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Red-Hot Scarlett

W, August 2004
by Meredith Kahn

Equal parts style and substance, Miss Johansson is one sexy starlet.

S U D D E N L Y,   S C A R L E T T   J O H A N S S O N   I S   E V E R Y W H E R E.

Swanning through the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute gala in a lemon-yellow Calvin Klein gown. Presenting at the Tony Awards with a kinked blond Jean Harlow bob and her whopping pout painted stop-sign red. Working the carpet at the MTV Movie Awards in a bound-to-be-misunderstood Proenza Schouler outfit (it featured shorts). Past midnight at the after-party for the CFDA Awards, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, sharing a couch with nightlife doyenne Amy Sacco. In the inevitable gossip item on Page Six, reportedly seen kissing Imitation of Christ designer Tara Subkoff-who happens to be her best friend-in the bar of the Maritime hotel.

And there she is at the launch of the new Calvin Klein fragrance, in a black cocktail frock with a plunging neckline, hair up in a demure chignon. Television screens placed throughout the thronged roof bar of the Hotel Gansevoort air the new ads for Eternity Moment, in which Johansson catches the eye of model-actor Trent Ford, rolls around with him in bed and finally steps through a revolving door to wow him in a diaphanous dress (Calvin Klein, of course). The tabloids will later have a field day with Johansson's alleged diva antics at the party-dictating that nobody be allowed in the elevator with her and that journalists be disinvited from the affair (both hotly denied by the actress's camp) -- but beneath the thick makeup and the dowager hairdo, Johansson fairly resembles the 19-year-old she is. She wanders alone through the crowd for a moment, tentative and tiny, before meeting up with a cadre of raggedly dressed pals who sit smoking at the roof's most distant corner. The night unfurls in teenage fashion. She lip-synchs to "Word Up" on the dance floor, doing a funny little robot move with her head. She carries a fingerprint-smudged glass of pink champagne cocktail. She drags her posse behind her.

It's as close to age-appropriate behavior as Johansson is likely to get, in public at least. Most of her peers -- not Mischa Barton or Lindsay Lohan or Hollywood's other teen princesses, but the kids she grew up with in Manhattan -- are kicking back, getting summer internships and enjoying the break before starting their sophomore year in college. But after a startling year that saw her evolve from indie ingenue to boldfaced name, Johansson is continuing her march toward full-fledged stardom. She has two movies (A Good Woman and A Love Song for Bobby Long) in the can; has just wrapped Synergy, a comedy from Paul and Chris Weitz-the brothers who gave us American Pie and About a Boy - and is gearing up for the cinematic hat trick of Woody Allen's new picture, Mission Impossible 3 and Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia.

"I think I'll have a little bit of time in between Black Dahlia and Mission Impossible," she says in her raspy monotone, in a register somewhere between Talhtlah Bankhead and Peppermint Patty. "Either I'll go to Jamaica or I'll get my tonsils removed." She barks out an ironic laugh, which echoes through the empty room of a restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, near where she lives. Her gold-blond hair is pulled back from her face, her lips are shining with cotton-candy gloss, and her otherwise-faultless complexion has a slight scattering of acne across the forehead. In her layered tank tops and cuffed jeans, she is curvy and milky and perfectly formed, like a Royal Doulton figurine, only sexy.

Jamaica, of course, would be vacation. The tonsils are an ongoing problem, and the doctors have put their collective foot down and insisted she get them taken care of. "My mom wants me to get my tonsils removed," she notes with a wicked smirk, "but I think I might have to go to Jamaica." She's spending the next month doing stunt training for MI3: "I don't want to give away too much because it's top secret," she says, voice heavy with sarcasm. It's hard to imagine the girl who sulked her way through Ghost World flying through the air on a tether alongside Tom Cruise. "I hope they make a video game out of me. At least I wouldn't have any cellulite then."

