Mm-hm. As far back as I can remember. Nobody in my family acts. I just was a big ham. I was one of those kids that sings and dances and wants to do Broadway shows. I grew up in New York and I wanted to be Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis. I think it started because my mom showed all of us so many movies that she loved as a child. And I was just completely involved in the audience experience and got totally swept up.

MM: What did your parents do for a living?

SJ: My dad's an architect, and my mom was raising us. I have three siblings. Me and my twin brother are the youngest. She just wanted all to do what we were happy doing. For me, it was acting and filming and singing.

MM: When did you really start doing it?

SJ: I was seven. One of my mom's friends, her kid had done a commercial and had a really good time. So she said, "Maybe your kids would want to try it." She gave us the name of her talent agency. We all went, all of my siblings, to this agency and we read. The only person they wanted was my older brother. But he wasn't very interested. Nobody was that interested, including my mom.

But I was totally devastated. I saw my whole future crumble before me. I remember I was crying outside the place, and my mom was like, "If you really want to pursue this, it's a serious commitment. Maybe you should do something else, like tap dance lessons." But I really wanted to do it and she took me on every audition known to man.

MM: TV and commercials?

SJ: Everything. I didn't book any commercials, though. My voice was too deep. I was this cute little girl with blond pigtails, and then I'd open my mouth and say [in a very deep baritone] 'Jello's fantastic.' And they were like, "Do you have a sore throat?" No. I just didn't fit into that category. But whenever I went out for film, I always had these casting directors-who I still know now-tell me I had such a great voice; hat it was so unusual.

MM: That's one thing I remember about you from Manny & Lo. Was that your first film?

SJ: The first film I ever did was a Rob Reiner film called North. And then I did a film called Just Cause; I was Sean Connery's daughter.

MM: But Manny & Lo, was really the one where people went "Whoa, who's this?" How old were you when you did that?

SJ: Ten.

MM: I'm actually going to be directing something with an 11-year-old girl in it pretty soon. Do you have any insight for directors working with young people?

SJ: I did The Horse Whisperer when I was 12. The most wonderful about working with Bob [Redford]-and the reason I have such huge respect for him and will always say he was one of the most influential directors I've ever worked with-was because he spoke to me like a regular person, not like a child. He didn't lie to me. He allowed me to discover every emotional place I needed to be. People forget what it was like to be a child. Sort of like Robin Williams in Hook, forgetting what it was like to be Peter Pan. They regress into this obnoxious, patronizing thing that they do, and it doesn't work. I would have killed myself if he'd spoken to me that way. There's not reason to dumb things down for audiences or when you're working with kids.

MM: In Girl with a Pearl Earring what struck me about your performance, which is fabulous by the way-you're probably going to get an Oscar nomination for it…

SJ: That would be pretty unbelievable.

MM: The thing about that performance is it's 90 percent reactive. You're a character who's reacting to things that are going on around you. The difficulty for a performer oftentimes is to be self-conscious character without being a self-conscious actor. I'm wondering what kind of challenge that was for you and how you approached that.

SJ: I wasn't very self-conscious. I never know what my face is doing. I think when you're doing certain things, especially when you're doing a comedy, you think more about the physicality of what you're doing than in this kind of dramatic story.

MM: There's a scene in the movie where you see Vermeer and his wife holding each other. And you have a very emotional reaction. Can you remember what was going on in your head at that moment?

SJ: Yeah, it was terribly heartbreaking. And it kept getting worse and worse every take we were doing. I felt very betrayed. I just felt that way, looking at Vermeer and Catherina. I don't know--unrequited love is just one of the most intense and very human feelings a person can have. That and grieving. It's a pure, raw emotion. And I was such a mess after that scene. It's so funny you pick that on, because that was the only times when were shooting afterwards, everybody went to lunch and I was totally a mess.

MM: Did the director, Peter Webber, realize you were affected like that?

SJ: No. But I think Colin [Firth, who plays Vermeer] could see it. He was like, "Go back to your trailer and take a nap." I went back to my trailer and cried for a while, took a nap and I felt much better after that.

MM: When you get a script, do you actively analyze it and make decisions, or are you feeling it instinctively on the set?

SJ: It depends. Most of the time it's quite instinctive. My main source of inspiration is the script. And there are things that happen beforehand that shape who your character is. But if it's not apparent in the script, then I guess the thought never crosses my mind.

MM: Let me ask you, then, in Lost in Translation I get a sense that was a pretty sparse script and there was a lot that was developed in the making of that film. Was there much improvement?

SJ: Well, the moments where I'm alone were all improvised. But most of our dialogue was scripted.

MM: Did Sofia Coppola provide any insight into the character?

SJ: We never really spoke about the character. I'm a very private person. I remember this director once saying, "What were you thinking about in that last take?" I find that very intrusive. I'm always like, 'I'm not going to tell you what I'm thinking about; that's for me.'

