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Frankly Scarlett

Of all the four-letter words out there, “muse” is hardly the worst. It is simply inaccurate to describe Scarlett Johansson as such, according to Scarlett Johansson, when talking about her relationship with Woody Allen, who cast the brainy bombshell in three of his four most recent films, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Perhaps the problem is that the word “muse” conjures up prosaic images of the blonde starlet playing a harp or making sandwiches for Woody as he devotedly writes roles for her.

“I don’t think it’s using ‘muse’ in the proper senses—someone who inspires the work you do,” says the 24-year-old actress, sounding more like a classics major with a minor in semantics. “I don’t inspire the work that Woody does. I’m just lucky to fit into the ‘young woman’ category in his movies. But make no mistake: I know that if it wasn’t me, it would be somebody else.” She adds: “He did write Scoop for me, though.”

The Greeks can keep Calliope. In modern-day mythology, Scarlett is the closest thing to a goddess, albeit one with a very earthy appeal. Ever since her roles in 2003′s Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring, artists of all types have been under her spell. Singer Katy Perry publicly credited the starlet’s bee-stung lips for inspiring her to write the song “I Kissed a Girl.”

“I had no idea [about the song]—I should get a cut! That’s flattering, but my lips are kind of taken,” says Johansson, who got married this fall to actor Ryan Reynolds and wears a diamond ring the size of a cocktail olive.

This month, she stars in The Spirit, a stylized comic-book adaptation directed by Frank Miller (the graphic novelist behind Sin City). Although there wasn’t a role for the actress, after a three-hour lunch with her, Miller wrote the femme fatale part just for Johansson.

“You’re first struck by her beauty, but when you delve deeper and find out how much wit is there, you’d have to be an idiot not to write a part for her,” says Miller, who compares Johansson’s comic timing to Lucille Ball’s.

“What I wanted her to do was to laugh at men,” he continues. “So I took a very minor character from the series named Silken Floss and turned her into a fantasy character, in that she was dressed in one astonishing outfit after another. She hits about every fantasy a guy could have, but she remains completely unapproachable. And Scarlett played it to perfection.”

Dressed comfortably in baggy jeans by Seven and a thin gray tank top, her hair in a tousled bun, today Johansson looks more like a pretty NYU student than a movie star. The past few days have been a whirlwind, to say the least. She spent the better part of the afternoon at a photo shoot, less than 48 hours after returning from Rwanda, where she was touring AIDS clinics with Bono as an ambassador for the Product (RED) campaign.

Don’t inquire how she and Reynolds met. “Nobody knows. It’s private. It’s our story.”

“It was absolutely fascinating and inspiring,” the actress says about Rwanda, curled up on a settee on a rooftop in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. “With over 50 percent of the population living under the poverty level, they have socialized health care!” (She taped a PSA for Oxfam International just before our interview.)

Goodwill ambassador is just the latest in a litany of new roles for the actress. Johansson recently wrapped production on the movie He’s Just Not That Into You, loosely based on the self-help book. She plays a yoga instructor having a relationship with a married man in the romantic comedy produced by Drew Barrymore, who also stars. “She’s a wonderful girl. I mean, you could talk to her about anything,” gushes Johansson, who has been acting since childhood and admires Barrymore’s evolution from child star to actress and producer. “I would love to have a production company,” she adds.

Over the summer, Johansson made her debut as a singer with Anywhere I Lay My Head, a collection of Tom Waits covers, for which David Bowie dropped by the recording studio to provide backup vocals. “Unfortunately, I was in Spain shooting when he came in. I said to Woody: ‘If you knew what I sacrificed to be on this set,’” jokes the actress, who says that she doesn’t bother trying to introduce Allen to new music. Or, for that matter, older music.

“One day I said something about Neil Young, and he was like, ‘Neil Young…Neil Young…who’s Neil Young?’” she says, squinting her eyes and affecting a nasal, Allen-esque voice. “I was like, ‘Who’s Neil Young?!’ It’s impossible. He won’t even eat a new kind of sandwich.”

Anyone who has witnessed the baby-oil back-massage scene in Match Point can testify to Johansson’s ability to heat up the screen—a quality that Allen once lustily described as “her zaftig humidity.” In person, she is more girlish than womanly, and more petite than zaftig.

As for the heat she radiates onscreen, Johansson is cooler when asked about certain subjects. Don’t inquire how she and Reynolds met. “Nobody knows. It’s private. It’s our story,” she says.

That’s understandable. More puzzling is her reaction to a question about a tattoo the size of a silver dollar prominently inked on her forearm; it depicts a seascape, complete with blue skies, sun rays, and a twinkling star. “It’s kind of personal,” she answers, before offering up an explanation that is charming in its innocence: “It’s a sunrise, and it makes me happy when I look at it.”

Like any actor who is interesting to watch, Johansson is full of paradoxes. She can come across as a wisecracking broad or, sometimes, as childish. Again and again, she has played young women adrift in their lives, trying to find themselves: an American wife stranded in Tokyo; a New Yorker in Barcelona who knows only what she doesn’t want.

These roles are Johansson’s specialty. She has a knack for playing the wistful, winsome searcher, and for exemplifying the notion that in cinema, there is no better special effect than “the human face changing its mind,” as the British film critic David Thomson once said. When I ask Johansson if she thinks of herself as a searcher in her own life, she becomes characteristically reflective.

“I don’t know—it’s hard to say. Do I challenge myself? Is that some kind of search? I think it is,” Johansson says. “I think that I’m a whimsical person in a sense. But I search with the intent that I’m going to find an answer.”

