Scarlett Fever

Variety, December 7, 2003
By Eve Epstein

Sarlett Johansson is hot. Seriously.

"It ... is ... ob ... scene ... ly ... hot ... in ... here," she says, speaking the words aloud as she scrawls them onto a customer feedback form at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at the Farmer's Market in Los Angeles. The scorching Santa Anas have rendered L.A. - and the coffee shop in question - unbearable, and Johansson is appalled on behalf of the establishment's personnel.

"Do ... some ... thing ... be ... fore ... your ... em ... ploy ... ees ... drop ... dead," she continues, scribbling furiously. "Scar ... lett ... Jo... han ...sson."

That's going to make quite an autograph for some lucky customer service rep.

Johansson is, by most accounts, the ingenue of the moment after her much lauded performance in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation." She's a 19-year-old capable enough to hold her own opposite co-star Bill Murray, while generating Oscar buzz in the $4 million film that has so far raked in almost $27 million domestically.

Like many in the industry who started out as child stars, Johansson has strategized and labored - with her mother at her side - to become this awards season's preeminent darling. After toiling for 11 years in films as diverse as "Manny & Lo," "The Horse Whisperer," "Ghost World" and "The Man Who Wasn't There," everything finally seems to be falling into place.

This may be a woman who gripes about the temperature, but she's acutely aware of her own heat.

Here's what it means to be the other kind of hot: This month, Johansson will appear as the titular character, alongside Colin Firth, in Lions Gate's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," an adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling novel, for which she's already garnered strong reviews. In January, she'll appear in Par's "The Perfect Score," a drama about a group of students trying to cheat the SATs. She's just wrapped "A Love Song for Bobby Long" for Screen Gems, about a young woman who inspires two older men, one of them John Travolta (more on that later). She's recently left for Italy to begin filming "A Good Woman" with Helen Hunt, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan." And she recently signed to star in Chris and Paul Weitz's "Synergy" for Universal.

"She's certainly got what it takes to be the major talent of her generation," says Peter Webber, director of "Girl With a Pearl Earring." "There's something of the classic movie star in her, but the hard part will be navigating the treacherous shores of stardom."

As everyone knows, even if Johansson were to win an Oscar in February, it doesn't mean she'll be guaranteed continuous prestige roles (just ask Mira Sorvino). An Oscar win can sometimes confer one-hit-wonder status. After all, generating heat is only the first trick; keeping it is the real challenge. And an actress who's been around as long as Johansson knows that there's no scarier place in this business than the top.

A star is warned

Technically, you could call her a teenager. At the moment, she'd even be mistaken for one, trolling the Grove ("That's ugly in many different languages," she sneers at a blouse in the Anthropologie store), breezing through the neighboring Farmer's Market, and scarfing down a cafeteria-style lunch of a hot dog, fries and Dr. Brown's soda. She's got the Hollywood hipster uniform down: Seven jeans, pointy-toed shoes and a black satin bomber jacket. Her platinum hair is blown back '80s style, and her over-the-top gold accessories seem to taunt, "I'm cooler than you." She's not doing the incognito star routine - no baseball cap, no downward stare - yet she seems to be moving through the crowd with relative anonymity.

Then she opens her mouth. There's the unmistakably throaty voice, for starters. But that's nothing compared to what she's saying. Raised in New York, she's a recent graduate of the Professional Children's School, the urbanity of which is not so much worn on her sleeve as revealed in her rhetoric. She's only just moved to L.A., her apartment still gutted and empty, yet it's clear she's more bored by the scarier elements of the Hollywood scene than scared.

"The other day I was with all these kids who were snorting cocaine, and it was, like, 3 in the morning," she says. "It's just really cheesy and unattractive. So there I was, watching the tube instead, going, 'Oh, look, 'Flashdance' is on! The original 'Odd Couple' with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau! Let's watch!' "

This, mind you, isn't a display of innocence; these are the evasions not of a woman who's shocked, but one who knows that cocaine is just so over in New York. (Apparently it's all about opium.)

And then there are her looks. Among the host of nose-jobbed anorexics that make up the 18-25 actress pool in Hollywood, Johansson stands out as something of an exotic.

"There's no question that she's attractive," says Tom Wilkinson, her co-star in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and "A Good Woman." "But you can't quite take her in straightaway when you see her. She has a uniqueness that she can't do anything about. One just hopes that it'll go on working for her."

Webber agrees, noting, "There's something deeply sensual and virginal at the same time."

