When I first encounter Scarlett Johansson, she’s at a playground in NYC’s West Village, conversing with a man at least twice her age. The two are seated. She’s slightly hunched over, intent, gesturing, he’s leaning back thoughtfully, legs crossed, absorbing, considering. There are no squealing kids running around because village mega playground is a full-service post-production complex for film and television projects, meaning: no monkey bars, just bars down the street in which to monkey around. But Johansson doesn’t have time for that right now, she’s more interested in arriving at the final cut of her five-minute short film, which also happens to be the precocious 23-year-old actor’s directorial debut.
“Can we squeeze a few extra seconds into the scene right before Kevin gets off the train, maybe just two extra beats?” Johansson asks the man, industry legend Craig McKay, who received an Oscar nomination in 1992 for his editing work on Silence of the Lambs. McKay tilts his head slightly and rocks in the desk chair as if to nod subtly with his entire body, yeah, that just might work.
We’re in a cozy editing bay on the building’s eighth floor. This space off the main hallway isn’t gaudily high-tech or particularly fashion-forward in terms of decor. It feels more like a college dorm room–sparsely furnished with a small red couch, a few bookcases and a desk with three flat-panel monitors. Natural light spills through several rectangular windows that overlook the glistening Hudson River. There’s a large bulletin board on the wall covered in pencil-sketched storyboards.
Observing Johansson’s easy confidence and technical command of the editing process, it’s easy to forget about the countless magazines that have crowned her “The World’s Sexiest This” and “The Celebrity With The Nicest That”. Fan websites have paid leering tribute to every part of her body except possibly the rough pad of skin covering the heel of her left foot. When you meet Johansson in the middle of her workday, all that sideshow chatter in your head falls mute, replaced by the simple, elegant picture of a young artist with the sleeves of her sweater pushed up to her elbows.
Johansson is dressed casually in navy-blue slacks and a bright-orange T-shirt that has the word “Waverly” scrawled across the front in looping cursive. She wears a gauzy grey sweater over that. Her long blonde hair is down and her fingers close upon a strand near her face, sliding down it before distractedly repeating the gesture. A small length of bent copper loops through the septum of her nose. Her demeanor is kind but focused. You’d expect this kind of sober intensity from someone wrapping up her first directorial effort. Scarlett Johansson’s game face just happens to be more comely than yours or mine.
Her debut album of Tom Waits covers comes out this month, but she’s already moved on to another project. Her sepia-toned short–starring a weathered-looking Kevin Bacon–will appear in the upcoming film New York, I Love You. This cinematic tribute to New York City serves as a follow-up to 2006’s Paris, Je T’aime, which showcased the work of notable directors such as Joel and Ethan Coen, Gus Van Sant and Alfonso Cuarón. While this may seem like heady company, Johansson is the very picture of unflappability. Asked what unexpected changes she encountered while negotiating the transition from acting to directing, she matter-of-factly replies, “Nothing unexpected. It’s been a seemless transition. I’ve always been aware of what’s going on with the crew and how things were moving around, and you figure out the business of it because, as an actor, you’re involved so strongly with the studio and the producers. It’s not so dissimilar.”
This is how Johansson reminds you that she’s more experienced than her age suggests, that you’re talking to a seasoned professional who’s been working in the film industry for a decade and a half. Johansson landed her first role at the age of nine in Rob Reiner’s film North and continued acting in bit parts until her 1998 portrayal of a crippled girl in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer drew her wider acclaim.
Maybe it was the uncharacteristically husky voice that initially made her a less obvious choice for mainstream Hollywood casting agents, but Johansson’s early starring roles–such as the sarcastically deadpan Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World–launched her career on a decidedly art-house trajectory. Then in 2003, her quietly wrenching performance opposite Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation sealed the deal. Critics loved her. The movie-going public loved her. And, let’s be honest, the camera probably loved her the most of all.
This is the pivotal moment at which you’d expect a gorgeous young starlet to leap aboard the Britney-Paris Express and ride it drunkenly down Melrose smack into the side of a parked car. But what you see in Johansson’s career is something remarkably different. Instead of spending all her time with Hot Young Hollywood, she’s actually gravitated toward middle-aged men who know firsthand what it takes to build a steady legacy.
