Scarlett Johansson escapes the tabloid-gossip zoo

Call her “genuine” and “deeply compassionate,” as Matt Damon does. Or “supernaturally talented,” as Cameron Crowe crows.

Just don’t call her “ScarJo.”

“Oh, it’s awful,” Scarlett Johansson says of the nickname that has become as much of a gossip magazine mainstay as “J. Lo.” (So don’t expect her to slap it on any perfume bottles.)

“It’s a laziness,” says Johansson, 27, her black ankle boot propped up on one of the Ritz-Carlton Central Park’s gilded coffee tables. “People can’t actually say the whole name? It’s just bizarre.” She tries shorthand sobriquets on other stars. How come Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t subjected to “like, ‘DaDay’? So Cate Blanchett is not, like, ‘CaBla’? Why is that? Why do I have to get stuck” with a mangled moniker? (Yes, call her funny and frank, as Damon and Crowe, her colleagues in her latest movie, We Bought a Zoo, do.)

Johansson is regularly singled out — by paparazzi keen to catch her in a new relationship since her split from Ryan Reynolds just over a year ago; for an IMDB page that’s longer than those of many actors twice her age; for her throaty, scratchy cackle; as Marilyn Monroe’s heiress apparent for the comely comedienne crown.

But then she just as frequently defies easy expectations. To wit: She plays a zookeeper in Zoo (out Dec. 23). Johansson’s quasi-signature cleavage and come-hither looks are all but absent from her role as the “can-do” (as director Crowe puts it), roll-up-her-plaid-sleeves plucky Kelly Foster.

“The highlight of her wardrobe is the walkie-talkie on her hip,” Crowe says.

In the family-friendly flick, the lid on Johansson’s simmering sexpot persona is nearly sealed.

“I was just happy that Matt and I spent about the same amount of time in the makeup chair,” says Johansson, who this evening isn’t all that much more glammed up: black blazer, cream blouse, skinny charcoal jeans, a couple of gold chains and a simple French twist. “It’s the only time that’s ever happened in my life, that my leading man and I came out at the same time.” (Indeed, Damon, who plays Kelly’s boss, Benjamin Mee, an accidental owner of a Southern California menagerie, maintains that she beat him out of the chair, on account of his character’s shaggy mane.)

“The image projected from those magazine covers is an absolute bombshell and unbelievably glamorous person, so I was really impressed with how real and unadorned she can be” Damon says. “It’s a very believable and grounded performance.”

Crowe, whom Johansson had auditioned for before, for Almost Famous and Elizabethtown, says it was “certainly brave” of her to consider a smallish part where she’s using none of her “ravishing girl skills.”

Johansson seems to delight in the departure.

“The roles that are really available for young women most of the time are the ingénue, the other woman, the girlfriend of someone, and as I’ve gotten older, it’s nice to be able to move into territory where the characters that I’m playing and looking at are women who are established,” she says, man or no. “It’s nice to be kind of transitioning into that phase of my career.”

This new phase taps into “a different part of her appeal because the raw Scarlett, without any of the fireworks attached, is just as attractive, sometimes even more so,” Crowe says. Forget the blond bob and the bombshell body for a minute: Her appeal is “all in her face and in her attitude. She has kind of a wry look at the world. She’s wise beyond her years, yet extremely enthusiastic.”

Even when it comes to handling reptiles. There’s an escaped-snakes-on-a-front-lawn scene that Johansson was far more, uh, game to undertake than her scale-squeamish co-star. Once privy to Damon’s phobia, she “started rubbing it in,” Damon says. “She grabbed the snakes and started wrapping them around her forearm and shoulders and then got the kids (who play Benjamin’s children) involved and basically forced me to fish or cut bait.” Or scoop snakes or run.

Johansson was also happy to hoist cattle carcasses. “It’s a heavy thing!” she says of the slabs of beef she slung on set. Fortunately, at the time of shooting, she was training — at times for five hours a day — for her fight-heavy role as the Black Widow in May’s The Avengers. “So I had a lot of oomph in my step and was just like, ‘I got it. That’s all good.’ But obviously, on the inside it was like, ‘Oh, man. Threw my back out.'” Her castmates wondered: “‘Why are you walking funny?’ I’m like, ‘I’ve been hauling a carcass all day.'” She reconsiders her word choice: “That sounds wrong.”

