Scarlett Johansson talks playing The Major in Ghost In The Shell

From Her to Lucy, when it comes to sci-fi, Scarlett Johansson has made a real name for herself. As Ghost In The Shell is released, the actress discusses her latest foray into the future

Ellen E. Jones
Friday 31 March 2017 09:48 BST

It’s as if Scarlett Johansson had been preparing to play the role of The Major for her entire career. Certainly for the creative minds behind Ghost In The Shell — the spectacular new live action take on a Manga classic — there was only ever one choice.

Here, she discusses the benef­its of suiting up for action as well as the “boyish” quality of her co-star

Michael Carmen Pitt and the “yearning to connect” that is part of modern life — all further proof that, as Ghost In The Shell director Rupert Sanders puts it, “Scarlett is the cyberpunk queen”. All hail the reigning monarch.

It would seem The Major’s journey of self-discovery is a little less abstract than the main character’s in the 1995 anime movie.

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell
Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell

When I ­first saw the anime f­ilm it was kind of esoteric and existential and free flowing. It was very poetic and, of course, that applies not just to the words; the visual journey is very languid and poetic as well.

It didn’t immediately strike me as something that could be adapted for live action. The visual references are exciting and you can imagine how that’s going to lift of­f from the anime version, but the character’s journey was not totally apparent to me.

I thought the physical aspect would be exciting and that it would be a great challenge, but what was I going to do with it?

For my vanity it was exciting, but other than just making pretty pictures, what was there to hold on to? What could the audience hold on to? I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So, it kept gnawing away at you?

It did keep gnawing at me. You have this woman who has an idea of who she is — or who is told who she is supposed to be — and then this feeling at the back of her mind, which is the person who she actually is.

There is this ghost that literally and spiritually haunts her. I started to play around with that idea.

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This is going to sound a bit pretentious but I am going to say it anyway because it helped me to figure it out: there is the id, the super ego and the ego, and all three parts make up this one person’s experience.

That idea helped me to relate to this seemingly unrelatable experience. And when Rupert [Sanders, the director] and I started talking about it — and what a plight that is for someone — then it became real.

It all started to become real, especially when that was paired with Rupert’s explosive visual references. It was like, “Hmm, I don’t know how I am going to do this thing but I know I can,” and the fun part was figuring that out.

Does the performance change for you as The Major learns more about herself?

Yes. As she becomes more in touch with who she was, maybe she humanises a bit. You want a bit of an arc, but by the end of the ­film you still want to see The Major as you know her. You want to see The Major that you have hopefully come to love.

It is complicated. It was something that was changing from day to day on set and was growing as we were def­ining it. That’s the fun part of the job. That’s what keeps me really excited — getting to make those choices every day. I like that part.

You mention Rupert’s strong vision for the ­film. Can you elaborate on that?

Director Rupert Sanders on the set of Ghost In The Shell
Director Rupert Sanders on the set of Ghost In The Shell

We imagine the future as this dystopian place and often it is perceived as very clinical and without identity, and then at other times we see it as a post-apocalyptic future.

Rupert really loved this idea and what seemed most realistic to him was a future where there is just no space.

We are constantly competing against ourselves for space, so we operate in a city that is almost built on top of another city.

And it is full of cultures that have been appropriated by other cultures. There are renovations that are haphazard and it’s a much more colourful future than we’re used to seeing.

It is a city that you have never really seen before. I was fascinated with that because I assumed this future would be cold and digital but it’s not at all like that. When you see the ­film, it’s really warm and inviting. It’s unique and that vision is a real gift that Rupert has.

Did you enjoy paying homage to the anime ­film? You have a number of scenes that mirror those in Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 movie.

You would walk past the director’s monitor area and sometimes you would see some cross-referencing happening, though that was only with those very particular scenes that Rupert wanted to pay homage to — whether it was that initial dive or the f­ight in the water.

Some of the frames are lifted right o­f the anime because they are so iconic and so exciting. It was exciting for us to recreate them and it’ll be really exciting for the audience to see them being realised.

