Rapt in Scarlet

Sunday Herald, January 11, 2004
By John O’Connell

She may be 19 but Scarlett Johansson is already a worldly-wise film veteran. John O’Connell meets the star of Lost In Translation and Girl With A Pearl Earring

Slumped across an armchair, Scarlett Johansson is absorbing her environment. We’re in famed rock-star crashpad the Portobello Hotel, and the cluttered, Moroccan-themed decor is all very Performance. The room above is where Johnny Depp and Kate Moss famously took their champagne bath. Johansson is gloriously unimpressed. “A bath? In champagne?” She purses her lips – plump, almost pendulous. “You don’t take baths in champagne.”

Manhattan-born Johansson has just turned 19. And while she’s pale and slight, her serenity lent languor by a deep, gravelly voice, she doesn’t do “fake ingenuous” for anyone. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years,” she says. “I know how it works.”

That’s understating it. Most actors are lucky if they make more than one decent movie . Johansson has two out within a week of each other, and has been nominated for a Golden Globe for each. In Girl With A Pearl Earring, Peter Webber’s adaptation of the novel by Tracey Chevalier, she’s Griet, the maid caught between the painter Vermeer (Colin Firth) and his patron (Tom Wilkinson) in mid-17th-century Delft. At the other end of the spectrum, in Sofia Coppola’s ambient comedy of cultural dislocation Lost In Translation, she’s Charlotte, the not-so- happily married philosophy graduate who forges a touching, transformative friendship with a fading Hollywood actor (Bill Murray) in a Tokyo hotel.

In both films, Johansson inflames the passions of older men at the same time as she showcases an extraordinary gift for restraint, for holding (and rewarding) your attention even when little more is required of her than watching or being watched. Griet, especially, is pretty much a silent role.

“It’s much harder to say dialogue that you don’t believe than it is to say nothing,” she says. “Dialogue can be so fumbly. You have to be so careful with it. To get to the place where you can just say dialogue and have it coming through the mouth of your character.”

Girl … was filmed in Luxembourg, with a day each in Delft and Bruges. With co-star affection, Firth told one hack that Johansson was “bossy” on set. She laughs. “Colin’s so funny. I can imagine him saying that, batting his eyelashes. I was so in that film, to the point where it became hard to see what we were making. There were times when I was showing people round the set and I was so proud!

“I remember all the filming experiences I’ve had, but with Girl I even know the numbers of the takes they used. Sometimes, I’ll turn to Peter [Webber] and say, ‘How could you have chosen take four when take five was so much better?’ And he’ll go, ‘You’re a freak! How can you remember those things?’”

In preparation for Girl, Johansson had to bleach her eyebrows. “ Colin made fun of me, but he had to wear a wig and a funny costume.”

But bleached eyebrows weren’t the only facial change Johansson had to undergo: in the film, Firth has to pierce her ear .

“ I like that scene. It was a hard one because I had that stupid scarf on my head. And I kept being touched by people tucking and folding and pinning. I was going, ‘Get away from me! I’m trying to concentrate!’”

There was no time for such fussing in Lost In Translation – already a big US hit, and tipped for Oscar success – which was turned around in just 27 days in a Tokyo most of the cast found alien. That bleary speed has worked in its favour: Murray and Johansson are terrific together, their chemistry accentuated by Coppola’s willingness to let them improvise where appropriate.

“All the scenes were written,” clarifies Johansson, “but with the dialogue, Bill would throw stuff at me and I’d either let it hit me or try to dodge it. ”

Having to parry with an “on” comedian must have had its challenges, but Johansson is diplomatic .

“Bill is very much his character when he’s with me, apart from those few moments when he opens up. It’s in my nature, when someone’s ‘on’, to let them take the spotlight, and Bill’s obviously a serious comedian. He knows his craft, he’s been doing it for so long. I had to let him have his moments.”

In some ways, Johansson’s idiosyncratic CV (The Horse Whisperer and Just Cause but also Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn’t There) resembles Winona Ryder’s before the rot set in. But this is one actress you won’t find clutching scissors in Saks : she’s pragmatic, self-confessedly “low-key”. As a pupil at New York’s Professional Children’s School, she took her studies seriously – “I was a dork” – and the learning she displays in conversation feels genuine . Still, there’s plenty of time for jadedness to set in.

Johansson shakes her head. “I think that’s something that’s in your personality . It comes out like a monster and you start ordering white orchids for your room. I suppose I am jaded in the sense that it’s hard for me to remember some people have no idea how a movie is made. When I watch a movie, I’m distracted by things like bad editing, whereas others will just say, ‘I liked that movie’ or ‘I didn’t like that.’ But it doesn’t take the magic away. I’ll still watch Pirates Of The Caribbean and go, ‘Wow, Johnny Depp’s so great in this!’”

There may come a point where the sheer force of press attention tips the scales, though.

“Well, I want to direct a movie as soon as possible, that’s a way of getting out of that. Not that it’s an excuse to get out of the limelight, but there’s less attention on you.”

Johansson is proud that she’s “pretty much avoided playing the girl who has MS and becomes a cheerleader and marries the prom king and goes on to become a detective”.

“After I did The Horse Whisperer, there was a whole slew of teen-slang movies,” she says. “I was in school and didn’t have to support my family, so I avoided them. Not that it’s not fun to shoot that kind of thing. It’s just you’ve got to promote it, and there’s nothing worse than promoting a movie you’ve got nothing to say about. I try to stick to making movies I’d pay to see.”

We can assume, then, that Johansson would cough up for A Love Song For Billy Long‚ which she finished filming late last year in New Orleans with John Travolta (“it reads like Tennessee Williams … John’s so f***ing good in it”) and A Good Woman‚ Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan‚ updated to the 1930s and relocated to Italy’s Amalfi coast.

It’s obvious that the press treadmill is starting to take its toll , but Johansson’s enthusiasm is remarkable, all the more so for being anchored in a clear, unusually modest sense of film-making as a collaborative endeavour. At one point, she slips into a sort of ecstatic reverie: “It was the last day of shooting on the last film I did, and we had this bar-room scene, and I walked on to the set and the lighting was disorientating, and the extras didn’t look like they knew what was going on, and it was one actor’s first film and he was really nervous, and … I got so sentimental about it! I thought, this is wonderful. All this bustle, and I know exactly what to do and what my place is.

“You get those reminders sometimes. You go to the loo between takes, and come back and see everyone doing their job, and think, ‘Ah, I love doing this.’”

Lost In Translation is out now. Girl With A Pearl Earring is released on Friday.