Early in 2012 Scarlett Johansson donned a dark wig and a cheap fake-fur jacket, and drove a white van around Glasgow after dark, trying to pick up men at random on the street.
She would approach strangers who looked as if they were alone, and try to establish whether anyone would immediately miss them if they disappeared. Then she would entice them into her Transit and drive them away.
It wasn’t as easy as you might think. If she was too overtly sexual in her advances, most of the men she approached shied away, frightened of this oddly emotionless girl with the English accent and predatory manner. She had to be more subtle, to somehow improvise her way from asking for directions to grilling them about where they were going and who with, to inviting them to hop in.
What her subjects didn’t know was that the van was fitted with hidden cameras, and that the director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) and his team were in the back, watching the action and ready to ask the men to sign release forms so the footage could be used in the film they were making, Under the Skin.
Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Michel Faber, the film is about an alien prowling Glasgow disguised as a human female, luring men to be harvested for their meat.
It is unusual to find a Hollywood actress willing to put herself in such a vulnerable position, but Johansson likes projects that make her uncomfortable. ‘It was terrifying, but empowering,’ she says. ‘In that state of mind, I really felt like I was on a hunt.’
Under the Skin is a strange, demanding film, looking at our world through alien eyes and questioning what it is to be human. To capture behaviour that looks natural, much of the first half of the film was shot with hidden cameras in a shopping centre, at a nightclub and on the street, and only a few of the participants are actors.
A harrowing scene on a beach at the start establishes that this is a creature with a chilling lack of empathy, but as Johansson’s character interacts with humans, and experiences acts of kindness as well as aggression, it slowly becomes more human itself, something she has to convey with minimal dialogue.
The film has polarised critics, with some hailing it as a masterpiece and others finding it too disturbing to watch. In the screening I attended, each time Johansson’s character stripped down to her underwear and lured another victim to the slaughter – something that is only hinted at, by the way – at least one male in the audience walked out.
‘It’s funny how some people can’t sit through that, but they could see Saw IV or whatever and be completely numb to it,’ Johansson says, when I mention this. ‘Sometimes it’s not even violence, just things that are misogynistic or ageist or whatever and they can sit through it.’
It is February when we meet, and Johansson is in London for a couple of days, doing pre-production work for Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest in the hit series featuring superheroes from Marvel comics, which will start shooting in Britain this spring.
Johansson plays the Black Widow, a flame-haired Soviet super-agent who made her first film appearance opposite Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man 2 in 2010. She walks down from her hotel room dressed to disappear: her long, dirty-blond hair is tied back in a casual ponytail, her face is free of make-up and hidden behind large-framed clear spectacles, and she is wearing an oversized beige jumper, jeans and flat boots.
With a fine chain tattooed around her right wrist like a bracelet and three gold rings and a diamond stud in her left ear, if anything she looks more like a singer in an indie band than a film star.
None the less, she is accosted by a woman who asks, ‘Are you the one?’ At first Johansson thinks this is a reference to her advertising campaign for the Dolce & Gabbana perfume The One, but then the woman adds, ‘The one who’s on TV?’ Johansson laughs, perplexed. ‘I don’t know what that means!’
Johansson is used to being approached in this way. People get used to seeing you on a screen, she says. ‘There’s a disconnect. I’ve had people come up to me on the street and be very inappropriate, or in really private settings, like the hospital or whatever. It never ceases to amaze me, but there’s a feeling that you can’t possibly bother that person, because they’re not real – they’re famous.’
In Her, which opened in Britain last month, Johansson doesn’t appear on screen at all. Written and directed by Spike Jonze, it is set in an optimistic but recognisable near-future in which a new, artificially intelligent computer operating system is able to learn and so mould itself to the user.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a writer on the rebound from a failed marriage, who buys the new OS – voiced by Johansson – and falls in love with it. A satirical look at our obsession with our digital devices, the film works because the chemistry between Phoenix and Johansson is believable.
She was in the middle of a Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when the call came in. ‘My agent said, “This is going to be four days, it’s a voice-over,”’ she says. Reading the script, she realised there was more involved, and went to a lunchtime meeting with Jonze that turned into a nine-hour work session.
