by steve baltin
After a breakout performance opposite Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi in this summerís official cool flick, Ghost World, 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson follows that role by co-starring with a role that should cement her status as one of the fastest-rising young actresses in Hollywood. Appearing with Oscar winners Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand in the Coen brothersí latest vehicle, The Man Who Wasnít There, Johansson nearly steals the film as the intriguing young ingťnue Birdy, with whom Thornton becomes infatuated.
As a self-proclaimed sarcasm expert, and one who possesses a love for irony, Johansson can appreciate the fact that while the titles of her recent work are thematically tied together by invisibility, itís these two roles that are largely responsible for her growing fame.
And while it was not as visible a performance, she also received rave reviews this past summer for her sensitive work in the beautifully human An American Rhapsody, appearing with Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn. Prior to 2001, Johansson was already a recognizable face to film buffs, chalking up parts in The Horse Whisperer with Robert Redford, Just Cause with Sean Connery, and indie favorite Manny & Lo with Mary Kay Place. But this has been the year that has brought Johansson to the brink of stardom.
The fourth of five siblings (she and her twin brother are the youngest, but as she is quick to point out, she is three minutes older, making him the baby of the family), Johansson has known she wanted to act since she was seven and she failed to get a part in a commercial. In fact, if not for that commercial, film may have lost out on the talented actress. The story as she tells it: ďI remember having to read this Smuckersí jam commercial for this talent agency and the only person they wanted was my older brother. I donít even remember if he ended up going. Nobody cared. But I remember standing outside of the Hot Crusty Bakery sobbing. I was so crushed. And my mom was like, ĎWhatís going on? Do you really want to do this?í I did. I donít know why or where it came from.Ē
Sitting with the poised and personable Johansson, who speaks eloquently and enthusiastically in a throaty voice that makes her the ideal candidate to one day play Marianne Faithful in a biopic, there is no doubt that weíll be seeing a lot more of her in the years to come.
Venice: As we were talking you mentioned film school. Are you interested in writing or directing?
Scarlett Johansson: Iíd like to direct, yeah. Iíd like to write, as well, but I donít know if thatís top priority for me. I love to write; I write all the time. But I think the actual writing of a script, be it for a play or a film, will come with time. I definitely want to jump into film direction though. Thatís where I hope to go.
I think Iíll always be acting. I love to act. Itís been a passion of mine since I was very young, so I donít think I would ever leave that. I guess you could compare it to a musician who just ends up wanting to major in composition.
I feel like Iíll be able to offer a lot to the actors that I work with because Iíve had experience in film acting. And Iíve worked with a lot of first-time directors that donít know how to direct an actor, and it gets very frustrating. It makes such a difference in your performance when you are working with a director who is able to talk to you with a common language. And then Iím really interested in the whole technical aspect of itópost-production, stage lighting.
Since you mentioned music, and music is an important element of The Man Who Wasnít There, do you play?
I had to learn how to play that piece. Iíve never played an instrument before. Iíve always wanted to play bass, but Iíve always been too small.
What is it with women and bass? I know so many women who want to play that.
Itís a girl thing. Maybe itís got something to do with the low vibration. [laughs] I always wanted to play an instrument but since I was acting from when I was seven, I never took one in school. And I had no experience playing the piano before. I took these very hectic lessons for like two or three weeks and studied that one piece, by Beethoven. Then afterwards I kind of got into it. I had this really cool piano teacher; sheís really sweet and wonderful.
I didnít even know if I wanted to play the piano. I just wanted to spend time with her. I actually started taking lessons, and I took them all last year. I havenít taken one this year, but I will soon.
As someone who wants to direct some day, what did you get from working with Joel Coen?
I think one thing that is important and that you find with experienced directors like Joel is that they know that everybody that theyíve hired is good at what they do because theyíve worked with them before. And they build a family that can contribute to the style that they want to create for a film. Joel and Ethan have an absolute style about their films. Itís definitely apparent that their crew contributes to it. They know that everyone knows what theyíre doing, that everyone has a job, and they respect that. Itís quite something when you see a movie like that coming together.
Besides the obvious of working with the Coen brothers, what attracted you to the role of Birdy?
