Autumn in Paris: sunshine and showers, pavements city-slick, puddles shimmering like party dresses. (Why yes, it is Fashion Week.) As if in harmony with the changeable conditions, Scarlett Johansson arrives for our interview with a face not quite like thunder – that would be far too dramatically convenient – but certainly with an overcast expression: unsmiling, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, stride purposeful, handshake brisk. But then, as soon as we start talking, her clouds part and once again the city of light is bathed in a golden glow.
We meet at Le Select, a café on the Boulevard Montparnasse. I’d been waiting for our own American in Paris at an outside table, but it’s chilly and exposing sitting there, so she asks if we can move inside. Where would I like to sit? How about over there, at the back? No, that’s dreary. Plonking herself at a table for two, she shrugs off her baggy grey coat to reveal a Madewell khaki shirt over a white vest, J Brand jeans and suede boots. The sunglasses are replaced by heavy-rimmed, rectangular sunglasses.
Scarlett appears to be very au fair with Paris and this particular café. She’s familiar with the menu, chatty with the waiters – who stop periodically to drop nonchalant witticisms – and on intimate terms with the café cat, Mickey, a portly fur-ball of ponderous seniority who keeps interrupting our conversation at inopportune moments to remind Scarlett to make a fuss of him, which she does. (Not that I’m jealous of a cat.)
While she studies the menu, let’s take a moment to study her. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a casual ponytail. If she’s wearing make-up, I can’t see it. Her left ear has a diamond stud in the lobe and two small gold rings around the helix. And she has two tattoos I can see: a sunrise on her inner left arm and an inky charm bracelet on her wright wrist. Look very closely and it says, ‘I ? NY’. She’s lovely; lean of limb but creamy and curvy. She has the kind of body that can look almost indecently bountiful on screen and in pictures, but in person is compact, petite. ‘I’m pretty short,’ she says. ‘People don’t notice me straight away. I can scurry around.’
And, indeed, off-duty Scarlett is not dazzling or discomfiting, and she would doubtless be if she were sitting here in full red-carpet regalia. Her presence is quieter than that, dialled down, unobtrusive.
For a few minutes, I wonder if this is going to be something of a trial. Scarlett is famously discreet – guarded would be another way of putting it. She won’t even reveal exactly why she’s in Paris. God help us when we get to the personal stuff.
But, as it turns out, we sit for almost three hours, lingering over our coffees, eating – she polishes off a niçoise salad and then picks at the chips that arrive with my club sandwich (‘Mmm! They’re like McDonald’s-y but better’) – and talking. Talking about, in no particular order: the advisability or otherwise of trying to swat a fly while your partner sleeps; globalisation; the politics of fashion week front row; Bob Dylan’s lyrics; the ‘heartbreaking’ beauty of her hometown, New York; the perils of eating in an uncomfortable outfit; the shrinking opportunities for middle-class families; and the importance of good bedding, a subject on which she is almost as impassioned as, inevitably, she is on the topic of the ‘sickening and perverted’ paparazzi. At one point, segueing between her own travails and those of Kate Middleton, Kristen Stewart and assorted other famous young women, we somehow find ourselves discussing ‘nip-slips’, the tabloid website habit of printing photographs of girls falling out of their tops.
‘Maybe those girls just don’t like wearing a bra,’ says Scarlett. ‘I don’t think anybody cared in the 1970s. I was watching [Woody Allen’s] Manhattan yesterday; Diane Keaton is not wearing a bra, obviously. She never used to wear a bra. She looks great. Maybe you can see a ‘nip-clip’ or whatever, but nobody gives a s***. Nobody. Gives. A. S***.’
Mildy, I observe that perhaps the 1970s was a less prurient, less censorious age, ‘It’s sick. We get these crazy mainstream slasher movies, where people get anally raped under the guise of [it being] a scary Halloween movies and it’s totally normal, and yet you see someone’s side boob and it’s front-page news. Why?’
Seconds later, another ray of sunshine breaks through and she’s explaining to me why she really should have been a doctor rather than an actress.
‘Any specific kind of doctor?’
