New York Magazine, Feb 2004
The most alluringly mature 19-year-old in Hollywood, Scarlett Johansson is an actress who’s about to become a star. Now if only she could get that Chanel suit…
When Scarlett Johannsson arrives at Musso & Franks restaurant in Hollywood, she announces at once, in her improbably husky voice: “I’ve just had my hair coloured.” And she promptly removes her baseball cap to reveal a shock of bright, almost platinum blonde hair.
“What do you think? I wanted grey, but it’s too much work to maintain.” She turns her head from side to side. “It’s not long enough is it? I want it really, really long. You should have seen the haircut I had before – a seveeeere mullet.” Rummaging through her bag she produces a page from a magazine with a picture of her and a friend glammed-up for a night out. She’s right, the mullet takes no prisoners. “It used to be really short at the front, like Ziggy Stardust,” she says, looking wistfully at the picture. “I was rocking it for a while, sweeping my bangs over…” She shrugs. “Oh well.” And puts her baseball cap back on.
There are few actresses who can pull off a mullet, much less pull one out of their handbag. But then Scarlett Johannsson is not merely an actress at the peak of her game. She’s a “dedicated follower of fashion.” She even sings it the way the Kinks would have it. “Oh yes, I do like meself some fashion,” she says, switching to a bizarre Dick Van Dyke impression. “I’m very interested indeed. I have friends who make clothes and I’m young and I like to look at all kinds of things. I’m a bit of a junkie that way.”
Today she looks like a young Rosanna Arquette – inarguably cool in her beige Tod boots, a net cashmere hoody and tight blue jeans. “Feel the cashmere,” she purrs. “You can’t go wrong. And it’s long. I like long things with tight things on the bottom.” The last time we saw her was in a big brown 17th century thing in Girl With A Pearl Earring. “It was actually very comfortable,” she says. “All the other women had to wear corsets but I just had the burlap sack. You look at those period costumes and think, god that must be itchy. Itchy-itchy! But it wasn’t. I made sure they didn’t use any wool. I asked the costume designer especially.”
Girl With A Pearl Earring is one of two movies for which Scarlett Johannsson might win a Best Actress Golden Globe. The other is Lost in Translation, and since they’re in two separate categories, she stands to go home with two trophies – which is a stupendous achievement for any actress, let alone one so young as 19. But Johannsson is only young in age. In actress years she is a veteran, having begun her career at eight (a stage play, alongside Ethan Hawke). She has 18 movies under her belt so far. And the experience shows.
In both Girl with a Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation, she has mastered the art of quiet understatement, of expressing deep and complex emotions while saying very little indeed. Not for Scarlett, the histrionics of amateurs. In Girl, for example, she scarcely speaks at all – the entire story of Vermeer’s servant-girl muse is written in her eyes, her subtle shifts in expression, the curl of her ample pout. It was, she says, “probably the easiest movie I ever had to do. Emotionally draining, but not difficult. It’s much easier to let the emotions play across your face than have to fumble around with silly dialogue that would never have been said.” As a seasoned pro, however, Johannsson well knows the perils of such emotional nudity, particularly with such charged material. She even forewarned her co-star, Colin Firth who is 2 decades years her elder. “Yeah, I told Colin: ‘you and I are both going to have a nervous breakdown’. And we both kind of did. But we called each other on the phone and got through it.”
It’s this poise and assurance that has led to Johannsson being often described as an “old soul” – not because, as she admits, she “drives like a granny”. Robert Redford, who cast her in her breakout role in The Horse Whisperer (after Natalie Portman passed), said that young Scarlett was “13 going on 30”. Sofia Coppolla, who directed Lost in Translation, once said that “there’s something deep about her that I really like… She makes you feel like she has been around the world.”
Part of her old-soulness is her uncanny chemistry with older men, at least on screen. Besides Redford she has acted opposite Sean Connery (Just Cause) and Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who Wasn’t There). In Lost in Translation, she resonates with Bill Murray and in Girl she ignites Colin Firth. Most recently she has rather fallen for John Travolta in A Love Song for Bobby Long. “I love everything about John,” she thrills. “I think John and I could make a romantic movie together.” (For the record, there’s nothing going on – she’s single and dating).
And she rather likes this “old soul”.compliment. In fact, when she thinks about this idea that maybe she’s been around for a long time, it makes a kind of spooky sense. For instance, she has always passionately wanted to be an actress despite coming from a non-artistic background – her father’s an architect and neither of her two brothers and sister has pursued show business. Her mother and now manager, Melanie, is a huge movie buff – the name Scarlett comes from Gone with the Wind (which also features a Melanie) – but the impetus to act always came from Scarlett first.
“I was just a hammy, dramatic kid, always singing and dancing. I was one of those kids who used to stare in the mirror until I made myself cry. I wanted to be Judy Garland in Meet Me in St Louis.” At seen, she got her first taste of rejection when a talent agent signed up her brother, who wasn’t particularly interested, rather than her. “I was completely devastated. I saw my future crumble at the age of 7 ½,” she says. But she was desperate to carry on, so headshots were taken, she was enrolled at the Lee Strasburg Institute and her mother began taking her to auditions.
