|by Greg Ursic
At the age of 7 Scarlett Johansson knew she wanted to be an actress and begged to go see a talent agent so she could get “discovered”. She was subsequently shattered when her brother was chosen instead. A series of cold calls for commercials proved fruitless and draining for both mother and daughter and they struck a deal. Scarlett promised that there would be no more tantrums, and in turn, her mother agreed to enroll her at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute for Young People where she studied and flourished for three years. You can bet that the talent agent is still kicking himself.
Soon the young Johansson was being cast in a succession of film roles including 1996’s Manny and Lo which won her critical praise and her riveting portrayal of Grace in 1998’s The Horse Whisperer that prompted Robert Redford’s now famous quote that she was “13 going on 30.” Johansson continued to wrack up solid performances in films like Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn’t there until bursting into the spotlight with double-barreled success in 2003 with Lost In Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring. Her schedule has been ridiculously hectic since then including animated voiceover work on Sponge Bob Squarepants, and the action flick The Island.
I had a conference call with Johansson and three other journalists to discuss the soon-to-be released Woody Allen film Matchpoint which charts the dangers of obsession in relationships. The film is a departure from Allens’ typical style on several fronts. First Allen left his beloved New York to shoot in London, Allen doesn’t make so much as a cameo, and there is not a hint of comedy to be found, in fact the story examines some very dark themes.
The first thing we discovered is that Johannsson is just as breathy and soft-spoken as she is on-screen: when the moderator introduced her, all we initially heard was a barely audible “hello” and then silence. Everyone hesitated, clearly wondering if she'd been disconnected till someone had the temerity to ask, “Is this Scarlett?” and she replied “it is”.
Johansson has apparently been a Woody Allen fan from a young age, and noted that “The first Woody Allen film I ever saw was when I was like 10 years old Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask [It’s] probably an inappropriate film for a 10 year-old to see, but I thought it was hilarious, but that was my first introduction to Woody Allen which is probably strange.”
Asked what was it was like to be a Woody Allen female lead it was evident that she was thrilled, “Well I’ve always been a huge fan of Woody’s…He’s one of those directors, those very few directors that I always wanted to work with. I think we had a very playful relationship on set. I could work with him forever and never get bored. It [still] feels like a dream come true.” Clearly this was no fawning press junket comment as Johansson followed up Match Point with a role in Scoop another Woody Allen project (about which she warned “I don’t know how much exactly I can actually tell you about it. It’s a comedy, it’s very lighthearted and it’s a mystery).
Since graduating from the domain of childstar, Johansson has been called “The It Girl”, “The Next Big Thing” “The Leading Lady” and has most recently been described as a “Femme Fatale.” I was curious what label, for lack of a better word she would use to categorize herself and whom among her peers she identifies with. “It’s a difficult question to answer, to smack a label on yourself because I think it’s so unattractive to have a label.”
Okay, my first question was not going well, and as I know that she doesn’t suffer fools well, I braced for a cutting rejoinder. “I mean I’d never consider myself a femme fatale as I’ve never seduced anyone and ruined their lives.” Then she laughs “At least as far as I know.” Okay, panic beginning to wane. She continues “I think as far as my peers, there are people that I admire; Zoey Deshcanel, I love Natalie Portman’s work, Joaqin Phoenix is a great actor, although he is a few years older than me. I don’t know that any of us are similar, but I admire their work..”
Just then the interview is temporarily sidetracked when Johansson asks one of the interviewers if he’s the same person that she went to high school with, and he replies that he is. A two-minute mini-reunion ensues, definitely not something you experience in a standard interview. She apologizes for the tangent and the interview resumes with us all secretly hating her high school friend.
Given her resume – she’s worked in virtually every genre and with directors with radically different styles (think Woody Allen and Michael Bay) - I ask if she can identify the one role that had the most profound effect on her and why? I realize it’s one of those “which-one-of-your-children-is-your-favorite?” kind of questions, but I’ve haven’t seen it in any of the several dozen interviews I read prepping for this one.