The combination of a self deprecating wit and a startlingly sensitive core may have its roots in the precocity of the professional child actor, the girl who grew up around adults and learned to cry on command. The result, in Johansson's case, is an onscreen magnetism, an ability not only to hold her own against a famous ham like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, but also to inhabit the role of a lonely wife with a Yale philosophy degree -- even though she was only 17 during filming. As Paul Weitz puts it, "She's an actress who is almost incapable of producing a false beat."

Given her recent explosion into the multiplexes and across the tabloids, it's easy to forget that Johansson has been working pretty steadily since she was eight. "It has been an incredible year, being that I've worked for so long, having it culminate in this," she says. "It's a crazy whirlwind that takes you and sweeps you away. And you're, like, holding on to one last chair-leg of familiarity."

After all, she's experiencing the best kind of fame, one born out of talent rather than notoriety. "It just so happens that by doing incredibly good work she's become famous, not the other way around," notes Weitz. "With most stars in Hollywood, they become famous and then they try to do good work" The success has allowed her to get movies made: A Love Song for Bobby Long, for instance, was a project Scarlett and her mother-manager, Melanie Johansson, had long hoped to bring to fruition. Due out this winter, Bobby Long stars Scarlett as a headstrong young woman who tangles with an alcoholic (and, naturally, lecherous) John Travolta. "I very much latched on to him, and had a reeeeally hard time letting go," she says of the actor.

She's also planning to direct a movie herself "as soon as possible," a goal that would be hard for any actor to achieve, let alone a teenager-unless, of course, that teenager were a bona fide star. The actor she'd most like to direct, she says, is British thespian Tom Wilkinson, who appeared in Girl With a Pearl Earring as well as the forthcoming A Good Woman. Despite her relative youth, Wilkinson is game. "She's shrewd enough to make the right choices," he says. "When you're so successful that young, the tendency is to go a bit crazy and to grab at fame for the wrong reasons. But she has a very sound instinct. She's very bright."

Intelligence makes a feeble fortress against fame's downsides, however. "I can't slide under the radar as easily," Johansson says. "I still very much live my own life, and I think I slide under the radar a lot, but maybe I'm not as sly as I think I'm being." She sings a little wordless tune, sort of a bastardized James Bond theme, before she dissolves into giggles.

She is not, in fact, managing to slide under the radar. Rooms go quiet when she walks into them. People stare. The tabloids circle. First there was the episode with Benicio Del Toro. The two reportedly hooked up at the Academy Awards, and Johansson made the fatal mistake of wisecracking about it in an interview in Elle. "Of course I know Benicio, and he's a fabulous guy," she told the magazine. "Apparently there was somebody with us in an elevator, and we were making out or having sex or something-which I think is very unsanitary." Her quote was repeated, minus the context, in gossip columns around the world. What was meant as a nondenial denial ("I don't confirm things and I don't deny things," she says, firmly, now) was instead taken as a raunchy confirmation of the affair.

Then there's her mother. Melanie has a reputation for high-handedness in some Hollywood circles; she was recently involved in a tussle over a movie that she's producing for Scarlett, a historical film about Napoleon and a young British woman he befriended in exile. Melanie and Scarlett had been in talks to do a similar film with producer Howard Rosenman and Al Pacino, but instead started work on their own script, which they pitched to Lion's Gate. Rosenman promptly threatened legal action to halt the Johansson project. Melanie told Daily Variety that their film is based on "a true story in the public domain" and that Rosenman "is a psychotic person." Rosenman lashed back in Variety, "We think Scarlett is a great actress. Her mother, on the other hand..."

"I want to do the project and I want to do it the right way," says Scarlett. "I don't want for it to turn into something that's in any way tainted or not right. And [the Rosenman] project was never right for me." (According to Lion's Gate, the Johansson film is still "in negotiations"; Rosenman says he is putting the financing together on his own Napoleon project.) Finally, what starlet's gossip portfolio would be complete without the requisite sighting in a hotel bar, enjoying a public foray into same-sex romance? "I read recently that I was making out with one of my best friends in the lobby of a hotel," says Johansson, referring to the Tara Subkoff item and talking at a mad-as-hell clip. "First of all, I haven't been to that hotel since the premiere of Lost in Translation. Second of all, she's one of my best friends, you know, which has never happened and would be very strange for our friendship. And not only that, but I think I saw a movie alone that night, which is the most depressing part of the story!" She's laughing, but it's a thin veneer over something that clearly still grates. "Where do you draw the line between living your life and being wary? You don't want to become a hermit. I don't know. I'm still waiting for that advice."