It's an off-kilter kind of beauty that seems to draw appreciation from sophisticated directors, casting agents and moviegoers. And if her recent roles are any indication, Johansson's strength in part lies in her ability to attract the attention of people a great deal older than her - particularly men, which is what happens onscreen in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and "Lost in Translation." Yet she doesn't really see it that way.

"The relationships (in those movies) are so different that it's purely coincidental," she says. "I never thought about it until people started making the association."

When asked if she's heard the younger-woman-older-man question a zillion times while promoting her two films, Johansson admits it seems to be at the forefront of many a journalist's mind. And while few young actors would look the gift-horse of two major fall releases in the mouth, typecasting concerns exist for young, beautiful women, too.

"Lost in Translation" and "Girl With a Pearl Earring" are a far cry from "Poison Ivy" and "The Crush," pics that launched the Lolita phases of Drew Barrymore and Alicia Silverstone. One is less inclined to draw parallels to their career-denting choices than to those of a young Jodie Foster, whose performance in "Taxi Driver" cemented her as a talent to watch. Johansson herself seems unconcerned, perhaps because her self-image seems to act as an unerring compass when it comes to sniffing out tasteful material.

Consider that when tween queen Amanda Bynes did a film with cred-conferring Brit Colin Firth, she played his daughter in "What a Girl Wants," a confection aimed at teens and their moms; when Johansson worked with him, she played the object of Firth's affection in a highbrow period literary adaptation. In her choices, which have consistently tracked away from teen gross-out comedies and summer eye candy, she resembles less her contemporaries than Gwyneth Paltrow ("Shakespeare in Love" anyone?)

"Scarlett will be able to set her own agenda more than someone who has been lauded merely for cuteness or likability," observes Paul Weitz, who will soon direct her in "Synergy." "There's a lot more depth to what people are responding to in her. She's drawn to intelligent material."

Johansson's is a sensibility, a cool factor, an instinct for the Zeitgeist, that animates her career, and it's something you either have or you don't. Johansson has it; Tara Reid doesn't. It's what has attracted the interest of smart young directors like Weitz, Webber and Coppola.

Coppola, herself a living barometer of cool, saw in Johansson a kindred spirit - so much that she wrote the character of Charlotte in "Lost in Translation" with Johansson in mind after seeing her in "Manny & Lo" and meeting with her briefly before filming her first feature, "The Virgin Suicides."

"She has a talent for conveying depth and thoughtfulness without doing too much, for being still and simple, which is hard to do," says Coppola. "We'd be on set and she'd be talking about McDonald's and then we'd go right into shooting and she'd sit there and look like she was contemplating Proust or something."

Fanning the fame

Stardom's perils seem to have a sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't quality. That "Lost in Translation" is being followed closely by "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is, by most accounts, a very good thing.

One good movie per Oscar season, says Scott Lambert, her agent at William Morris, might happen to any lucky actor, but "it's pretty rare to have two such different, such phenomenal movies" in a single fall. This one-two punch is her chance to prove she's not just another flavor of the month. It also means that there's potential for out-of-the-gate overexposure.

Then there are all the distracting perks. "The magazine covers, the free clothing, the free spa treatments," says Johansson, enumerating the fringe benefits that have been thrown her way - the same ones that have spoiled many an actress before her.

"That's all fun and dandy," Johansson says, "but the best thing about it is having studios now say, 'What about Scarlett? Can we make the age of the character younger so that Scarlett could fit into it?' The fact is that studios are saying, 'Come meet with us, bring us the projects you want to do, and we'll finance them.' "

Maybe that's why she's made four films back-to-back in the past year alone. After 11 years in the biz, Johansson knows how evanescent such interest can be.

"Now that I have some kind of interest or recognizable face and name," she continues, "it's like, 'Woo-hoo! I can make more movies!' I can now get all of these projects that I've been coddling made."

Coddling? Projects? The woman is 19, for heaven's sake. But Johansson is intent on bringing her own ideas to fruition within a system that isn't always content to be led around by teenagers, no matter how precocious.

"When I signed her, she said her dream was to do 'A Love Song for Bobby Long' with John Travolta," recalls Lambert. This was a tall order: Johansson, a peripheral actress who was all of 15 at the time, wasn't exactly in a position to pick her roles, much less her $20-million-per-pic co-stars. Three years later, the film is in post, starring Johansson and you know whom.

Granted, William Morris not only reps the writer-director of the film, but also Travolta, which made the deal easier to broker. If nothing else, such an outcome speaks well for Johansson's determination and the confidence it inspires; she's repped by an agency willing to package films for her benefit. "A Love Song for Bobby Long" is also the first project financed by Bob Yari's El Camino Films as part of its alliance with William Morris Independent, the agency's indie production arm.