‘A dermatologist. When you help someone to heal their skin it gives them a new lease of life. I mean, have you ever met someone with a horrible skin condition? I’m good with that.’
‘You mean sort of fungal?’
‘Fungal issues are pretty obvious. It’s usually an infection combined with poor hygiene.’
‘This is not a question I’d planned on asking you, but have you suffered from skin complaints yourself?’
‘I’ve had every problem. I always get these weird things.’
‘So you’re a girl who has interesting rashes.’
‘Well, at least I know how to cure them.’
‘I’m pretty good at diagnosing other people.’
‘I have to say, this is a revelation to me.’
‘I know. It comes from watching a lot of medical programmes.’
‘What, like ER?’
‘No! Real medical programmes. Documentaries.’
‘See how superficial I am? You say “medical programmes”, I think of George Clooney. Not, by the way, a real doctor.’
‘Boo, right? Who doesn’t want to be treated by George Clooney? I know I would.’
‘Do you happen to know if he’s interested in skin?’
‘I don’t know where this question is going…’
And this is what it’s like to talk to Scarlett: playful, with a slightly competitive edge to keep you on your toes.
Even when we approach stickier topics, areas of her life she would like to remain private, she pauses occasionally and chooses her words more carefully, but she never looks remotely uncomfortable.
In her personal life she is emerging from a difficult couple of years, during which time she was married to and then divorced from the actor Ryan Reynolds, and endured an unpleasant episode in which intimate photos of her, intended for Reynolds but hacked from her mobile phone, were leaked onto the internet.
‘It was a crazy time,’ she says. ‘I had some problems in my family and publicly, my relationship – all that stuff. It was like, “Oh , man, what next?” But life ebbs and flows, don’t you think? Things are more manageable now, but I’m sure something will crumble.’
I remark that from the outside, she seems capable and composed. ‘I just cry in the shower,’ she deadpans. ‘No. I keep it together. I am relatively composed but I can also lose my s***. I’m pretty controlled, and probably controlling too, for better or worse. I’m working on it.’
For much of 2012 she was dating a New York-based advertising executive, Nate Naylor. After they broke up, she started seeing French journalist Romain Dauriac. (Perhaps now we know what she was doing in Paris.) Is it easier, I wonder, seeing someone who isn’t famous?
‘I think there are challenges whether that person’s in your profession or not. It’s nice that [fellow actors] can relate, and you have a shorthand when you’re talking about work, but than can also be monotonous. For me, most importantly, I look for a partner who is creative. I like people that have a colourful way of looking at things, that are inspiring and like art, music and film.’
Are you easy to go out with? ‘It must be a lot to take on for a person who isn’t famous, having his picture taken and everyone knowing his name.’
‘Yeah, that’s got to be challenging. And we talk about the challenges of that. It’s weird, obviously. I would never assume that somebody would be able to slip right into that without a couple of speed bumps. I mean, one minute you’re private, and the next minute you’re not. But you can find a balance. I think it can work.’
‘Do you think you’ll ever marry again?’
‘I don’t really think about it, I guess. Maybe if I had children and it was important to them, I think it’s nice to do that.’
‘Does being married feel very different from being in a relationship when you’re not married?’
‘Yes. I don’t know. I got married when I was really young and it was incredibly romantic and I liked being married, actually. But it is different. It’s hard to put into words. Let’s put it this way: to me, being in a functioning relationship doesn’t mean you have to be married. Is that weird? The only time I ever think about it is when people ask me, “Would I ever get married again?” It’s really not important to me.’
‘Then why did you get married?’
‘I don’t know. It seemed romantic. The idea of being husband and wife was appealing to me.’
‘I guess that was my question. Is it still appealing, the thought that you might someday be someone’s wife?’
‘I don’t know. I’m far, far from that thought. It just has no relevance to me right now. I’m not having kids any time soon, I’m in a nice relationship, I’m working a lot and, like I said, it’s just so not important to me.’