Close encounters with large and writhing animals dead or alive — she spent a total of about an hour 25 feet from a lion, separated only by a hot wire and a moat — weren’t Zoo’s only complication. “This film is challenging in the sense that the character has a lot of conviction,” Johansson says. “And I think to play a character with conviction, you have to have it yourself.”

If Johansson had an intense year of work, her personal life was also put under pressure. There was her very public divorce from Reynolds — after a two-year marriage she managed to keep under the radar. There was her relationship with Sean Penn, during which wildly erroneous rumors swirled that “ScarJo” was pregnant. (Indeed, her nemesis of a nickname has become a kind of test: “If I hear somebody say that, I know I don’t know them at all.”) And then there were the nude pictures that went viral after her cellphone was hacked.

“The hardest part is actually going through whatever hardship you’re facing. Going through it in public is the added unfortunate thing,” says Johansson, who nonetheless seems resigned to the fact that details about her private life will likely always play out on newsstands. It’s part of the gig. “There’s nothing you can do about that.”

Except avoid it. “One of the best things I learned this year was to not read any tabloid, gossipy, you know, garbage. It really keeps you on the straight and narrow. And while some of it kind of leaks in occasionally, it’s really nice to not know what crazy stories” are circulating.

Mention recent rumored romances—Kieran Culkin, Kate Moss’s ex Jefferson Hack — “and I’m like, ‘What? Really? When did that come out?’ It’s just nice to have kind of a blinder up in that regard. It helps keep you sane. I can’t follow all that stuff. It’s too exhausting.”

And she doesn’t waste her time correcting the record. “Unless it’s something that’s violently awful, I think it’s better to just let it go. You just have to kind of let it slide. Otherwise, you’re, like, in the midst of it, like a frenzy.”

Despite her hectic 12 months, “it’d be silly to say, ‘Oh, God, I can’t wait for this year to end.’ Why wish your time away?”

Johansson recently peeled back a little of her famously guarded privacy and revealed that marrying Reynolds was the best thing she ever did.

So would she marry again?

“I have no idea,” she says. “I don’t X things off. I don’t know. Life is long.” What does seem to be in her future: a family for when she’s older and, ideally, doing what she’s wanted to do since she was 12 — direct.

That said, “right now, my biggest relationship is with my job” — the acting kind, Johansson says. Her current project, an allegorical indie, Under the Skin, in which she plays an alien manhunter and eater, is “just so all-encompassing that I’m happy to commit myself completely to it. And it’s been nice to just focus on that and to focus on myself. There’s something quite refreshing about it.” She has been holed up in the Scottish wilderness. “It’s nice to just kind of be like, I don’t know, in the middle of nowhere.”

Here in the thick of things, her hometown, she says she roams surprisingly free. “What do I have to lose? It’s not like I get attacked by hordes of angry fans.” (Not that you’ll see her underground: “For me, it’s like, I used up all my subway tokens. It’s a privilege to not have to take the subway. I like the subway. It gets you places fast, but I’d rather hail a cab. Or walk.”)

“The city is very kind to me,” she says, looking out the window at the bustle two stories below. “It wraps its big, warm arms around me and keeps me safe. I feel good here.”

Two years ago, Johansson made her Tony-winning Broadway debut a neighborhood away in A View From the Bridge by Arthur Miller, the former husband, of course, of the icon she’s constantly held up against, Monroe.

And though her View part, Catherine Carbone, is legendarily loosely based on Miller’s ex-wife, don’t expect Johansson to become the next in the line of blondes (and one redhead) who have lately channeled the quintessential celluloid siren on screen and in magazine pages.

“There’s a lot there to explore, and I like to watch other people do it, but I have no interest” in joining the Monroe biopic brigade.

“It’s lovely to be compared to somebody as sort of effervescent and charming and fragile and I think kind of an underrated actor, really,” Johansson says. And “you know, beautiful and everything. But it’s never been one for me.”