"You have to know when it's the right time and place to do something," she says. "It's instinctive, like when something needs to cook a little bit longer.

"I think every actor is dying to be in the position where they can make something happen, but a lot are nervous to be proactive in their careers; they don't know how to go about it."

At least some credit for Johansson's good choices can be attributed to the involvement of her mother and manager, Melanie Johansson. Unlike the overbearing stage parents of Hollywood infamy - the Culkins and Jacksons of this world - the Johanssons never relied on their daughter as a source of family income, allowing her the freedom to turn down undesirable roles and take only the ones that mattered. In the public eye, her mother stays on the periphery: Johansson speaks for herself and mom turns down all interview requests.

Yet her involvement in her daughter's career is hardly a secret; Johansson credits her mom with much of the success they've had in getting projects off the ground. Melanie Johansson's involvement even earned her a producer credit on "A Love Song for Bobby Long" and a special thanks in the "Girl With a Pearl Earring's" credits.

"Her mother was incredibly helpful to us," Webber says. "She understood the kind of film we were trying to make. She can be tough if things aren't happening the way she needs them to be, but she has to be tough because it's her daughter."

"My mom is amazing that way," Johansson says. "There are a lot of young adults around my age whose careers are either completely guided or submarined by their parents. Smart people will come to me and say, 'You must have incredible parents because you've been able to do all these exciting projects and not get stuck in any particular genre.' And we've utilized every resource we've had since I was 8 years old to try to think of ways to get things done."

Johansson may talk like a budding producer, but she's content to leave the details to her mother. She'd rather direct - she jokingly refers to it as her "fallback" option - and hints, along with Lambert, that such an addition to her resume is in the foreseeable future.

One is not inclined to doubt her. Her drive, coupled with the support of loyal and proactive players like her manager and agent, make it appear possible, even likely. And if the right script doesn't come along, Johansson will certainly figure out a way to get one written.

"It seems very logical to me that if there's no food in the house, you just go buy some," she reasons. "Don't sit there and starve. It's an instinctive survival thing."

Cautiously optimistic

Yet even with all the good sense and taste in the world, there's no formula for success. In Hollywood, the heat on a project or person isn't controlled by a thermostat; if it were, there'd be no such thing as a bad opening weekend or shows like the WB's "The Surreal Life." Does she worry that someday all those yes's will turn into no's? Does she fear the day when it's someone else's name echoing through the canyons?

"In a business where you're selling yourself, there's always that fear," Johansson acknowledges.

Even her agent, though optimistic, allows for the occasional misstep. "She's so far superior to any actor in her generation," Lambert says, "but will some of the movies not work? Yes, of course."

He sees Johansson as the type of actor who, in capitalizing on her indie credibility, will go on to become one of the great leading ladies. And indeed, even now, she seems equally able to pull off an intimate period drama or edgy comicbook adaptation.

Still, there won't be guarantees. "Can I tell you for sure that we're going to guess right every time?" Lambert continues. "No. If you had told me that Ang Lee was directing 'Hulk,' anybody in town would've thought it would be a hit. The main thing is to keep everybody patient. She's got 40 movies ahead of her. It's a great time for (Scarlett and her mom) because all their dreams can happen now."

Johansson's next dream is to adapt Herman Wouk's 1955 novel "Marjorie Morningstar," about a young Jewish actress from New York. Her mother gave the book to Johansson for her 17th birthday and she read it on the set of "Girl With a Pearl Earring." One day she called her mother, exclaiming, "I'm Marjorie Morningstar!"

Her mother's response? "That's what I said!" They pursued it.

While it may not be difficult to improve on the original film - an overlong, underwhelming melodrama by most accounts - Johansson can't be unaware of the challenge posed by stepping into shoes once worn by Natalie Wood; yet she doesn't seem daunted by the prospect of comparisons to Hollywood's pet symbol of eternal youth and radiance.

"The woman who had the rights to it had been trying to shop it around with Natalie Portman and a whole bunch of people attached," says Johansson. "She could never make it work. So I said, 'Look, give me a chance, let's work it out, I want to get this made.'"

Just as Johansson turned 19, a mere two years after the book was first put in her hands, the film is to be developed at Focus. Johansson is attached to star and she's even helping pick the screenwriter.

"In this business, nobody gives a shit about you unless you're worth something to them," Johansson says. "You can be an incredible actor, but nobody cares unless you can get people into the theater. Unless you strike while the iron's hot, you just get left by the wayside."