Scarlett Johansson doesn't sound like a 19-year-old. It's not so much a matter of how she talks, which to be honest, with its phatic, space-filling "likes" and the occasional "you know", isn't so different from your average hyper-sophisticated, well-educated, upper-middle-class young lady raised in New York City by well-to-do parents (her father is a Danish-born architect). It's the voice itself, a husky contralto like the last hours of a smoky New Year's Eve, which sounds far too old for her confectioner's-sugar complexion. You can't help wondering if she drank a lot of whisky and smoked a lot of cigarettes to get it that way. (She does smoke, but I'm not so sure about the whisky.) "It just appeared when I started speaking," she shrugs. "I just opened my mouth and out it came like that. My mother was like, 'Whoa! What the hell was that!'"
Indeed, that's a pretty common reaction to Scarlett Johansson's talent, not just her voice - both striking entities that have a deep, subsonic wallop. This month the UK will be in the grip of Scarlett fever. This week sees the release of Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's lavishly praised second feature, in which Johansson plays Charlotte, a restless married graduate in her 20s who sort of falls in love with Bob, Bill Murray's washed-up movie star, in Tokyo. She's expected to get nominated for an Oscar for either this or Girl With a Pearl Earring, released next week, in which she plays Griet, a shy 17th-century Dutch maid who becomes the helper-cum-muse of Jan Vermeer, and eventually the model for the famous portrait of the film's title.
A girl couldn't ask for a better opportunity to show off her acting chops, which she's been honing since the age of eight when she won a role in North starring Elijah Wood. Her Griet is all cringing reticience, mortified at the mere thought of revealing her hair, and she spends most of the film doing housework, not saying a word, but always watching with those huge, aquamarine eyes. On the other hand, her Charlotte in Lost in Translation is a spiky, sarcastic preppie, adrift post-philosophy degree, still not settled on a career. She's tried photography ("I think every girl tries photography at one point - it's like horses," she cracks) but seems to have lost the taste for it, having seen the career of her celebrity husband (Giovanni Ribisi) take off.
It's all too easy to see a parallel between Charlotte and Sofia Coppola, another smart rich girl who once tried photography and is/was (almost past tense, now that Coppola and husband Spike Jonze have separated) married to a fashionable artist who hangs out with celebrities. Good girl Scarlett knows to toe the company line on questions about the similarity. "People have asked me before if I was playing Sofia and I would never say that," she growls. "But the characters, both Charlotte and Bob, are very close to her. If you spend time with her, she's very reserved, and I think for a lot of people this film is the closest they'll get to her. I think Bill's character and sense of irony and my character's confusion and lack of comfort in her own skin have all been part of Sofia at one point."
Scarlett certainly doesn't seem reserved. Which isn't to say she's not careful about what she says. By the time I get to speak with her alone, she's done hundreds of interviews already and looks beat - a bit on autopilot, a bit clenched with her dainty limbs folded up on the hotel sofa, alternately smoking and picking at the room-service tray. "I love room service!" she exclaims, maybe trying to live a bit in the now. She must have enjoyed her fair share of it already over these last 11 years, having made 17 features already, including The Horse Whisperer with Robert Redford (she was the accident-traumatised daughter), Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed Ghost World (playing Thora Birch's prettier, more normal but still alienated best friend) and The Man Who Wasn't There with the Coen Brothers (the bobby-soxer who gives Billy Bob Thornton a blow job in the car with disastrous consequences).
"I think with every experience I have learned something about myself," she says, but explains that acting has always come fairly naturally to her. "Over 11 years, the process feels very familiar. Just the other day I walked on a set, and I thought to myself this is so funny it's like a zoo. And I know exactly where to go and exactly what's going on and that's a pure, sheer delight for me."