So this is a story about an old soul residing in a young body, the incalculable value of life experience, intergenerational artistic bonds, actors imparting wisdom by simply doing good work, mentoring disguised as bullshitting, the humility to reach outside of yourself for answers, the uselessness of sex as an explanation for everything, the quest for substance, the joy of bringing new stories into being, and the exquisite prize of simple friendship. This is a story about dads and daughters who share no blood. This is a story about dads and daughters who share something more profoundly connective than blood.
Watching Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (the story of a middle-aged actor shooting a whiskey commercial in Tokyo who strikes up an intense relationship with a younger woman staying in the same hotel), it’s easy to idealize the off-screen connection between the film’s lead actors. But Johansson stresses that sometimes the magic you see blossom between two characters is simply the result of hard work and preparation.
“It was difficult working on that film. First of all, I was just 17, and I was going through my own shit–graduating from high school and figuring out what I wanted, what was important to me, finding my independence. I was in Tokyo, which was totally foreign to me and I was working insane hours. It wasn’t like Bill and I had so much in common that we could have this great personal relationship. We were at totally different stages in our lives, and I don’t think he was necessarily so fascinated by what I was going through. But we were fortunate that we had a lot of chemistry between us.”
Even though the actors’ personal relationship didn’t stretch far beyond the final cut (“I don’t even remember what I did off screen, I was so jetlagged,” Johansson sighs), sometimes your coworkers can teach you about life simply by example. Johansson learned about the importance of vulnerability in the acting process, and finding the nerve to pour something intimate into each character.
“Bill brings an integrity to the work because he really personalizes it,” she says. “He shared his own kind wisdom in that film. Some of his lines were things he had written, very poignant moments like when he says, ‘You get older, you have kids…’ He’s reminiscing with this character. I think a lot of people related to his character because it was really coming from him.
“For me, it was more of a stretch–the character was going through a phase of her life that I had not yet gone through, which was being a young woman completely independent from her family. At that time, my mom was still coming with me to work. She legally had to be there–thank God she was there! I think everybody wished they had their mom with them on that job. But I figured it out somehow. I think a lot of it was just responding to Bill. I guess, in a way, I felt very transient. I related to that.”
Even though the relationship between Bob and Charlotte in the film had a powerful romantic tension pulsing around its edges, the emotional impact of their bond was less about sex and more about two humans blessing one another with human presence in a world where busyness and technology conspire to alienate people from meaningful connection. For all its other insights into relational dynamics, Coppola’s script exhibited astounding prescience in terms of Johansson’s career future. Soon, an older man would become an important creative ally and friend.
“I don’t know why relationships between men and women are always pigeon-holed into being some kind of push-and-pull for sexual power. I’m always weirded out when I’m interviewed by people who say, ‘Gosh! Woody must be in love with you.’ It’s like, ‘fucking expand your mind.’ We have a great friendship between us and I have such a fondness for him as a person. I can appreciate his quirks.”
Johansson recently wrapped shooting in Madrid for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, her third picture with Allen, following 2006’s Scoop and 2005’s Match Point. It didn’t take the media long to seize on the notion that Johansson must be Allen’s new muse. The reality is simultaneously less sensational and considerably more meaningful. The two get along famously, and Johansson has drawn tremendous inspiration from Allen’s relentless creative drive.
“He’s very modern in his way of thinking and has great enthusiasm, a hunger for what he does. I think part of that is nervousness about the passing of time, a sense that this life is not enough. He’s just so full of ideas, and it’s inspiring to see somebody who’s in the autumn of his life but hasn’t lost any of the passion for storytelling. We talk about relationships, whether it’s people that are together intimately, or friends, whatever–how people are with one another. He’s fascinated by human nature, and so am I.”
It’s that zeal for storytelling that’s prompted Johansson to climb into the director’s chair herself. Though her debut short has very little dialogue, you can already sense the fascination with the inner life of the characters and the piece’s mood as shaded by the tenor of each actor’s performance. Johansson’s directorial style is evocative in what it leaves to the imagination–from the way Kevin Bacon fidgets with his fedora and locks/unlocks/relocks his apartment door with a shaky hand to the insane cackling of the corner store clerk; to Saul Williams’ confrontational spoken-word poetry as he stalks closer to Bacon on a train to Coney Island. Though she doesn’t intend the stylistic thumbprint of her directorial work to parrot Allen’s, she’s taken other lessons from the 73-year-old auteur.
