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Skyrocketing Scarlett

I'm no oddball, claims ascendant actress Johansson
Sunday, August 05, 2001, By JOHN CLARK

There can be few things more entertaining on a humid New York afternoon than sitting in the air-conditioned lobby of a trendy SoHo hotel with a skeptical 16-year-old.

"There's some weird people in this place," says Scarlett Johansson, staring at a skinny middle-aged man with his hair tied in a ponytail. "That guy has an interesting hairdo. I'm trying to get my hair to look like that. It's not working."

What's striking about Johansson's attitude is that directly in her sight line, not 10 feet away, is acclaimed British actor Tim Roth, most recently seen as the head chimp in "Planet of the Apes" — and she doesn't care.

Perhaps she's jaded. Certainly she has every right to be. Johansson is a native New Yorker, so she's got that city-kid thing going on.

The rising actress burst on the indie film scene as an orphan in the low-budget "Manny & Lo" in 1996 and attracted mainstream attention as the traumatized girl in 1998's "The Horse Whisperer." She recently received excellent notices for her portrayal of an initially alienated and coolly aloof high-school grad in "Ghost World," Terry Zwigoff's film of Daniel Clowes' comic-strip novel, and plays a disaffected Hungarian emigre in Eva Gardos' "American Rhapsody," which opens Friday.

In the fall, Johansson can be seen in Joel and Ethan Coen's film noir "The Man Who Wasn't There," in which she plays a "—— buster," as she puts it. Next year she's the "teenage interest" in the giant-bug-movie spoof "Arac Attack."

Why the flurry of roles? It obviously has something to do with who Johansson is and what she does: She's not some perky starlet, nor is she riddled with teenage angst.

"She's a terrific actress," says Zwigoff. "She was really the best thing about 'The Horse Whisperer.' She's funny, bright, wise beyond her years. What I liked most about her for her part in 'Ghost World' is that she's a little bit eccentric. She's got her own highly developed persona, which is very unusual for anybody that age."

"She's one of the oddest people I've ever met," says Clowes, who became close to Johansson on the set. (They were "B-list friends," he says. Zwigoff and Thora Birch, who played the film's main protagonist, were "A-list friends.")

"Scarlett's much more able to deal with adult social situations than I'll ever be," adds Clowes. "But on the other hand, she's very innocent."

"When I met her, I just felt there was something very solid and strong about her," "American Rhapsody" director Gardos says. "I didn't want someone who was eternally cute. I think she has a really interesting face and interesting responses. I like watching her."

Johansson bristles at the suggestion she is an oddball.

"I don't know why he keeps saying that," she says of Zwigoff, who has been saying it the most. "I don't know what that means. I'm, like, 'Terry, stop, it's really weird. Look who's talking.'"

Johansson has a point, but so do her collaborators. Like a lot of very young actors, she is preternaturally self-possessed and speaks in a hoarse voice that can be characterized as either adolescent or adult. At the same time, she bounces around, chews gum, talks endlessly about "Arac Attack" as part of her nerdy-boy-level obsession with monster movies, and exhibits a Holden Caulfield-like disdain for poseurs.

This last quality seems to keep her on the ground. "We're the kind of people who sit around and watch," Johansson says of her family, which includes a twin brother, an older brother, an older sister and a stepbrother. "Like, we could be at some lame party for some opening or something, and we'd just have a great time talking about how weird everybody is. We inherited people-watching from my mom."

Johansson's mother lives in L.A.; her father, a building contractor, lives in New York. Her mom vets her scripts and accompanies her on film sets, where she is also visited by friends, siblings and, of course, tutors (she'll graduate from high school this year).

Although she welcomes this off-screen support, she clearly doesn't need it in her work. She says that she routinely helps set up the shots she's in and claims that both Gardos and Clowes were shocked by the fact that she didn't want to say all of her lines.

Rebuked Redford

"This is something that's been a constant throughout my career," she says, laughing in the manner of someone who can't help herself. "I think that when things aren't said as much, you can really feel what the character is thinking by looking at them."

"I think she's such an amazing actress that she can get away with that," Clowes says. "I think she's got more natural talent than any actress I've ever seen."

Asked if she took this position with Robert Redford, Johansson says that she didn't, although she did get mad at him after "The Horse Whisperer" wrapped when the actor-director radically reconfigured a crucial scene between her character and her mother.

"I remember calling and he wasn't there, because it was easy for him not to be there, because he knew I would be [angry]," she says. (Now, she adds, she's amused.) "I remember [finally] talking to him on the phone: 'How could you do this? It completely changes the character.' He was kind of quiet on the other end. He was probably, like, 'Oh my God, she's psychotic.'"

And how old was she at the time?

"I guess, like, 12."

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