Hot Lips

Esquire (UK), November 2003
by Tim Lewis

But there's more to Scarlett Johansson than oral gratification: she has a talent that could see her nominated for the Best Actress Oscar - twice

The name is just a great start
It was already the name of a beautiful woman and a throwback Hollywood star, even before she was either of those things. As you roll the lazy syllables around in your mouth it seems impossible that it can't be pure cinematic invention. But she insists it is not. Her mother, Melanie Johansson, had always wanted to call one of her children Scarlett. She lost her nerve with her first daughter, Vanessa, because she feared that it would instantly evoke Scarlett and Melanie, the female leads from Gone with the Wind. When Melanie found out she was having twins, she became more courageous. "Luckily only two people - and I think they were both gay men - have ever made comment on it" says Scarlett. "They were like:"Scarlett and Melanie! How cuuute"". But she is not about to start complaining - her twin brother has been lumbered with Hunter. She's preordained to be a movie icon, he's fastracked to be a gladiator.

The Face takes a little working out.
You only make sense of it when you understand that every major feature is gorgeously out of proportion. The eyes are pools, clear, blue and alert. The nose is an unsculpted lump of clay that is not in the least pretty. The lips are just pure and simple indecent. They are so full and succulent that they could drip. In a shameless exploitation of her finest asset, Scarlett smokes Capris, the worlds slimmest cigarette. As she inhales, the stick looks like a lollipop in a giants mouth.

The Hair is downright bizarre.
As she strides into the lobby of the Standard in West Hollywood on a busy Saturday lunchtime, all heads turn in her direction. You can talk about magnetism and the power of attraction, but the collective whisper of the crowd suggests something altogether more intruiging. "She hasn't. Surely not. Fuck me. She's got a mullet". Wearing a baby-blue vintage bomber jacket, jeans and kitten heels, she is a one-woman Kim Wilde revival.

The most remarkable thing about Scarlett Johansson, however is not a name, a face or a cut that afficionados might describe as a beaver paddle. It's not even a voice so breathy that she must have taken up smoking behind the tricycle shed at nursery school. The reason you will soon be powerless to resist the spunky New Yorker is that she possesses a talent you are lucky to find once in a generation. She is only 18 years old, but there is a genuine expectation that she will be nominated for Best Actress at next year's Oscars for two outstanding films: Girl with a Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation, both released in the UK in early 2004.

"Though she's young, Scarlett dosen't feel like a kid actress", says Sofia Coppola, who directs her in Lost in Translation. "She has a coolness and a subtelty that you would not expect. You feel like she's seen a lot, and theres something deep about her that I really like. She can convey an emotion without saying very much"

Coppola's second feature opens with a shot of Johansson's bottom as she kills time, jetlagged and lonely, in a Tokyo hotel room. She has just married a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), but while he neglects her and hustles round the city she drifts into a flirtation with a middle-aged, unhappy film star (Bill Murray). They make an odd couple, him tragic and rueful, her fresh and troubled, but out of this atmospheric film emerges the finest dramatic performances of Murray's long career and Johansson's short one. "I very much had Bill and Scarlett in mind when I was writing the script", says Coppola. "I couldn't think of other actors to play the part that I wanted to see. In fact, I didn't want to do the movie if they weren't going to do it".

"The key to the film is tenderness," says Johansson in her husky monotone. "Bill's like his character in that he's sarcastic and outgoing and puts on a big show for everyone. And I'm like mine in the way I'm reserved with my feelings. I had no idea what to expect when I got to Tokyo. It was so foreign and I felt lost physically. But I learned how not to be afraid walking around in front of tons of people in my underwear."

In Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johansson plays another young woman who forms a bond with an older man, this time the painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). Once more the film is about restraint and the impracticalities of love, and again she impresses in a self-effacing role with little dialogue. Her performance is particularly remarkable, as you would never describe Johansson in person as either quiet or old-fashioned. "I loved being in Luxembourg for the shoot, because it's civilized but its small". she says. "They have a Cartier, a Louis Vuitton and a McDonalds right in the square - what more could you want? I was best friends with the Cartier store and the person flipping Burgers in McDonalds."

Everyone who works with Johansson comments on her uncommon maturity. Robert Redford described her as "13 going on 30" after one of her early roles in The Horse Whisperer, while Coppola says "She makes you feel like she has been around the world". Johansson takes these comments as a huge compiment. "People do say that I'm an old soul and its funny" she says. "But I guess it means I'm intelligent and witty and charming and gorgeous and wonderful and sassy". She catches her breath and cracks a mischievious smile, "Sorry, I got a little carried away there".

Lost in Translation is out on 9 January, Girl with a Pearl Earring on 16 January