“He’s not precious about stuff, which I think is important, especially when you’re working with such a large group of people, and actors that are going to come in with their own ideas. You can’t be too nit-picky precious about phrasing. You tell him, ‘This phrasing isn’t coming out the right way,’ and he’ll be like, ‘As long as you have the same idea, just put it into your own words.’ I think it’s important to give an actor that kind of flexibility.
“For instance, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there’s this line where I say, ‘You went through my suitcase,’ but the original line was ‘You went through my valise.’ Nobody would say “You went through my valise,” but Woody would say that! I told him, ‘You can’t say “valise” because nobody knows what that means.’ And Woody was like, ‘Really? What do you call it?’ And I was like, ‘It’s a suitcase!'”
When it came to light that Scarlett Johansson would be releasing a Tom Waits covers record, a lot of people instinctively checked to make sure they weren’t reading The Onion. Of course, it was a knee-jerk underestimation of Johansson’s musical and cultural awareness. The thought of a pre-pubescent girl getting hooked on Tom Waits seems implausible, but Johansson was 12 when she first became enthralled by the gravelly voiced crooner. Her friend’s dad loved Tom Waits and would take the girls on road trips, playing nothing but his music for hours on end. Eventually, the songwriter became a sort of secret handshake between the girls.
“At first it was like, ‘What this weird that your Dad listens to?’ Johansson recalls. “But Tom Waits’ music somehow oddly appeals to a kid because records like Small Change have that circusy, carnival-act vibe. The songs are very cinematic. I think as a kid I was attracted to that in the same way I loved “Being The Benefit of Mr. Kite!”—one of my favorite Beatles songs. It really lets a kid’s imagination take flight.”
Waits’ music gradually wove itself into the fabric of Johansson’s life, just as the music of her other favorite songwriters—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Chet Baker–had over the years. Waits showed Johansson the full power of what a song can mean in someone’s life. Music plants emotional signposts that can help a person trace back years of life experience. Considering how Johansson was introduced to Waits’ music, it’s fitting that the process of recording Anywhere I Lay My Head began with another music-filled road trip.
After enlisting producer David Sitek (of avant-rock band TV on the Radio) in the summer of 2007, Johansson invited him to fly out to Los Angeles so they could make the cross-country drive to Louisiana’s Dockside Studios together. The trip gave them an opportunity to get acquainted and take turns playing each others songs on their iPods. In addition to her love of classic songwriters from George and Ira Gershwin to Cole Porter, Johansson listens to her fair share of indie rock–her favorite bands at the moment are Grizzly Bear, Celebration and The National.
It didn’t take long for Sitek to realize that, like Tom Waits, Johansson had a distinctive voice that offered some exciting musical possibilities. “Scarlett’s baritone is just unbelievable,” Sitek told a group of journalists at an NYC listening party for the album. “I heard so many Deborah Harry and Cocteau Twins and all these other things that I thought if we applied them to these very brash or harsh songs, it would be a nice juxtaposition.”
Tom Waits knows a thing or two about how to take an unconventional voice and shape it into a uniquely expressive instrument. Though Johansson’s early career ambition was to sing her lungs out on Broadway, she realized pretty quickly that her career might need to take a different path (“I was this little blonde girl with a baritone singing voice, which at nine was freakish, I’m sure. Even nine-year-old boys have higher singing voices than I did.”)
But she underwent vocal training anyway. It would be just a few extra years before she’d have the opportunity to put those skills to use. Her new record isn’t the vanity project of someone who feels entitled to a record deal after achieving widespread notoriety. God gave her a wonderfully unexpected voice, and—emboldened by Mr. Waits’ example–she intends to have some fun with it.
