Pearls of Wisdom from Scarlett Johansson

Associated Press, December 27, 2003
By Angela Dawson

HOLLYWOOD -- Hollywood's 19-year-old "It" girl, Scarlett Johansson, knows that she's wise beyond her years and accepted by adults as one of their own. But don't assume she's out of touch with her own generation. She doesn't take too kindly to those who patronize her.

"The other day I had lunch with a movie studio head and I was talking about a film that I was really excited about and really wanted to get made," the smoky-voiced actress recalls. "And she turned to me and said, 'Yes, yes, I know, but we have to appeal to the MTV generation.' I looked at her and said, 'I am the---ing MTV generation. Are you talking about my generation? What do I want? You're wearing a blazer, OK? You're wearing a blazer and loafers and you're telling me about the MTV generation?"'

As she recounts this strange tale of corporate obliviousness, Johansson becomes visibly upset. Her smooth milky white face grows red and she speaks a little louder and faster than usual.

"I think that people always are underestimating young people," she adds. "Oftentimes kids are right and parents are wrong, and that kind of thing is never really spoken about."

Johansson says she not only understands her generation, but they also seem to "get" her, despite the fact that most of her recent films have been geared toward (or at least marketed to) adults. She recently ran into a group of 13-year-olds at a Starbucks who recognized her from the R-rated "Ghost World," the critically acclaimed Terry Zwigoff comedy released in 2000, even though they technically were too young to have seen it. (By the way, she thinks the movie rating system is a lot of hooey and should be done away with.)

When she's not off making movies in exotic locales like Tokyo, Rome and Budapest, Johansson likes to relax at home in L.A. or in New York with friends and talk about boys, clothes, movies, etc.

Of course these days, with her work schedule, Johansson doesn't have a lot of free time. She's currently shooting "A Good Woman" (based on Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan") in Rome opposite Helen Hunt and Tom Wilkinson. She's just popped over to the United States for a few days to promote her latest film, "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

Earlier this year, she shot a gritty Southern drama with John Travolta called "A Love Song for Bobby Long," and recently signed on to star in a comedy called "Synergy." Next up, she stars as a high schooler involved in a cheating scandal in "The Perfect Score."

Johansson is enjoying a banner year, having earned rave reviews and two Golden Globe nominations for her performances in two different films, the contemporary comedy "Lost in Translation" and the glossy period piece "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

Johansson looks like she just stepped off the pages of YM or Glamour in her blue-gray sweater and knee-length red boucle skirt. Her shoulder-length bleached blond hair is swept back into small woven braids that come to a point behind her head, giving her a kind of goldfish appearance. If there's one trait that separates her from a lot of her older colleagues, it's her refreshing candor. She acknowledges with detachment that her star status has moved up several notches with the critical successes of "Lost" and "Earring." She's no longer the up-and-coming ingenue; she's Scarlett Johansson, movie star.

In "Lost in Translation," Johansson plays a young newlywed who finds an unexpected bond with an aging Hollywood star (Bill Murray) in a Tokyo hotel. In "Earring," she plays the enigmatic subject of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer's most famous portrait.

"I guess it became apparent to me after ('Lost in Translation') had come out and all of a sudden people were calling and congratulating me and asking to do all kinds of things like, 'would you do this magazine or would you wear this to that event?"' she recalls.

Though she appears flattered by the attention, she's not consumed by it. Frankly, she's had no time to absorb it. After making "Lost in Translation" last year, she jumped on a plane home, and 10 days later she was in Holland shooting "Girl with a Pearl Earring." She's shot three films this year, with almost no breaks.

"I don't really think about it that much," she says of celebrity. "I'm pretty low-key. I don't invite that kind of thing. I don't walk around half-naked and I don't make a big scene wherever I go."

So far, anonymity hasn't been a problem for this savvy big city girl, who up until now has found it easy to blend in with the crowd. But that's starting to change.

