Staying professional, not getting personal

Scarlett Johansson’s every move seems to make news, even when the news is made up.

A few weeks ago, Cosmopolitan UK published a cover story featuring a number of quotes from the star of movies such as “Lost in Translation” and Vicky Cristina Barcelona about her recent marriage to actor Ryan Reynolds. Problem was, she never said them. The interview hadn’t taken place; the writer had invented the quotes and folded them into a previously published American Cosmo story.

Johansson had just returned from a foreign press tour flogging her new movie, The Spirit, to learn that she had apparently divulged information about her September marriage to Reynolds. “I read the article, and thought, ‘What the …?’ ” recalls the actress, who has long made it a point not to publicly discuss her private life. “We dug a little deeper, and it got even weirder. The story was written by someone with a pseudonym; they don’t know the real writer. It was bought by this agency that sold the same story to half a dozen tabloids.”

Sitting over a late breakfast at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, nursing a cold, she shrugged off the bizarre event. “I’m pretty sure there’s a statement and an apology” forthcoming, she says, which she planned to accept. (Later in the week, Cosmo UK published that apology on its website, to be repeated in its next published issue.)

After this real interview, she was heading off to tape an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno before the Spirit premiere. That evening on the program, Leno made mention of her cold. She joked that she had caught it from Spirit costar Samuel L. Jackson, which added to the cold’s value. Leno then riffed that perhaps they should sell the famous germs on eBay, at which point he handed her a tissue, she blew her nose, put it in a plastic bag, zipped it up, and autographed it. The whole bit was a setup, unless Leno happens to store plastic bags and pens under his desk. She mentioned that the auction would benefit U.S.A. Harvest, a charity that she supports. By the next day, that tissue was a hot topic online.

But back at the Chateau Marmont, no bombshells or tissues were dropped. She had come to the hotel solo, dressed in jeans and red Converse sneakers, and otherwise layered against the rainy weather outside. Reddish hair down, with little makeup, she looked lovely and acted courteously, apologizing for not shaking hands because of her illness.

Talking with her brings to mind a line about another great-looking movie dame, Jessica Rabbit; Scarlett Johansson isn’t bad, she’s just drawn that way. Like Mrs. Rabbit, her ripe looks and a voice like scorched velvet have a strange effect on those around her.

It’s a sad state of affairs when a young actress is notable for not behaving like an idiot, but it must be said that for all her paparazzi appeal, she doesn’t lure it with wildly inappropriate behavior.

“I don’t know when that became a standard for young people.” She adds that she and her friends go out to dine and dance like anyone else, “but we’re all responsible young adults, within reason I suppose, and that should be the norm. I think that is the norm, really, but maybe it’s not just interesting.”

While that tissue gag may be a momentary gross-out, it also raised $5,300 for U.S.A. Harvest, and raised more awareness through the hundreds of articles written about the event.

In addition to working with them, she also serves as an ambassador for Oxfam and the Red organization. And during her European press tour, she stopped off in Oslo to co-host the Nobel Prize concert to honor former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. “How many opportunities do you have to meet the Nobel Peace laureate?” she asked.

Despite her youth, the 24-year-old is hardly an ingénue and believes she’s been an actress from birth. “I was a real ham when I was a child, one of those jazz-hands kids,” she says. She took voice lessons and started studying at the Lee Strasberg Theare and Film Institute at age 7. She booked her first film job, on North, a year later, and hasn’t stopped working since.

She caught the industry’s attention at 12, when she won the role of Grace in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. “That was a huge break for me. Every girl from 11 to 16 wanted that part,” she says. Roles in The Man Who Wasn’t There and Ghost World followed. Starring roles in Lost in Translation and, 10 days after that wrapped, Girl With a Pearl Earring, cemented her status. She was nominated for Golden Globes for both performances, winning a BAFTA for the former. Translation was also notable because at age 17 she was playing a married woman in her 20s. “I’ve always played older than my age,” Johansson points out.

In the last few years, she has also starred in three Woody Allen movies and is eager for more. “I would do Woody’s shoeshine,” she says emphatically. “I’m lucky to be able to fit into that young-woman category in his mind, so I hope he keeps writing for young women. I think he will.”

She plays Silken Floss, one of many femmes fatale, in The Spirit, a comic book come to life by Frank Miller that opened on Christmas. Initially she thought Floss was underwritten, but she met Miller anyway because she loved his previous comic book creations, Sin City and 300, both of which were made into movies. He won her over with his excitement about the project. “His visual aesthetic was so rich and fresh and dark and quirky,” she says.

The role is stylized in the extreme, quite unlike her other performances, but she says her preparation doesn’t differ much. “Actors, we sit and we stew,” she says of the process. Just as important is working with, and off of, other actors. “Sam’s the most professional man I’ve ever worked with, he’s incredible,” she says of Jackson. “It was easy, because we both came to set prepared, we knew what we were doing, we had a lot of room to be very humongous about the whole thing.”

In summer’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the characters played by Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz form an intimate relationship with Johansson’s Cristina. “They have methods to their madness,” she says of her costars. “They spend time living as the characters, improvising and just trying stuff out. So I indulged in that with them, and it was really nice.”

Her next film, He’s Just Not That Into You, is due out in February. She found a different kind of inspiration on that set, thanks to the producers, Nancy Juvonen and Drew Barrymore.

“They make movies that they like, that they’re proud of, that people love, that are entertaining,” she explains. “I would love to be able to do that someday, have a production company and encourage other directors and writers to follow their vision.” And like many actors before and to come, she wants to direct.

Unlike most, she’s also excited about aging in the business. “I look forward to the opportunity that it will bring” to play rich, complex roles, she says of the years ahead. “I feel like the hype that comes with being young in the industry will kind of dissipate and that there are some really good roles in my future. Then again, I say that as an actor who thinks every job is their last job.”

She’s had time off from work lately, but she wasn’t completely unemployed. Johansson spent last summer planning a wedding, in secret. “It was my mission to have a moment of privacy, to do something for myself,” she says. “I was happy with the results of that.” She was able to pull it off so effectively that reports about it didn’t come out until days later, and not one picture has hit the tabloids. That’s nothing to sneeze at.