Scarlett Johansson is crying and holding a knife. This is not as scary as it sounds. It is afternoon in New York City, and Johansson is standing in the kitchen of Greer Nuttall, a Southern-raised chef who worked for the legendary Alice Waters. Nuttall is giving us a lesson in proper knife technique—thwap, thwap, thwap on a thick wooden cutting board—and it was idyllic until the onions. Johansson is an enthusiastic amateur chef, known to host lively dinner parties, but she and onions do not mix. Her tears come fast and freely, and I’m not talking about the kind of light mist that many of us get when chopping the pungent bulb. Forty seconds into an onion, and one of the most glamorous actresses alive is pink-eyed and sniffling and looking like she’s been asked to put a cat to sleep.
“It’s so bad! I’m a mess,” Johansson says, laughing. She is dressed in a checkered blue shirt, dark jeans, brown boots, and a pair of dark-rimmed eyeglasses that offer no defense. “This happens to me every time. . . .”
Johansson puts the blade down and steps away from the counter.
“I’m never going to be Alice Waters!” she says ruefully. “I could never realize my potential at Benihana.”
Johansson excuses herself. A moment later, the woman who beguiled Bill Murray in Lost in Translation returns wearing two sets of glasses—her eyeglasses and her sunglasses—at once, pushed together, dangling over her nose. This is as scary as it sounds—Julia Child meets Jerry Lewis.
“I never thought we’d be crying this early in the day,” Johansson cracks drily. “Normally it happens after the sun goes down . . . and I’m in my shower.”
There it is, the famous Scarlett Johansson sense of humor: droll, self-deprecating, deadpan.
“I always say that if you were on a road trip, you’d definitely want Scarlett in your car,” says her friend Chris Evans, who costars alongside Johansson in this month’s comic-book superhero spectacular The Avengers. “She’s kind of always laughing, even when she’s in a bad mood.”
You probably don’t need to be told that the past year or so has been, at times, challenging for Johansson—a painful, public separation and divorce; a mind-bogglingly invasive computer-hacking attack against Johansson and other celebrities that resulted in criminal charges. It’s a stretch that would grind anyone down, but she has gamely pushed forward. Maybe it’s that sense of humor, maybe it’s the relentless New York in her, but at 27 years of age she has figured out how to roll up her sleeves, put on her glasses—and then, perhaps, a second pair of glasses—and charge on through.
“I mean, looking back on it now, that was almost ten years ago, which is crazy,” Johansson says. We are sitting in Neil’s, an unfussy coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, talking about the surreal time in 2003 when it seemed Scarlett Johansson was suddenly everywhere. She had just appeared in Lost in Translation, as well as Girl with a Pearl Earring, and though Johansson had been in movies since she was a child, it was as if a switch had flicked in the culture and there she was, the ingenue of the moment with the irresistibly smoky voice.
“It feels like a lifetime ago,” Johansson says. “Am I happy I’m not 20 anymore? Yeah. Nineteen? I don’t want to be that age. It’s incredibly confusing.”
She concedes that the post–Lost in Translation blow-up was “hard to navigate.” After some big circuses (The Island) and some smaller films (In Good Company), a happy accident arrived in a partnership with Woody Allen. Allen was on the verge of making Match Point when Kate Winslet suddenly dropped out of the film. “Someone suggested Scarlett, and she was available,” Allen says. “I’ve been crazy about her ever since.”
“I forged this unbelievable friendship with somebody who saw the potential in me at that age,” Johansson says. She would later work with Allen on Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. “Not that the parts he wrote weren’t sexy, but they had substance to them.”
The same could be said of Johansson, who in person is self-effacing and endearingly wonky (she’ll take the White House Correspondents’ dinner over an awards show any day) and, were she not an established sex symbol, could easily be Scarlett, your chatty neighbor from across the hall. The designer Stella McCartney tells of meeting the actress one night at New York’s Carlyle hotel. “We started sipping dirty martinis with some friends of hers, and she opened a debate, which was ‘Are you born a killer, or are you made into a killer?’ ” McCartney recalls. “I thought, Wow, she’s not just a pretty blonde actor.”
Johansson appears pathologically averse to caution—the more atypical and risky the idea, the more attractive it seems. This is part of the reason her résumé is stacked with memorable indies (Ghost World, for instance) and why her side music career (an idiosyncratic album of Tom Waits covers; a collaboration with singer-songwriter Pete Yorn) is anything but Top 40 formula. Her roots are New York concrete, not Hollywood glitz. “I think there are some celebrities who are crazy about being in the scene and the whole Hollywood thing, but that’s not Scarlett,” says Johansson’s friend jewelry artist Sonia Boyajian.
In 2008 Johansson married the actor Ryan Reynolds, but the couple wasn’t interested in feeding the spectacle. “We always kept our story private—how we met, our wedding, everything,” she says. “It was about us.”