At this point we’re interrupted by Mickey, the café cat. It’s like there’s a secret signal she gives him whenever I veer too close to private territory. Perhaps this is: the parts of our talk she seems to enjoy the most are the silly, role-play bits, like when I ask her to describe what, for her, would be a great night out.
‘A night out where? Here?’
‘No, your home turf. New York. Friday night.’
‘First, I would go to dinner, of course. Maybe I’d go to a show. Maybe I’d see a play.’
‘An intellectual play? One that demonstrates how incredibly clever you are?’
‘Totally. Then we have something to talk about. I mean, you could come, if you want. We’ll have fun.’
‘Thanks for asking, I’d love to.’
‘Great. And then we’ll go to a nice place to eat dinner.’
‘What kind of place?’
‘It depends. Are we gonna go to an after-show type of place, like old-school New York?’
‘That sounds good.’
‘Or would could go downtown to La Esquina and get tacos, more like a party-type scene. Go there if we’re going to go meet more people. A little scene. But if it’s just a couple of us, probably go to Joe Allen, have a martini, have oysters.’
‘Right, so it’s about, what, 12:30? You want to go somewhere else?’
‘Of course! I’m only here for a couple of days.’
‘Alright, alright, I know, I said I was going to take you out. The pressure! Maybe we could go to, like, a dive bar in the East Village: pool table, couple more drinks, jukebox, hang out. But now it’s like 1:30, are we going home? But we could go out out!’
‘OK! Let’s go out-out! See what happens.’
‘That’s the best part of New York.’ Sudden change of plan. ‘But sometimes it is nice to stay in on a Friday night. There’s a place down the block [from me] that’s, like, the best Chinese. This one in my neighbourhood is really old-fashioned which I love. We go there, order a Chinese feast, go back to the apartment, and we’re going to watch a classic movie that you should have seen but you haven’t. Or what about a movie that you haven’t seen that I’ve seen that we should watch together? Have you ever seen White Heat?’
‘Is that James Cagney?’
‘Yes. Or John Garfield? No, right, James Cagney. It’s a great movie: it’s just a great noir, beautiful and weird. Let’s do that: Chinese food and a classic movie.’
‘What’s your favourite movie?’
‘I don’t have one.’ Pause. ‘I like Groundhog Day.’
It’s hard to believe – for her, too – but in 2013 Scarlett, 28, celebrates two decades as a working actress. At the Democratic Party’s National Convention in North Carolina in September last year, she spoke to a huge audience, in the arena and on TV, about her childhood. Her mission? To encourage young Americans to vote and to throw her support, not for the first time, behind the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Using her own story to illustrate the urgent need for welfare she inadvertently did the obligatory biographer’s part of my job for me:
‘I grew up in New York City with four siblings,’ she said from the podium, a tailored jacket over a Stars and Stripes T-shirt. ‘My father barely made enough to get by. We moved every year and we finally settled in a housing development for lower-middle-income families. We went to public [ie state] schools and depended on programmes for school transport and lunches, as did most of my friends.’
Her relatively humble origins are, she says to me, ‘Something I hold on to for dear life. I mean, I have friends I’ve made as I’ve got older, but the majority of my closest friends I’ve known since I was a kid, and like I said [at the Convention], a lot of them are still dependent on [welfare]. I also think living in New York keeps you pretty grounded. I’m not particularly fancy.’
The daughter of a Danish-born architect father and a Jewish girl from the Bronx – hence, perhaps, the striking combination of cool and exotic looks – Scarlett and her brothers and sister grew up in and around Greenwich Village, which sounds, she acknowledges, ‘super-snobby’ now but in the early 1990s was not the giant, sugary cupcake it has become. ‘It’s so expensive and crowded now, so touristy. It’s awful. Pause. ‘Sex and the City killed Greenwich Village.’
She was always dramatic as a little girl. ‘I don’t know where it came from but I liked making a splash. I was probably one of those precocious, bratty kids.’ At eight she was on stage, off-Broadway, opposite Ethan Hawke. She made her film debut aged 9 and at 13 she was starring with Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer. Throughout her adolescence she made an average of two films a year, ‘And then I would come back to New York and slip right back into school. I had friends, I had boyfriends, I went to prom.’ Her parents divorced when she was 13 and the family moved a lot but there was nothing, she says, unusually traumatic about her early years. She enjoyed working, enjoyed spending time with adults, had fun on movies hanging out on the set with her mum.
