Scarlett Johansson’s new film, We Bought a Zoo, is based on the true story of Benjamin Mee, a British journalist who moves with his family into a house on a piece of property that contains a private zoo that has fallen into disrepair. Following the untimely death of his wife, Mee decides to focus his energies on refurbishing the zoo and making a new home not only for the animals that live there, but for his grieving family as well. In the film, directed by Cameron Crowe, the locale is reset in Southern California, with Matt Damon playing the Mee role, and Johansson as the zookeeper who helps him with the project. All told, We Bought a Zoo is a heartwarming movie that brings to light the resilience of the human spirit, the kinship that can exist between people and animals, and numerous other wholly life-affirming ideas. But for those very same reasons, the film stands out in the Johansson oeuvre, which by and large is comprised of more fraught, conflicted material like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), or Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), in which the philosophical takeaway is more ambiguous and bad things occasionally beget worse things as the characters struggle bitterly (and often unsuccessfully) to come to terms with parts of their lives that don’t quite square up to their own expectations. So We Bought a Zoo is a different kind of movie for Johansson, and it arrives at what has turned out to be a very different kind of time for her, too.
Johansson is coming off one of those years that young actresses seem to have frequently these days, but which she had, until now, miraculously managed to avoid. The dissolution of her two-year marriage to actor Ryan Reynolds at the end of 2010 became unending tabloid fodder, as did speculation about her love life in the aftermath of the split. She also became embroiled in an electronic-hacking scandal when grainy, nude images of Johansson unexpectedly surfaced on the Internet this past September—private images that Johansson admits she took and sent to Reynolds several years ago. A federal investigation eventually led to the arrest of a Florida man who now stands accused of hacking into the e-mail accounts and personal devices of more than 50 people. But Johansson’s response to all of the added—and unwanted—attention she has received for her personal life has also been atypical. Instead of cloistering herself away or lashing out at the paparazzi, she pressed ahead with her business with a kind of unflappable grace, wrapping two films—We Bought a Zoo, which hits theaters in December, and Joss Whedon’s comic-book heropalooza, The Avengers, which is due out in the spring—as well as traveling to Kenya and Somalia with Oxfam to assist with the relief effort in the wake of a severe drought that has plagued East Africa since last summer, and even helping out Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer with his nascent campaign for mayor of New York City in 2013.
Arianna Huffington recently caught up with the 27-year-old Johansson on the set of yet another film, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in Glasgow, Scotland.
How are you?
I’m good. I’m in dry, sunny Glasgow right now, enjoying the tropical weather. [laughs] I’m doing a film here called Under the Skin. It’s a project that I’ve been talking about with Jonathan [Glazer] for a few years now—I think he’s actually been working on it, in different incarnations, for about eight or nine years.
What is it about?
It’s hard to give a kind of warm-up line for the story because it’s almost like giving the plotline of a Bergman film, but I’m playing a character called Laura, who is an it that becomes a she… That’s what the story’s about—it’s about that transformation… It basically has no written dialogue, and I don’t think it’s really character-driven. Jon is an incredible visionary, and in the place I’m in right now, it feels really fresh. It might be an impossible project…[laughs] We’ll see.
How is your brother, Hunter?
He’s great. He’s been working on Scott Stringer’s campaign for a couple of months now, so he’s super busy with that. He’s really happy to be working with Scott—and, you know, the family’s proud.
I remember he promised to blog for us. I’ll invite him into the newsroom to meet our editors.
He’d absolutely love that. He always has so much fun when we’re out together. I’m already planning what I’m going to wear to the next White House Correspondents’ dinner.
I loved being at the dinner with you, watching all of those senators from both sides lining up to meet you.
Next time I go I’m going to find Anderson Cooper’s table and camp out there. My brother was totally geeked-out by Katie Couric. I think he followed her around the entire night. I was chasing after him, and I turned around, and I had a bunch of Republican senators chasing after me. [laughs] But honestly I think it’s the best party in town. I’d rather go to the White House Correspondents’ dinner than any awards show.
How did you guys get interested in politics? Was your family active in that way?