A married Johansson would later embark on what was perhaps the biggest risk of her acting career, making her Broadway debut playing Catherine alongside Liev Schreiber’s obsessive Eddie in Arthur Miller’s brawny A View from the Bridge. She rose to the pressure of the high-profile revival, wowing critics and later that spring winning a Tony Award for her performance. “I couldn’t get over how brave she was,” says Schreiber, a stage veteran. “Coming into that experience would be pretty intimidating for just about anybody and usually cripples actors. I was blown away by how fearless she seemed.”
It was exhausting, but Johansson embraced Broadway life; at another lunch, in a health-food restaurant in SoHo, she talks nostalgically of the “underbelly of Times Square,” hanging out by the stage door with the crew, and even the time a stage manager bawled her out for being late to rehearsal (she was never late again). “I know it sounds supercorny, but it was a dream come true,” she says. “That sort of pressure of having to deliver—I just find it thrilling.”
The summer saw her appear as Black Widow alongside Robert Downey, Jr., in the successful Iron Man 2, and she knew The Avengers was coming, but she took a long time hunting for her next film. She spent hot, languid days in New Orleans with Reynolds, who was shooting Green Lantern. They went on a road trip through Europe, but Johansson says she was distracted. “It was nice, but at the same time, I was like, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ ” she says. “I don’t know. I was waiting.”
Johansson describes this unsettled period as “a hard time . . . I was feeling very out of my own skin.” Then headlines appeared in December 2010: Johansson and Reynolds had split. The couple released a brief, civilized statement: “We entered our relationship with love and it’s with love and kindness we leave it. While privacy isn’t expected, it’s certainly appreciated.”
The divorce was finalized in the summer of 2011. Johansson describes it as “comically amicable,” but the parting was far from painless. “It was horrible,” she says. “Of course it’s horrible. It was devastating. It really throws you. You think that your life is going to be one way, and then, for various reasons or whatever, it doesn’t work out.
“This was something I never thought I would be doing,” she continues. “And there’s no way to navigate it. Nobody can give you the right answer. It’s never anything you want to hear. It’s a very lonely thing. It’s like the loneliest thing you’ll ever do, in some way.”
As for the marriage, Johansson sounds almost wistful as she talks about the importance of time. “I’m not saying more time in the marriage, but just having more time with my ex and really clocking those hours of face time with the person you love, really live together and not having the pressure of two people that have these careers. . . .” She has no regrets about getting married; she describes the experience with genuine affection. “It was a beautiful thing,” Johansson says. “The falling in love and getting married and making that commitment . . . I think it’s nice to know that you’re capable of loving somebody in that way. I think it’s a rare opportunity.”
She says she is still recovering and doesn’t pretend the divorce is fully in the rearview. “I don’t feel on the other side of it completely, but it gets better,” she says. “It’s still there. More than anything, it’s just that not having your buddy around all the time is weird. There’s no rule book. I think it’s just time.”
During this stressful period, sanctuary would come from, of all places, a zoo—specifically, director Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, in which Johansson played a zookeeper at a run-down animal park purchased by a writer played by Matt Damon. The film was shot mostly outside in the serene hills of Thousand Oaks, California, and Johansson calls the experience “blissful . . . like some hippie dream.” She lavishes praise on Crowe, as well as Damon, whom she calls “suspiciously wonderful,” and says that making the film offered her comfort and protection.
It was around then that Johansson began to be seen in the company of actor Sean Penn. “We spent time together, yeah,” she says. “I never put a title on it, really, but we were seeing each other.” She says she was startled by the amount of media attention the pairing received. “In my marriage, funnily enough, we had relative privacy,” she says, but the fuss over her and Penn “was a little bit of an adjustment.” She says she and Penn have remained friends, and she praises his extensive relief work in Haiti. “He’s a remarkable person,” she says. “He really is.”
As if a strange year couldn’t have gotten any stranger, in September 2011 Johansson was revealed as the victim of a hacking—personal, intimate photographs, intended for Reynolds, suddenly went viral on the Internet. Rather than cower, she called in the authorities. The alleged perpetrator was arrested and charged with multiple felonies. “It wasn’t just me,” Johansson says. “It was others. I don’t want to be a victim and say, ‘Oh, well’ and just hide my head in shame. Somebody stole something from me. . . . It’s sick. I don’t want people like that to slide.”
The incident clearly still rattles her. “When all those photos came out, of course I go out to dinner and think, Goddamn it, these people have all seen my. . . .” Johansson’s voice trails off. “That’s terrible. You know what I mean? You can’t not think that. Even if they haven’t, you’re paranoid.
