Scarlett Johansson has packed a whole career into 26 years: indie hits, action blockbusters, Broadway triumph, Woody Allen muse-dom. Now she wants her obituary written? As Johansson stars this month opposite Matt Damon in Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, having just wrapped next summer’s The Avengers, Peter Biskind gets her talking about the thrill of winning a Tony, the emptiness that followed—along with her divorce from Ryan Reynolds—and the new challenges ahead.
Scarlett Johansson has a much-anticipated film coming out in December called We Bought a Zoo, from the gifted writer-director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) and co-starring the actor everyone loves to love, Matt Damon (credit superfluous). She has also just wrapped The Avengers, one of next summer’s big comic-book movies, in which she reprises her role from Iron Man 2 as the Black Widow. Hence she’s now doing publicity, but she is bored by the ritual dance between stars and the press—stale questions, staler answers—so she likes to mix it up. Several years ago, she took a journalist with her while she shopped. She agreed to go with another to Hollywood’s Erotic Museum, to see a dildo show, although she eventually changed her mind and dragged him to the wax museum next door. For me she suggested the Brooklyn Bridge—walking across it. Not my idea of fun. So here we were at New York’s Carlyle Hotel for an old-fashioned breakfast. Or at least here I was; she was half an hour late, giving me plenty of time to check out the foreign tourists taking advantage of the ridiculously asymmetrical exchange rate to stuff themselves with overpriced pastries.
Eventually, Johansson arrived, unapologetically explaining that her beloved Chihuahua, Maggie, perturbed by an unsettled stomach, had let loose all over the floor of her apartment just as she was getting ready to leave. It was her update of “the dog ate my homework.” But it was hard to hold this against her. I knew from doing my own homework that she’s celebrated for her frankness and wit, and before too much time had passed I understood why.
Flaunting red hair and dressed demurely in a gray sweater and a long vintage skirt with a floral pattern, she looked positively prim, belying her reputation for what Woody Allen once called her “zaftig humidity.” Those lips and that voice that have launched a thousand adjectives were there as advertised. Yes, her lips are “pouty,” “bee-stung,” “crushed-rose,” “kissable,” as they have been variously described, and, yes, her voice sounds “husky,” “honey-dripping,” “sultry,” “throaty,” “smoky,” like “slowly ripped velvet.” But it’s her droll sense of humor that sets her apart. As a conversationalist, she skillfully walks the thin line between being entertainingly irreverent and committing the sort of verbal gaffes that might make it impossible even for her to eat lunch in that town again.
Johansson uneasily scanned the room for diners covertly taking her picture while pretending to chat on their iPhones, then said, “They’re everywhere.” What puzzled me was the opposite: no diners were taking her picture and there weren’t any paparazzi, not in the restaurant, not at the entrance to the hotel. Had they all lost interest? Was her career over, at 26? “Nobody in this dining room is giving you the time of day,” I said, pointing out the obvious.
“Well, if you’re paying $35 for eggs, you’d better be focused on them.”
“Maybe it’s because you’re doing their work for them,” I responded, alluding to the two nude pictures of her that had recently gone viral. She confessed she had taken them herself with her smartphone. “Those are old, from three years ago. They were sent to my husband,” she explained, referring to her now ex, Ryan Reynolds. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not like I was shooting a porno—although there’s nothing wrong with that either.” Still, a dangerous habit, I thought, for a movie star. Worse than getting her phone hacked, she might make herself look bad: “You’re hardly a professional photographer.”
“I know my best angles,” she replied breezily. Cool, too, and smart was Johansson’s response after she found out she had been hacked: she copyrighted the pictures so that she could go after sites that displayed them. Good or bad, they’ve all but disappeared, and the alleged hacker was arrested in fairly short order.
Johansson, who grew up in Greenwich Village, is famous for her precocity. Of Jewish and Scandinavian descent (she thinks Jewish and looks Danish), she was only eight, in 1992, when she first appeared onstage, Off Broadway, in Sophistry, a play that featured Ethan Hawke. She was 9 when she appeared in her first movie, Rob Reiner’s North, and 12 when she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for an outstanding performance as a pre-teen runaway in Manny & Lo. Guided by her mother (her parents split up when she was 13), she skillfully navigated the shoals of child acting, and aside from occasional lapses—Home Alone 3, Eight Legged Freaks—laid the foundation for her soon-to-be brilliant career. While still a pre-teen she found herself being directed by Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer. She followed up with a quartet of exceptional indie films: The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World, Lost in Translation, and Girl with a Pearl Earring. It was her role in Lost in Translation, as a sullen newlywed marooned in Tokyo, that really put her on the map, not to mention the now famous opening shot of her fanny clad only in see-through panties—an intimacy she uncharacteristically resisted, at least at first.
