Portrait of a Rising Star

The Scotsman, January 6, 2004
By Sheila Johnston

This time last year you had probably never heard of Scarlett Johansson. She had been seen in vivid supporting roles on the margins of some notable movies - a disturbed teenager in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer, Thora Birch's cynical sidekick in the black comedy Ghost World, beguiling jailbait in the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There - without ever quite making her mark on the general consciousness. But, suddenly this month, with star turns in two movies opening within a week of each other, Johansson has become well-nigh impossible to avoid. At just turned 19, the woman who has been in the film business for fully 11 years has become an overnight sensation.

Not that you would want to avoid her at the moment. Each of her new movies is exceptional in its own strikingly different fashion. Girl With a Pearl Earring is a lush, traditional period piece based on Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel about a servant who inspired one of the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer's most famous paintings. By contrast, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is an impeccably cool and contemporary romantic comedy with Johansson as a lonely young wife trailing along behind her self-obsessed husband on a trip to Tokyo. Eventually she falls in with a similarly disoriented middle-aged movie star staying at the same hotel. Their hesitant friendship flirts constantly with romance but stops short of becoming a full-blown affair.

Johansson is as commanding and persuasive as the demure maid in 17th-century Delft - a role with almost no dialogue - as she is playing a drifting young hipster in 21st-century Japan. Indeed, she has had Golden Globe nominations as Best Actress for both performances: in the comedy or musical category for Translation and in the drama category for Earring. Both achievements are impressive. The former because Johansson's co-star in Translation, Bill Murray, is one of the biggest scene-stealers in the business. The latter because, two and a half years ago, Earring was all set to shoot when Kate Hudson, originally cast as the enigmatic woman with the pearl, pulled out, causing the finance to collapse. The producers rallied, finding new backers and a completely new creative team (Peter Webber directs, and Colin Firth took over the part of Vermeer, originally to be played by Ralph Fiennes).

"They thought I would really need to be buttered up - that I would be so upset I was not the first choice," recalls Johansson, cheerfully. "But I had the greatest leading man ever. It was so smooth and so much fun." Now, contemplating the quiet intensity of her performance, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.

'Showing the marriage aspect was the most difficult thing about playing a much older person. You can't fake that. I don't really have that much in common with the character'

Some interviewers have felt that Johansson has already emerged from the publicity treadmill with arrogance and attitude to burn. But when we met at the ornate Hotel des Bains in Venice, the morning after the rapturously received world premiere of Lost in Translation, she was still fresh and fizzing with excitement.

Several directors have described her as an old soul and she seems as alarmingly poised and mature in person as she does on screen. The main surprise was her deep, husky voice; the main disappointment the bleached and lacquered hair and layers of make-up: as her new films attest, Johansson is a radiant natural beauty, far from the usual California starlet mould, with sensuously full lips and peaches-and-cream skin.

Another of her assets is on display in the now-celebrated opening shot of Lost in Translation. A lingering close-up of the actress's derriere in skimpy pink knickers, this unusual way of introducing the story was greeted in Venice with laughter and appreciative applause. Johansson - who admits to enjoying her food and is far from sylph-like - was reluctant to pose for it. "Sofia said, 'Let me try on the underwear and we'll see what it looks like.' She is so slim and graceful so, of course, it looked great on her. But I think my ass looks pretty damn good too. I hoped they were clapping it, but I think they were applauding the shot."

Making Lost in Translation involved her first trip to Japan. "I didn't get to see as much of the country as I'd have liked, though my mom and I did go to Tokyo Disneyland. I felt very much a stranger in a strange land. I'm from New York, so it's not the pace so much. But it's so different from any place I've ever been. It's like being on another planet. Everything is completely unfamiliar."

Johansson was 17 when she made the film, though her character, a bright university graduate unsure what to do with her life, is in her early twenties. "Showing the marriage aspect was the most difficult thing about playing a much older person. You can't fake that. I don't really have that much in common with the character. She comes from six years of Yale and doesn't know what she wants. I've never been to college and have always known what I wanted to do. I felt really good when I was performing and my parents always encouraged me."

For a girl with show-business on her mind, the name was not a bad start. Johansson comes from her Danish father (her parents are now divorced). Scarlett was her mother's idea. "She just liked it. She is called Melanie [like the other main female character in Gone With the Wind] and she thought people would make the connection. But only three gay men have made it so far." Still, over the last year, it has at least inspired a small army of newspaper editors to pen the headline "Scarlett Fever".

Supported by her mother, Johansson started auditioning for commercials at an early age. "I was terrible at them. I was always doing that selling thing, so they didn't want me. Every time I would have these temper tantrums afterwards. I was seven and a half years old and I was crushed." But things soon picked up. Aged eight, she made her acting debut opposite Ethan Hawke in an off-Broadway play and landed her first film role, in Rob Reiner's North, two years later. "It was a gradual escalation," she says.

Manny & Lo, a low-budget teen drama in 1996, attracted good reviews and the attention of Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford and an aspiring director in her own right. She invited Johansson for lunch and told her about the idea for Lost in Translation.

"I thought, 'Well, Bill Murray in Tokyo: that's a good start,' and asked her to send me the first draft when she'd written it. I read it and I was sold." The encounter says much about Coppola's confidence in the young actress. It also indicates Johansson's own discerning taste, since the initial script for Lost in Translation was impressionistic, elusive and very short. Much of the film was improvised. "For a writer-director, Sofia was unusually lenient about the dialogue. Also, Bill would throw a lot of improv my way and I was always trying to dodge around that. It was like a boxing ring. I've been watching his movies since I was a little tot. He's a comedian who takes his craft very seriously."

The film was completed in 27 days on a tiny $4 million budget. "We had a pretty crazy environment. It was guerrilla-style film-making, very short and very hectic," says Johansson. "We shot so much stuff - me clipping my toenails, Bill sitting on the bed, me looking out the window or scratching my ass. But Sofia has really created a whimsical charm from nothing. To see what she did in post-production out of all those bits was pleasantly surprising."

This is Johansson's moment and she is making the most of it. Later this month, a new comedy, The Perfect Score (about a group of teens who fix their exam results) opens in the US. Later this year, there's A Love Song For Bobby Long, with John Travolta - "We shot it in New Orleans; everyone there kept calling me Miss Scarlett and I thought, 'This is nice'" - and The Good Woman, a 1930s-set version of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. After that she's signed up for a comedy with the Weitz Brothers.

She has also optioned Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk's novel, which was previously made into a 1958 film starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly. Johansson is attached to star in this story of a woman who falls for a much older man - a scenario that has occurred with intriguing regularity in the actress's work. She'd like to direct, too, one day, "really huge, complicated epic films and really small strange movies. Movies I'd pay to see." Meanwhile, she plans to stay at home with a pizza on Oscar night at the end of next month (it's moving from its traditional March evening), unless she's nominated. However, the chances are that no takeaway order will be required on 29 February.