Portrait of a Teenage Prodigy

You, December 14, 2003
by Maureen Paton

She's only 19, but Scarlett Johansson has already earned herself a fan base of top actors, including John Travolta and Sean Connery. And next month she is set to wow audiences with her starring role in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring

I've interviewed dancers who can't stop acting, but I've never before interviewed an actress who can't stop dancing. In the light and airy atrium of a West End penthouse, Scarlett Johansson is grooving away in her little sheepskin boots to the sound of Tammy Wynefte's 'D.I.V.O.R.C.E.' on the portable CD player she takes everywhere. Only when two abseiling window cleaners suddenly appear on the other side of the glass roof does Scarlett bump and grind to a haft, staring at them in fascination. She giggles, pointing to the dangling legs of the first window cleaner. `He's a big ham, he loves it - he should have been in acting,' she says.

With Colin Firth and John Travolta as her latest leading men, and a back-to-back filming schedule that has hardly allowed those boots to hit the ground recently, it's easy to overlook the fact that Scarlett Johansson is only just 19-and endearingly keen to fool around and have fun. And why not? She's earned it. In her tinted aviator shades, pink sweatshirt, bandana and all the other accoutrements of a cool New Yorker, the real-life Scarlett is almost unrecognisable as the girl who lights up the shadowy interiors of 17th-century Delft with her virginal glow in the long-awaited film adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. The film has already caused a sensation at the London Film Festival and is being released here next month. Obligingly, she lifts up her ever-present shades to let me see her blue-green eyes, which, she says, change colour depending on her mood. In short, she's the perfect chameleon.

Scarlett's been serving notice of her originality ever since playing Billy Bob Thornton's Lolita-like obsession in The Man Who Wasn't There, Thora Birch's fellow rebel in Ghost World and Bill Murray's weekend romance in Sofia Coppola's upcoming arthouse debut Lost in Translation. Yet it's her luminous performance in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier's story of the unknown girl in the famous Vermeer painting, which will finally cement the name that this precocious, 5ft 3in acting veteran of 11 years has been making for herself. She has already been anointed for stardom by the American show-business bible Variety, which has described her as Wondrous' in the role.

To bring the subject of a world-famous painting to life on screen is a tough call for any actor, but Scarlett was only 17 when she filmed the role of Griet, the servant girl who inspires Vermeer and cures her master of painter's block when he immortalises her in oils. No one does turbulent and sexy intensity better than 43-year-old Colin Firth, and the unspoken, forbidden attraction between the two creates the most powerful study of erotic tension since Jane Campion's The Piano.

`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 expect 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 nearly didn't happen. Scarlett had auditioned unsuccessfully for the role and was called back only when the first choice for Griet, Kate Hudson, dropped out at the last minute due to a reported case of bonnet-phobia. Now, as one critic at its London Film Festival premiere back in October has already remarked, it's impossible to imagine the mysterious girl with the pearl earring being embodied by anyone other than Scarlett, whose pale, pouting face, beautifully framed by a snowy coff, manages to be secretive and revealing at the same time. `It's such a rare role because it's about her wonderful inner thoughts, which is so appealing for an actor to play. There's no cheesy dialogue to describe the way she's feeling,' she explains. `I could just be quiet, which is rare. Often writers fill the voids with awful dialogue that's very hard to say.' And there's no denying that the taboo attraction between Johansson and Golin Firth is at its most electrifying in those silences.

Colin is not the only big name who has hit it off with Scarlett. She was similarly smitten with John Travolta, with whom she stars in the upcoming A Love Song For Bobby Long. `I love that man, he's the greatest,' she enthuses. It seems the feeling was mutual, since they spent much of their time off set teasing each other. Sean Connery also became a fan when she played his daughter in Just Cause in 1995, while Robert Redford admiringly described her as `13 going on 30' when he directed her three years later as Kristin Scott Thomas's daughter in The Horse Whisperer.

As she admits herself, she seems to have a natural affinity with older men; boys of her own age bore her because they're not grown-up enough. `I feel like an old woman trapped in a young body,' she jokes. `I get tired early, I get cranky in the afternoon without my nap. Boys my own age seem quite young. But then boys seem quite young for everybody until they are in their 30s. That's just a fact, isn't it?' she asks rhetorically. `They never really come good until their 30s.'

The only actor in her family, it was always dear that Scarlett, named after the strong-willed heroine of Gone with the Wind, was going to be a performer who knows her own mind. Her mother took her at the age of seven to see Silence of the Lambs, whose gore she claims to have adored; and like its star Jodie Foster before her, she became a child actor. At first she tried to break into commercials, but her 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 appeared in her first film, North, in 1994, after making her acting debut opposite Ethan Hawke in the New York stage play Sophistry in 1992.

She lives in Manhattan with her Danish-bom architect father Karsten Johansson, who emigrated to America when he was 27, and her twin brother Hunter, who has just gone to the University of Vermont to study environmental sciences and `save the world', according to Scarlett. She has an older sister, 24-year-old Vanessa; an older brother, 27-year-old Adrian, and a half-brother, 37-year-old Copenhagen-based Christian, from her father's first marriage. As she puts it, `We've got a nice big family, we're all really close.' Her manager is her Bronx-born mother Melanie Sloan, a movie producer who lives in Los Angeles, where Scarlett has just bought her first apartment as a concession to her blossoming Hollywood career.

Her parents divorced five years ago, but she seems remarkably well-adjusted to the split. `Divorce is the best thing that happened to our family really,' she shrugs in her sanguine way. `Usually when people divorce it's for a good reason. People have said to me, "I'm so sorry," but I go, "NO, no, you don't want to be in a household with parents who are arguing all the time. Much better to have them separated." It's nice, they're much happier; and I have a really cool stepdad, too. Now I've bought a place in LA, I can live bi-coastally. That sounds very Hollywood, doesn't it?' she adds with a giggle.

She comes across equally together and confident when it comes to her own romantic interests. `I'm very affectionate, and in the two relationships that I have been in so far, I'm always the one to initiate a kiss. I don't mean that I don't get kissed back, but most of the time a large chunk of it is me going in for the kiss. I dunno,' she sighs, `it's weird.'

Her first boyfriend, a classical violinist whom she met at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, taught her to play a mean game of pool. `I'm still quite a hustler at it,' she says. 'But I'm single at the moment, and movie acting is one of the hardest jobs for keeping a relationship going. Though I guess everybody gets lonely sometimes,' she adds. `I take my cat everywhere with me when I'm filming -- she's got a pet passport -- which makes the biggest difference. You come home from a long day's work and there's this thing that needs you for something other than work, it needs you to survive. I have two cats, actually: Gherkin is the girl - she's really flirty, she works the room - and Trooper, as in storm trooper, is the boy. He's a bit of a fatso, huge, ginormously large, so I can only take Gherkin away with me.'

She's going to need the relaxation of both cats' company, because she plans to add to her workload a hundredfold `very soon' and become a director like her hero Woody Allen. But she's far too in demand on this side of the camera to stop acting: 'I could never give it up, it's what I love to do.' And without missing a beat, she turns to the waiting photographer and grins. `I'm ready for my close-up, Mr de Mille.'

Girl with a Pearl Earring will be released on 16 January, Lost in Translation on 6 January