MM: But what if a director sets up a trusting relationship with you?

SJ: It has nothing to do with trusting or not trusting them. I just think it's kind of private. It's just a process I go through in my own head in a particular moment, and it makes me uncomfortable to discuss it.

MM: Do you find it intrusive if the director elaborates on a character's intentions?

SJ: No, I think it's fantastic. There's nothing more exciting. I crave directors who are willing to collaborate with me on a character. That's what it's all about. Sofia was very communicative in that she knew what direction she wanted the character to go. She was able to recognize subtleties in my performance that I didn't even realize were happening and she was able to embellish on those. And that kind of thing is incredibly helpful.

MM: What's working with Bill Murray like?

SJ: I've always been a huge fan of his. Groundhog Day is one of my favorites of all time. I was so nervous because I think he's so fantastic. And when I got there, it was like, 'Whoa. It looks like Bill Murray. Talks like Bill Murray. It is Bill Murray!' And he brings so much to the table; he's been doing it for so long and knows himself so well that he was able to just do his thing and I could react to that.

It's so awful to say, because it's a real "actory" thing to say, but there was a real "action-reaction" between us. I was very much in love with that Bob Harris character and it was reciprocated, so it was sort of a joyous thing. Whereas the love that I had for the Vermeer character was really hard for me to deal with was quite painful.

MM: In Girl with a Pearl Earring, you made moments like taking your cap off and having two fingers touch very heavy with emotion.

SJ: But people are jaded. They're used to seeing women trouncing around naked and not thinking much of it. This is something so erotic, with these incredible subtleties. I'm really proud of the way Peter handled that, because I think he could have gone in quite a different direction. He was adamant that there would be no contact. Vermeer won't catch Griet watching her breasts in a basin. They're not hungrily going after each other when he pierces her ear. I think that was a point made in the book that Peter was very touched by.

MM: Let me ask you about some other directors you've worked with, because you've an opportunity to work with some incredible people. What were the Coen brothers like on The Man Who Wasn't There?

SJ: It was incredible just to watch them. It was the most organized production I'd ever been on. Everybody had been working with them for like 15 years. It was really just the ideal way to make a movie. I would love to work with them again sometimes.

MM: And Terry Zwigoff in Ghost World?

SJ: He's so hysterically self-deprecating in his own way. He was like, "This is the most boring production I've ever been on. Why don't people start having affairs?" He's so funny. He always knew the kind of tone he wanted that film to have.

MM: By the way, I had a meeting with Michael Burns [the Vice Chairman of Lions Gate, who is distributing Girl with a Pearl Earring] and he told me he think you're going to be a wonderful director someday.

SJ: That's nice of him to say.

MM: Is directing something you want to do?

SJ: Absolutely. As soon as I get some time to think. It's something I'm dying to do. MM: Tell me about A Good Woman, the film you're doing right now in Italy.

SJ: It's based on an Oscar Wilde play called "Lady Windermere's Fan." My character is the illegitimate daughter of Helen Hunt's character. She's a "good woman" we find out in the end. But you know, it's very classic Oscar Wilde; everything gets mumble-jumbled and then comes to a neat, tied-in-a-bow ending with the painful irony attached.

MM: And then you've got The Perfect Score coming out in January.

SJ: The Perfect Score is my contribution to the teen comedy genre. I mean, MTV is attached. It has huge commercial potential. It's about kids trying to steal SAT scores.

MM: You mentioned A Love Song for Bobby Long, which you just shot this summer. How did you get involved with that project?

SJ: I've had that script for like four years. Somebody gave it to me once in a meeting. And immediately I felt very connected to it and kind of fell in love with it. The story is about a young girl who's been estranged from her mother for a very long time, and she gets this letter saying that her mother, who lived in New Orleans, has died and left her a house there. So she goes to claim this house, and she opens the door-and there's John Travolta. "John Travolta! What the hell are you doing in my house!?" [laughs] John is an amazing person, incredible to work with.

MM: So are you going to have any time off after the shoot wraps in Italy?

SJ: In March I'm shooting the new Weitz brothers film, Synergy. I have to take tennis lessons for this role. I'm a New York City girl; I've never held a racket in my life.

MM: But LA's you new home, right?

SJ: Well, my home away from home…

At this point, Scarlett's publicist insisted that she must move on to her next commitment. Scarlett apologized again for her late arrival and humorously implored me "not to be an asshole" to the 11-year-old kid I would soon be directing. I thank her for her time, congratulated her again on all her success, and then watched her disappear into a waiting car outside. That little girl from Manny & Lo is definitely all grown up. She may not want to be called the next "It Girl." But for Scarlett Johansson, her moment has definitely arrived.

typed and sent to me by Steven Flores.