Scarlett Johansson fever strikes again

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Scarlett Johansson slips into a catsuit for her role as the undercover spy Black Widow in the action-adventure sequel Iron Man 2. She tells Gill Pringle why playing a vamp has been such a liberating experience

When Scarlett Johansson purrs, "I don't do damsel in distress very well. It's hard for me to play a victim," you don't doubt her for a second.

Like Angelina Jolie, Johansson is one of a handful of actresses who can convincingly convey a dangerous sex appeal, a sense of being able to devour a man while casually filing her nails at the same time. And so it makes perfect sense that she should be cast as the Black Widow, one of the comic-book world's most predatory females who also serves to keep Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark on his toes in Iron Man 2.

Wearing a beige figure-hugging Dolce & Gabbana dress and Christian Louboutin ankle boots, she tells me: "I love everything about this character. She's a total bad ass," says the blonde star who died her hair red for the role of deadly super spy and Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff. "I love every tiny detail from her fabulous outfit to the wonderful hair. I mean, there's nothing not to like about the character. She's very bad, and I think it's rare that we get to see these sort of super heroines brought to the screen, where they're really kicking some major ass, which she does."

With so many superlatives attached to her name like "world's sexiest body" courtesy of Glamour magazine or Playboy's "Sexiest Celebrity of 2007" or even FHM's "Sexiest Woman Alive", you get the general idea. It's a vamp-ish image that the 25-year-old actress clearly enjoys having fun with.

Raised in New York by Danish-born architect father Karsten Johansson and American mother Melanie Sloan, her parents divorced when she was 13 years old although she has nevertheless described hers as a happy childhood where she, and her elder brother and sister and twin brother, were encouraged to pursue their dreams. A keen dancer and singer, she begged her mother to take her to auditions and was enrolled at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan. Her mother continues to act as her manager today as well a co-producing several of Johansson's films.

Just 10 when she began working, she quickly won small roles in big movies, playing Sean Connery's daughter in Just Cause and with Sarah Jessica Parker and Ben Stiller in If Lucy Fell. At 13, she was cast as the big sister in John Hughes's Home Alone 3, a year later disappointed when she lost out to newcomer Lindsay Lohan for the lead role in Parent Trap only to go on to win her break-through role starring opposite Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer.

Working regularly through her high school years, at 19, she became an overnight sensation following her performances in Girl with a Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation for which she received a Bafta together with Golden Globe nominations for both films. At the same time, she also found the spotlight sharply focused on her private life, her subsequent relationships with Benicio del Toro, Jared Leto and Justin Timberlake becoming juicy tabloid fodder, while the actress herself maintained a dignified silence.

Earning a third Golden Globe nomination for 2004's A Love Story for Bobby Long, co-starring John Travolta, some of her best work has been under the direction of Woody Allen with whom she's worked three times with Scoop, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point for which she earned a fourth Golden Globe nomination.

Discussing her relationship with manager mother Sloan, she told US Parade magazine: "It's been an amazing journey for the two of us. It can be unfortunate when family members work together, but my mom understands me. I'm not a 'poor me' kind of person. Certain cards were dealt to me, and I had to be strong. My parents divorced when I was 13. The actual separation wasn't hard, but things that come with divorce are difficult. But those things mould you to be the person that you are. I've always been very determined, ever since I was a little girl, to make my way. And I am also very responsible. It's just who I am."

While her career seems to be a happy result of timely opportunities, then Iron Man 2's Black Widow is one role she actively campaigned for after actress Emily Blunt dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.

"I was a huge fan of the first movie and was quite 'geek-ed' out at being part of the second one. I just wanted to be a part of Iron Man so I really researched the comic books and came in with some ideas of my own about how to develop the character. I see her as being determined and ambitious but I don't know necessarily that it's so black or white. She's a mysterious character, a kind of shape shifter, I would say.

"It's been an empowering experience, which made me feel much stronger than I've ever felt before just because I built so much strength. I had no choice, I had to do it. I mean, if you want to do these stunts, you just have to be strong in order to do them. So, a lot of that was just being able to build my own sense of balance and flexibility and strength. I did a lot of weight training, mixed martial arts and hand-to-hand combat. When you're working out that much you also have to feed your new body, so you eat in a different way, very clean, lots of omelettes, turkey, and stuff like that.

"One of the biggest motivators was when I first saw my costume – the Lycra catsuit. The first time I saw it I was like 'If I've gotta get into that thing, I better start now'. The challenge was to get in the suit and believe it. I wish I could have kept it afterwards but unfortunately it's the property of Marvel so, after I took it off for the final time, I said, 'Ta-ta for now. I love you! Hopefully, I'll see you in the future!'"

Having previously taken a strong stance on the pressure on actresses to be super skinny, Johansson is proud of her curves. "I really like to keep in shape with a healthy lifestyle – nothing extreme. I don't need to be skinny to be sexy. You're never going to see me losing a whole bunch of weight. I'm not anxious to starve myself. For me, it's not at all sexy to be ultra-thin."

While vamping it up on screen, in her private life she has settled down, 18 months ago walking down the aisle with Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds in an intimate ceremony attended by just 40 close friends and family. Determined to keep it a private paparazzi-free affair, the couple wed at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort in British Columbia, on an island reached only by sea plane or a 30-minute boat ride. The first time at the altar for them both, Johansson had previously ended a two-year relationship with Josh Hartnett, while Reynolds had earlier been engaged to singer Alanis Morissette.

While the couple's busy schedules allowed little time for a honeymoon, the past six months has seen them slow down the pace and enjoy married life, living between homes in New York and Los Angeles. Sharing a mutual passion for travel, they even manage to vacation, undetected, in far-flung corners of the world while, curiously, making very few public appearances together.

Johansson's foray into a recording career, releasing a collection of cover versions of Tom Waits songs entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head in 2008, was met with mixed critical reception although it didn't deter her from covering Jeff Buckley's Last Goodbye on the soundtrack of He's Just Not That into You last year, also featuring among the all-star ensemble cast.

Earlier this year, she realised a lifelong dream, appearing on the Broadway stage with Liev Schreiber in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which opened to rave reviews.

Although stage performances by other Hollywood actresses including Julia Roberts and Katie Holmes have received poor reviews, she won the praise of notoriously tough New York Times critic Ben Brantley who wrote: "Film actresses as famous as Ms. Johansson tend to create their own discomfort zones onstage, defined by the mixed expectations of fans and sceptics, By comparison, Ms. Johansson melts into her character so thoroughly that her nimbus of celebrity disappears."

Reluctant to describe her process, she says: "You don't want to see the man behind the curtain. Our process is a very introspective one, and it's strange to share that with the general public – just as you probably wouldn't want to tell us all about your therapy sessions. In a way, acting is a very cathartic experience. You're imparting your personal experience into the characters you play. I've never quite been able to grasp the concept of giving away all of your secrets and wanting to describe your method and your process. It's one thing if you're a part of the Actors Studio and you're working with a bunch of other actors, and you're discussing these types of things. But guaranteed, no other actor is going to ask you what you're working from, what you're drawing from. I think it makes no sense to me as to why we would want to share that with anybody else, certainly."

Recently signed on to co-star in the thriller Lunatic at Large, based on an original story by Stanley Kubrick and pulp writer Jim Thompson, the script being hailed as "buried treasure", while a further outing as the Black Widow in superhero franchise The Avengers rests largely on the success of Iron Man 2.

Ask her how she handled herself among Iron Man 2's largely male cast, she teases, "You know I can handle myself. You don't doubt that, do you?"

Not for one second.

'Iron Man 2' opens on 30 April

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