Pretty as a picture

Alternative Film, January 15, 2004
by Steve Pratt

Steve Pratt chats to the 'next best thing' in movies, 19-year-old Scarlett Johansson and discovers how she decided to take on the servant girl who inspired the artist Vermeer without actually reading the best-selling book on which the film is based.

There was also time to track down heart-throb Colin Firth for a few tips on playing a world famous painter.

SCARLETT Johansson could hardly have hoped for a better start to 2004 - two acclaimed performances in two well-received movies opening in British cinemas in as many weeks.

Many young actresses are dubbed "the next big thing" but the 19-year-old New Yorker has a legitimate claim on the title. She already has two more movies waiting for release and before they're seen is likely to pick up more nominations, and maybe even an Oscar, Bafta or Golden Globe, for one or both of the films already on show.

She first gained attention as the teen traumatised in a riding accident in Robert Redford's film of The Horse Whisperer and has continued working in movies which, apart from fighting giant spiders in Eight Legged Freaks, could be classified as interesting rather than obviously commercial.

Not for Scarlett, the usual teen movie route. Lost In Translation and Girl With A Pearl Earring not only offer her a pair of contrasting roles, but have the ability to span the gap between art house and multiplex. The former is a contemporary tale of two strangers (Scarlett's bored young wife and Bill Murray's fading actor) who meet and form a friendship while visiting Japan. The latter is the film of the best-seller about the servant girl who inspired Dutch artist Varmeer's famous painting.

Johansson hadn't read Tracy Chevalier's novel before winning the role of Griet and made a conscious effort not to peak at the book that was kept on set during filming. "What drew me to the project, and a lot of young actors were excited by it, was that it was such an incredible opportunity to play this amazing part," she says during a trip to the London Film Festival to promote both movies.

"It's so rare that you have such a beautifully crafted script with a young girl carrying the film. It was very desirable and I knew after I had read it that I could do it. I just had the confidence."

Much of the relationship between Griet and the painter (played by Colin Firth) is conveyed through silences rather long conversations. For the young actress, saying nothing made it easier. "What could have filled those silences?," she asks. "I couldn't imagine what awful dialogue could have been written in there."

In both movies, her character doesn't consummate her relationship with the leading man. The difference in the two movies lies in people's wishes for the outcome, she feels. "In Lost In Translation, you don't want them to get together, but in Girl With A Pearl Earring, you do," she says.

Most of Girl With A Pearl Earring was shot in Luxembourg, although a few exterior scenes with Johansson were shot in Delft in Holland. The original Vermeer painting hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, so she took the opportunity to view it while in Holland.

"We have a few Vermeers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so I'd been in the presence of a Vermeer painting before," she explains.

"I thought it would be a good idea to go and see the painting while I was in Delft. There was such pressure placed on me. The curator was going, 'look at the delicate brush strokes and the glisten in her eyes..'. It was an absolute nightmare, although it was great to go look at it."

Rumour has it that the American actress originally cast as Griet backed out once she learnt that she'd spent the entire movie wearing a period bonnet. Clearly, that didn't worry Johansson, who's happy to leave such matters to the costume designers.

"I recently played a trashy Southerner and had an idea how I wanted her to be because that was something I was familiar with," she says. "But I only finished Lost In Translation ten days before starting Girl With A Pearl Earring. I was vulnerable and exhausted. I only hoped everything was ready to go. I wanted someone to take care of me. I decided to let our costume designer figure it out because what the hell do I know about 17th century bonnets? You get used to it - and it kept me warm."

Just as she knew Griet was within her capability, so Johansson did the same with her Lost In Translation character after reading writer-director Sofia Coppola's screenplay. "It was such a beautiful, beautiful script," she says. "Everything was there. It was 75 pages, and a lot of it was visual. The dialogue between Bill Murray and I is pretty much he'll have one line and I'll have one line, like ping-pong. When I finished I was happy and I was sad and I just knew I could play the part."

It's the confidence of someone who knows what she wants and what suits her. But Johansson's serious approach to her work is tempered by a sense of fun that bubbles to the surface from time to time. She certainly appears to have got her head screwed on the right way. Lost In Translation producer Ross Katz certainly thinks so.

"There are a lot of scripts for young actors, and I see a lot of them go where the big ones are and do these huge studio movies. Scarlett's pretty discerning in terms of her taste, and takes risky or challenging or interesting material. I think that says a lot and will pay off," he says.

* Lost In Translation (15) is showing in cinemas now and Girl With A Pearl Earring (12A) opens tomorrow, January 16