Well, my mom was always active. She was always an active voter, whether it was local, state, or federal elections. My mom would take us to polling locations when we were kids. My grandmother was also an active member of the tenants association and a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, and both of my parents were extremely liberal, so I think I grew up in a household that was very politically conscious—we all watched the elections on TV, and we watched the debates. So it was an awareness that we were raised with, and as we grew into young adults, we just naturally became politically active. It was just understood that it was important, that it was our responsibility.
Has the way you go about that changed at all since you’ve become known as a more public person?
Um… You know, as a person in the public eye, I have always felt that if I have the good fortune of being able to shed a spotlight on different causes that I feel passionately about… I never tell people whom to vote for. I’m not telling people where to give money, but if there is to be a spotlight shed on me, then I’d like to direct that spotlight onto causes I think are worthy or onto interesting, progressive figures.
So on the one hand, you’re putting yourself out there to draw attention to things you think are important. But then, on the other hand, there are aspects of your personal life that the media obsesses over that you’d like to keep private. How do you balance it all?
I don’t really profess to know how to balance any of it. [laughs] I don’t profess to know how to balance the positive and the negative media attention. It’s a gamble every time you put yourself out there, and, certainly, I’m always readjusting to it. But I hope it never becomes normal to feel scrutinized. I value my privacy and my personal life—and I certainly don’t exploit my personal life. But that’s not always in your control. There are, unfortunately, people who are interested in prying. So I think you have to protect your private life as much as you possibly can, and, at the same time, find ways to redirect that focus and turn the glare into a positive thing. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how anybody’s ever done it… You know, my favorite actors are actors who are enigmatic and mysterious and never make the obvious choice in terms of the projects they do or who they work with or their craft. But I think that the less I know about an actor, the more chance I have of allowing their own persona to kind of slip away so I can get completely lost in the character they’re playing, and the more that people think they know about your personal life, the more difficult it becomes to preserve that. So when I’m not working or promoting something, I try to be as under-the-radar as I can… This has just been a bit of a crazy year.
By the way, I loved the video blog you did for us about what’s happening with the drought in Somalia. It was really powerful.
Thank you. I’d never done anything like that before. I felt like David Attenborough or something. [laughs]
What I loved about it was that it was an opportunity to go beyond the statistics and all of the dreadful data we get every day about Somalia and tell a story.
Well, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel with Oxfam several times, and they’re always so well organized, so it was a good way to show the kind of work they’re doing. You read statistics all the time like, “13 million people are at risk because of the severe drought in East Africa,” but I think those kinds of numbers fall on deaf ears—there’s so much devastation in the world, that it’s a bit overwhelming for people. But by seeing a first-hand account of something like the effects of the drought in the Horn of Africa, you can have a different relationship with the story. It’s one of the blessings that come with new media. I’m hoping to go to Ethiopia in February and do a similar kind of project there because it’s an ongoing crisis, so I think it’s important to keep some focus there right now.
Yes, so often we put the spotlight on a story and then we move on to something else, but things are still in deep crisis. So staying on a story is important.
This story in particular is important for a number of reasons. It’s not just about a political or economic crisis, but an environmental one, and I think it’s important for people to be aware of the impact that climate change is having on this huge community of people. It’s not an explosive media story—it’s about an ongoing crisis that needs attention. Of course, it flares up every now and again in the media when some unfortunate tragedy arises, but then it will kind of disappear from the zeitgeist for a little while. So it needs more consistent focus, and we need to show how the crisis is affecting all the different countries in the region, as well as how they’re all dealing with it, what their governments are doing or not doing, and how people can feel more active there and less like they’ve got their hands tied.
I loved something you said recently about how we don’t have to live in teepees and wear hemp skirts to be conscious about what’s going on in the world.