I expect it will require some careful reflection, but she responds after only a few seconds hesitation “Probably Playing Grace in The Horse Whisperer.” She explains that “ I was 12 years old and going through puberty which is an ugly time,’ and laughs nervously, “ that was not the most pleasant. I went from being a actor, a kid actor, a very natural kind, to learning how to manipulate my emotions which is what acting is all about. And working with Bob Redford was so amazing to me and that really had a profound effect on my career and my view of acting.” I probed further, “So it helped you to move to that next level?” She replied with an enthusiastic “ Oh yes, absolutely! It was a turning point for me - going from a kid actor to an actor.”
I switch to a Match Point specific question and ask whether characters like Chris (Johnathan Rhys Meyers), a philandering cad, colour her real world view of men. “My view of men is constantly coloured by the encounters I have with them daily, “ she says laughing, “Men, women, all people are surprising in their actions. I don’t pick one sex over the other. No, I don’t think it coloured my view of men. I mean just working with Johnny was delightful and he’s a wonderful guy.” She stops momentarily as she looks for the right words to clarify her point. “ I mean you hear on Court TV this morning about some women who was accused of attempted murder of her husband because he was having an affair with some teenager. I don’t know necessarily if it’s one sex over the other that is capable of this sort of thing.”
I’m curious what it’s like when the camera stops rolling after you’ve just finished having a nasty visceral scene with someone and whether it feels awkward. “No, not really, I mean you do strange things all the time. It’s weird to have lunch with somebody and a polite tea then like roll around animalistcally in a hayfield. Then you have lunch with him the next day and share a makeup trailer.”
I literally couldn’t have asked for a better segue into my next question if I’d written it myself and I waste no time. “How difficult was it to film that scene (the aforementioned hayfield) and how did you avoid catching hyporthermia?” Johansson groans, “Ugh, it was freezing and I think I got the flu actually - I made Woody buy me soup for the next week. And I had this huge swollen eye cause I have this like this displaced wheat allergy, I’m rolling around in this wet field, it was horrible,” punctuating the point with a shriek as if someone’s just dropped an ice cube down her back. “ And I’m wearing this “conveniently” transparent shirt. It was really a drag, AND” her voice rises in disbelief, “we had to shoot that twice, because he didn’t get the right angle that he wanted and I was so miserable. So right after we got the take I was sopping wet and I ran over to Woody and gave him this like enormous hug and he was drenched and I said “There you go. I feel better now,” and you can practically see her satisfied grin as see adds “ See you in awhile”
Having covered breakthrough roles, co-stars and filming difficult sex scenes, it was time for the inevitable relationship question: What about Maggie, her true love? What role does she play in Johansson’s life and does she travel with Johansson? In case you didn’t know, Maggie is her Teacup Chihuahua. “Maggie does come to set with me. I have to look out for her – we have no au pair and she needs a lot of loving and affection,” she explains with mock seriousness. “Unfortunately while we were shooting in London I couldn’t take her with me because of the quarantine and she was too little to go with me. But now I can - I’ve applied for my pet passport so now I travel with her. Thank god!” and she laughs triumphantly.
I quickly relate a brief anecdote: soon after getting our cat my then girlfriend and I went to Kauai. We’re watching a glorious sunset from the hot tub. Drinking champagne, we stare deeply into each other’s eyes, and in unison say “I wonder how Sasha [our cat] is?” I’m just about to ask my next question when Johansson sighs, “Yeah, I know it’s really hard, I felt the same way. I could be on a glamorous red carpet like in the middle of Leicester Square with everyone screaming and I’m thinking “I hope Maggie’s okay back home” and we both laugh. She adds, “She occupies a very large part of my mind. They’re like little kids, they need you for everything, they totally depend on you. She’s just precious.” Johansson pauses for a moment, and notes chuckling “but she’s a pain in the ass too.” Truer words have never been spoken.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1656
originally posted: 11/29/05 19:51:02
last updated: 12/28/05 14:31:26