Scarlett fever

The Western Mail, January 9, 2004
By Rob Driscoll

SHE is only 19, yet Scarlett Johansson has all of Hollywood clamouring to employ her. A stalwart of "one to watch" columns, this native New Yorker of Danish descent is fast proving herself as one of the big screen's most exciting and talented young actresses.

She actually has 15 film roles under her belt but it is her graduation to starring roles in two of this winter's most eagerly awaited movies, both touted as strong Oscar contenders, that has elevated her to her current hot-to-trot status.

Johansson's double whammy hits Britain over the next fortnight, firstly with Lost in Translation, a bitter-sweet romantic comedy co-starring Bill Murray and shot entirely in Japan.

And next week she can be seen in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the eagerly-awaited screen adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel of the same name.

Johansson plays the enigmatic heroine, Griet, opposite Colin Firth as 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Vermeer.

Both movies have garnered rave reviews, not least for Johansson's immaculate, understated performances opposite considerably older leading men.

And most recently she's been co-starring with John Travolta in her latest project, A Love Song For Bobby Long.

At 19, Johansson has the ability to speak her mind, without any hint of precocious, stage-school rhetoric.

She is endearingly keen to fool around and have fun, yet she seems wise beyond her years - self-assured, without a hint of superiority.

Robert Redford described her as "13 going on 30" when he directed her in 1997 as Kristin Scott Thomas's daughter in The Horse Whisperer.

Of her recent leading men, Johansson says she adored 43-year-old Colin Firth, whom she finds "very sexy". Even 53-year-old Bill Murray comes recommended.

"I didn't look at him and think, 'What a hunk' but he's got a lot of sex appeal."

As for John Travolta, this is one performer who can almost render Johansson lost for words.

"I love that man, he is the greatest. He is so funny; we want to make a comedy together."

Mention to Johansson that she's getting a reputation as a bit of a sex symbol herself, and she gasps, "My god!"

Then she decides to run with the theme, more than a little mischievously.

"Sexy young men throw themselves at me," she beams. "I guess it's appropriate timing, as I'm 19 now - I'm legal, so it seems quite appropriate becoming a young woman, and I am finally comfortable with my own sexuality and that sort of thing.

"It's nice, it means I can borrow lots of nice designer dresses, and there are a lot of perks that come with that, I guess."

The only actor in her family, it was always clear that Johansson was going to be a performer who knows her own mind. Indeed, she was aged just three when she began petitioning her mother for an agent.

At first she tried to break into commercials, but Johansson's voice was considered too low and husky for a little girl when her mother took her round the casting agencies.

Advertising's loss turned out to be acting's gain and she made her first film, Rob Reiner's children's satire North, in 1994, aged just 10.

The following year she played Sean Connery's daughter in Just Cause, and then two years later came her biggest break, when Natalie Portman had to pull out from the role of Grace, the teenage daughter in Redford's The Horse Whisperer.

More recently Johansson has been serving notice of her originality in diverse movies as Billy Bob Thornton's Lolita-like obsession in the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, and as Thora Birch's fellow rebel in the teen-grunge hit Ghost World.

Lost in Translation, however, is the film that gives Johansson her first bona-fide starring role. Directed by Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford's daughter, this is a delicate and delightful spring-and-autumn fable, featuring Bill Murray as a world-weary film star holed up in Tokyo to film a TV commercial for Japanese whisky. Johansson co-stars as a young Yale graduate who has tagged along with her workaholic, photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi).

Jet-lagged and unable to sleep, Murray and Johansson cross paths one night in the hotel bar and end up exploring Tokyo together, having fun in clubs and, in the film's most hilarious sequence, singing karaoke.

"The karaoke sequence was a lot of fun, but I had to work hard at it," reveals Johansson. "Sofia wanted those songs in it, so I had to get a copy of The Pretenders' Brass in Pocket two days before. I learned all the words and even though the translation on the karaoke screen is bizarre, other than those songs it was pretty much improvised."

Indeed, the film-makers soon discovered that another of Ms Johansson's considerable talents is a pretty decent singing voice.

"Yeah, I do a really good Cher impression," she giggles. "I do Do You Believe. Bill was also pretty good - he was terrific singing Mack the Knife."

Johansson was immediately attracted to the storyline of Lost in Translation, which follows a meeting of bored souls rather than a tortured love affair. "There's always the feeling that hot sex is about to happen, but it's a very gentle film," says Johansson.

Making a movie in contemporary Japan is one thing, but recreating 17th-century Holland in Luxembourg for Girl with a Pearl Earring was an even more disorientating experience for Johansson.

It is her luminous performance in this exquisite true life-inspired tale, however, which will undoubtedly cement her reputation.

Johansson was only 17 when she filmed the role of Griet, the humble servant girl who inspires Vermeer and cures her master of painter's block when he immortalises her in oils.

Johansson barely speaks a word in the film, yet the erotic tension between Colin Firth's Dutch master and his modest subject - an unspoken, forbidden attraction - makes for compelling, sultry cinema.