Unlike Cristina, who craves a reckless and open-ended love, Johansson seeks stability. “I always wanted to get married and have kids. I just never had any preconceived idea about what that would be like,” says the star, who married Reynolds, 32, at a resort in Tofino, British Columbia, less than two weeks after our interview. “Some girls have envisioned their whole wedding forever. My life seems to be happening naturally. I never have plans on where life is going to take me.”

That kind of “whatever will be, will be” mind-set came in handy when playing Charlotte, her character in Lost in Translation. Johansson was only 17 when she inhabited the role of a lonely young newlywed trying to find her path, “but, in a way, I was at that place in my life,” she says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, what was coming next.” In hindsight, the actress recognizes the film as her big break (along with Girl With a Pearl Earring). And while it was a life-changing moment for both Johansson and Coppola, the two young women have not stayed in touch. “I never kept in contact with her. We had a nice working relationship. No falling-out or anything like that. Just regular. We went home. I mean, that happens a lot,” the actress says.

“It’s good to work with directors and become friends with them, but I think that there are few people I’m really, really close with,” she continues. “You get close with your fellow costars. It’s harder with a director, I think, because they’re constantly working. Even when they’re not working, they’re still working. Sometimes you maintain a relationship, and sometimes you don’t.”

Her thoughts meander back to Charlotte for a moment, and she wonders aloud what ever became of her. “I think she went home and salvaged her marriage. I mean, that was such a life-changing experience for her,” Johansson says, as if talking about a close friend. “I think she got great clarity from that experience and realized that you have to take life by the collar and tug it.”

It would be unfair to say that success came easily to Johansson, but it did come early; she was practically born with indie cred. Since she was a little girl, Johansson has been a critic’s darling, making movies with and for adults and bringing to her roles an emotional maturity beyond her years. Though she moves in circles outside of the movie business (she counts designer Tara Subkoff among her closest friends), she also relates to other young actors, such as Natalie Portman, who have grown up on movie sets.

“I’m a very professional person: I never miss a day. I don’t storm off the set. I think Natalie is that way as well,” says Johansson, who grew close to Portman while shooting The Other Boleyn Girl, in which they starred as court society sisters. “We both take our careers extremely seriously, and we both love film.”

Encouraged by her mother, Melanie Sloan, who is also her manager, Johansson started acting when she was seven years old. After appearing onstage with Ethan Hawke in an off-Broadway production of Sophistry, she made her film debut in Rob Reiner’s North, followed by her role as a runaway in the film Manny & Lo. It was Johansson’s poignant role as a teenage amputee in The Horse Whisperer that caught the attention of critics and set the tone of her career. At the time, the director, Robert Redford, described Johansson as “13 going on 30.”

Johansson’s peripatetic lifestyle has lent her a world-weariness that is sometimes surprising for someone her age, and other times misguided. Take a 2003 New York Times interview in which an 18-year-old Johansson offered her thoughts on aging and menopause: “For older women death happens inside. What comes with that death is a kind of liberation.”

Johansson now seems to choose her words more carefully, with the occasional exception. When she was stumping for her presidential candidate in Iowa, she deflected questions about her love life by joking with reporters that her heart belonged to another man—Barack Obama. Then there was their supposed email correspondence, which left the press speculating about their relationship.

“I equated it with the sexist media, trying to put every woman into this position: Either you’re a bulldog, or you’re some slutty airhead,” Johansson says, fluttering her hands in agitation. “Maybe some people would say it’s an image that I put out. That’s a crock of shit. I’m sorry. The fact was completely taken out of context, and it was horribly embarrassing.”

Johansson was so worked up over the election that she entertained the idea of moving to France if she didn’t like the outcome. It’s hard to believe that Johansson, such a Manhattan girl at heart, could live anywhere else for long. The daughter of Sloan, Bronx-bred with Jewish roots, and Danish architect Karsten Johansson, the actress grew up in Greenwich Village with her three siblings (older sister Vanessa is also an actor, older brother Adrian is in real estate, and twin brother Hunter worked for the Obama campaign) before the neighborhood was a stop on the Sex and the City bus tour.

Six years after graduating from the city’s Professional Children’s School, she strongly identifies as a New Yorker, specifically as a Jewish New Yorker. “We didn’t celebrate Shabbat every Friday, but my family is very culturally Jewish,” she says. “It’s a major part of my heritage.”

Being a native New Yorker and cultural Jew are also reference points that she shares with Allen, of course. Her sassy, urbane sensibility has made Johansson a favorite of the director, and consequently a kind of younger screen sister to other Allen women such as Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow.

“If I saw them, we’d have something to talk about,” Johansson says. “I think that women in his life do inspire those roles: our neuroses, our passions, our good qualities, bad qualities. Woody writes women’s roles well.”

For all the talk about Johansson being Allen’s muse, his influence on her is undeniable. For instance, there is a scene in Vicky Cristina Barcelona in which her character sputters an apology to her companions for getting an ulcer during a trip. “To have to go, ‘I’m sorry about this ulcer!’ I mean, who would really say that?” Johansson acknowledges with a laugh. “It’s a Woody-ism.”

Perhaps the director has influenced her in bigger ways as well. In February, Johansson will make her directorial debut with a vignette she calls “my valentine to the city,” part of an anthology of short films, New York, I Love You.

She cast Kevin Bacon as one tortured soul in a city of thousands. “I based his character on the countless people you see in New York just going about their daily routine,” says Johansson, who once flirted with going to film school. “That guy on the subway or walking in Washington Square. Just someone who doesn’t know he’s being watched.”

And where did the inspiration for her story come from? “I saw the movie in my head,” Johansson says, as the sun is beginning to drop over the Hudson. “It came out of my imagination.”