In 2004, at 19, she fell in with Woody Allen, joining the Who’s Who of distinguished actresses—Diane Keaton, Judy Davis, Dianne Wiest, Maureen Stapleton, et al.—who have appeared in his films, a singular honor for one so young. Admittedly, she was a last-minute replacement for Kate Winslet in Match Point, but Johansson-Allen turned out to be a fortuitous pairing, eventually producing Scoop as well, which he wrote for her, and then Vicky Cristina Barcelona. “The first time I met Woody was at the camera test for Match Point,” she told me. She already had the part and was “parading around in all of these costumes, and Woody was standing there and he’d look and go, ‘O.K. Thank you. Turn around. Next.’ I felt like I was doing catalogue work or something. He flicks you away. You have to poke him a bit. So began a friendship.”
Like many people in the public eye who have to look after their looks and health, Johansson and Allen are both hypochondriacs; they bonded over Purell. “He shakes a lot of hands,” Johansson explained. “I’ll squirt some in my hand and then squirt in his. It’s like a drug but not as much fun.” Warming to the subject, she continued: “You don’t want to get stuck behind me if you have to get in to see your E.N.T.”
“Ear-nose-and-throat doctor. I’ll be in with those people for hours.” As it turns out, she’s not only conversant with the lingo but a skilled diagnostician. “The only reason why Woody and I are still friends is because I’ve diagnosed all kinds of his skin tags, lesions, ailments. I’ve prescribed things for Woody that he’s then asked his doctor to prescribe for him. I would have loved to have gone into diagnostic medicine.”
But friendships cannot live by Purell alone. Her most recent film with Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was released in 2008. Is the collaboration played out? Allen told me it isn’t: “I have every intention of working with her again, but I just didn’t think it was a great idea for either one of us to work together too intensely, picture after picture. I didn’t want her to be burdened by, ‘Oh, she’s in all the Woody Allen pictures, it’s so predictable,’ and she’s my new muse, and all that silliness. But now that some time has elapsed since Vicky Cristina, I will start to think about that again.” For her part, Johansson said, “I don’t think anything’s played out. I’m waiting for him to write my Citizen Kane.”
Continued Allen, “I always feel I’m going to wind up as Erich von Stroheim to her Norma Desmond, as her chauffeur, writing her imaginary fan letters so her ego doesn’t get deflated. I’ll say I directed her in pictures when she was this international goddess, and now I’m just happy to be able to drive her car.”
Not only is Johansson the darling of journalists and directors, she’s also coveted by purveyors of luxury goods. At one time or another she has lent her name to Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Moët & Chandon, Calvin Klein, L’Oréal, and Reebok. It used to be the case that actors were shy about endorsing products; they worried about overexposure, cheapening their images, and even—how quaint this now seems—selling out. (Witness the darkly comic scene in Lost in Translation in which Johansson’s co-star, Bill Murray, playing an aging American movie star, runs through multiple takes of a Japanese commercial for Suntory Whisky.)
“You have to be careful about advertising, but I chose particular brands that made sense for me,” Johansson said, unfazed. “I wouldn’t be selling you shaving cream.”
“You’ll lose the aura of mystery.”
“Seeing me popping a bottle of champagne makes you feel like you know me better? There’s no such thing as an aura of mystery anymore. It doesn’t exist. That’s a thing of the past.” She has donated some of the money she’s earned from advertising to the various causes she supports. For example, she used a fee she earned for posing as Cinderella in a Disney World campaign to help rebuild an arts center in New Orleans that had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Lately, she also seems to have relaxed her lofty attitude toward the big-budget, comic-book tentpoles that she avoided while she was coming up, instead adopting what has been called a one-for-me, one-for-them strategy: following up a low-budget indie with a big-ticket action movie to pay the rent. This has worked well for some stars and directors—Brad Pitt and Martin Scorsese come to mind—but not for others, the danger being that the one-for-them movies make so much money that it becomes hard to break the habit. In this regard, Johansson told me, “I’ve become a little less snobby about the budget of a film and what that means to me as an artist. I guess I learned not to judge projects based on how big the craft-service table was going to be. I think you have to be aware of your own value in some sense, but not to the degree of compromising your idea of what kind of film you want to be a part of. I would never knowingly go into a film that I wouldn’t pay to see, or something that didn’t challenge me. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to do that.”