"It was really lucky that Colin and I had such good chemistry. I had seen him in Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones, and he was very sexy, but I still didn't know what to say to him when I met him.

"He's such a genuinely nice guy, so sweet, it was so meant to be Colin and me in those roles."

Yet this great screen partnership almost didn't happen. Johansson had auditioned unsuccessfully for the role and was called back only when the first choice for Griet, Goldie Hawn's daughter Kate Hudson, dropped out at the last minute. Now it is impossible to imagine the mysterious girl with the pearl earring being embodied by anyone other than Johansson whose pale, pouting face manages to be secretive and revealing at the same time.

"It's such a rare role, because it's about her wonderful inner feelings and thoughts, which is such an appealing thing for an actor to play," says Johansson. "There's no cheesy dialogue to describe the emotions she has. I could just be quiet, which is rare in Hollywood movies. Writers so often fill the voids with awful lines that can be very hard to say."

Today, Johansson looks almost unrecognisable from her role in Girl with A Pearl Earring, in which her face is continually shrouded in a snowy coif.

Her hair, dyed a dramatic blonde, has been brushed away from her face. Her lips are very full, her eyes are blue, her pale complexion flawless; her figure is enviable.

Despite her professed abhorrence of "the star game", Johansson does, of course, enjoy the trappings of a glamorous lifestyle, far beyond the means of the majority of her 19-year-old peers.

She rolls up at glitzy parties with her friends and after passing her driving test, she has splashed out on a 30,000 BMW convertible.

Yet she insists she doesn't have a penchant for designer garments, and neither is she a shopaholic. At the moment she doesn't have a boyfriend, and her close-knit family keeps her on the ground.

Up until recently she has lived in Manhattan with her father but has just bought her first apartment in Los Angeles, a concession to her blossoming Hollywood career.

"If I didn't have acting, I can't imagine what I'd be doing," says Johansson. "I don't think of it as a career - that sounds so boring - but acting is my passion."

Funny times in Japan

He's one of the biggest and most enduring comic actors in Hollywood. But suddenly, at the age of 53, Bill Murray has found himself big in Japan.

Lost in Translation was filmed entirely on location in Tokyo and Murray, who has made a name for himself playing cynical, wisecracking roles in hit movies like Ghostbusters, Scrooged and Groundhog Day, admits it was impossible to be jaded in Japan.

"Tokyo is a real eye-opener," he declares. "It's a big, big place. It's got an enormous amount of energy and it's much more creative than I thought it was going to be.

"It's sort of presented to us as bad Western culture, but it's not. They're way ahead in so many areas. It's going to be a shock when everyone finds out. They're really up to some stuff over there," he adds with a grin.

In the movie Murray plays an insomniac actor, in Japan to endorse commercial products. During yet another sleepless night, he bumps into fellow insomniac Johansson and the pair end up bonding over sushi and karaoke.

The actor, who had never been to Tokyo, admits the title of the film became a little too apt when he tried to make himself understood to the locals.

"They're speaking a completely different language," he quips.

The multi-talented actor also found himself bonding with the locals during his own unique karaoke renditions. One of them, Roxy Music's More Than This, features in the movie.

"It's a beautiful song and I'd play that song just to hear it. But it's hard to do after you've had several sakis," he grins.

As well as getting the chance to discover a new place and its people, Murray admits he took the role because he wanted to work with director Sofia Coppola, daughter of legendary Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola.

"Talent must be genetic," he says. "She really has got it and she's a nice person. She's fun to be with. She travels in this crazy circle and knows everybody in the world. So she passes through all these barriers, but she's not affected and she's perfectly natural. She likes clothes - but, hey, girls like clothes."

Murray himself is one of the highest-profile stars in America. He became a household name on the hit show Saturday Night Live, but says he honed his comic talents back in his childhood.

"I come from a family of nine kids. Dinner at my house was an absolute madhouse," he explains. "It was extremely competitive, and there's only so much food to begin with. If you weren't funny, you would do the dishes."

Twice-married Murray is now the father of five boys himself and says family life helped him cope when the pressures of fame became too much.

"The truth is anybody that becomes famous is an ass for a year and a half," he reasons. "Their whole world gets so turned upside down, their responses become distorted. I give everybody a year or two to pull it together because, when it first happens, I know how it is."

And although he's known his fair share of lean times, the star insists he would never follow his character's example and endorse Japanese products, unlike some other big names he could mention - and does!

"Both Sofia and I have witnessed and obtained, or possess, American movie stars huckstering. She has one of Kevin Costner for canned espresso, and I have one of Harrison Ford that I brought back from Japan, selling beer.

"They both have the same face on as they're holding up the product, and they're not convinced.

"It's pretty much the face I use in this movie - 'When is this over? When do I get paid?

"And don't tell anyone I'm doing this!"

And Murray pulls that mock world-weary expression we've come to know and love.