Interview, September 2003
By Graham Fuller
We live in a new age that needs new love stories, and new presences to tell them. Here is an actress born for these roles
A case can be made that Scarlett Johansson is the most exquisitely gifted young actress currently working in American films. After her fine adolescent performances in Manny & LO (1996) and The Horse Whisperer (1998), Johansson matured swiftly as the more conformist and sarcastic of the two teen provocatrices in Ghost World (2001) and as Birdy, the supposedly prim pianist in The Man Who Wasn't There (2001).
Now in two new movies, Johansson delicately pries open the souls of two very different girls falling in love with older men who reciprocate her feelings. in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which opens this month, she is dreamily solipsistic as married Charlotte, who, marooned in a Tokyo hotel, is drawn to an equally alienated movie star, Bob (Bill Murray). In Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earring, due later this year, she personifies restraint as the innocent but insightful maid who - according to Tracy Chevalier's source novel - inspired Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) to paint the eponymous masterpiece in a 17th-century Dutch household torn by domestic strife.
Johansson has the range, passion, and sensitivity of a great performer, but since she's only 18, it's a relief to find she's also a larky kid.
Graham Fuller: Hello, Scarlett. You're in New Orleans rehearsing for A Love Song for Bobby Long, right?
Scarlett Johansson: Yeah, though right now I'm very full of cheeseburger, and I just watched Willy Wonka. It's one of my favorite films.
GF: Has New Orleans cast its voodoo on you?
SJ: I've been a lazy burn and not done anything at all, except for sit around and paint my toenails. But I can definitely smell the majestic, thick air when I go out. All these big things are advertised - big-ass beers and "bottomless dancers guaranteed" - but I'd just like to go and hang with the alligators.
GF: You're extraordinary as Charlotte in Lost in Translation. How did she evolve?
SJ: Sofia [Coppola] knew she wanted Bill [Murray] and me to do the film and that she wanted to set it in Tokyo, which is a character in its own right. She didn't explain the complexity of the relationship - just that these people were lost, and found themselves in each other. Then she sent me the first draft, which was about 75 pages - pretty short. I figured it'd be [fleshed] out when we got there. And then Bill hopped onboard the Tokyo Expressway, and we were making the movie. I had no idea what to expect when I got there. It was so foreign, and I felt lost physically. And I suppose my state of mind was a little foggy
People have asked me if Charlotte is really Sofia. I would never say it's her. All I can say is that the story is close to Sofia's heart, and I hope that comes through in the character. Of course I realized when we were making the film that Charlotte and Bob are desperately in love. But if they had consummated their love, it would have left them with these complicated emotions.
GF: Was Bill tender toward you - I mean in the gentlest possible way - during filming, as Bob is to Charlotte?
SJ: Not really. Te key to it is tenderness, but our real relationship was a working relationship. Bill is like Bob in the sense that he's sarcastic and outgoing and puts on a big show for everybody. And I suppose I'm like Charlotte in the way I'm reserved with my own feelings. Not to say that I'm not a loud obnoxious shit on the set - which I've been told I am - I mean "reserved" in terms of my relationship with Bill.
GF: What does Bill say to you in that final shot of you together?
SJ: [laughs] I'm not going to be obnoxious and say, "You're a nosy journalist for asking, and it's for you to find out," although it really is. Bill said a lot of things to me, silly things. But whatever he said filled me with emotion. I was a mess; I didn't expect to get that sad.
GF: Much of Lost in Translation is about you moping in your room. What was going through your head in those scenes?
SJ: Different things, I suppose. Sofia would say, "You know when you're trying to cheer yourself up and you're kind of bummed out? And then something stupid happens, like you stub your toe, and you just sit there and cry and laugh at the same time because it's like you're such a klutz, but it fucking hurts so bad?" She would just lead me through it. It's great to see those moments captured on film because they're so familiar.