Jon Favreau, who directed her in Iron Man 2, populated that film with fellow actors who move freely between the independent and big-budget worlds—Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson. “Scarlett was not the logical first choice for the Black Widow,” he told me. In the comic the character is a tall, lanky, Russian redhead. “But Scarlett had been pursuing it pretty strongly,” Favreau added, and when he met with her, “she had red hair. She said, ‘I wanted to show you that I was serious about the role.’ ”
“Even though Iron Man 2 was ‘one-for-them,’ I’d never done anything like that before. I’d never been physically driven in something, or a part of something so big,” Johansson recalled. “For The Avengers, I’ve spent so many months training with our stunt team, and fighting all the other actors, it’s crazy. I do nothing but fight—all the time. I have humongous muscles, by the way.” She offered me a bicep. I hesitated to touch celebrity flesh. “Go on.” I gave it a gentle squeeze. She was right; it was hard as a rock.
Somehow, in between making movies back-to-back-to-back, Johansson has found time for a scintilla of personal life. She had dated Jared Leto and Josh Hartnett and finally married Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) at the end of September 2008. They divorced two years later. (Johansson fiercely guards the details of her romantic life.) While they were separated, she embarked on a five-month relationship with Sean Penn.
“I’ve always admired him. Great actor,” I chimed in. “Did he tie you up?”
“He is supposed to have tied Madonna”—his ex-wife—“to a chair. It’s a famous story. You don’t know about it?”
“What a high to leave on. How did she get out of there? She brought the chair with her?”
“She called the police.”
“How could she call if she was tied to a chair?”
“She persuaded him to untie her so she could pee.”
“That’s exciting,” she said drolly.
“So he never tied you up?”
In 2009, at the tender age of 24, Johansson did one very much for herself. With almost no experience doing serious drama—or Broadway, for that matter—she signed up for a revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. The 50s drama is about a Brooklyn longshoreman who falls in love with his 17-year-old niece, Catherine—Johansson’s role—and breaks up her engagement by betraying her Italian boyfriend to the immigration authorities. Taking on a classic that had been brought to life in many good, even great productions against which she would undoubtedly be measured was a gutsy move, especially since she would find herself in the heady company of the actor Liev Schreiber, a Tony winner as well as a movie star, and the director Greg Mosher, known for his collaborations with David Mamet and Tennessee Williams, among others.
For her part, Johansson said she had always wanted to do musical theater, but, as she put it, “this was no Annie. The idea of pushing past what could be a disaster was exciting to me.” Before casting her, Mosher had asked Schreiber what he thought of the idea. “I wasn’t sure,” the actor told me. “I guess I was afraid that she hadn’t had much experience doing theater, that she didn’t have the chops to play a role like Catherine.”
Indeed, the learning curve was punishing. Schreiber continued, “She had no idea about blocking or that you have to project in what sometimes feels like an artificial way to reach the back of the house. Those are things that actually take a lot of training and years to develop, and they completely confounded Scarlett. And initially she had the beginner’s instinct to cry all the time. Oscars go to roles that make people cry a lot. But when you come to these sophisticated plays, you’re articulating the idea of a playwright more than you are acting. And if you articulate the idea of the play, there will be emotion behind it. But if you’re ahead of it with the emotion, then the audience just perceives it as narcissistic. It’s about the actor acting. You’ve got to get egg on your face to learn those things. And here was someone who hadn’t really done that, but wasn’t afraid to go right into the most difficult of problems, which is dealing with one’s own narcissism. She was completely open to anybody’s suggestions, no matter how personal, no matter how scary. I said to her, ‘Why would you want to cry here? What happens if you resist that instinct in this scene, and resist that instinct in that scene, so that when you actually do cry, it’s not redundant.’ A lot of actors would get really upset if you said something like that to them. But not Scarlett. I felt like I was witnessing somebody making a huge leap forward in her career as an actor. She was in over her head, but through sheer intelligence and perseverance she made that role happen. She used to joke about this ulcer that she had, which I think was the extent of her nervousness. I figured maybe she learned that from Woody Allen.”
