by Ian Watson
When director Terry Zwigoff was casting the role of Rebecca for Ghost World, the deliciously acerbic rite-ofpassage movie that has the misfortune to be released the same week as the Harry Potter blockbuster, he wasn't interested in the usual teenactress qualities.
The ability to squeal, say "uhh, that's gross, you guys" and squeeze into unfortunate mall rat fashions was passed over in favour of the personality trait that Scarlett Johansson possesses in spades - eccentricity.
Sitting in the New York apartment she shares with her architect father and twin brother, the 16-year-old Johansson manages to look on the term's positive side. Just. "I guess I'm a little strange," she shrugs, her distinctively raspy voice imbuing each syllable with a world-weary panache way beyond her years. "Terry glorifies being different so to have that from him is a compliment. Everybody's strange in their own way. I pity the person who's not strange. It adds excitement to it all."
Robert Redford once described Johansson as being "13 going on 30" and it's this amalgam of innocent charm and adult suss that currently makes her the most intriguing teenage actress in cinema. Adapted from a cult American comic strip, Ghost World follows two misfits as they deal with life after high school. Thora Birch's Enid is the main focus, but Johansson steals the show by making the transition from gum-chewing malcontent to responsible young adult with a sense of bruised confidence that's all too credible. Her character in the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, meanwhile, is a subtle take on Lolita: wideeyed, but with carnal intentions simmering just below the surface.
Johansson's passion for acting developed around the time she saw Silence of the Lambs - when she was seven. "I loved it," she smiles. "I used to say it was one of my favourites. My mom was always open about showing us all kinds of things. She'd never hide us from anything." Scarlett's mother took her to audition for TV commercials, but countless rejections took too much of an emotional toll. "My voice was more husky when I was young and they'd always ask if I had a sore throat. But when I auditioned for a film, it was, like, 'wow, great voice'. That made a big difference." Johansson's first film role was in Rob Reiner's North when she was eight, after which she played Sean Connery's daughter in Just Cause, received a Best Actress nomination at 13 for her role in the indie hit Manny and Lo, and starred in Redford's The Horse Whisperer. By this point, she was also well into the first of the many offthewall obsessions that would define her adult personality. "I got into a reptile stage and got a leopard gecko. I still think reptiles are really cool now, but we're not as close as we used to be. I've moved onto bigger and better things. Like mammals." When she looks at her lizard now, one thought crosses her mind. "He would make a really nice watch [strap]."
The chief aspect of Rebecca in Ghost World that Johansson says she could directly relate to was her obsessive nature. "She's slightly compulsive and I am as well." Her current obsession is pool. "I can't not play," she says. "I play all the time. But I'm not up to the calibre where I can say, 'I need to have a pool table in my trailer.' They'd be, like, 'hell no! We've decided to give this part to Kristen Dunst.' I haven't gotten to Mariah Carey status. Yet. I'm on my way, though."
Talking to Scarlett Johansson is a masterclass on a very particular brand of New York irony. Many of her observations come with an invisible raised eyebrow and an undercurrent of dry, no-nonsense humour. The Face has a slightly different perspective, however. According to the magazine, she does "dour contemplative angst to perfection". Johansson, typically, isn't impressed.
"Dour contemplative angst," she muses. "Those are all SAT words. Hold on, I'll get a dictionary." Do they have a point? "I guess so," she shrugs. "I thought the girl in the new version of Lolita played it to perfection. I was blown away by her." Hand-inhand with Johansson's compulsive nature goes a vicious competitive streak ("I'm always competitive about being right"), and she can't help feeling rivalry over film roles. "Most of the teenage parts don't have any depth," she says. "A lot of people who write about teenagers were unaware when they were young. The characters in Ghost World were awesome, but that's rare."
What does she think of the American Pie/Scream style of teen film? "I don't particularly like them. It's mindless entertainment." Would she do American Pie 4? "No. Probably not. Unless they offered me three million dollars."
Her weakness for reptiles and creepy crawlies explains why her next film is called Eight Legged Freaks. "It's a campy, old-fashioned movie. It was hysterical. Two months in the Arizona desert with awesome special effects and David Arquette. What more could you want?" And what does she do in the film? "Scream a lot. Scream and run. And be a sarcastic teenager. I'm a pretty good screamer. I'm good at being a sarcastic teenager. But the whole running thing. I just don't like running."
Johansson's focus now is on finishing high school and going to college to study film. She hopes to direct one day and is brimful with ideas: an inner-city story based in her beloved New York, a film version of Catcher in the Rye, a documentary on the Brazilian rainforest ... As for roles, she has one director on her wish list. "I'd like to be in the next Woody Allen movie. So this is my shout to Woody Allen to cast me in something soon." With an infectious talent like this on the loose, he'd be mad not to.