SCARLETT JOHANSSON SPEAKS AND WE CAN’T HELP BUT LISTEN

 

Power manifests itself in different ways. There’s the overt kind that can be aggressive and close, efficient and confident. It’s the type that takes form through firm hand- shakes and steady gazes. Another kind is more ephemeral; a current of fast-flowing energy, deep beneath the surface like a wave of electricity behind the eyes. It’s the indirect power of presence, which is voice. This is what you think of when Scarlett Johansson picks up the phone and speaks to you: that voice, though. It’s deep, deadpan and husky, implying all kinds of knowingness and complicity even when she’s talking about traffic or the weather. It’s a defining characteristic, all-too-often overshadowed by her physical appearance. It was this voice that kept her from being cast in typical kid- like roles as a young actress, landing her, instead, more substantial parts of girls wise beyond their years. Robert Redford, who gave Johansson her breakthrough role in The Horse Whisperer, famously said of her, “She’s 13 going on 30,” an assessment that that would come to define her early years in Hollywood. This culminated in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, where she played a jetlagged, soul-searching young wife falling for an older, equally life-lost Bill Murray on the streets of Tokyo. Johansson was only 17 when she shot the film, but her presence (and, yes, her voice) never suggested it. Scarlett Johansson has grown up, made great achievements, been celebrated widely, and at the centre of it all is this voice.

To whit: in addition to an acting career that spans big-budget blockbusters and indie gems, Johansson has also carved out a respectable sideline as a vocalist, lend- ing her alluring tenor to an album of Tom Waits covers that received critical acclaim, as well as collaborating on releases with alt- rocker Pete Yorn and HAIM’s Este Haim. Anyone wishing to realize the full extent of the unfairness with which the universe bestows its gifts needs only listen to her cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye.” Spike Jonze recently bet the house on the power of Johansson’s instrument in Her, a futuristic romance about a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. Johansson starred in the film although she never appeared on screen; her disembodied voice conjured more than enough presence. Indeed, if you have just her voice to go on, you’ve got plenty.

Over the phone from Los Angeles, that voice is just as arresting as it is on screen. The only distinction is that in real life Scarlett Johansson’s voice is frequently punctuated by a laugh that’s both spontaneous and deeply felt, with an edge of cocked-eyebrow sarcasm lurking at its periphery. It has the strange effect of nar- rowing space and creating an immediate intimacy. Johansson is relaxed and chatty, if not quite candid, cracking wise about California stereotypes, and full of excite- ment about her plans to spend the evening at a games night at Chris Evans’ house (“I’m assuming there’s going to be some kind of a Charades thing...you’ll have to ask Chris Evans,” she says—dry humour seems to be her favourite kind).

Johansson will celebrate her 31st birthday this year, and one gets the sense that her personal life has caught up with her career; things are falling into place. Last year she married French creative director Romain Dauriac, and in the autumn they welcomed their first daughter, Rose Dorothy. Now Johansson happily splits her time between New York and the couple’s residence on Paris’ left bank. “I love the pace of the city,” she says of her adopted Parisian home. “I grew up in Manhattan, but it’s very frenetic and it can be all-consuming. There’s a certain lack of urgency to the lifestyle in Paris. People enjoy long lunches, long walks, reading a book, taking their time, going to museums... There’s a joie de vivre that permeates there.” A brassy New Yorker through and through, she has a decided esteem for the self-assured elegance of Parisian society. “I admire the cultural identity and how it prevails there...I have some wonderful female friends in Paris, and they have a certain grace and a tact about them that I appreciate.”

It’s easy to understand why Johansson values the luxurious pace of Parisian life: as her celebrity grows, she seems to be work- ing at an increasingly super-human pace. Fittingly, her latest starring role is a reprise of the Marvel superheroine Black Widow, alongside Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, in one of this year’s hotly anticipated films, Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1). In the Marvel films, Scarlett’s voice takes a back seat to her fists. “I wanted to do something that was outside of my comfort zone,” she says of playing a Russian spy-turned-saviour-of humanity who routinely dispatches heavily armed bad- dies with a combination of martial arts and high-tech gadgetry. The immense success of the Marvel pictures (the original Avengers is the third-highest grossing film of all time) can be attributed, in part, to the producers’ dedication to giving legions of the story’s fans exactly what they want. While Johansson wasn’t originally cast in the role (“It was really just luck,” she says with complete earnestness), Black Widow plays a major part in Age of Ultron, setting the stage for Johansson to star in a spate of sequels in the coming years. A standalone Black Widow feature has been discussed because what the fans want, it seems, is more Scarlett Johansson.

Amid all of the action, the CGI special effects and a number of Comic-Con appearances, Johansson makes it clear that her heart belongs to the small, quirky indie films with which she first made her mark in Hollywood. In 2014’s Under the Skin, a bizarre outing from revered indie director Jonathan Glazer, Johansson plays a van- driving alien who lures men to her home and drowns them in a puddle of black ooze. It’s very good, despite how this sounds. The production was shot using hidden cameras in Glasgow’s bustling public places. Johansson found the project irresistible, and donned a posh London accent for the role. “This [was] a blue moon opportunity,” she says of the tenacity with which she sought the role, hounding Glazer for years to give her shot at it. “If Kubrick was making another feature, I’d have probably pursued it in the same way. We kind of circled each other for a while, but I didn’t know for years if he’d turn around and recognize me.” In the end, Glazer was won over, and the result is easily the strangest, bravest, most challenging work Johansson has ever done. “I guess I played the long game,” she says with a laugh that manages to be light and throaty all at once.

She’s playing that long game again with her directorial debut, Summer Crossing, a coming-of-age tale set in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the 1950s, about a WASPy debutante who falls for a working-class Jewish boy. “I was totally taken with it,” she says. The film is an adaptation of a posthumously published Truman Capote novel. Johansson spent years working with the Capote estate, gaining their trust and convincing them
that she had the passion and vision to bring the author’s work to life. Indeed, it’s a story with which she can easily identify. “The fact that it has a female protagonist who’s 17 and living in New York and experiencing this kind of loss of innocence resonated with me,” Johansson says, citing her own teen years roaming the streets and pool halls of Manhattan. It’s a story of the consequences of leaving one world for another, of child- hood, of class and of geography. It’s a part designed for a young actress with equal measures of wide-eyed child and cynical adult. “It’s a role that I would have loved to have played,” she admits. Picturing the teen- age Johansson, her voice conveying wisdom beyond her years, it’s a given that she would have been perfect for it. But those days are long gone. Now she’s got a script to direct and a world to save and probably a few more songs in her, too. You’ll certainly be hearing that voice again soon. 

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