She's decided, in the meantime, to try to have a sense of humor about it: "So of course like two nights later, we" -- she and Subkoff -- "had a dark candlelit dinner and I was calling her 'my petal' the entire night. She was just dying. I was like, 'Can I get you another glass of wine, my rose, now that it's out that we're a couple?'"

Subkoff (who swears that on the night in question, she was home suffering from a case of food poisoning) says, "I think this kind of attention would make anyone's head spin, even though hers is screwed on so much tighter than most fully formed adults."

To be fair, the tabloids' fascination is understandable. Johansson's ripe looks teeter on the edge of indecency, and her way with an older leading man -- hallmarks of Lost an Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring -- lends her a mystique that starring opposite a teen hunk might not provide. "When I was doing publicity for those films I had a lot of people ask, 'Is this something you look for in a project?' And I was like, 'Yes. I always look for my male costars to be over 40. That is definitely something I look for,'" she says, rolling her eyes.

Though the two roles that made her famous are studies in sexual restraint, Johansson is getting ready to shed her inhibitions, if not her clothing. "I'm a very passionate person, a very sensual person, and I think it's wonderful to celebrate that... uh...you know ..in your prime," she notes with a slightly embarrassed guffaw. "You gotta flaunt it while you got it, before things start moving around, you know?" Her character in Black Dahlia, a noir dame who toys with the affections of two detectives (played by josh Hartnett and Mark Wahlberg), will have the signature De Palma heat. "As Brian says, she's a beautiful little package that you just want to unwrap," Johansson says. "There's some good stuff in this. There's a little romp. A little bit of romping around."

Nevertheless, she still wants to make films her father (a New York contractor and architect) won't shudder to watch. "I couldn't imagine myself doing full-frontal nudity any time soon. I mean, there are some things you want to keep a little private," she says. "I think you can do tasteful nudity, but right now I'm not really willing to sell that, being that I'm 19. I think I'll wait to own it." She's willing to play the seductress for the camera in her new Louis Vuitton campaign -- "She's quite cheeky and perky and very vampy," says Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs -- and was perfectly content to share the sheets with Trent Ford for the Calvin Klein ad. "I was like, 'I get paid to do this?' All my friends at the launch party were like, 'I want one of those,' and I was like, 'Believe me, it gets old after four days.'" She executes a mocking swagger. "As far as doing sex onscreen, as long as it looks good, then it's fine. You don't want to look like an idiot in the sack."

In regards to her personal life, Johansson says that after several long months of being single -- at this ripe old age she seems to have decided on the path of the serial monogamist, having already been in two "long-term" relationships -- she's ready to settle down again. "I've just seen a lot of people, I've met a lot of people, which is good -- it kind of lets you know what you don't want so you can narrow it down to what you do want in a person and in a relationship," she says with grave sincerity. "I think that it's time that if I met someone that I really enjoyed, I would definitely be in a relationship. I'm just waiting for fate to bring me and my future loooove together." Just as long as the papers stay out of it. "I've seen myself dating people that I haven't even met before, which is odd. I'm sure they're really nice and everything."

Don't get her wrong. She's enjoying her success, and she's working hard, partying and taking advantage of her newfound celebrity as only a 19-year-old can, and probably as only a 19-year-old should. "You just have to remember why it is that people want to dig dirt on you. It's because you are successful," she says. "And that's the most important thing, to remind yourself that you have this good thing now and you only have it for now, and it goes with bad things, too. You can't let the negative drag you down when you're having a great moment."

She's laughing again, hamming it up, acting - almost -- her age. "The bad stuff will always be there, I guess, luuurking, luuurking, trying to suck you in."

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