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Scarlett Fever

Sunday Express UK, December 12, 2004
By Lesley O'Toole

The world loves Scarlett Johansson, after she lit up the screen in two of the most alluring film performances of recent times. And Scarlett loves the career that she has pursued with single-minded passion all her life. But has the girl with a pearl earring found happiness? Lesley 0'Tooie met a 20-year-old star who grew up fast

Little more than a year ago, Scarlett Johansson could slip into Starbucks and barely raise an eyebrow. Today there's hardly a corner of the earth where she wouldn't stop the traffic.

That follows a stunning double breakthrough in two of 2003's stand-out films. She was cool but sexy, young but worldly wise in Lost In Translation. And she was flawless as Colin Firth's heartbreakingly beautiful muse in Girl With A Pearl Earring.

Viewers of one film saw trailers for the other, and no one left the cinema in any doubt - a star was born. And as she worked the awards and festivals circuit in an array of stunning designer frocks, she proved she was a proper, old-fashioned movie star to boot.

Yet Scarlett is no overnight success. Although barely 20, she has been working for more than a decade. Her first big picture was The Horse Whisperer, made with Robert Redford in 1998, but there were six others before it. So she has definitely paid her dues, even if she was unprepared for the sudden impact of fame.

"All of a sudden people were calling and congratulating me and asking me to do all kinds of things, like 'Would you consider this magazine?' or 'Would you wear this to that event?'," she says.

"But I don't invite that celebrity thing in. I don't walk around half-naked. I don't make a big scene wherever I go. My life now is nice, but sometimes it's kind of strange. Like when you're ordering coffee and you think you're having a private moment and maybe you're picking your nose or doing something embarrassing. That's always when someone comes up and pays you a really nice compliment. You say, 'Oh thank you' and continue to do what you were doing before. Except that you're not alone any more. That private moment you thought you were having is no longer private."

Solitude, it seems, is a commodity that Scarlett values dearly. "I do like to be alone," she says. "I will do anything alone except eating. That I don't like, unless I'm watching TV. I don't mind going to movies alone or shopping or sightseeing."

The press, of course, are not much interested in solitary excursions to Bloomingdale's. They want spice, and Scarlett hasn't disappointed. At this year's Oscars she sneaked into a lift with Hollywood hunk Benicio Del Toro - and raised eyebrows when she later claimed that "We were making out or having sex or something."

Del Toro, at 37, is almost twice Scarlett's age, but that's how she appears to like her men. She is now dating Cameron Diaz's ex, Jared Leto, who is 32, and even in her films, she always seemed to end up with older guys. There was Billy Bob Thornton, 48, in The Man Who Wasn't There, Bill Murray, 53, in Lost In Translation, and Colin Firth, 43, in Girl With A Pearl Earring. Only her latest film - the comedy In Good Company - bucks the trend, casting her opposite Topher Grace, 25.

But then Scarlett has always been grown up for her years. Robert Redford, at the time of The Horse Whisperer, described her as "13 going on 30". And she says matter-of-factly that most of the dinner parties she goes to are "with people over 40".

Don't assume she's a young fogey, though. "I have friends my own age. I can relate to kids my own age. And there's promise in our youth," she says. She is fiercely loyal to her own generation, and hates to hear anyone being "really patronising about young people" - as one startled movie executive recently discovered.

Most 20-year-old stars would be slightly cowed in the presence of someone with the power to greenlight any movie with a wave of the hand. But not Scarlett. As she tells it, the exec in question was less than enthused about a project Scarlett was pitching.

"She said, 'Yes, yes, I know but we have to appeal to the MTV generation.' And I looked at her and said, 'I am the MTV generation. You're wearing a blazer and loafers and you're telling me about the MTV generation? I find that very upsetting.'"

Such precocious confidence might easily be the result of child stardom, but Scarlett says not. "I attribute a lot of it to growing up in New York City. There's a cultural awareness there that I always took advantage of."

Her parents - her dad is a Danish architect, her mum a former movie producer who now manages Scarlett's career - separated when she was younger, but they clearly provided a home where the arts were valued, and they were happy to encourage their daughter's ambitions. "I have always known what I wanted to do. Ever since I was..." she pauses. "Forever. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a performer."

There was a famous family occasion when Scarlett and her siblings - she has an older brother, Adrian, an older sister, Vanessa, and a twin brother, Hunter - were trotted off to meet a prospective agent. The agent expressed interest only in Adrian, and Scarlett was inconsolable - aged seven - at the thought that she might have no future in showbusiness.

"My mother told me she was surprised that it meant that much to me. And I said to her, 'How could you not know that about me?'" Scarlett was immediately enrolled in her first stage school and later graduated to New York's Professional Children's School.

The motivation that burned so brightly then shows no sign of dimming now. Her focus is extraordinary - ask her what she likes to do in her down-time and she looks at you as if you are slightly insane, as if the very suggestion that she might have downtime is unthinkable. "I like going to the movies, and renting movies," she says.

And on a film set, she evidently has no qualms about telling it like it is, even to esteemed directors.

"I've learned so much on every film I've made," she says, "whether it's been working with someone impossible who wouldn't give me any feedback so that I had to learn to direct myself in some way, or working with someone who gives you so much support and confidence and teaches you to have faith in yourself. I've learned so much because I am able to explore. You learn a lot when someone restricts you also."

It comes as no surprise that Scarlett herself wants to be a director, and sooner rather than later. "Fortunately I'm in a position where getting a film made won't be so hard," she says, with considerable understatement.

If she comes across as arrogant on the page, she is not. Scarlett is simply a girl who knows exactly what she wants, and how to get it. An uncommonly low voice - which sounds like the after-effect of too many cigarettes but isn't - adds further years to the aura of this girl who is still too young to drink legally in the US. Yet there are still endearing glimpses of youthful gaucheness.

She talks excitedly of meeting one of her idols, Patrick Swayze, whom she adores because of Dirty Dancing. "That was joyous," she almost shrieks. And I'm willing to bet that she is more than a little thrilled at the prospect of working with Tom Cruise on the long-delayed Mission: Impossible III.

She is also well aware that few members of the MTV generation are as fortunate as she has been, and she is modestly grateful. "Everyone expects that when you get out of college you know what you are supposed to do. But our society doesn't prepare you for that. I have friends who are going to be coming out of college saying, 'OK, I went through all this schooling. Now I have to make a career out of this. Well, what am I going to do?' Thank God I don't have to do that. If I wasn't in the movies, I can't even imagine what I'd be doing. I'm so lucky."

And even if her suitors are sometimes twice her age, she still has the same insecurities about relationships as anyone else. "There are always those awkward phone conversations where it's like: 'Is everything OK? Why do you sound funny?'... 'No, I'm fine'... 'Really? You sound funny'. I do believe though that if you have a strength in your relationship and you're meant to be with that person at that time, it'll work out."

And whether it's her love life or her career, you can bet that it will work out, just how she wants it.

In Good Company is released on January 7.


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