"It's nice and sometimes it's kind of strange," she says of being recognized in public. "Like when you're ordering a coffee, and you think you're having a private moment and maybe you're picking your nose or doing something really embarrassing and then someone comes up to you and says something really nice and really complimentary. So you say thank you and you stand there and continue do to what you were doing before and all of a sudden you become very aware that you're not alone anymore."

Johansson got the news about her dual Golden Globe nominations while on location in Rome. "It's kind of strange, because the only place I want to be right now is in Los Angeles with my mom," she told The Hollywood Reporter.

While Johansson is just starting to be a household name, she has been in show business for more than half her life. Born on Thanksgiving Day in New York City, she imagined as a child that the annual 5th Avenue parade was just for her. (She has two older siblings and a twin brother.) She can't remember a time when she didn't want to perform. As a child, she auditioned for commercials, but her husky voice made advertisers wince. Her mother, Melanie, enrolled her in acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, where she studied for four years.

At 8, Johansson made her professional acting debut in the off-Broadway production of "Sophistry" opposite Ethan Hawke. Soon afterward, she started landing small roles in feature films, including the 1996 independent film, "Manny & Lo," about two young sisters who run away from their foster homes. Her breakthrough role came when she was 12 and Robert Redford cast her in "The Horse Whisperer" as an emotionally and physically injured girl who is nursed back to health by a cowboy with mysterious healing powers.

Terry Zwigoff cast the 15-year-old Johansson as Thora Birch's best pal in the offbeat coming-of-age comedy "Ghost World." Her other film credits include "The Man Who Wasn't There," in which she played a young piano student who becomes the object of Billy Bob Thornton's affections and "An American Rhapsody," in which she played a 1950s Hungarian immigrant struggling to fit in.

Having graduated from high school with honors, Johansson has decided to forego college. She says she thought about attending film school but reconsidered after she recognized that she already was receiving the best practical film education. She says she eventually wants to direct and maybe produce.

She insists that no one on the production of "Lost in Translation" could have imagined how positively it would be received. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, this is the next big thing,"' she recalls. "Nobody really knew who was going to see it or who our audience really was."

But Coppola's touching, humorous story of loneliness and connection has resonated with audiences and critics alike.

In the beautifully shot "Girl With a Pearl Earring," based on a novel by Tracy Chevalier, Johansson plays Griet, a young woman forced by tragedy to become a maid for the family of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). The reclusive 17th century painter recognizes Griet's intuitive understanding of color and light and slowly draws her into the world of his paintings.

As intimacy grows between master and servant, disruption and jealousy spread within the household. Filmed on location in Holland last winter, Johansson recalls it being one of the coldest places she's worked to date.

"We were freezing, especially in the period costumes," recalls Johansson. "I was wearing little leather shoes and a linen shirt. You wonder how those people survived."

Playing a 17th century servant, she had to improvise somewhat with her props. "When I got there, they just kind of handed me a broom and dustpan and said, 'Figure out what to do with these,"' she recalls. "There were these ancient ways of doing laundry-- all these brushes-- and I didn't know what to dust with and what to mop with and what to heat things with, so I just figured that if I pretended I knew what I was doing, it would be OK."

She poured herself into the role, finding herself becoming emotionally spent after shooting some of the scenes. She says, "It became more apparent to me the more that we filmed how completely in love I was falling with Colin as the Vermeer character. And it became more and more apparent to me that the Vermeer character was this sort of untouchable, mysterious man-- this genius-- and my character was completely longing and obsessive and in love with this man and it was actually physically heartbreaking." She acknowledges that she doesn't look exactly like the girl in Vermeer's painting (whose identity to this day is unknown), but she is pleased the filmmakers chose to recreate the painting with her face.

"I just sat in the chair and had to keep my eyeballs open for 10 seconds," she recalls of shooting the climactic scene. "It was like torture, like playing one of those awful staring games you play as a kid. I kept saying, 'Could somebody please show me the postcard again?' So I'd look at it and try to figure out exactly what the emotion was in her face. Then I realized that it was longing. It looks like the girl is longing for something in front of her, so I longed."