‘He kept stressing that he wanted this newness of her to be contagious, and exciting.’ In the end, Johansson says, it took an enormous amount of time to produce her finely nuanced performance. ‘It was 10 hours here, 10 hours there, whenever we could make it.’
At one point, she was recording Her at the same time as working on the latest Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which she again plays the Black Widow, alongside Chris Evans as Captain America. ‘It was great for my social life,’ she says drily.
It is the creative discussions with directors such as Glazer and Jonze that Johansson says she most enjoys, and, inevitably, many of her friends are directors. ‘We love to have conversations about work and really pull things apart,’ she says. ‘I love to talk about the things they’re struggling with creatively, try to air out a piece, read people’s scripts, give notes, watch a cut of people’s movies.’
Soon she will be moving behind the cameras herself, directing an adaptation of Truman Capote’s abandoned first novel, Summer Crossing, about a romance between a Wasp New Yorker and a Jewish parking attendant. She is about to start casting, with filming scheduled for March 2015.
Johansson recently worked with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on his directorial debut, the likeable Don Jon, and says it was inspiring. ‘It was great to see somebody young and enthusiastic make the movie he wanted to make, and if he can do it, so can I. We’ve been working a long time because we were both kid actors, so there’s a shorthand there.’
Although only 29, Johansson has been acting for more than 20 years. She grew up in New York, one of four children. (She has an older brother and sister, and a twin brother who is younger by three minutes.) Her father was an architect who had moved to America from Denmark; her mother acted as Scarlett’s first manager when her career started to take off.
Money was always tight, and the Johansson children all went to their local state school. They grew up sharing their parents’ liberal politics – Scarlett campaigned for Barack Obama and says she would like to see Hillary Clinton as the next Democratic president.
A precocious child who always wanted to perform, Johansson made her stage debut at the age of eight in an off-Broadway play with Ethan Hawke, and her film debut a year later, with a small role opposite Elijah Wood in Rob Reiner’s flop children’s film North.
By the time she was 17 she had graduated to adult roles with luminous performances in Lost in Translation (in which she and Bill Murray play two lonely Americans jet-lagged in Tokyo) and Girl with a Pearl Earring (a period piece in which she plays a maid who becomes the muse to the painter Vermeer, played by Colin Firth). The films came out within weeks of each other, and instantly made her a global star.
She guards her privacy fiercely. In 2008 she married the actor Ryan Reynolds. The couple divorced two years later, a split that seems to have been amicable, although neither has discussed it publicly. Later some nude photographs that Johansson had once emailed to Reynolds surfaced on the internet; a subsequent investigation led to a Florida man, who is now serving a 10-year jail term for hacking into the private correspondence of more than 50 people, many of them famous.
I ask how it feels to have your personal space violated so comprehensively. ‘No one likes to feel like they’re being stalked,’ she says. ‘You end up worrying about all these crazy-making things. Did I shred my mail? Should I send that by text or email – which is safer?’
She recently announced her engagement to Romain Dauriac, a 31-year-old Frenchman who once edited the hip culture magazine Clark and now runs a creative agency dealing with brand identity and marketing. ‘It is strange for him,’ she says when I ask how he is finding the scrutiny. ‘It’s a huge adjustment for anybody. I’m not adjusted to it, and I hope I never am, in some ways.’
She now divides her time between Paris and New York, although her French is so far non-existent. ‘I haven’t had any time!’ she protests, when I chide her for this. Even when she was working in France recently, making the sci-fi action thriller Lucy with Luc Besson, she says, ‘Everyone wanted to talk to me in English because they’re improving their English, and I’m not learning anything except the different pastries.’
Otherwise, she zips around Paris on the back of Dauriac’s scooter like a native, and says it feels like home now. ‘I have wonderful friends there, and every day you have that moment where you can’t help but be a tourist, when the light hits some building and you’re like, “My God, it’s so romantic!” There seems to be time to be romantic with yourself, too, to just sit and read, or to be with your partner and have a long lunch. French people enjoy the pleasures of life, and I love that.’