The standard interpretation of the play is that it was Miller’s riposte to Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront—a film often seen as a justification for their own (and others’) name naming in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Schreiber, on the other hand, thinks that the play is animated by Miller’s guilt over leaving his first wife for Marilyn Monroe, with Catherine as a kind of stand-in for Monroe. “Although Scarlett would probably hate me for saying it, as an actress she has a kind of primal sexuality,” he explained, “and those qualities are things that she inhabited in that character very, very well on the stage.”
The critics agreed, including the one who counted most, The New York Times’s Ben Brantley, who wrote that Johansson “melts into her character so thoroughly that her nimbus of celebrity disappears.” But if raves were nice, even better was the Tony that Johansson won for her performance. “I’d spent four months bleeding all over the stage, completely exposed,” she recalled. “I felt I was forever changed by that experience. It was unbelievable holding that Tony.” In her acceptance speech she came off flustered and self-possessed at the same time—a charming combination. Dressed in a V-neck black gown, she thanked Schreiber for “guiding” her, hailed Reynolds for his willingness to become “a theater widower,” and dedicated her Tony to Arthur Miller.
After the show’s 14-week run ended, Johansson was emotionally and physically exhausted. “Doing that play completely took me over in every way,” she recalled. “Eight shows a week—it almost killed me. Then the arms unfold and you’re pushed out of the nest. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. It was such a strange time. There was nothing that was interesting to me. I had a very public separation [from Reynolds]. It was difficult. I felt very uncomfortable.”
One thing she did know was that she had wanted to work with Cameron Crowe for a long time. “I’ve been auditioning for Cameron for 10 years,” she said. “But nothing worked.” She knew he was developing We Bought a Zoo, a holiday movie that is a happy compromise between the tiny indies which hatched her and the big-budget commercial pictures she’s been doing more of lately. The film is based on a true story about a widower (Matt Damon), father of two children, who buys, in Johansson’s words, “a decrepit Grey Gardens of a zoo,” restores it to its former glory, and discovers that he has found a new family as well.
For many actors, performing with animals is, as Crowe put it, “heavy luggage that had to be rolled heavily along. Scarlett led with that, told me that her husband had taken her for her birthday to Tippi Hedren’s zoo.” (Hedren, star of The Birds, runs a well-known sanctuary for endangered and exotic rescue animals in Acton, California.) Cameron added that Johansson “started to tear up as she recalled the visit.” For her part, when Johansson actually read the script, she was disappointed in her character, the head zookeeper, and despite her desire to work with Crowe told him, “I don’t think there’s anything I could contribute to this.”
But Crowe persisted, she suggested ways to make the character stronger, worked with Damon on some scenes, and everyone came to agreement. But there were further bumps. “It had been a while since I made a film where I wasn’t elbowing someone in the face,” Johansson explained, referencing her action work. “I went into We Bought a Zoo and I didn’t know how to do it, exactly. I had ideas and things I wanted to do, but I was a little bit raw. I felt out of practice and a bit exposed. I was feeling very protective of myself. But Cameron’s world was very welcoming.” In Crowe’s words, “She’ll take insanely complex direction—‘You’re tired, but you’re emotionally adrenalized, and you’re also remembering the past, but seeing that the future has potential’—and she’d process it for two beats through the Scarlett prism and say, ‘That I get; that I have no idea what you mean. Let’s go!’ ”
Johansson was so determined to avoid looking like a movie star pretending to be a zookeeper running on empty and fueled only by her devotion to her motley assortment of big cats, zebras, and kangaroos that she refused to wear makeup for the film. A big deal for a female movie star, but it works, helping to anchor her performance in the details of actual manual labor—shoveling shit, feeding slabs of red meat to the lion and tigers—that we don’t see much of in American movies.
Although she insists that all she knows is movies, Johansson also has a passion for politics. She was inspired by Barack Obama’s run for the presidency in 2008, going as far as to tell people that she would move to France if John McCain were elected. Helping to assure her continued residency in the U.S., she visited swing states, worked the phones, called undecided voters. I wanted to know how she felt about Obama now that he’d proved to be a disappointment to much of his base. But she wasn’t buying it.
“Has he proved to be a disappointment? When we were stumping for him, part of his platform was his wish to bring both parties together. People wanted to end this partisanship and thought we’d all hold hands and dance around the Maypole. But it doesn’t work like that. The far right pushed back very aggressively. I don’t think anybody could have foreseen that. The Democratic Party has always had a hard time sticking up for itself. We’re all guilty of being idealistic, I and everyone who voted for him.”