Absolutely. I mean, one of the things I realized just being there, immersed in a culture that’s totally unfamiliar, and, obviously, there’s a language barrier… It’s seemingly a whole other world. But in actuality, you’re standing next to somebody, looking them in the eye, and what you realize is that there is a human connectivity that exists between people no matter the cultural difference. I think that in something like a video blog, where you’re actually looking at mothers and children and in people’s faces, you can see that. You don’t even have to go that far. There are people in America who are absolutely desperate right now, who have no means to support their families, who have no opportunities to better themselves or their education—and they’re not that different from the farmers and working-class people that I visited when I went to Kenya with Oxfam. Whether they’re in America or in Africa, people want to work. They want to have purpose. They want to provide for themselves and their families. They don’t want handouts. They don’t want to be completely dependent on their governments—even though there’s usually no opportunity for that anyway. But they want to be self-sufficient and have a sustainable lifestyle. You know, I just finished this movie, The Avengers, in September, and we shot in places like Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in Cleveland, and around Ohio. We shot in a town called Wilmington in Ohio. It’s a lovely town, and the people there were really generous and welcomed us with open arms, but I’m sure part of that was probably that this film was an opportunity for commerce that they haven’t had for a long time. So these problems sometimes seem so impossibly large that it’s hard not to be pessimistic. I mean, we’re coming up on these four years with Obama, and I remember being at his inauguration… You were there as well, weren’t you?
Yes, I was. I remember that you were in that video Will.i.am did.
Yes, I was. We campaigned for Obama for more than a year. I was in Iowa, Minnesota, California, Arizona—just traveling around to help get the word out. It was such a huge, spirited campaign, and so positive. But you travel around to cities in the U.S. now and there’s just this hopelessness that has set in. It makes it hard to understand why it seems so impossible to make any kind of progressive change with an administration that is seemingly progressive, or why we keep encountering such political roadblocks to change. I wonder sometimes if it’s because people are not really as politically active as they want to be—or they need to be—or that they don’t understand the checks and balances or don’t vote unless it’s a presidential election. Are people who want this kind of progressive change not turning up at polling stations? Are they not voting for progressive representatives? It’s hard to put your finger on why we are where we are.
Well, everyone knew after the last election that both Obama and the country were facing major challenges. And he had promised that he would not bring in the same people to do the same things as before and expect different results. But then, unfortunately, he brought in a lot of the same players, and became caught in the game instead of changing the game. They also did not bring a sense of urgency to the jobs crisis.I really believe that they thought what they had done would be enough to turn things around. But then escalating the war in Afghanistan and extending the Bush tax cuts in a time of war and recession compounded the sense of disappointment. What do you think about what’s happening with the Occupy Wall Street movement?
I thought about going down there, and, obviously, it’s important to shed light on something like that, but I’m not sure I understand… I’m aware that this might come across as a bit tacky, but that story is not well organized. I’m not exactly sure what the message is behind it all. It is sort of unclear. I mean, yes, people are fed up—and I think quite rightfully so. But what are they proposing as an alternative to just being upset or feeling disillusioned or abandoned? That kind of protest movement really needs to happen on a much bigger scale, but there needs to be a clearer message. You know, if Occupy Wall Street was actually a march, and people from all around the country could collect and march toward Washington, D.C., as part of this massive movement of people… I think that kind of pressure is much more powerful than a sit-in that seems to be a little unorganized. I don’t know, though… I haven’t visited it, so it’s kind of hard for me to have an informed perspective on it.
For me, it was a very important milestone when the anger and frustration about the fact that the taxpayers bailed out Wall Street and then Main Street was abandoned moved from online to the street. Occupy Wall Street has changed the conversation and, hopefully, will bring a sense of urgency to what has happened in this country. You know, when Wall Street was in danger in ’08, everybody got together over one weekend and threw whatever they had against the wall in order to save it. But that same commitment was never demonstrated when it came to saving the middle class and creating jobs.
It’s interesting because as the war in Iraq was in its infancy, right before the bombing of Baghdad, I remember all these people protesting on the lawn. People were really up in arms and conflicted about that war. Despite all of the opposition, the Bush administration’s response was basically, “We appreciate that people are exercising their right to express themselves, but we’re going to go ahead with this operation anyhow.” Whatever opposition to the war existed at that moment seemingly made no difference, and now, more than eight years later, maybe we’re feeling the effects of that. I mean, you really hope that people who want to be politically active aren’t so disillusioned at this point. I do feel positive about what’s happening. I think that with all of these movements, and this growing collective voice that’s emerging, people are starting to come out of the kind of dazed state that they were in for so many years. But it’s tough to know the best way to effect change now. Campaigning alone no longer seems to be the answer.