In 2002, at 18, she made the two films that launched her as a Hollywood leading lady: Girl With a Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation. Watched again, both films are restrained, quiet – Scarlett’s in every scene of Girl With a Pearl Earring, but has almost no dialogue – and they deliberately dampen her hot sensuality. The camera loves her, but neither film remotely suggests an unbridled voluptuary, which is how she was immediately portrayed in the media. The irony of her position, then – that a girl who played two essentially celibate, reticent young women should in the process become a global sex symbol – is not lost on Scarlett. ‘Totally weird,’ she says.
‘I think any woman who is curvy and who wears a gown to an event is, like, super-sexualised. I mean, at the time I was 18, 19. I was young. I’ve always been curvy. It runs in the family. Throw on an evening frock and it’s like all of a sudden you have boobs and everyone is like: bombshell! Instantly it was: “The new Marilyn”.’ She says this with a sardonically raised eyebrow: curves apart, she feels no particular kinship with Monroe.
Hollywood then seemed to struggle to know what to do with a smart, young woman who looked like a throwback to the sweater girls of the 1950s but had very contemporary sensibility.
‘It’s frustrating,’ she says now, ‘because you get pigeonholed and it was difficult for me to get out of that. I mean, in some ways I exploited and appreciated it and I was fortunate to do some wonderful, glamorous photographs’ – she means in her work as a model for various brands, most prominently Dolce & Gabbana – ‘but it was really hard for me to know what to do, which direction to go. I was too young to play a wife or a mother, but I wasn’t a teenager, so I was struck in this ingenue period for a while, and I was over-sexualised by the media. It was a strange period.’
By the time you read this she will be beginning a run on Broadway as Maggie the Cat, in Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a part most famously associated with Elizabeth Taylor. And her next screen appearance is as Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, a fictional account of the making of Psycho, with Anthony Hopkins as the heavyweight director and Helen Mirren as his influential wife, Alma.
In Psycho, Leigh plays Marion Crane, a young office worker who steals $40,000 and hurtles alone cross-country to start a new life with her lover. She stops en route at a motel and (spoiler alert for people not from this planet) is murdered in the shower in what became one of the most deconstructed, theorised, fetishised and spoofed scenes in cinema history. And yes, they did recreate that scene for Hitchcock, so Scarlett took her own turn behind the flimsy curtain. ‘I was so not looking forward to it,’ she says. ‘I was thinking it’s going to be hell, it’s going to be such a pain in the ass, it’s going to be that scene. But on the day it was fine.’
Perhaps Scarlett’s own Psycho will be the film she has most recently finished. Under the Skin is an adaptation of a creepily atmospheric Michel Faber novel by the British director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). Scarlett plays a mysterious, alien life form with, as The Guardian review of the novel had it, ‘curiously buoyant breasts’, who picks up male hitchhikers – and not because she wants to give them a lift home. ‘It’s a really weird story and it’s shot in a way that’s never really been done before, with a camera that was created for it,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what it will turn out like. If it works, and in my mind it works, it will give the audience a completely unique perspective on our daily existence.’ Pregnant pause while we absorb that statement. ‘Or it may be like a four-hour music video.’
The café cat appears once more, and conversation moves on–to pets. Scarlett has two dogs: Maggie, a chihuahua, and Pancake, a dachshund-chihuahua mix.
‘Are they pampered dogs?’
‘Not more than anyone else’s dogs. I like to keep them humble.’
‘You make sure they keep their feet on the ground?’
‘You know, one of them was literally a street rat.’
‘A little stray.’
‘Right. And now she’s living the life of Riley. I thought about doing a kids’ book about it. Can you imagine? This is a street dog–who knows what her life was like? And here she is flying to Paris, living this glamorous lifestyle. She’s suddenly this Hollywood dog.’
‘Sounds like a nice story.’
‘It’s sweet, right?’