Life is Suite

Empire (UK), February 2004
By Damon Wise

Check in with Sofia Coppola and Scarlett Johansson, the director and star of hotel heart-warmer Lost In Translation

For a 19 year-old, Scarlett Johansson handles waiter service like a pro. "Can you put it over here, please?" she asks, as the waiter wheels in a trolley-load of elevenses. "Sorry," she explains, "I've just ordered a couple of sandwiches. Feel free - are you hungry? I'm starving!" She takes the first bite excitedly ("Yay, woo-hoo! "), examines the filling ("Hmm... pink and mushy"), then pours herself a cup of lea.

"I've been staying in hotels since I was eight years old," she says in a voice that's always sounded old before its time. " I really like them. 1 mean, nothing's better than being at home, but some people when they're away would rather rent an apartment. I don't like to feel like I'm living in someone else's place. I like hotels: I like room service, I like wake-up calls and I like that they do your laundry. Because when you're working you don't want anything else to be on your mind. I'd never wear a terry-cloth bathrobe, but I do when I'm in a good hotel. You know why? 'Cos if you leave it on the floor, you don't have to pick it up!"

Hotels play an integral part in Lost In Translation, the film that has turned Johansson from a promising New York actress into an international star. Though she made her debut in 1994s North and caught our eye in the likes of Ghost World and the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There (both 200 1), Johansson hits adulthood big-time here as Charlotte, a young wife who falls for ageing star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) during her stay in Tokyo. While Murray has a midlife crisis, promoting Japanese whisky in a TV commercial simply for the money, Charlotte begins to wonder if her life is in limbo too. Johansson, though, has no time for introspection. "I've never done so much press in my entire life," she sighs, "and I've done junkets for some time. Nothing prepares you for it." What, we ask? The attention? "No, just the actual work that you're doing. When I was young I did press junkets for The Horse Whisperer, and it was fine. lt came naturally 'cos I had a lot to say. I have always had a lot to say, so when I have nothing to say at all, then you know something's up. But right now, this is just the most press I've done over a period of time. I just finished a film in the summer and I start another on Monday and people keep saying, 'Well, you've got this coupla months off.' I'm like, 'Off !?'There is no time off right now!

She sounds suspiciously like Bob Harris... "Yeah, I'm like Bob Harris," she grins. "I'm all washed up! No, seriously, I'm not, because I'm promoting something I'm excited about, so that makes all the difference in the world. That's the deal-breaker, isn't it? There's nothing worse than having to gab on about something you're less than thrilled about, which is why Bob Harris is at such a bad place in his life. He's just sitting there with this drink in his hand and he's like, 'This is tea, it's not even whisky - if this was real whisky the show would be on the road.' But as I'm promoting myself and this film, I'm confident about what I'm doing."

Talkative and bubbly, she's the very opposite of Charlotte, as you can probably tell, and makes no bones about wanting the room heated up for our photo-shoot, even though the one were in is already as hot a tropical rainforest. "I have terrible circulation," she explains. "My extremities are totally frozen, and I have wool socks and these damn boots on... " She laughs. Look at you! You're gonna faint!"

The key to the character is perhaps to be found in Lost In Translation's director, Sofia Coppola - taciturn daughter of Francis Ford. "Umm, she knows I'm a big blabber, " says Johansson between bites. "But Sofia's a creature of comfort, and when she's comfortable she can be very outgoing and funny. When she doesn't know somebody she's very shy, so with me eventually she was comfortable because we were working together and we had to be. And we had a nice, girlie friendship.

So should we infer that Charlotte is perhaps Sofia's alter ego? Surprisingly not. "Bob is my alter ego," suggests the slim, reserved 32 year-old Coppola when we finally meet up for the shoot. " But there's definitely parts of me in Charlotte. You put yourself in all of your characters, I guess. So where did Bob Harris' world-weariness come from? "I dunno," she grins, wryly. "I guess I've seen a lot. " Indeed, it was her personal experience on a promo tour for last film that sparked the idea for her the script. "I was in the Park Hyatt hotel doing interviews for The Virgin Suicides with a translator," she recalls. "I'd answer the question with a sentence, she would translate it and it'd be, y'know, five minutes longer. You start getting paranoid, wondering, 'Is she getting carried away? Is she adding to it? 'Later she explained that the language is longer, and it's got more formality. It's just one of those oddities. "

Despite her mousey demeanour, Coppola has evolved from an average actress into one of the finest American directors working today (eclipsing even her estranged husband, Spike Jonze). So how does she do it? "I get what I want," she shrugs. "I don't have any tantrums. What's the point? lf everyone's pulling together, there's no need to. That said, Coppola doesn't rely too much on Spike and Francis for inspiration. "I like to write my scripts when I'm alone," she says, "and I'll show them to them when I've finished. 1 like to show early cuts to my dad. He gives good advice - he's done small, personal films, he's just better known for the big ones. I showed him an early cut of Lost In Translation and he liked it, so that was really encouraging.

One thing that does ruffle her placid exterior, however, is the suggestion that the film is racist. To that, she replies that Charlotte's Tokyo friends in the movie are played by her own, that the bizarre chat show Harris appears on is real and, besides, the Japanese do get their r's and l's mixed up. "I've gotten faxes that said, 'Have a good fright,"' she says. "It does happen. "