Scarlett Fever

Details, September 2003
By Mickey Rapkin

Scarlett Johansson is 18. She just learned to drive. She thinks Bill Murray's sexy. She looks...like this. What more do you want?

Scarlett Johansson looks pained. It's not the Arabian heat of Manhattan on this summer afternoon or the juddering techno Muzak in the midtown sake hole where we've met. It's not the pressure of having three films cued up back-to-back (one, the Vermeer-as-stud flick Girl With a Pearl Earring, is already billing itself as an Oscar contender). No, what's bothering Johansson is hearing her own voice on tape.

"I sound like an old man," she says plaintively. Actually, she sounds like a pint of Guinness being gently decanted ofer a 100-proof hangover. And it's kind of a nice effect. Even when she talks with tuna sashimi sliding down her chin. Even when she does a Cher impersonation that'd make the Chelsea boys proud.

"It sets me apart," Johansson says of her throaty drawl. "I just hope it's not my trademark. Like Julia Roberts' teeth."

The 18-year-old behind the rasp is as sarcastic as her coffee-pouring drone in Ghost World and as disarming as her randy Lolita in The Man Who Wasn't There. "She has this calm confidence that you don't expect from someone so young," says Sofia Coppola. "And she has this sort of smart-ass quality to her."

Until this month's Lost in Translation came along, with Coppola directing, Johansson's career had been mostly one of stepping in when other starlets stepped out: She got the chance to rescue The Horse Whisperer when Natalie Portman bailed. Ghost World came her way only after Leelee Sobieski sniffed at it and walked on by. And she did the whole taut-bodice-in-a-shaft-of-light thing after Kate Hudson decided against Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Lost in Translation just may put an end to Johansson's days as a rebound choice for jilted directors; Coppola wrote it with her in mind. (Of course, she also wrote it with Kirsten Dunst in mind, but that's Hollywood for you.) Playing a newlywed having a quarter-life crisis in Tokyo, she's sipping vodka tonics at her hotel bar when she meets fellow insomniac Bill Murray, a fading actor prostituting himself in a whiskey ad. ("Everyone from Mel Gibson to Jessica Alba promotes toilet paper and hair products in Japan," Johansson says.)

Since the two are in nearly every frame together (boiling beef in a shabu-shabu restaurant, belting out gaijin karaoke, and so on), the film lives or dies on chemistry. Luckily it lives, but not because the 27-day shoot gave the co-stars a lot of bonding time. "It wasn't like, 'Come on, Bill! Let's go out and get wasted!'" Johansson says. "We just jumped in." But bonding wasn't a problem. "Bill is gorgeous, and such a charmer," she says. "Seriously. I mean, I don't watch him and think, Wow, what a hunk. But he is so sexy."

If that sounds like a different Bill Murray from the one you know, remember that Japan does tend to be a little undersexed. "In Japan, nobody looks at anybody," Johansson says. "They just look forward. Which for me was weird - I have a terrible staring problem."

With Pearl Earring due in December, followed by The Perfect Score, a teens-steal-SAT-answers comedy, she'll be on the other end of all that staring soon enough. (Actually, people are staring now as she does a creepy impression of Willy Wonka's Slugworth.) On Monday she's off to New Orleans for a gig with John Travolta - she's convinced he's still hip - before heading to Europe for an adaption of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. Someone should tell the faculty at SUNY Purchase: They think she's enrolled this fall to study directing.

She's given up on high school, too - she just jettisoned her senior-year sweetheart and bought a two-bedroom spread in West Hollywood. "I'm a New Yorker, but L.A. is a nice place to be if you can't be home," she says. But then, just as you begin to believe Johansson really is a grizzled bicoastal shuttler, she polishes off a tray of Phoenix rolls and lets the sarcastic teenager out of the box: "Thank you, Details, for the expensive fish."

She seems mildly embarrassed when her smarmy chauffeur shows up. She prefers to motor herself in her shiny new BMW Z4 convertible now that she's finally scored a license after nearly failing the road test for being "too cautious."

"I'm a big-pimpin'," she says. "But I drive like an old woman." And sounds like an old man.

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