Scarlett Johansson and I are drenched. We’re running together, giggling, through a violent Manhattan thunderstorm.
“I’m starting to feel like an old, rickety woman,” says the 22-year-old, distinctly un-rickety actress as she takes my arm. Soaked through, we take refuge in a deserted restaurant near the Hudson River and order coffee. Scarlett, a child of the city, is in awe of how Manhattan, in such a meteorological outburst, can still give her a thrill. “I love New York. I loved growing up here. My parents were always liberal and open. I grew up in Greenwich Village and I went to public school on 11th Street. I used to love to play around George Segal’s Gay Liberation sculpture of the couples sitting on the bench at Sheridan Square. I’d run up and down Christopher Street [New York’s equivalent to London’s Soho] and sneak into the bars.”
“Did you wear a little S&M leather play outfit?” I ask.
“Yeah. And a horsehair tail,” she says, without skipping a beat.
I do skip a beat. “A horsehair tail would have to be part of a sex toy from one of those Christopher Street shops…” I stammer. “I can’t imagine those were the kind of toys your parents would have wanted you to play with?”
She fixes her gaze. “I told you they were very liberal,” she says, then bursts into laughter.
And there you have it. In this humid conversation, Scarlett has revealed all of the qualities that have helped make her such a movie star – she is one of only a handful of people to have ever been nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe in both the dramatic and comedy categories in the same year, for her roles in Lost in Translation and Girl With A Pearl Earring. She’s urbane. She’s more than a little naughty. She’s sensual. She’s in on the joke even before making one. And, as the lightning flashes again and floods her face, there is one more movie-star quality that one cannot dismiss: her beauty. It is dangerous and heavenly all in the same instance.
We continue our conversation, which Scarlett feels more at home with than the pseudo intimacy that usually goes into a magazine interview. “Once you invite all these personal questions into your life, you get all this nasty stuff that comes with it. I’ll be very open about political issues, but not my personal life,” she says. “I’ll never sell my sob story to some magazine. I read those issues in which people are crying on a reporter’s shoulder and the reporter writes, ‘And then she started to sob…” she overly emotes, then smirks at the very notion of such a display. “All these stories in which these gals open up a little too much. It makes me go, aaagghh! And then they talk about their bulimia,” she says, shovelling a piece of key lime pie into her mouth. “Or their drug addiction. And I think, ‘Why are you talking about this?’ It’s vulgar.”
So she’s not going to let us in on why she broke up with her boyfriend of a year, Josh Hartnett, or enlighten us as to the state of her relationship with Justin Timberlake, who she became very friendly with on-screen when she starred in his video, What Goes Around…Comes Around. “Contrary to popular belief, I’m not promiscuous. There seems to be a mistaken belief out there that I’m sexually available somehow – which is not to say I’m not open-minded about sex. Yet I wouldn’t say I’m a serial monogamist, either. I went through periods of time when I was… ah… single. But when I’m in a relationship, I’m in a relationship. I can get flack of saying this, but I do believe that human beings aren’t instinctively monogamous. But as much as I believe that, I work really hard when I’m in a relationship to make it work in a monogamous way.”
Such a confessions leads her into the realm of personal information that even sobbing bulimics have never acknowledged. “I get tested for HIV twice a year,” she says. “It comes along with being tested for everything. There are all these weird STDs around like this HPV [the human papilloma virus] that three in four women supposedly have, that causes cervical cancer. The right-wing Republicans were against getting the vaccine approved, because they were afraid it would promote teenager promiscuity. That reasoning is sick. It’s a personal choice. No! It’s not just personal; one has to be socially aware. It’s part of being a decent human, to be tested for STDs. It’s disgusting behaviour when people don’t. It’s so irresponsible.”
Although Scarlett can get on a modern-day soapbox about many liberal political issues, there is still something old-school about her appeal. Her tough-dame demeanour, coupled with her dewy voluptuousness, makes her seem like the spawn of Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall. “I would never compare myself to either of those women, though I, of course admire Lauren Bacall and love Marilyn Monroe,” she says. “The actress I really adore from back then, though, is Rosalind Russell. Auntie Mame is one of my favourite movies,” she says, mentioning that her own Auntie Mame is her grandmother, who lives out in Brooklyn and is pushing 90. “My grandmother was a supporter of socialism and other things that have always been a bit taboo.”
The citing of her politically active grandmother goads Scarlet back atop her soapbox. “People are still so racist. It amazes me – all over the world, not just here. I wonder if people are born with prejudice and we have to overcome it. Or is it: We’re born without it and it’s a learned thing. Maybe it’s like that song from South Pacific. ‘You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,'” she sings, from the musical. ‘”You’ve got to be taught from year to year/It’s got to be drummed in your little ear/You’ve got to be carefully taught.'”
I suggest that South Pacific would be a great show for her, since she turned down the role of Marie in the London revival of The Sound of Music that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was producing – her loss being Connie Fisher’s gain. “You’d make a great Nellie Forbush,” I tell her, naming the South Pacific role Mary Martin played on Broadway.
“I’ve thought about it,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be great? Though I’d have to be named ‘For Bush’, which I don’t think I could stomach,” she says.
Since she started working, at eight years old, Scarlett has been taking on challenging roles. There seemed to be two types of former child actors: those who are destroyed by the experience and those strengthened by it. Scarlett, by all appearances, is the latter. Why? Perhaps it was her mother, also her long-time manager and business partner, who protected her? “Since I was a New York kid, it was never like I was ‘protected'” she says, turning her nose up at the concept. “My mum was just very strict about the hours I worked and that I was in school every day.” She licks the last of her key lime pie squashed on her fork.
“I do think I’m a survivor,” she finally says. “I mean, we’ve all gone through our different shit and either we come out of it better or we come out of it worse. I’m mostly a healthy person. But we all have our demons. Fortunately, because I’m passionate about what I do, that has kept me above the line.”
And with a wise head so firmly screwed on, that’s precisely where Scarlett will be staying.