The way people are starting to use social networking to organize gives me hope. How do you feel about social media today and all the ways that we are engaging online with Facebook, Twitter, etc.?
I feel a couple of ways about it. Personally, I don’t feel the need to brand myself in that way. But as a means to share information and raise awareness of things, I think these social-networking platforms are unprecedented. They’re amazing tools to communicate information—especially about different causes or crises or movements. That said, I don’t have a Facebook or a Twitter account, and I don’t know how I feel about this idea of, “Now, I’m eating dinner, and I want everyone to know that I’m having dinner at this time.” or “I just mailed a letter and dropped off my kids.” That, to me, is a very strange phenomenon. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than have to continuously share details of my everyday life. I’m always surprised that certain actors have Twitter accounts. I guess they use it in a way that works for them. But I’d rather that people had less access to my personal life. If I could keep it that way, I’d be a happy lady.
Tell me about We Bought a Zoo.
Well, firstly, I’ve always wanted to work with Cameron Crowe. I’ve auditioned for him several times for various projects over the last ten years, and I’ve always admired the way he worked with me. So when the opportunity came along with this project, I read the script, but I felt the character was sort of underdeveloped, so I wanted to talk with Cameron about it, which I did. I told him, “I don’t know what I can contribute to this, exactly, but this is what I want to see from the character. This is what I want to know about her,” and he was so into it. He said, “Yes! Tell me more. What do you see? I want to know how to expand it.” So we worked together to kind of build a relationship between the characters, and I think that part of the project was very exciting. It felt like an opportunity to build a character from scratch. Then also, you have Cameron Crowe write an incredible monologue for you just based on the things that you’re talking about. It just became this opportunity that was too exciting a process to pass up.
It sounds like this movie will be a great escape from the hopelessness we’ve been talking about. But how do you see it?
It’s based on a true story about this guy called Benjamin Mee, who, in a time of deep personal crisis, saw an opportunity to be selfless and built this zoo by creating a sanctuary for these animals in need. Cameron is so collaborative and inviting—and not just with the actors, but with everyone. So he did a beautiful job of highlighting the humanity of this group of people banding together to build a kind of oasis. It’ll be a very positive experience for audiences—certainly, making the movie was one for me. Our set was like this utopia of animals and crewmembers and the rest of the team working together to create this little world in the middle of the winter in Thousand Oaks, California. The kids in the film are great, too. We had some big animals—lions, tigers, grizzlies.
There was just that tragic incident with that private zoo in Ohio. What did you think when you heard that story? It’s such a strange coincidence.
It was such a strange coincidence. You know, I think this film is really about the hard work and dedication that goes into maintaining a zoo—that it’s not just some off-the-cuff thing that you do, which is sort of what Matt [Damon]’s character learns. It’s not just some fun adventure where you’re just sitting in a safari park. At the same time, I know that before the Ohio incident even happened, there were certain aspects of the story that had come out that made some people say this film would make it appear as if running a zoo is all fun and games. But when you watch the actual film, you see very quickly that it has nothing to do with that. From what I understand, that was not a functioning zoo in Ohio. Those cats were, like, in prison or something. They were living in terrible conditions. I heard about it, of course, when I was in London prepping for Under the Skin, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
Do you think it will have any impact on the perception of the film?
I hope not. To me, the two things are unrelated. I think this story that we’re telling is different from that news story—and, in many ways, quite the opposite of it. I learned prepping the film that there’s a dedication that these handlers and people who care for these animals have that just completely takes over their lives. It is so much work. But it was amazing to see the relationships they have with the animals, just this kind of silent communication that can exist between a human and a big cat like a lion or a tiger. I actually visited a couple of training environments where the trainer was there in a cage with, like, three grown female tigers, and, you know, these trainers have been with these animals for ten years. The tigers all have favorite trainers, and you can tell, too, that the trainers have favorite tigers—even though they’re not supposed to. So you’re watching these people with these massive animals that are supposed to be threatening, but they’ve got these very personal connections.