Scarlett Fever

OC Weekly, September 19 - 25, 2003
By Juan Morales

At one point in Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johanssonís Charlotte, the disaffected photographerís wife who spends much of her time lounging in her underwear in a Tokyo hotel room, laments to Bill Murrayís Bob, the jaded movie star she befriends during her visit, that she doesnít know what she wants to do with her life. Many young people grapple with the same existential dilemma, but Johansson, unlike Sofia Coppola, the filmís writer-director, who caromed from actress to clothing designer to photographer before finding her bliss as a filmmaker, is not one of them.

"Iíve known I liked to perform forever," says Johansson, "and I couldnít feel more fortunate for that."

At 18, Johansson may be, to borrow one of the more insipid pop lyrics in recent memory, "not a girl, not yet a woman," but the sandpaper-voiced indie princess doesnít have a Britney bone in her body. Nevertheless, in both Lost in Translation and the upcoming period drama Girl With a Pearl Earring, she plays young women who, far more subtly but no less effectively than La Spears, stir up carnal longings in older men. (A similar vein courses through A Love Song for Bobby Long, the drama she is currently shooting in New Orleans with John Travolta.)

Like so many of her recent characters, the Manhattan-bred Johansson, whose other credits include The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World and The Man Who Wasnít There, is in a transitional phase. Indeed, an interesting contrast may be made between Johansson and her Horse Whisperer co-star Kate Bosworth. Despite a more substantial body of work, Johansson, a favorite at once of discerning art-house habituťs and of the cynical teens she and Thora Birch captured so brilliantly in Ghost World, is harder to pin down, and less conventionally beautiful, than the classically blond Bosworth. Which presents a challenge. No one disputes Johanssonís talent, yet Bosworth is the one headlining studio movies, while Johansson, at the moment, remains primarily an alterna-ingťnue, a refreshingly real, defiantly unmanufactured antidote to the buffed and polished Amanda Byneses and Hilary Duffs of the world.

But on the strength of Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring (in which she stars opposite Colin Firth as a shy housemaid who inspires one of 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Vermeerís most famous paintings), greater recognition seems imminent.

OC WEEKLY: Sofia is one of several woman directors youíve worked with. Do you find the experience significantly different from working with male directors?

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: There are obvious differences, I suppose. Walking around in my underwear in front of Sofia is not the same as walking around in my underwear in front of [Horse Whisperer director] Bob Redford. But at the same time, when the cameras are rolling, gender lines are irrelevant. A good director is a good director, and I donít think it has anything to do with your sex. Iíve worked with a lot of woman directors, and Iíve tried to think if thereís been a connection between all of them, but itís impossible. It would be like making a connection between all male directors. Thereís nothing similar about them other than those girly feminine things that a woman has with another woman. Iím sure if I turned to Sofia and said, "Do you have a tampon?" she wouldnít laugh in my face. But I wouldnít want to ask [Ghost World director] Terry Zwigoff for a tampon.

Charlotte is a fictional character, but in certain respects she seems to closely resemble Sofia.

People always say, "Is Charlotte based on Sofia?" Itís an obvious thing. My character has long hair, she wears Marc Jacobs, and thereís a quietness about her. And when you meet Sofia, the similarities are undeniable. But itís like giving a line reading. I would never impersonate her.

Just as Charlotte is in a period of transition in her life, you seem to be as well. Where do you see yourself going in the future?

For me, the next step is directing. Iíve been doing this for so long, and I have so much experience, that it just doesnít seem like it could go any other way. I would like to explore every aspect of filmmaking because I love it so much, and the idea of directing just seems like the greatest thing ever. Not that I would stop actingóand I would never direct myself. That would just be awful.

In a previous interview you said, "The most important thing to me is that the character is something I can play. I canít play a cheerleader. Itís going to come out awful. I donít feel comfortable baring my stomach. I wouldnít pay 10 dollars to see it." Based on your latest projects, it seems you still feel that way.

Unfortunately, terrible movies are made all the time, and theyíre just making more bad ones as we speak. I think thatís whatís so great about Lost in Translationóitís just so refreshing. For Christís sake, you leave the theater and youíre talking about the characters! When was the last time you did that?

When people say, "It must have been really challenging for you to play in Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring," I think, "Are you kidding? They were a breath of fresh air. They were all you could wish for." Itís difficult when youíre trying to make something work thatís stupid or unrealistic and sappy. Itís terrible to have to do that kind of work. And itís a shame because there are so many great actors who donít really have any other option. I like to think that everybody wants to play the parts that I get to play. But itís not like I donít see my share of the worst material. In every script I get, it seems my character is a detective or something. Itís like, "Oh, come on!"

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