When I first got the script and read it I was totally blown away. It was an amazing script. Sometimes you have a film like Ghost World, where you read the script and youíre like, 'eh.' Then you make it and it just comes together beautifully on screen. And then other times, like when I read Horse Whisperer or the Coen brothersí script, the script was just brilliant as a piece of work in its own right.
What attracted me to Birdy is sheís not like every other character. Thereís definitely a Lolita-kind of quality about her; sheís very innocent, but you see in the way that Billy Bobís character is drawn into her that sheís also kind of mischievous. Thereís something about her thatís a little off, and then at the end youíre like, 'Oh, thatís it.' [laughs]
Yeah, that scene did seem to come up by surprise.
The dialogue between them is kind of sparse, but I think when you see the scenes thereís something more to be said that isnít. They just barely scratch the surface, but you get the feeling from the way that they look at each other that thereís something unspoken there. He really needs Birdy; sheís the only real thing he knows at that time. And you donít really know where Birdyís coming from. You see Birdy, sheís 16, with this man, and itís strange because heís so much older than her, but at the same time it kind of seems like an instinct for her. Sheís very much like, ďNo, itís alright. I want to do it.Ē And she likes him. I donít think it seems too wild. But itís disturbing to see it because you donít expect her to be that way.
What was it like working with Billy Bob?
As a person heís very intense; he has a lot of things going on in his mind at once, and you can see that. Heís a very smart guy and you can see the wheels turning when you look at him. I think when I was acting with him it became very apparent to me why heís as popular as he is, because when youíre in a scene with him, when he gives a response to something, itís thought out.
Because he thinks a lot about what heís saying and how it sounds, it makes you kind of aware of what youíre saying and how it sounds. So I think in that sense he brings out a really good performance from whomever heís working with. On an acting level, itís very deep because you both are thinking like the characters. Not so much like, ďWhat does my face look like when I have desire written all over it?Ē But youíre thinking about desire; I desire this person. He was awesome to work with. Heís a brilliant actor.
How old were you when you started in film?
First thing I did was the Rob Reiner film North, and then I did Just Cause with Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne, and that was an amazing experience. When I did North, I was seven or eight, and I remember it, but those memories are a little blurry, kind of surreal. Just Cause was the first thing I really remember, and that was a great experience.
Then I did Manny & Lo, and I think when I did that I was able to act naturally, the way that a 10-year-old should act. I donít know why it happened, but it was just a different kind of acting for me. It wasnít like fake acting. I could just do it.
You describe North as surreal. But what about being nine years old and working with Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne. Did you realize how remarkable that was?
The weird thing is it never registered to me that that was something out of the ordinary. Because it was something that I wanted to do. And none of my classmates were shocked by it, because I had been friends with them. It was so exciting for me; I got to spend my summer in Florida; I was working with all these great actors who were giving me amazing advice. I really had a family in the crew, which is one of the wonderful things about filmmaking. You spend a few months with like 200 people and you become really close because youíre sharing this weird experience that becomes your reality for a couple of months.
It was a wonderful thing for me. And people always ask me, 'Do you feel like you missed out on your childhood?Ē And itís like, how could I be missing out? All I have are good memories of everything. Which I think is a lot more than a lot of other people can say about their childhood.
Who are the people youíve learned the most from?
I learned a lot from Bob Redford because he was an amazing director; a director that any actor would kill to work for. I think thereís something great when you work for a director and you want to do a good job for them. It brings out the best in you. It was a great experience doing that film because I was able to explore things in my acting that I didnít think I was able to do. And they came naturally because I wanted to impress somebody that I was proud to be working with, that I respected.
And I remember being on a plane with Laurence when I was nine years old and he asked me, ďScarlett, do you want to be an actress or do you want to be a star?Ē And I was like, ďI want to be both.Ē He said, ďWell, thatís something youíre going to have to decide when you get older.Ē It was good advice because it still keeps my head straight when I think about that. Iím in this to build a career.
Iíve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people. Mary Kay Place was awesome; just to be able to watch her, sheís such a brilliant actress and she absorbs her character so well. When we did scenes together there was no tension, it just came naturally from our gut.