Unblemished pearl

New York Daily News, December 6, 2003
By Nancy Ramsey

Scarlett Johansson's exquisite performances in "Lost in Translation" and the Friday release "Girl With a Pearl Earring" have made her the hot young actress of the year. But her first attempt at acting was "devastating."

"I was 7 1/2 and someone had suggested to my mom that she take her kids to auditions," Johansson recalls. "There were four of us [including her twin brother], and we had to do a cold reading. The only person picked was my older brother, and he didn't even want to act. I was crying. I remember standing outside with my mom, seeing my whole future crumble."

Johansson and her mom persevered, pounding the pavement after school. At auditions, "I'd lie on her lap and we would watch all these psychotic stage moms with their kids," she says. "The cattle calls were absolutely overwhelming. They'd ask me if I had a cold, and I'd say, 'No, I always talk like that.' They wanted specific things, a little blond girl who can do this, a little black boy who can do that. I'd throw temper tantrums afterward. I didn't want to be poked and prodded. I wanted to act."

These days, Johansson is every bit the grownup movie star. Elegant in a sleek black evening dress and fishnet stockings, her blonde hair swept up in a French twist, she answers questions in a deep, sexy voice. It's only when she starts clowning around that you realize she's just 19.

Johansson's acting in such films as "Manny & Lo," "The Horse Whisperer," "Ghost World" and "The Man Who Wasn't There" revealed a remarkable talent. In "Lost in Translation," her portrayal of a young American newlywed marooned in a Tokyo hotel earned her raves from critics.

Set in Holland in 1665, "Girl With a Pearl Earring" stars Johansson as Griet, the daughter of a blinded tile painter, who is forced to become a maid in the home of Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). As unspoken desire develops between the girl and the married artist, she becomes his muse and the model for his most famous painting (after which the film is named).

Johansson began work on "Girl With a Pearl Earring," based on Tracy Chevalier's novel, in Luxembourg 10 days after completing "Lost in Translation."

"I was like, 'Whoa!'" she says. "I was emotionally vulnerable, but everyone was so accepting of the crazy experience I'd had that they just kind of saddled me with wardrobe, tests, dialogue coaching, etiquette.

"I tried to own whatever I was doing. If I mix this with this, I'd think, it'll look like I'm doing laundry," she says, referring to Griet's household duties. "People will believe I'm the maid if I make it look instinctive. It's not exactly the same as using Windex or a Hoover."


Johansson is grateful the film didn't indulge cliches of an older artist falling in love with a younger woman.

The screenwriter "Olivia [Hetreed] was so brave to allow those silent moments to happen. Another script would have had Vermeer saying, 'I've never wanted for anything but you,' or we'd see him watching her washing her breasts in a basin.

"Griet is a girl who's accepted her place," Johansson continues. Her own artistic instincts have no real outlet and she cannot marry beyond her station; it seems inevitable she'll end up with the handsome butcher's boy (Cillian Murphy) who courts her.

"But all of a sudden she is so yearningly and deeply in love" with Vermeer, Johansson reflects. "The chemistry is physical, mental, spiritual."

"I found Scarlett a fascinating creature," says the film's director, Peter Webber. "Colin Firth's very happily married with kids, Scarlett had a boyfriend at the time - they were able to trade on feelings that we all have every day."

Johansson does not currently have a steady boyfriend. She is, however, racking up more movies and is filming "A Good Woman" in Italy, with Helen Hunt.

"She's got all the chops she needs," says Webber. "She's got the glamour and she's got the New York attitude. And when we were shooting 'Girl With a Pearl Earring,' everybody would go rushing off to the lunch queue, and Scarlett would still be in the 17th century."