Beauty with a Heart

There’s no way around it: Scarlett Johansson is in a bad mood. This being Scarlett Johansson, though – a 28-year-old who has, over the past decade, redefined the blonde-bombshell ideal for the big screen – she somehow manages to be in a bad mood and still look fabulous. With skin the colour of spoiled milk, hair bleached honey-gold and those statement curves erupting from a Dolce & Gabbana dress, she strides through the studio on her way from dressing-room to set with what your mother would describe as ‘a face on’. She’s had better Saturdays. And no wonder, really: it’s Memorial Day in America, but rather than being back home in New York with her family, or in Paris with her boyfriend, Scarlett is still in Ohio, where she has lived for the past five months while filming Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a high-octane blockbuster that calls for a black leather catsuit and all the self-discipline necessary to wear it. So while the rest of her country was sleeping in, she got up in her rented bungalow in a Cleveland suburb at 5am (an hour later than the usual call time) and completed a sweaty workout before eating something insubstantial provided by a polite man called Bobby, who accompanies her to the studio to prepare another sugar-free, gluten-free, low-fat, low-card snack. ‘Your body becomes a machine,’ she says. It doesn’t take much time in her company to realise Scarlett is, basically, tired and hungry. You’d be in a bad mood too.

Still, after almost 20 years in the industry – with a Bafta, a Tony Award and numerous Golden Globe nominations to show for it – she’s quite used to this sort of thing. So Johansson smiles for the camera, then walks off set, hitches up her skirt to sit on a high stool in the studio kitchen and gamely forks up the handful of artfully arranged vegetables that have been presented to her by way of lunch. ‘It’s not a diet,’ she says, sarcastically. ‘It’s a lifestyle choice.’

Serious and articulate, charismatic but also reluctant, self-deprecating and droll, there’s little about Johansson that squares with your preconceptions: she is, surely, the most interesting, intelligent and complex actress of her generation. Who else could star in a billion-dollar franchise, take the lead in the Arthur Miller play A View from the Bridge on Broadway, then do it all over again in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, release an album of Tom Waits covers, visit famine zones with Oxfam, campaign for women’s healthcare and also adapt a Truman Capote story as a screenplay? Her drive and ambition are remarkable; it’s an almost obstinate diversity. ‘My goal is always to work on projects that stretch me,’ she says later. ‘That’s it. That’s been my MO from the start.’

That her looks are the first thing you notice – that anybody can help noticing – is a shame, really. Though Johansson is often reduced to the physical – Katy Perry reportedly wrote ‘I Kissed a Girl’ about her lips, and those exaggerated features seem designed with the big screen in mind – she has, surprisingly, no ego when it comes to her personal appearance. In Cameron Crowe’s sweet 2011 indie flick We Bought a Zoo, she refused to wear any make-up because she didn’t think her character would, and off-screen she has never sought the spotlight, even though her uncommon beauty demands it. That hers is a life less ordinary is something she can’t help, but doesn’t seem to play up to. She behaves like someone for whom celebrity is merely the slightly annoying side effect of a busy, creatively productive life. ‘Luckily, I’m relatively uninteresting,’ she says. ‘I’ve always tried, as much as possible, to keep the prying eye at arm’s length, which doesn’t always work in my favour – but I think if you establish that early on, you remain relatively unscathed. As I get older, I realise what an incredible waste of time it is to scurry around like some kind of urchin. I want to enjoy things, like just walking round my city.’

Despite having worked successfully as a child actress since the age of eight, appearing in a film every year, including Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, Johansson shot to fame in 2003 via a picture of her bottom in sheer pink knickers – cropped in and blown up – which served as the poster and opening shot for Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. This was a defining moment for both actress and director: Coppola won an Oscar for her screenplay while Johansson, aged just 18, won a Bafta for her portrayal of a sullen wife stranded in Tokyo, but also found herself cast as Hollywood’s newest, youngest siren. That her next film was Girl with a Pearl Earring, a period drama set in the studio of Johannes Vermeer, in which she could hardly have been more covered up – and for which she was also nominated for a Bafta – now seems ironic. She talked about feeling ‘super-sexualised’ as a teenager, something that was hard to accept at the time: ‘Maybe it’s because I am curvy and confident about it. I think that no matter who I play, people hone in on that somehow.’ A cursory Google search for the words ‘Scarlett Johansson hot’ throws up almost 21 million hits (her bum gets a disappointing 625,000). In many ways, everything she has done since has been an attempt to shift that focus.

And this, here, is where you find the real Scarlett Johansson. Rather than capitalise on her sex-bomb status, she became a Woody Allen muse, signing up to three of his films in quick succession: Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). The director was hooked, saying: ‘She has the acting ability to be not just a passing pin-up girl but a genuinely meaningful actress… I was enchanted with her the minute I met her, and I’ve never stopped.’ Johansson, even now, is still overwhelmed by the experience. ‘Not only do I adore working with Woody, I just adore Woody. I’m fascinated by him. He knows I’m at his beck and call.’ It’s easier said than done, though. ‘He has very particular habits and requirements,’ she explains. ‘He only works in the summertime. He’s absolutely dedicated to his family and being with them during all those kid months when they have to be home. But if by some miracle, one summer, we both have the opportunity, we will work together again for sure.’