I originally met Johansson in 2007, when she did her first big trip as an ambassador for Oxfam. Throughout a gruelling 10-day tour of India and Sri Lanka she proved to be a great travelling companion, with a dry sense of humour, an iPod full of good tunes and an openness and a willingness to learn as well as a genuine empathy for the people we met.
A productive eight-year relationship with the charity ended in January, when she signed a two-year deal to promote SodaStream. Johansson was attracted by the company’s environmental credentials, its single, reusable bottle making it a greener alternative to soft drinks in disposable bottles or cans. (Other actors known for their liberal beliefs, such as Susan Sarandon, have also endorsed the Israeli company on these grounds.)
But SodaStream has a factory on the occupied West Bank, and Oxfam therefore considered Johansson’s support for its work incompatible with her promotion of SodaStream. The row became big news, and she is keen not to fan the flames further. ‘Some of the best times of my life have been when I’ve travelled with Oxfam to see the amazing work that they’ve done,’ she says.
But she also defends SodaStream robustly. ‘I’m not an expert on the history of this conflict, and I’ve never professed to be. But it is a company that I believe in, that I think has the ability to make a huge difference, environmentally. [SodaStream’s CEO] Daniel Birnbaum has said many times that this factory is one he inherited, and that he doesn’t want to fire people – the majority of those people being Palestinian.’
She still hopes to travel to Africa later in the year to highlight the plight of refugees, and says the controversy won’t put her off using her fame to draw attention to important issues. ‘The bigger issue here is global poverty. I have the ability to raise awareness and raise money – that’s a gift that’s been given to me – and I want to continue to use it. So I’m not going to shy away from doing that kind of work.’
Advertising was central to her 2003 film Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray’s fading actor sneaking over to Tokyo to do a lucrative but slightly humiliating advertisement for Japanese whisky. A lot has changed in the decade since, and advertising is now part of an actor’s brand, with A-listers hawking everything from coffee to lipstick.
It’s fun and you work with great people, Johansson says. (Martin Scorsese directed her last Dolce & Gabbana ad.) It also subsidises working in the theatre or on low-budget films such as Under the Skin, and it’s one of the few areas where actresses are routinely paid more than actors. ‘I don’t think there’s any such thing as an actor being a purist,’ she says. ‘Please, actors are the farthest thing from pure! We’re always selling our souls one way or another, it’s part of the gig. I think as long as your work has integrity, that’s the most important thing.’
It is all about finding a balance, and part of that is her ongoing role in the Marvel film franchise. She had to fight for the part of the Black Widow, dyeing her hair red to show Iron Man 2’s director, Jon Favreau, how it might look. ‘I really loved the first Iron Man, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that universe. It felt like an opportunity to be a part of a huge film that worked like a small film, and that rarely happens. Normally you get kind of swept up by a franchise. And I guess every actor is always looking for a guaranteed box office hit – although it never is, of course – where you can also maintain the integrity of the work that you do.’
Her character played a more central role in the 2012 box office hit Avengers Assemble, and also features in the forthcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When we met I had seen only the first 10 minutes of this, in which she gets a lot of sassy banter with Captain America and an extended fight scene, but she says that later her character starts to develop more fully.
‘If that wasn’t there to counteract the ass-kicking part I would be truly miserable,’ she admits. ‘But I think audiences respond to these movies because there is real drama there. You see these characters struggling with this identity that’s been carved out for them, and making hard choices where people are going to die.’
I wonder if it feels lonely, shooting these films in a sea of testosterone, and she laughs. ‘I like to hire strong women. My assistant is a woman, and usually my driver. But you’re also talking about a bunch of actors, so they’re not particularly masculine. They are in public of course, but really actors are sensitive, neurotic, self-doubt-filled and needy. Men and women alike, we’re all big babies!’
She has known many of the cast for a long time she adds, making five films apiece with her co-stars Chris Evans and Samuel L Jackson (who plays the Avengers leader Nick Fury). ‘It’s a group of friends, really. We all try to outwit each other. You want to be at that dinner party, you want to be on set when we’re working together.’