Tom Waits isn’t the only man who’s inspired Johansson to sing recently. Barack Obama’s speech following the New Hampshire Primary prompted will.i.am of the Black Eyed Pears and director/filmmaker Jesse Dylan (son of another socially conscious musician named Bob) to create a song and video based on the senator’s address. Johansson, who’s been an Obama supporter for several years, eagerly lent her voice and celebrity to the proceedings. In the black-and-white clip, you see her in the vocal booth, wearing headphones and signing her few impassioned lines before stepping tentatively away from the mic.
While Johansson doesn’t expect anybody to vote for a candidate based on any one person’s endorsement—least of all the endorsement of an artist/entertainer–it’s not going to stop her from encouraging college students to engage in the political process.
“It’s been so exciting to get out there and talk to kids–and I say ‘kids’ meaning my peers–about why I appreciate Barack. He’s confronting health-care issues that affect young people. You know, most of my friends don’t have insurance. They’re working as photo assistants and stuff like that. These kids on the campaign trail asking questions, they are so well-informed. They’re asking really specific policy questions. It impacts whether they decide to vote for Clinton or Obama, or decide to register as independent or support McCain. They have real concerns, and they want answers. I love that part of it. So that’s a whole other aspect of this life that’s been fun and inspiring.”
From her involvement with the campaign and the personal time she’s spent with the Illinois senator, she’s learned the importance of making a contribution to the world in which we live. There’s no such thing as a small contribution when it comes to investing in the lives of others. In that spirit, Johansson traveled to Kuwait in January to visit the American troops serving in that region. A morale-boosting celebrity visit isn’t going to change the tide of the war, but you do what little you can to better the situation. Sometimes it’s a White House run. Sometimes it’s a smile and sincere word of appreciation.
Johansson felt like she’d won the lottery when her friend Bennett Miller (best known as the director of the award-winning film Capote) called her and asked her if she’d like to star in a video he was shooting for Bob Dylan’s song “When The Deal Goes Down.” The resulting video–shot completely on vintage Super-8–beautifully captures the throat-tightening nostalgia of Dylan’s ballad. The slightly twitchy footage shows Johansson arrayed in 1950s fashions, reclining in tall summer grass, looking out over the rail of a boat and dozing in a back-porch hammock with a book cradled in her lap. There’s no telling what relation her character has to the person operating the camera, but you can tell that the photographer would find a way to stop the world from spinning on its axis, if his beloved asked him to.
Seeing Johansson in the video wearing a polka-dotted dress, striking a pose in front of a vintage pink convertible, there’s no denying that she possesses some enigmatic aspect of the female celebrities of past generations–Grace Kelly, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth. Journalists tend to attribute this to the fact that her curvaceous figure represents a beauty ideal that held sway in the mid 20th century before anorexic-looking models popularized the junkie-chic image dominating the towering fashion billboards that loom over Times Square today.
In my mind, however, Johansson’s timelessness has more to do with the old soul peeping out through those eyes, and the grace and poise she exhibits. She wields a confounding wholesomeness that seems so alien to this culture that equates feminine empowerment with the ability to turn heads by hiking up your skirt and writhing like a stripper in search of a $20 tip. A hunger for character and substance permeates Johansson’s entire attitude towards art and life. She’s learned from Dylan that being a genuine artist has everything to do with the quality of the stories you write with your life, and nothing to do with the stories written about you. The celebrity-tabloid press doesn’t decide your worth based on what you wear to an awards show.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to never be the biggest media sensation,” she says. “I’ll do anything to avoid it. It’s so gross–that whole tabloid shit is disgusting and awful. And I feel bad because sometimes people don’t court it and they get it, and you don’t know why. People are interested in them. Maybe they’ve become America’s sweetheart at some time, and they have a personal life, but then people get hungry for that, too.
“If you have somebody waiting outside your home for 32 hours, it doesn’t matter how many days you’ve clocked in on the movie-star meter. You’re still a person living your life. I can understand how that must have been for Dylan, who’s such an icon. I’ve been fortunate enough to mostly come out unscathed.”
“Don’t Look Back” could very well be Scarlett Johansson’s personal career mantra. She’s not sitting around patting herself on the back for recording her first album or directing her first film project or any of the other impressive career milestones she’s achieved at such a young age. Scarlett Johansson isn’t merely hoping to make her dads proud. She’s daring them to try and keep up.