GF: I get the sense you're very serious about acting. The nuances you reveal are not those of an actor whose mind is on all the other stuff that goes with being in movies - the self-image, the celebrity. You clearly lose yourself inside your characters. Is acting a vocation for you?
SJ: [pause] Being a movie star is a quality that somebody sort of embodies, and being a celebrity is something that people give to you. It has to do with being recognizable, as opposed to something that people recognize in you. I just hope to make good movies. I know that sounds simple, but it's true. I love everything about the process of making films: the rehearsing and performing and the messages you can convey - not that everything has to have a message or that it's something I look for.
GF: Yor're demure in Lost in Translation, modest in Girl With a Pearl Earring. The Interview photographs, however, suggest you could have stepped out of the go-go 1960s. But is it better, especially for a young actress, to be reticent when it comes to sexuality onscreen?
SJ: I think it depends on what it is you're trying to portray. Sometimes you see young actors who always have this sexy face they make. No matter what they're playing, they're doing the sexy face. "Oh, look at me." When I see that, I'm like, "Oh, gross." Whereas, if you look at Goldie Hawn when she was in her heyday, she was so adorable and charismatic, and that's what made her sexy. If it's something you've got, you can't hide it. That doesn't mean I think I'm a big sexpot, but I've alway been very aware of my own sexuality. And I don't feel like I have any responsibility to be any way other that the way I am. Though if you're playing an assexual character, it can be hard to try to hide your sexuality. It's like trying to hide a lisp or something.
GF: Girl With a Pearl Earring derives its power from its restraint: Griet, your character, and Vermeer, simply can't act upon their feelings.
SJ: It would have tainted the relationship between Vermeer and Griet if someone on the film had suggested there should be a scene of Vermeer standing by a window watching Griet wash her breasts in a basin. Not that it's not sexual between them, but there's a time and place for everything, especially regarding that kind of sexiness. If I was doing a sexy project, I would never give everything because that's not interesting to watch. It's more interesting to wonder what you're not getting.
GF: Did seeing Vermeer's painting in The Hague give you fresh insights?
SJ: Not really. It was funny because there was so much pressure around me seeing it that when I did, I was like, "Okay, there it is." Some guy was giving me this Big Whatever about what's special about it. I hate that. Part of the reason I love going to the museum with my dad is because we look at the paintings and then look at each other and go, "Hmm, this is nice, isn't it?"
GF: Do you thing Griet loses her virginity when her ear is pierced by Vermeer or when she actually has sex with the butcher's boy?
SJ: A-ha! [laughs] I think she's taken with the piercing. Totally taken. Symbolically, I mean. There was no turning back after that point really, was there? One tear just came beautifully and everybody always asks, "Was that teardrop real?" Everything was magical in that moment.
GF: Did you draw on your own thoughts and feelings about love?
SJ: Absolutely. Though it's never specific. I'm not a method actor, but I think I subconsciously draw on my own experience and my own feelings, because otherwise it's just stale and doesn't work. I fell completely in love with the idea of the Vermeer character. There's one scene where Griet sees Vermeer stroking and kissing his wife. I was a basket case because, for whatever reason, it wounded me. It's a strange job to be an actor because you're emotionally vulnerable all the time when you're not grounded and don't have people around you who are seperate from your work.
GF: Are you happy in your personal life?
SJ: I can't complain. I've been in two very long relationships, and now I'm single for the first time since I started dating, and you learn so much about yourself. Being in a relationship is great because you compromise and make decisions together. But after doing that for so long, I felt I needed to be alone. I like to make my own choices.
GF: You've got plenty of time for love.
SJ: I know. You can't really search it out. I've met a lot of assholes. But I'm really happy that those assholes have helped me define what I want and what I don't want. [laughs] I guess you've got to meet a lot of different kinds of people - people that are just plain wrong for you, people that seem great, people you have a crush on - so that when the right person does come along, you know it for sure.
GF: You've got to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet the right prince.
SJ: Or kiss a lot of assholes before you meet the right guy. That's been my experience so far. [laughs]