“It’s weird, but I remember going onto the set of my first film – it was a Rob Reiner film [North] – and for some reason, I just knew what to do, instinctively. It was like, I don’t know… Fate.” She dabs her eyes. “I get very emotional at this point. I just love everything about making movies, the process, the production, the equipment – that’s why I want to direct. And to be such a strong part of it, and now to be recognised for it has just been a dream come true.”
It’s not that Johannsson didn’t have any other interests growing up, just that acting always came first. Once her fascination with Egyptology passed, for example, she turned to horticulture for a while. “I’ve got a green thumb, I like to grow things, and when I was young, I wanted to be a florist. I like to nurture stuff. I’m the kind of person that gets excited when they get a wound because I can like nurture it back to health. I like to treat a cold. But I’ve got plenty of time to have a giant greenhouse in my Hollywood home. Or I could just grow a load of pot in my closet.”
Unfortunately, the closet doesn’t yet exist. She only just bought an apartment on Hollywood Boulevard – in the same building as her mother – and she hasn’t yet bought the furniture. As a result, she doesn’t even think of herself as having moved. “I still tell people I live in New York. I haven’t left; I can never leave New York. I just live bicoastally now.”
For Johannsson, however, the New York where she was born and raised isn’t quite the place it once was. “For whatever reason, whenever I go back there I find sadness. People don’t want to go out; they’re too cool for school in their monogrammed outfits and whatever. Just dull. And there are no decent clubs any more, since Giuliani shut them all down. I feel sorry for kids these days. There’s nothing fun to do any more. That’s why they’re all drinking cough syrup.”
The club scene in New York witnessed some of Johansson’s finest fashion moments. At the age of 11, for example – she was always comfortable with an older crowd – she would follow the lead of her 19 year old brother. “He was Limelight club kid in the early 90s and he had his septum pierced, platforms this high and giant pants that made him look like an Amish woman. So I followed that trend for a while. That ended quickly. Two years.”
One thing she does miss about New York, however, is the shopping. “There are a lot of good shops on the Lower East Side but my favourite is Barneys because it’s filled with old ladies and nobody bothers you. It’s very easy to shop in Barneys in New York for some reason. In LA it’s a big scene – you find Lara Flynn Boyle trying on bikinis.”
The only part of the shopping experience she could do without is trying things on. She shudders at the thought. “First of all – the overhead lighting in the dressing rooms. I swear I need a plastic surgeon on speed dial every time I go into Nieman Marcus.” She jests but only partly. She’s not averse to the prospect of going under the knife one day. “Sure, but not now. God, I’m 19! I’ll let you know in 35 years when things start to sag and drape behind me on the floor.”
Remarkably she insists that she’s out of shape. “I am!” she protests. “I’m rotting on the inside. I have no muscles, no endurance. All my outdoor activities involve lying in the sun.” Has she considered a gym membership? “No, I need to start a game, exercising’s too dull. Actually I’ve got a tennis lesson on Friday! I’m shooting a movie in March and my character has to look really good at tennis, like I could be a professional. I’m a bit nervous to be honest. I’ve never played before.”
The movie is In Good Company, by the Weitz brothers (American Pie, About A Boy). Johannsson plays Dennis Quaid’s daughter who gets it on with Topher Grace and apparently plays some tennis. But it’s nothing she can’t handle. “This is what actors do all the time,” she shrugs. “Whatever.” Already, 2004 is looking like another bumper year for Johannsson. Besides In Good Company, she has a movie out – A Perfect Score, in which high school kids steal their SAT answers, then in the fall A Love Song for Bobby Long is released. Not to mention the Golden Globes. And to think she was about to start the film course at Purchase University in New York in the Fall of 2002. Since deferring, she has shot 5 movies with another one in the works and been nominated for a fistful of awards. Not bad going for a Gap Year. Needless to say, returning to school is out of the question now. “I don’t miss it,” she says. “It’s for some people and not for others.”
For now, Johannsson has other things on her mind. She’s wondering, for example, whether she could parlay her blooming film career into a commercial campaign for her favourite fashion house, the way Jennifer Lopez did with Louis Vuitton. “There are some labels that I’m just…” She makes a drooling noise and paws her hands in the air. “I want, I want. I want a Chanel suit so badly. Gucci, recently, makes me drool, too.”
She’s wondering how to get a ticket to the Marc Jacobs fashion show, and – oh yes! – what on earth she could wear to the Golden Globes itself. “I haven’t thought about it, just the fact of going…” She bounces up and down in her seat gleefully. “I’m going to be sitting next to Diane Keaton! I’m thrilled!”
So there isn’t a fleet of designers busily embroidering gems into your dress as we speak?
“Oh of course there is!” she says, indignantly. “There are all sorts of little elves, making things.”