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It Girl finds kudos exciting, but scary

Detroit Free Press, September 14, 2003
By Terry Lawson

TORONTO -- Scarlett Johansson is a little embarrassed about being dubbed the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival's It Girl, a sobriquet usually bestowed on a gifted young actress who can be seen in multiple movies at the festival, and who seems likely to have the brightest future. Toronto's It Girl Hall of Fame includes Julianne Moore, Parker Posey and Canada's own Sarah Polley, all of whom Johansson considers "amazing."

But she is also obviously pleased to be in such good company. While she says the accolades she received for her performances in the romantic comedy "Lost in Translation," to be released Friday in metro Detroit, and the upcoming drama "The Girl With a Pearl Earring," in which she plays the shy 17th-Century maid who became the inspiration and model for Johannes Vermeer's famous painting are satisfying, they're scary, too.

"I'm aware I could be entering the next phase of my career," says Johansson, who, in a sexy top and with her hair dyed seriously blond and upswept, looks far more worldly than the average-to-the-edge-of mousy-characters she's played in films like "Ghost World" and "American Rhapsody."

"It's exciting, but a little disorienting, and scary, too," she says, clutching a heart-shaped "Hello Kitty" pillow to her bosom through the interview in a midtown hotel room. "Outside of the MTV Movie Awards, this is the first thing I've ever been to where I felt like people actually knew who I was." By the time "Lost in Translation" spreads out to theaters across North America, everybody is likely to have been exposed in one way or another to the 18-year-old that one major critic at the festival called "the most impressive young female actor in a long time, partly because she seems like she has a secret she won't reveal. She's mysterious, but vulnerable, too."

"Hmm, mysterious, huh? I never think of myself as mysterious. I figure I'm pretty much what you see. But maybe some of the characters I've played have had that quality. Griet in 'Pearl Earring' is timid, and that makes her a little mysterious. Rebecca in 'Ghost World' is more enigmatic. She hasn't quite figured out who she is yet, so other people really can't either."

The same could be said for Charlotte in "Lost in Translation," the woman in her mid-20s who accompanies her celebrity-photographer husband to Tokyo on an assignment. With her husband working and her inability to sleep, she takes refuge in the bar of her swank hotel, where she makes the acquaintance of American TV-turned-movie-star Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray.

Harris is in Tokyo to make a Japan-only whiskey commercial, and he's as disoriented by the city and its neon-infused culture as by Charlotte. He's also fretting over a disintegrating marriage. They end up confronting Tokyo, and their problems, together, forging a relationship unique and unlikely, somewhere between that of Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve in "The April Fools" and the big, communication-impaired gorilla and Fay Wray in "King Kong."

"This film was obviously very personal and therapeutic for Sofia," says Johansson of Sofia Coppola, who directed her own script. "But I had no problem identifying. I've been feeling pretty disoriented myself for a while now. It was just breathtakingly sensitive, and as soon as I read it, I started pestering Sofia for a meeting. I think she originally thought I might be too young, but I convinced her I had to do it. I loved 'The Virgin Suicides' -- Coppola's directing debut -- "and then you throw in Bill Murray and Tokyo? Who wouldn't want to do it? They say you can never really tell how any movie will turn out, no matter how good the script or director or cast is, but I just knew this was going to turn out good."

The native New Yorker -- who reluctantly admits she finally bought an apartment in Los Angeles, to avoid the endless commuting -- has a pretty good prediction record. Though Johansson's film debut at age 8 in Rob Reiner's "North" was a stinker, she was really only in it long enough to score her SAG card. At age 10, she was the costar of her next film, the indie charmer "Manny and Lo," and then scored a plum role in Robert Redford's woefully underrated "The Horse Whisperer." She played the adolescent daughter of Kristin Scott Thomas, who is seriously injured after being thrown by her beloved horse, an incident that has a profound effect on her mother and herself, as well as on Redford, a horse trainer hired to rehabilitate an animal everyone else thinks should be put down.

"It was making that movie that made me realize what I might be able to do if I really worked at it. Bob (Redford) was a wonderful director and very inspiring. He made me really want to do my best. The experience with (director) Terry Zwigoff on 'Ghost World' was very different in terms of personality, but also similar, because he was secure enough to really care about what a kid like me thought."

Johansson says "Lost in Translation" may have been the first movie in which she naturally identified with her character, "instead of having to discover her."

"She's very American, very blond, stuck in this very foreign place at a time where she's having an identity crisis, not really knowing what she wants to be and how to achieve it," Johansson says. "She meets this older guy, going through his own crisis, and they relate. There's an immediate connection, but it's tentative because they're both married, and because he's so much older. But there's no way of getting around it. There is a definite sexual attraction that complicates it. Here's this woman who one minute is being assaulted by all that high-tech craziness in downtown Tokyo and in the next, wanders into this ancient Buddhist temple in the middle of this intensely spiritual ceremony. It's 'omigod, somebody please help me understand what's happening.'

"I dated a classical musician for a while, and I felt like that. I knew something important was being said, musically, but I needed someone to help me find the key. It's like standing in front of a Pollock (painting) for the first time, feeling it, but not getting it, you know? You're searching, you're looking, and you need a guide. Everybody else has gone to Yale, and you have ADD (attention deficit disorder)."

The first thing people usually respond to in Johansson's work is how understated and quiet she is, and one critic at the festival, while praising her It Girl performances, wondered aloud whether she could do anything else: She now needs to try a role, he thinks, where she is aggressive and active. Johansson, who did play a teenage sexpot in "The Man Who Wasn't There," says she may have found it in the film she just finished shooting in New Orleans, "A Love Song for Bobby Long," in which she costars with another happily married older man, John Travolta, on whom she admits a major crush.

"I've been so lucky so far as the people I've worked with behind and in front of the camera. We worked so great together. John is just so gifted and giving, and he's such an amazing, caring human being. And after all this time, he still has the ability to surprise an audience. Have you seen him in the last couple of months? Well, I won't spoil the surprise, but wait until you see what he's done physically to play this part. It's unbelievable, and he's brilliant."

"He's doing what I want to do, which is to never, ever fall into shtick. That gets old. I want to always be fresh and excited about what I'm doing, so I can pass that excitement on to everyone else, including audiences. If I ever start to look comfortable, call me and tell me," she says hugging the Hello Kitty. "Promise?"

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