Was she ever afraid of getting typecast? "Ever since Horse Whisperer they've wanted me to play the deformed ballet dancer who becomes a cheerleader who marries a prom king and decides to work for a Third World country," she sighs. "You know? But I was in school the whole time after that. I didn't have to support myself, so I didn't have to take those roles, I could let other people do them. People don't typecast me now. I've played so many different roles already this year from a high-school student [in the upcoming The Perfect Score] to a married woman to a Dutch maid and now I've just played trailer-park trash in The Love Song of Bobby Long with John Travolta." She thinks for a moment and then adds, "For a while I thought I was going to get typecast as the bitter-shit teenager who's always sarcastic, but luckily that was a fear that never became a reality."
Terry Zwigoff once said she'd have made a great Lolita with that voice. "Terry Zwigoff would say something like that," she says witheringly. At one point she also says that "Sofia Coppola is a big fat liar" when it's reported back to her that Coppola claimed the whole film was shot in sequence. I'm not quite sure how jokingly she means it, but she won't be drawn further on the topic, and resolutely supports the movie.
We bond over how the first time we saw it we both cried at the end when she parts with Bill Murray's character Bob. "I get a little teary every time I see it - which has been, like, three or four times now - and I'm like, 'Don't leave her! She loves you!' But it wouldn't have worked out for them, and she's really in love with her husband, who's just a little out of it. I think that's why it's so nice when he [the husband] sends her the fax at the end with the little hearts and it's like, 'Ah! he's so thoughtful!' Whereas Lydia and Bob have the worst marriage ever, it's so over and so rotten. But you want John and Charlotte to get together. Sometimes you're in a relationship with someone and there are periods when you're in totally different places. If she and Bob had ever consummated their love it would have been awful, because they'd both feel so guilty."
Johansson herself isn't in a relationship right now. "I'm actually single for the first time since I went through puberty," she divulges cautiously. "And I'm so happy to be alone for a change and figure out my own shit." Asked whether she'd ever have an affair with an older man, she makes a face. "Having a relationship with someone with that age difference is quite strange because you're both at different stages of your life. Falling in love with someone is different because you can't control who you fall in love with. But I don't think you can have a healthy relationship with someone that much older than you. I guess you can have a short one, but I don't see that lasting."
The conversation drifts imperceptibly towards Girl With a Pearl Earring, which also features her as a young woman locked in an attraction with an older, more successful man (in this case Vermeer, played by Colin Firth). Does she see a continuity between the two roles? "A little, I guess," she says evasively. "It was my first role playing a character from a century earlier than the 20th. I didn't have any time to prepare because I got off Lost in Translation and 10 days later I was shooting Girl. The only prep I had was that I was already so emotionally vulnerable from doing Lost, totally exhausted and overworked, and when I got there it was an unbelievably warm set, and everybody knew where I was coming from and really accepting. It was nice and easy to jump into."
After such a busy year, she's taking time off now to do things like decorate her new place in LA, which has nothing in it but some art and a carpet, and enjoy her new BMW Z4. And, like seemingly every young actress I meet these days, she's planning to direct a movie herself soon, maybe this spring.
Johansson is quite dismissive of the idea of making a short first. "I'd rather just dive into a feature," she says, and you just know she would, too. "I don't know if I'd necessarily be good at making a short film - it's like making short stories. I don't know that that would be my forte or be satisfying for me. I bought a bunch of books for research and spent some time searching for things I'm interested in. I definitely want to make a big epic film, not necessarily Gladiator, but a larger-than-life subject, and also a story I've had experience in, like a New York story, a coming-of-age sort of thing." Her voice drifts off, a bit tired but steely. "I want to make all kinds of movies, I'm totally ambitious."
Does she feel she has the discipline to sit down and write a script? "Sure," she says. "It's not like acting where you need to have an escape. You get so crazed at work and have to come home to something familiar like the TV and the cats. You get reclusive because so many people are hounding you all the time. Some people really need to discipline themselves, but I'm pretty responsible and with my head out of the clouds. It's not like I'm battling temptation all the time. I don't feel like I have to discipline myself, like, 'Bad Scarlett! Now go back to writing!' I don't feel like forcing myself to write or create, I don't have to. I don't have, like, a deadline or any responsibility except to make myself happy because that's what goes along with being 19."Reuse content