For someone with such a fiery name, Scarlett Johansson is remarkably cool. She walks down E. 76th Street and right through the revolving door of the Carlyle Hotel with an assuredness that belies her age, wearing a light pink wrap cardigan, faded jeans, tall beige suede boots, and aviator sunglasses. “I’m exhausted,” she proclaims, tossing a messenger bag to the floor. Johansson is more beautiful in person than on-screen; she’s elegantly composed, smart, and well-spoken, but at the same time guarded. (Recent murmurings in the gossip pages included a squabble with Broadway cast mate Liev Schreiber and rumors that she and husband Ryan Reynolds were living apart. Neither hold any water.)
If Johansson watches her words it’s only because her years in the business have taught her to be mindful of television reporters and magazine journalists. Not that she’s ever let them stop her from living life exactly as she wants, or plotting a career that lately has extended into brave new territory: the grueling Broadway stage, the reflexive genre of indie rock, and, as of this summer, the wild world of action filmmaking with Iron Man 2. Johansson is doing everything she can to do everything she can. And so far, it’s all turning to gold.
Johansson straddles several genres and media platforms to deliver a sound, a look, and a style of acting all her own, effectively upping the ante on what it takes to stay relevant in the age of the iPad. Never far from our consciousness, she appears in multiple avatars: the indie-rock singer, the Broadway novice, the fashion model, and, of course, the perpetually cool star of the silver screen. And though there are several iterations of Scarlettness, they all return to the same quiet contradictions: approachable yet untouchable, smart yet not a show-off, beautiful yet unfussy, and, in the end, easygoing yet incredibly serious about the craft.
As Liev Schreiber, Johansson’s cast mate in the recent restaging of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, explains, “Scarlett has a kind of freakish composure and maturity that you generally only find in Nobel Peace Prize winners. I think that’s part of what makes her so compelling to watch. Of course, beauty, sensitivity, and one of the fastest learning curves I’ve ever seen in my life probably factor in there as well.”
Critics were just as impressed that the girl who has spent a career playing versions of herself had finally managed to transform. This wasn’t about bodacious Marilyn Scarlett, or ironic Woody Allen Scarlett, or pensive Sofia Coppola Scarlett. It was totally new, and it kind of kicked her ass. “It’s been so challenging,” the actress explains. “The hardest thing about it was not the hours or the labor-it’s only a two hour show. But specifically this play, it really stays with you in a haunting way.”
The story line, which follows and insular, working-class family in 1950s Red Hook who takes in a pair of Italian immigrants to tragic ends, showed off Johansson’s talent as a dramatic actress. Performing alongside a Broadway pro like Schreiber, Johansson was given the opportunity to learn a thing or two. “Liev is brilliant to work opposite,” she explains. “He’s unbelievably generous, and he notices everything. He’s just masterful, and he challenges me to challenge myself.”
In Iron Man 2, Johansson’s love of a challenge shifts from the psychological to the physical. The sequel to the thinking man’s action drama comes with the addition of Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, possibly the most seductive superhero since Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. The character pushed Johansson to the brink with months of athletic training, and required a little bit of thinking outside the box of big-budget action movie. “She’s a very intelligent actor,” explains Iron Man director Jon Favreau. “She asks the right questions and is cooperative and collaborative. It was wonderful watching her apply the work ethic and attention to detail, which no doubt comes from an independent film background, to a summer superhero movie.”
The success of Iron Man has essentially been due to Favreau’s ability to convince a largely indie cast-from Mickey Rourke to Don Cheadle to Sam Rockwell-to bring their quirks and nuanced acting to the action arena. “I think Jon just takes people that he really respects and squeezes them into superhero costumes,” says Johansson, laughing. But slipping on a catsuit also requires a significant shift in frame of mind. Black Widow is about as far as you could get from the cynical teen Rebecca in Ghost World, or Charlotte the transient Ivy League youth from Lost in Translation. “This is a no-bullshit character,” explains Johansson. “It’s not that she’s non-feeling, she just gets the job done. She’s part of something bigger, and she knows it. She’s this crazy badass, and she has no time for fucking around.”
Perhaps Black Widow also punctuates a long period of experimentation and growth, one that’s proven attractive to directors and casting agents alike. “I’m 25, and for some reason I’ve played these characters who are kind of figuring it out, transforming from young girls to young women.” Johansson admits that she’s recently shed the anxiousness of youth. “I don’t feel like a girl anymore,” she explains. “And I feel like my life and career are on a different path than they had been. There’s a lot of road behind me. I feel at this point I really want to do work that is challenging to me. Not to say that I don’t look at my job and realize that I’m ridiculously fortunate, and purely an actor for hire. You never forget that it’s all so vulnerable.”
These days, Scarlett as a woman is a brand in demand. In the past three years, Johansson has appeared in campaigns for Louis Vuitton (three times), Moët and Chandon, Mango, L’Oréal, and, most recently, Dolce & Gabbana Beauty. Designers and editors see her as an answer to fashion’s full-figured debate. But regardless of what others project, Johansson views her many forays into modeling as just another medium of communication-as well as a fun transformation. “It’s all in a day’s work for me,” she says. “Working with these incredible hair and makeup teams, you go in looking like a schmoe, and you come out like a movie star. You go through the works, and then you’re like this perfectly prepared sausage…no one ever sees what goes in.”
Lately Johansson has logged time in photo studios and recording studios alike, working with singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, who thought an actress might bring a bit of character to his duets record. As Yorn explains, “I wasn’t interested in a traditional singer. I was interested in more of a character.” By then, Johansson had already released her 2008 Tom Waits covers album, Anywhere I Lay My Head. But Yorn was still blown away by her artist’s intuition. “I was very impressed,” he says. “She was a natural. She immediately did this aloof delivery that worked within the context of the songs. She knew how to play it.” And he thinks Johansson might just be the total package. “She is great across the board, as an actress and a person, and she had a good sense of herself. She is tied into the world on a spiritual level, like an old soul.” A good chunk of the world seems to thinks so too.