Scarlett Fever

“I’ll have one of each!” Scarlett Johansson says, her eyes wide as she studies the dinner selection at the trendy Manhattan restaurant ABC Kitchen. Having spent the day recording extra dialogue for her new movie, We Bought a Zoo, co-starring Matt Damon, she skipped lunch, and now she’s famished. The pretzel-dusted calamari looks good, she says. But so does the akaushi cheeseburger (“What do you think that is?!”). And the roasted beet salad. And the salmon. “I think I want everything on the menu!”

Scarlett is dressed very casually, in fitted trousers and a loose gray tee shirt. Her hair, dyed red for her portrayal of the butt-kicking Black Widow in the upcoming superhero film The Avengers, is pulled back into a tight ponytail, and a pair of fashionably thick black glasses adorns her freshly scrubbed face.

After ordering (she went with the gazpacho, calamari, and salmon), Scarlett leans back in her chair and then looks at us with her sharp green eyes. The 27-year-old is extremely private, and most of the time, she’d rather talk about politics and other world issues than her own life. But tonight, she’s decided to make an exception. The actress wants to discuss the dramatic new direction she’s taking her career in. And she’s finally ready to open up about what’s going on in her love life too–her divorce from fellow actor Ryan Reynolds was finalized this past June.

Leaning forward, she takes a long sip of her pinot noir. Then, signaling it’s go time and she’s ready to talk, Scarlett puts her elbows on the table and hikes up the sleeves of her tee shirt over her perfectly rounded shoulders. To get the conversation rolling, she smiles before telling us, “It’s been quite a year….”

Since her late teens, Scarlett’s physical appeal has been as lauded as her acting skills–she was named the Sexiest Woman Alive by Esquire in 2006, and Woody Allen, who directed her three times, has compared her to Marilyn Monroe. As she waits for her food to arrive, she admits that she’s often taken roles that have centered on her looks. “As a 19-year-old girl, I was very eager to play into that,” she says. “Why not? You’re 19, and you’re feeling fabulous and young. I don’t know that I could have sold myself as a character actor at 19.”

But after years of playing objects of male infatuation in films like Lost in Translation, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she’s now looking for a much different kind of role. “It’s nice for people to think you’re attractive,” she admits. “But I was never, like, a model or anything. I think because I wasn’t 90 pounds and 6 feet tall [she’s 5 feet 4], I was suddently this ‘bombshell’ and ‘hourglass’ and all those things, but I never wanted to make my career off that.”

That’s one reason she’s excited to be in The Avengers–in which she reprises her role as Black Widow from Iron Man 2. “There’s no romance. I spend the whole film beating the shit out of people…and myself. I will be in physical therapy for many years,” she says happily. (No doubt, all that training explains her especially trim, fit bod.)

The lack of a love story is also part of what drew her to the role of Isserley, an extraterrestrial in human form who roams the Scottish Highlands preying on hitchhikers in the artsy film Under the Skin, which she’s set to begin shooting this fall. And romance also stays safely caged in We Bought a Zoo, out now, in which she portrays a devoted animal keeper. Based on a best-selling memoir, the film tells the story of a recently widowed writer (Damon) who purchases a run-down zoo and dedicates himself to turning it around. Scarlett’s character, Kelly Foster, is focused more on caring for the animals than wooing her grieving boss. “It’s one of the things that attracted me the most,” she says. It’s not about being an object of desire, which is a role I played for a long time. I’ve been so turned off by that. Everything I’ve done in the part year involves characters that the last thing on their mind is finding Mr.Right or being taken care of.”

“She has something to prove,” notes Zoo director Cameron Crowe. “You see it in all her movies; she has this musical soul and this killer wit. But in this film, it comes through more because it’s not about falling in love. And she’s so good, she makes you forget how incredibly beautiful she is.” That’s doubtful…but if she’s as good at playing these kinds of roles as she is at playing a smart, sexy, lust-inducing woman (and we think it’s a safe bet she will be!), it’ll be riveting to watch.

Scarlett’s love life has been the subject of tabloid gossip for years–much of it wildly off the mark. Once much-publicized rumor is that she once had a quickie with Benicio Del Toro in an elevator at the Chateau Marmont. “It’s the worst story ever!” she says, although can she really blame us for loving the visual? “That story will haunt me for the rest of my life. If you have ever been in an elevator, you know it’s, like, 3.5 seconds from one floor to another. It’s crazy. But anyway, a journalist asked me about this rumor, and I was 19 or 20. I didn’t realize how sarcasm would come off, and I said something like, ‘I don’t know, I would find that very unsanitary.’ And the guy printed that, and at the end, he wrote ‘Which isn’t to say that she denied it.’ So of course, other outlets ran with it! I hate that it’s become, like, Hollywood lore, but what are you going to do?”

There is more truth, it seems, to recent stories linking her with Sean Penn, a relationship that quickly fizzled out. When we ask if she’d call it a brief fling, a moment of connection, or a media fantasy, she replies, “Sure. All of those things.”

Then we ask if she’s usually attracted to bad boys. “I’m attracted to the quality of being adventurous and perhaps a bit mischievous and also questioning authority and being proactive,” she says. “If that makes up a quintessential bad boy, then whatever. I’m not at all attracted to meanness or bullying, but I do think conviction is attractive. I mean, really, who doesn’t?”

Scarlett has now been single for months, her longest stretch ever, she says. It’s been a year since she and Reynolds ended their two-and-a-half-year marriage, and she says she has no hard feelings…or regrets. “I’m a big believer that when something feels right, you should do it,” she says. “I’m a big believer in instinct. Getting married was the right thing to do because it was natural. It grew out of romance and love and a desire to have a future with somebody who turned out to be the person I thought he would be.”

That doesn’t mean being married was easy. “Relationships are complicated,” she says, “and being married is a living, breathing process. I think I was not fully aware of the peaks and the valleys. I wasn’t prepared to hunker down and do the work.” The biggest challenge, she says, was that their jam-packed schedules meant so little time together–a common challenge for actors. “Both of us were extremely busy. We spent so much time apart. It’s very difficult. It’s bad.” Nonetheless, she says, “It seemed like a very romantic thing to do, and it was. It was the best thing that I ever did.” The lesson that she learned from it all: “You have to be very confident within yourself to have a successful marriage.”

Being on her own–except, of course, for Maggie, her 8-year-old Chihuahua–has been a learning experience. “It’s strange,” she says. “I’ve never been single for a chunk of time before. You miss having a partner and a confidant, but I have to say, I’m appreciating having the time to get to know myself.”