The Next Big Thing

Film review (UK), February 2004
By James Mottram

Honestly, we mean it this time

Two five-star movies, Girl with the Pearl Earring and Lost In Translation (both out in January), showcase the formidable talents of Scarlett Johansson and to say critics have been raving about her performances in both movies is understatement. James Mottram decided that he had to meet her

It might be a little early to predict that 2004 is going to be Scarlett Johansson's year, but January is at least her month! The 19-year-old star of Ghost World can be seen in two high-profile roles that are guaranteed to raise her kudos beyond that of her peers. In fact, while British actress Kiera Knightley might be grabbing all the headlines, it's Johansson who's grabbing all the cool roles. For starters, she's in Sofia Coppola's exquisite understated drama Lost in Translation opposite Bill Murray, undeniably one of the finest films of the year - and, no, it's not too early to state this! She can then be caught in Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earring, in the title role, the subject of Dutch artist Vermeer's famous painting.

When we meet, it's at the Venice Film Festival shortly after Lost in Translation has been screened to an ecstatic press (the film would later win Best Director for Coppola and Best Actress for Johansson, in the festival's sidebar section). Perhaps it's because Johansson - complete with hair dyed pale blonde, spiky high-heeled boots and chungy silver jewellery - is looking all retro-Eighties, but some journalists are having problems recognizing her. "I've had some very strange situations," she says, explaining that one hack was convinced they had met for The Virgin Suicides a couple of years back, despite her protestations that it was Kirsten Dunst and not her who starred in the film.

As inexcusable as it is to confuse Johansson with the more saccharine Dunst, it's a simple mistake, given that both have worked with Sofia Coppola. In Lost in Translation, Coppola's follow-up to The Virgin Suicides, Johansson plays Charlotte, a philosophy graduate marooned in a Tokyo hotel while her husband-of-two years, a feckless photographer named John (Giovanni Ribisi) works on an assignment. Bored, and becoming frustrated with her marriage, she meets Bob Harris (Murray) in the hotel bar. A fading actor over in Japan to endorse some whiskey and rake in some hard cash, he too is undergoing a life crisis. The pair hit it off, but any romantic feelings they experience over the following days are left under the surface, with both well aware that they are ships that pass in the neon-lit night.

"No matter how many times you go to Tokyo, it's always overwhelming," says Johansson, whose trip to Japan was her first. "But Charlotte's alien feeling, when she gets there, stems from her life and then being placed in this environment." Johansson, while admitting that she could see herself falling in love with an older man, is quite peeved that film-makers rarely attempt to explore an older woman having an affair with a younger man. 'It's assumed that after women reach a certain age, they become old hags," she says. "That never happens to men - they seem to get more sophisticated with age. it's very silly. Women mature faster than men do, so it's hard to believe that an older woman could have any intellectual stimulation from a younger man. it's a cultural misconception that a lot of people have that older women can't be sexy - after you have kids you just this used dish rag.

Ironically, in her second film this month - Girl with a pearl Earring - Johansson is again cast as the object-of-desire for an older man, in this case the 17th Century artist Johannes Vermeer (played by Colin Firth). 'It's not a comedy, that's for sure," giggles Johansson. 'It's terribly depressing. It's based on a book by Tracy Chevallier, and it's a fictional story about the girl in the painting, who goes to the Vermeer household and eventually begins modelling for Vermeer. It's quite sad. Calling Firth "a charming, wonderful, great actor', Johansson shows her own skills as a performer in playing the na´ve Griet, a character "with such repression that you are using your face and not your words to convey emotions".

As director Peter Webber notes, Johansson is "young in years but has an old soul". She's certainly been in the business for a long time. While she may have received an 'introducing' credit for Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer in 1998, she had been acting for four years by that point, first appearing in Rob Reiner's North in 1994, then opposite Laurence Fishburne in Just Cause. Prior to this, she began her Professional life going for commercials - a not entirely successful period for her. "My mom never really wanted me to get into acting because she was afraid it would be very competitive and stressful - which it is! - but someone had suggested that she take us to this commercial agency. So we all went but the only person they wanted was my older brother. And I was totally devastated. I still can't sell anything. I'm terrible at it. I always deliver it incredibly naturally. Either that, or I'rn way over the top."

Nevertheless, Johansson decided to carry on auditioning, although found she had to develop a thick skin for all the rejection that was heading her way. "It was so overwhelming for a little kid. They didn't know whether they wanted me or a little black kid. It just wasn't what I expected. So in the end I just went up for films - and one thing led to another.'

From collaborating with Redford on The Horse Whisperer to the Coen Brothers on The Man Who Wasn't There, Johansson has already worked with the cream of the crop - not that it's changed her too much. 'I'm a very private person. I live in New York, which helps because nobody is interested in anybody else really. You'd be amazed how many times Michael Stipe passes me on my block - like 15 times a week. People can get strange. They have this idea that celebrity is this huge thing. I'm not trying to be a celebrity - I'm just trying to make good movies. if that's what comes with it, l'11 just walk around in a big pair of sunglasses and continue going to McDonalds."

Lost in Translation opens Jan 9. Girl with a Pearl Earring is released Jan 16