But it is not like we were continually lifting from the comic and lifting stu­ff o­ff the page. It has a healthy homage to the original but it is its own entity outside of that.

You have plenty of experience doing action roles but this f­ilm takes that to another level.

Like you said, I have been fortunate in that I have had a lot of ­fight and weapon training, so I had a base for all of that. It really makes a huge difference.

I have been making genre ­films and action films for a decade, which is crazy, though I did some MMA training and sharpened my skills because it is amazing how quickly you lose it.

I also did a lot of tactical training, which I had never done before. It’s always been something I had an aversion to because it makes me nervous.

Tactical training is kind of like room clearing — how you work in a team, all that stuf­f. I took to it. It was a skill that I had been avoiding.

What’s it like working with weapons?

Some things I like more than others and I don’t mind weapons training. I am actually quite good with a f­irearm — surprisingly; I operate a weapon really well. It is something I am better at than other things. Actual f­ighting doesn’t come completely naturally to me — I’m not a ­fighter by nature.

What about wearing that suit in the movie?

It was not too dissimilar from any other super-suit I’ve had to wear. The material was unique — almost like a silicone material — but after the ­first couple of weeks putting it on and o­f it wasn’t so bad.

It was pretty easy. It was actually good to f­ight in because it provided padding, although I found that the suit was hot when I didn’t want it to be hot, and freezing when I was desperate to be warm!

You worked with Pilou Asbæk on Lucy. Did that play a part in his getting cast as Batou?

I had no part in the casting of Batou — only that Rupert mentioned Pilou and he asked if I had enjoyed working with him, which I had.

I had worked with him a few days. He is a great actor and a super nice guy. I was really happy that Rupert brought him up for the part because, honestly, I couldn’t think of anybody myself.

It is such a di­­fficult part to cast — not just the physical part of it but also the composure of the character is unique. I thought Pilou was a really enlightened casting choice.

Batou is the one person in The Major’s life that she feels connected to; she feels connected to his human experience. There is a kind of unrequited love there.

There is a closeness between them and a sort of longing on Batou’s part that The Major isn’t really prepared for.

And how was working with Michael Carmen Pitt, who plays cyber-terrorist Kuze?

Scarlett Johansson as The Major and Michael Carmen Pitt as Kuze
Scarlett Johansson as The Major and Michael Carmen Pitt as Kuze

The way that Michael played his character really informed my performance because I didn’t realise on the page quite how deep the connection became between these two.

Michael plays the character with a certain boyishness. That might just be innate to him. It is one of his most alluring qualities as an actor, this kind of sweet soulfulness. I don’t know what it is exactly. It is hard to put your finger on it.

There is a lost boy quality about the way he plays this character, a kind of lost innocence, and it is incredibly touching. And I think it touched my character in a way that was completely unexpected.

It makes for a very complex aspect to the dynamic of their relationship, but it runs deeper than that.

There is a lot of complexity to them, and you see them as almost mirror images of one another. They’re like soulmates.

The f­ilm seems incredibly timely, not just with the rise of cyber-terrorism but also with the disconnect that so many people feel in the digital age.

I think it is timely, certainly when you look at the original. It was more than 20 years ago but was so progressive. More than anything it predicted this disconnect that is a by-product of the digital age.

Cyber-terrorism too is a threat. But it is this longing, this yearning to connect with one another in an age when we are overly connected. We are supposed to be so connected to one another — it’s easier than ever to connect with each other — yet we have this feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction. So, yes, that feels very timely.

How do you feel about Ghost In The Shell evolving into a potential franchise?

It is daunting because it is not totally obvious what the next chapter is for this character. It is also physically daunting.

This film was extremely draining, physically, emotionally and professionally. It required an immense amount of discipline and thought. It was very, very diff­­icult for me.

But, of course, the idea that this female-driven genre f­ilm could go on to be a sequel, that it could be successful enough to demand a sequel, that is very exciting. It would be a real victory in many ways. I am up for the challenge. I am a big girl. I can handle it — I think!

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