“I don’t want pity,” she says. Her solution, she says, was “tuning it all out”—to stop paying attention to the gossip and the endless churn of celebrity coverage. She says she had never paid much attention to it before, but she imposed a strict blackout. “I have to say I’m way happier because of it,” she says. “It’s nice. It allows me, I think, to be more creative. It’s nice not to be so self-aware.”
Soon a sleek and red-haired Johansson will be seen in The Avengers, reprising her Iron Man 2 role as Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, alongside an accomplished cast that includes Downey as Iron Man, Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, and Samuel L. Jackson as the group’s eye-patched ringleader, Nick Fury. Once more Johansson will be in a black catsuit, and there are elaborate stunts and hand-to-hand combat, but she says she was drawn by her character’s murkiness. “Female superheroes normally are superlame.” Natasha/Black Widow “is kind of gray. I like that about her.”
Based on the Marvel comic series, The Avengers was written and directed by Joss Whedon, best known for television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon calls Johansson the “least diva-like human ever on a movie set” and praises her physical preparation for the part. “She was throwing herself all over the place.” Johansson readied herself for the film with extensive martial-arts training, which left her impressively svelte and sinewy. But such a physically demanding role was not without hazards. “You get beat up a lot,” she says. “It’s painful.”
“She’s a badass,” Ruffalo says of Black Widow. “Scarlett played it really well, with a wink in her eye.”
The Avengers was partly shot in Cleveland, and one night during filming, Johansson, Evans, costar Jeremy Renner, and a few others ventured out to Edison’s, a local pub where an open-mike night was under way. After a while, Johansson wandered over to the stage, and after a brief consult with the band, she was singing the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon.”
“Scarlett had said we should get up and sing a song,” recalls Evans. “I really thought she was joking.”
“I don’t think anybody knew who it was,” says Joe Kahn, the bar’s manager. “I was like, ‘Who’s this pretty girl with the great voice?’ And it turns out to be her.”
“Honestly, it’s not that surprising,” Johansson says. “I’m a singing, dancing, jazz-hands kid. What can I say?”
Johansson will follow The Avengers with another unconventional choice, playing an alien in Under the Skin, a sci-fi thriller from director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). She recently signed on to play Janet Leigh in a film based on the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (talk about knives and crying!), and she’s going to play a small part in a film written by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She’s also keen to direct; she’s adapting a screenplay based on Truman Capote’s debut novel, Summer Crossing, about a privileged New York teen spending a lost, hot summer in the city. Early, rediscovered, underappreciated Capote may be an old-fashioned, eccentric choice, but it’s very Scarlett.
None of these obligations will stop Johansson from getting out and campaigning for Barack Obama’s reelection. She was on the ground early in Iowa in 2008, rallying young voters for his historic caucus win—“the most incredible thing”—and remains a dedicated supporter. She’s also been active in the upcoming New York mayoral campaign, throwing her support behind Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, a longtime family friend for whom Johansson’s twin brother, Hunter, has worked. “She has a real understanding of issues relating to education, health care, and the government,” Stringer says of Scarlett, “in a way you’d think that’s what she did full-time.”
In her romantic life, there is a welcome calm. Lately, Johansson has been dating a New York–based advertising creative director named Nate Naylor; they’ve been photographed by the paparazzi on the Manhattan streets and vacationing in Hawaii—the actress and the real-life Don Draper. Seeing someone out of the public eye may be a comparatively tranquil experience for Johansson, but for her new beau, dating a celebrity has been a real change. Johansson seems amused by how well Naylor has dealt with the sudden attention. “It must be very strange for him,” she says, smiling. “It’s totally bizarre. It’s an adjustment—I mean, it’s got to be an adjustment for him way more than it was for me at nineteen. But he’s really remarkably good about it.”
The subject brightens her. This is where Johansson wants to be, not swamped by gloomy tabloid headlines she has spent most of her career trying to avoid. She wants to get back to normalcy, to be among friends, to return to being Scarlett, the kid from Greenwich Village’s Public School 41 who liked pro wrestling and now watches medical reality shows and the hipster spoof Portlandia. Who Woody Allen says has “the acting ability to be not just a passing pinup girl but a genuinely meaningful actress.” Who Sonia Boyajian claims is “effortlessly glamorous” but also makes an insanely good chocolate cake. “I’ve been to many a dinner at Scarlett’s house, and she is the hostess with the mostess,” Boyajian says. Of course, Johansson now has new kitchen-knife skills (and, perhaps, a pair of onion goggles).
“Yeah, everything’s been really great right now,” Johansson says. “It’s been a good time. I’ve had peace. Relative peace. I just want to work on things that are really hard, and when I’m not working on things that are really hard, I want to hang out with people I like to be with, and that’s it.”
There have been trying, complicated, exasperating moments, but she is choosing to be philosophical about it. “From that comes a lot of really amazing things,” Johansson says before adding optimistically, “I think it will be an interesting year.”