Fire in my Brain

Black Book / August 2003
by Madison Slade

Scarlett Johansson has a lot on her mind - good thing she has Sofia Coppola to give her a platform in the follow-up to The Virgin Suicides.

Every time I see Scarlett Johansson, this 1980s song, 'Lips like Sugar,' comes to mind. It's not being cute; it's just the way it is - and it bugs me that I don't remember who sang it. It bugged me all through Ghost World, in which she played Rebecca with a lovely limpidness, and it bugged me again in The Man Who Wasn't There, the uneven Coen Brothers movie, in which she played a small, but illuminating role.

The funny thing is this: In each one of her movies, including her latest, Scarlett plays a lost, defeated soul, entirely out of keeping with her personality. I know this for a fact, because when she bounces into Elixir, a teahouse on Melrose, it's as if all of New York's spunk and verve has bounced in with her. Heads turn (they really do). A waiter is momentarily flustered. A table behind us leans into the bamboo to eavesdrop. She is an 18-year-old on a roll, and everyone feels it.

The roll continues this fall with two new movies - Lost in Translation and The Girl with the Pearl Earring - that reflect on Johansson's uncanny ability to make smart choices. Okay, there was Eight-Legged Freaks, but that proved to be a freakish aberration in an otherwise precocious career. On screen she has the sultry presence of a Hitchcook blonde, and a knowing, pensive quality that hints at complex depths and a world-weariness that her contemporaries can't match. It's why people describe her as an old head on young shoulders. Her mom, Melanie, tells a great anecdote of three-year-old Scarlett throwing furious tantrums. 'One time I said to her, 'What is it, why are you upset?,' and she said to me, 'I have a fire in my brain,' and I thought for a three-year-old that was an incredible comment, and it really made me understand that she had so many thoughts, and that it was almost, like, beyond her control.'

Fortunately the fires have been doused, but Scarlett still smolders. In the flesh she is an uncomplicated 18-year-old in blue jeans and Converse All-Stars who likes hanging out with the Hilton sisters (for which she makes no apologies), and listening to Coldplay, and says that Tom Cruise is one of the great actors of our time. 'Actually, I've had a few arguments with people on that one, but I think he's a really fantastic actor,' she says - and means it. She thinks Sean Penn is pretty fantastic, too, and says that Giovanni Ribisi makes an excellent husband, although he neglects her terribly in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, in which they play a young married couple.

It's tempting to view Lost in Translation as a companion piece to Ghost World, in which Johansson played a prickly adolescent coming to terms with the empty landscape of adulthood. In Coppola's movie, she is still coming to terms with it, only this time around she's a bona fide adult. As Charlotte, a young wife stranded in Tokyo, she finds herself drawn to a washed-out movie star (Bill Murray) in the throes of his own existential crisis. The two bond over the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture, before being pulled back into their seperate lives.

Like Ghost World, it's a thoughtful, character-driven movie, with the unresolved quality of real life. It also marks Johansson's arrival as a fully mature actress: The opening shot of Charlotte's ass is not gratuitous; it stands as a symbol for Johansson's coming of age, and shows that the rest of her body has caught up with her lips, and husky, Lauren Bacall voice.

For a long time that voice was more of a liability than a gift. As a child she ran the usual gauntlet of casting calls for cereal ads, until she rebelled against the endless rejections by casting directors who wanted squeaky Barbie-dolls with voices to match. ('She sounded like Tallulah Bankhead, but looked like an angel - it was very incongruous,' recalls her mom, 'They always thought she had a sore throat.') It was a different story for movies, wher her unlikey voice was seen as an asset. She was 10 when she scored a part in Manny & Lo, a movie so low-budget that her entire family was drafted in as extras to play miniature golf (collectively they were the 'miniature golf family').

Now Scarlett sits in Elixir, one leg folded underneath her, cradling a cup of chamomile tea and musing on the qualities that have got her this far. 'I've always felt very aware, even when I was very, very young,' she says. 'I've always known what I wanted to do, and what made me happy, and I've always had a vision of the career I've wanted...' She pauses, grimaces, rewinds few beats, 'Career is such a stale word. I would say that I've always had a passion to act, and a passion for movies.'

A lot of that passion came from growing up in New York - a city she still thinks of as home - but now that she's living in Los Angeles, she's determined not to let her (initially low) expectations cloud her judgement. 'I think people here are dying to talk to each other,' she says. 'People are always peering at you from the driver's side, dying to make a connection. In New York, no-one ever wants to start a conversation.'

On the other hand she thinks New York is more transparent than Los Angeles, more honest. 'Here, everyone is hiding something: the Botox injections, or that they're cash-poor, or the porno shots they did when they were 18.'

Happily, there are no porno shots in Scarlett's background (the ones on the Internet that claim to be are fake, she says), and no need for Botox injections, either. 'Here, it's funny, people are always looking to better themselves,' she says, 'always looking one step ahead, never looking at what they have.'

Other thoughts that occur to Scarlett in no particular order: that her twin-brother, who studies environment, is destined to save the world; that the Beatles are the greatest band ever (except when she's listening to Led Zeppelin); that her generation has no opinions of its own; that having no opinions of your own sucks. 'Most young people you talk to don't lan on voting,' she says. 'I remember before we started Operation Free the Iraqis - before we destroyed an entire country - I was in Cancun waiting on line to get into this obnoxious club, and there were these people who said, 'Who gives a shit about the war, we're on spring break,' and I thought, these are the people who are going to be voting for our President?'

For an 18-year-old, Johansson is remarkably aware. Her mom says her daughter was preternaturally gifted, which is not just mother's pride talking. Robert Redford, after directing her in The Horse Whisperer, described her as '13 going on 30,' for Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff, she was 'funny, bright, wise beyond her years.' Ross Katz, co-producer of Lost in Translation, says she has a 'worldliness, a sense of having lived a life that is well beyond her years.'

Scarlett on Scarlett just says she's up front and honest. 'If somebody's being awful I'll just say, 'All right, you're ridiculous, it was nice meeting you.' There's nothing worse than being fucked over by somebody you thought was your friend. I'm very aware of it. It's a funny, funny thing. People are funny.'

Some pertinent background: As a child Scarlett decorated her bedroom walls with proverbs and sayings, and insisted on giving quarters to every homeless person she passed. She taught herself to read by four, and was in her first long-term relationship at 14. For a while she thought her childhood sweetheart would become her husband, but she has had another relationship since, and is now single again. 'You always hear actors saying that relationships are so hard with their career, but I thing it's just hard to keep a relationship when your job requires you to be passionate with other people,' she says.

We will witness the full extent of that passion this December in The Girl with the Pearl Earring, in which Johansson travels back three centuries to bewitch Vermeer as Griet, his 16-year-old housmaid. Of all her movies, it was the most emotionally-demanding to date, hence the most satisfying. 'I'm a very instinctive actor,' she says. 'It's all about manipulating your emotions, which is a really bizarre line of work if you think about it, and which probably explains why so many actors go off the deep end.'

It also explains why Johansson is going to be a star. It's not just those lips, or her voice, or that old-head-on-young-shoulders thing. It's the way she embodies her roles, makes them her own. It's the way she smote the waiter just by walking to her table, and then proceeded to smite everyone else. It's because she can say, as a parting shot, that as long as she's consistently happy in her work, she doesn't imagine ever being unhappy. It's a typically insouciant observation from an actor who knows her own mind, and isn't afraid of what she might find there.

Note: In case you're wondering, that song, 'Lips like Sugar' - it was a hit for Echo and the Bunnymen in 1987. A piece of nonsense, but catchy as hell.