That Johansson would be rescued by Woody Allen makes sense, of course; they’re both native New Yorkers, for whom the city exerts an almost primal pull. Born in 1984, the daughter of Karsten Johansson, a Danish architect, and Melanie Sloan, a film producer, Scarlett grew up in Greenwich Village with two older siblings and a twin brother, Hunter, who now works in city politics. The family was educated and liberal, but neither rich nor privileged; speaking at the Democratic Party’s National Convention last year, Johansson discussed the need for welfare from a very personal perspective: ‘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 schools and depended on programmes for school transport and lunches.’ This, perhaps, explains her appetite for work; since she first persuaded her mother to take her to auditions, she has barely stopped. ‘I’m happy when I’m working,’ she says, detailing a 10-month schedule with scarcely a day off. We have left Ohio by this point – not a great disappointment to either of us – and Johansson has since finished another film, Jon Favreau’s Chef, alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Sofia Vergara. Next year she will star in Luc Besson’s new action movie, Lucy. For now, she’s back in New York and we’re talking on the phone, the transatlantic gap filled by that familiar husky voice, unerringly polite but given to hiccuping chuckles. ‘Eventually I want to have a family, and that would be my focus, but right now I’m having fun with it. There have been times in my career where I’ve struggled to find…’ she pauses, tries to find the words. ‘I was stuck for a while. It was more difficult, maybe, to find the right thing to do. Now I’m enjoying a really productive, creative period.’

Though avoiding the usual pitfalls of child stardom – no rehab or unfortunate nightclub incidents for Johansson – she has endured some troublesome years. But when personal aspects have become public, she has managed things with grace. After her three-year marriage to the actor Ryan Reynolds came to an end in 2011, their divorce was announced with a dignified statement that concluded: ‘While privacy isn’t expected, it’s certainly appreciated.’ Neither has discussed the relationship since. Reynolds married the actress Blake Lively some 12 months later, and Johansson is now dating a French journalist, Romain Dauriac; and though she may be spending downtime with him in Paris, the only thing she’ll talk about is her love of that city.

There is one man she’s happy to discuss, though, and that is Barack Obama. An active and ardent supporter, she campaigned for him in both presidential elections, visiting swing states and calling undecided voters. ‘It would be irresponsible not to,’ she says. ‘I come from a politically active family. To be an active member of the community, to be a responsible citizen and to engage politically have always been part of my awareness and part of my life. More than anything else, I believe that if everyone exercised the right to vote, the right choice would be made by the nation as a whole.’ Putting her public profile to use is something Johansson seems to see as the bargain of fame.

When the next American comes in 2016, Johansson knows who she will support. ‘I think Hillary Clinton would make a wonderful president. I think we could only benefit from having someone in office who has been a mother; women have a different perspective and appreciation of humanity because of that maternal instinct. It can only be a step forward.’ While her continued political engagement is assured, she won’t be drawn on future plans. ‘Do I imagine myself having a full-on political career? That seems like a stretch. But who knows? I don’t limit the possibilities. If I have more time, I may be able to lend a bigger voice to politics. I never close the door on those kinds of things.’

In the meantime, Johansson’s will to work has found another outlet. At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, it was announced that the actress was seeking funding for her directorial debut, an adaptation of the Truman Capote story Summer Crossing. It was the author’s first novel, unpublished and lost – Capote actually threw his manuscript in the trash – but it resurfaced at an auction in 2004 and finally made it into print. Johansson has collaborated with the writer Tristine Skyler on the screenplay. ‘I’ve been daydreaming about this for years,’ she says, explaining how she’d been reading scripts and searching fruitlessly for the right story to film. ‘I found the book in an airport shop. I thought it seemed like a good size for a flight and I’d never heard of it before, though I love Capote. I just instantly knew that it was the material I’d been waiting for.’ The novel tells the story of a privileged New York teenager who embarks on an affair with a Jewish parking attendant while her family holidays in Paris during the long, hot summer of 1945. Johansson won’t be acting in it: ‘I’m too old! It would have been a dream role for me.’ The film hasn’t been cast yet, but Johansson plans to do this early in 2014, before starting to shoot in July. ‘The film takes place in the summer – it has to, it’s a character in itself. It’s important to me to be accurate and to capture New York in all its sweaty, steamy glory.’

So will this love letter to her city also signal the end of Johansson’s career as an actress? It’s unlikely. ‘I’ll be working on Summer Crossing for at least a year after filming, so that will limit my in-front-of-camera time significantly,’ she says. ‘But you’ll never find me making any grand statement about a goodbye tour. I find my job to be endlessly inspiring and I’m going to carry on throwing myself into it with reckless abandon.’

Back in New York where she belongs – and, presumably, eating normally again – it’s this zest for life that makes Johansson such an engaging character. Forget the bad mood. She’s nothing but joy.