Going into 2012, the country is in even more parlous shape than it was in 2008. Where will she go if Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann is elected? “Farther away,” she replied, laughing. “New Zealand.”
“Will you work for Obama again?”
“It would be irresponsible not to.”
Johansson recently announced that she would be campaigning for the Manhattan borough president, Scott Stringer, as he prepares to run in 2013 for New York City mayor. In this she will be following in the footsteps of her grandmother and her twin brother, both of whom have worked for Stringer in the past.
In early October, Johansson hosted a packed and very successful fund-raiser for Stringer at the ballroom of the Jane hotel, a renovated sailors’ home in the Village, fronting on the Hudson River. The spectacular ballroom looks like it was furnished with castoffs from the British Raj, including a politically incorrect stuffed bighorn sheep perched just beneath the high ceiling, staring down, that night, on a stylish crowd. The borough president himself seemed out of place in a blue business suit, and I couldn’t figure out what the ultra-hip setting had to tell us about a putative Stringer administration. But the preternaturally poised Johansson, wearing an oddly cut black-and-white dress—not one of her most fetching outfits, I’m sorry to say—mentioned in her gracious introduction a variety of things he’s pushing, including affordable housing, new animal shelters, and more responsive government. As she spoke she was surrounded by family, including her grandmother, who was looking fragile, and a bit bewildered, but pretty hip herself with a nimbus of tangled white hair.
Johansson is a little more than three years away from 30, a dangerous time for an actress, whose career can be notoriously brief, comparable to the life span of a fruit fly. Her mother managed her career for 17 years, but in 2009 she dropped Mom and is now with Rick Yorn. “Once I got married I felt that I needed to cut the cord,” she said. Not that there was any drama; she’s still close to both her parents.
Favreau, for one, sees little chance of her fading into the ranks of once promising twentysomething actresses. “She has a lot more time on her clock as an ingénue,” he told me. “She’s uniquely beautiful. She’s smart and talented. That’s a tough combo to beat. She’s got another 10 years before we’d even have to have the conversation.”
Still, Johansson has already packed a whole career into her 26 years, and she’s ready to shift gears. “I assumed when I was growing up that I would always work,” she said. “I never thought, This will be my last project. I guess when you’re a kid you’re ignorant. As I got older, I started to think, This will definitely be my last. I would like to direct. I’d be happy to work behind the camera, forever.”
She’s not the first movie star to have that ambition. Working in her favor is that she’s gone to school on several world-class directors: the Coen brothers, Robert Redford, Woody Allen. (She also took a seminar on incoherent-action direction from Michael Bay, starring in his futuristic thriller, The Island, a 2005 flop.)
She is developing a film based on a Truman Capote novella called Summer Crossing. Set in the late 1940s, it’s the tale of a Waspy 17-year-old New Yorker whose parents are leaving for their summer crossing to France. The heroine decides to stay behind and has an affair with a parking-lot attendant who is a few years older and happens to be Jewish. “It’s about that first love you have that’s sort of vicious, in a sense,” Johansson explained. Though she doesn’t plan to star in it herself, she remains confident she can get financing, recognizing that “it’s a hard sell because it’s a period film, it takes place in New York, and there’s no room for a big name. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.”
A moment of silence. With thoughts of mortality apparently swirling in her head, she blurted out, “God, I need you to write my obit now. Somebody, I just read the other day, wrote their own obituary. I think that’s a great idea.”
“I think it might be a little premature.”
“Why not get a head start?”
“O.K. You may be right. The future’s pretty grim. You’re going to live through global warming. I hope your apartment is in a high-rise. Manhattan’s going to be underwater, and if you have kids you have to think about them.”
“I do think about them.” Her mood darkened: raising kids is a serious business; climate change is a serious business. “Not enough people do,” she continued. “I wonder if there’s even going to be space for my kids.” Then irony, which grows in her like kudzu, crept in: “I know I just have to keep making movies about how self-loathing humans are. Avatar 2, that’ll tell them.” And at the thought of Avatar, the clouds parted, and I was reminded that she’s not all that far removed from childhood herself. “I loved Avatar,” she said with genuine enthusiasm. “I caught it at the IMAX 3-D. Wow. It was so incredible. I sat there with my humongous popcorn, giant soda, Raisinets, and those ridiculous glasses. I practically got a bladder infection because I didn’t want to leave my seat the whole time. It was so amazing. I love that moviegoing experience. I love it.”