Interview Scarlett Johansson

Times Online, October 28, 2003
By

I HAD absolutely no intention of buying a patchwork leather trilby, a designer baseball cap, two zoot suits, three pairs of kinky shoes, one large ice-cream, and 150 worth of CDs including the greatest hits of the Nine Inch Nails. This is the kind of damage Scarlett Johansson inflicts on men of uncertain emotional age. As we saunter down 8th Street in New York, the 18-year-old actress rolls back my years. At least she did until I staggered home to the Hudson hotel with eight kilos of junk and focused on the receipts.

Johansson, famously, has this screen effect on men old enough to be her father, and in many cases her grandfather. It also works a treat when you meet her in the flesh. She has the pinkest, poutiest mouth in the world; a heart-shaped face with big green eyes flecked with gold brown filings; and skin that looks as fluffy as talcum powder. She is also decidedly cool and amusing. There is nothing coy about her.

According to Scarlett’s glittering CV, I’m merely the latest middle-aged statistic in a film career that started at the age of eight. I’m in good company I hasten to add.

Johansson has made sizeable impressions on Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer), Sean Connery (Just Cause), Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who Wasn’t There), Steve Buscemi (Ghost World), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), and latterly Colin Firth in The Times Gala film, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

John Travolta is her elderly new squeeze in an upcoming movie, A Love Song for Bobby Long. “John is so funny,” she croons in her smoky, throaty drawl over bread and jam at the Blue Ribbon Bakery — a favourite late-night hangout which she loves specifically for the decor of the downstairs lavatories.

“We want to make a comedy together so badly. He’s absolutely hysterical. In fact he’s quite wonderful.” Travolta, hysterical? Wonderful? “Why are you looking at me as if I was an alien?” she asks sharply. Johansson has a spiky side you rarely catch a glimpse of in her films — Ghost World apart. She and Travolta seem so, well, incompatible, I hazard. Is there a physical chemistry? “Oh God no. No, no, no, no. Are you kidding?”

Not at all. For a certain generation of male movie star, Johansson is Hollywood’s hottest romantic muse. In Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, she is a bored young wife who holds out the promise of a brief encounter to Bill Murray’s jaded film star in a Tokyo hotel. It’s melancholic, and very funny. Murray’s career has flat-lined into adverts for Japanese whisky. Johansson’s marriage has stalled before it has barely begun. It’s a meeting of yearning souls rather than a tortured love affair. There isn’t an ounce of grime in it. In Peter Webber’s period drama, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johansson’s humble servant reignites Vermeer’s (Colin Firth) desire to paint and promptly earns the hatred of a jealous wife and starchy household. Johansson barely speaks a word throughout the film, yet the erotic tension between Colin Firth’s Dutch master and his modest subject is as potent as Eduardo Serra’s fabulous cinematography.

Vermeer would have been spoilt for perforations if he pulled up a chair in the bakery. Johansson is actually something of an earring addict. She has two in her left ear, one in the right, one in her bellybutton, and had plans to put a pair through her left eyebrow and lower lip until her mother (also her agent) pressed the panic button. “Not the mouth, Scarlett, anything but the mouth.” She chuckles at the memory.

Johansson is touchingly unsure of her own appeal. “If you’re a sexy person you can’t help being sexy. But you can’t afford to be aware of that on screen because it’s a very unsexy thing to do.” She laughs. “Women should be aware, but I’m not. Does that make sense?” She looks politely baffled. “I was always, you know, a ham,” she says, staring into her cup of lemon and honey tea. “But I give all I’ve got and hope that somewhere in that pile of celluloid there’s some decent and hopefully not too choppy moments. You can’t just burn a film like a CD. You gotta suck it up (a favourite phrase) and work at it. It can be very magical.”

The voice is low and boomy. The pink eyeliner, gold eye-shadow and tiny acne scars on the forehead are the only visible signs of a card-carrying teen. Dressed in an oatmeal jacket, blue jeans and old-fashioned zip-up flying boots, Johansson is as fashionably hip as any other native New Yorker. Hair clips secure her dyed blonde hair in a bun. A carved piece of jade hangs from a gold chain.

She admits that there are great advantages in being pursued from film to film by doting stars. “I always take away a lot from other actors,” she says. She was in awe of Sean Connery while filming Just Cause. But she also punches well above her weight. She has perfected an understated talent to do very little and yet express so much. She never overcooks a scene or vamps for the camera, a tic she has criticised before in other young actresses. It’s a subtle art being a muse, as opposed to a tease, and Johansson is terrifically adept at it. It’s arguably the reason why she is cast so consistently in films that explore these chasms of age and social status.

“Why do older men go for me? I dunno,” says Johansson, carefully loading her own question with a droop of the eyelids, and a huge pucker. “Because youth is very attractive. I can’t imagine me as an older woman wanting to go out with someone unbelievably younger. There’s always a possibility that might happen. I’m very open-minded. With romance you don’t control who you fall in love with, or have a crush on. But personally that (age gap) isn’t something I actively seek.” As we stroll through Manhattan hammering my credit card she tells me that she has just passed her driving test, and bought a spanking new convertible in Malibu which she drives like a granny. New York is home, and where her family live, but it’s not a place for faint-hearted drivers. What does she think of Hollywood? “I do get cynical about it sometimes. It depends on what kind of scene you are in. There are times you go, ‘God oh God, who are these people, and what’s going on here?’ But I try not to be cynical. I try and take things for what they are.

“Are you sure you don’t want to buy a new CD player?” she asks after plucking half a dozen albums by bands I’ve never heard of from the racks in a local record shop. “You’ll love these,” she says. The shop assistant promptly asks me for my ID. Something presumably to do with my sanity rather than my credit rating.

“Of course I’m bitter about certain aspects of life,” continues Johansson. “There are issues kids are upset about, that we’d like to change. I want to start a revolution,” she says with a sudden gleam. “We live in exciting times. The film world is bubbling. Music too. We’re coming out of a creative drought. People are hungry for interesting films like Lost in Translation and Pearl Earring.”

She leaves me on the corner of 8th Street, slips on a pair of sunglasses and a set of headphones and sashays up Seventh Avenue. No one gives her a second glance. I manage to catch a glimpse of the CD she pops into her portable recorder. She is, listening, ironically enough, to those edgy New York hipsters, Simon and Garfunkel. I’m so unexpectedly touched, I nearly weep.

  • The Times Gala Girl with a Pearl Earring — Oct 30, 8.30pm; Oct 31, 1pm, Odeon West End 2. American Airlines Gala Lost in Translation — Oct 28, 8.30pm; Oct 29, 8.30pm; Oct 29, 1pm, Odeon West End 2

    CV

    DOWN TO EARTH

    Born in 1984 in New York.

    SIBLING RIVALRY

    Scarlett has an older brother, a sister and a twin brother.

    THE BIG BREAK

    Her first acting role of note was in the off-Broadway production of Sophistry with Ethan Hawke.

    TRUTH AND LIES

    She received an ‘introducing . . .’ credit on The Horse Whisperer (1998) although it was her sixth feature.

    PETS WIN PRIZES

    She won a Best Actress gong-dalier in Venice (2003) for her part in Lost in Translation.

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