Not even naked self-portraits can faze Scarlett Johansson. Then again, she’s faced tougher days, reckons Paul Byrne. Just look at her CV.
There was a point, somewhere around her spectacular box-office bombs of 2004, when Scarlett Johansson went from being one of Hollywood’s hottest actresses to being, well, just hot.
This was Johansson’s year of living aimlessly, with no less than four box-office duds being added to her suddenly wobbly CV – The Perfect Score, A Love Song For Bobby Long, A Good Woman and In Good Company. Painful, each and every one. And it got worse. As movies such as The Island, Scoop (both 2005), The Prestige and The Black Dahlia (both 2006) also crashed and burned at the box-office, Johansson should have been reaching for the smelling salts. Or her agent’s throat. Instead, she came out of the carnage smiling. Often with a bottle of perfume, or some other ladies’ accoutremont, in her hand. “You can’t really take anything in this business personally,” says the wise-beyond-her-years 27-year old. “You make the movies you want to make, and you hope they work, and you hope people like them. If they don’t work, and people don’t like them, you just have to move on to the next one. “It’s not like you would ever set out to make a bad movie. Well, I never have. Not knowingly…” Perhaps it was a case of too much, too soon, the much-loved Lost In Translation and the sorta-loved The Girl With The Pearl Earring making Johansson the It Girl of 2003. She was only 19 at the time, but she had the husky voice of a woman who’d been around the block more than once, and a body that could reduce Bill Murray to a bumbling, mumbling wreck.
By the time she got married to Ryan Reynolds in September 2008 though, Johansson wasn’t so much an actress who happened to be famous as a celebrity who happened to make the odd movie. Of course, odd would be fine. It’s bad movies that are the problem. Out of her last ten films or so, only 2008’s collaboration with her would-be mentor, Woody Allen, on the sweet Vicky Cristina Barcelona, can be rated a success. Subsequent movies – The Spirit, He’s Just Not That Into You (’09) and Iron Man 2 (2010) – all fell far short of expectations. Even when, as in the case of He’s Just Not That Into You, those expectations were pretty darn low to begin with. So, is it any wonder Johansson has been busy doing other things?
Like becoming a much in-demand model, selling everything from Louis Vuitton to Reebok, from Dolce & Gabbana to Moet & Chandon. And she’s a singer now too, releasing two albums – 2008’s Tom Waits’ tribute Anywhere I Lay My Head and 2009’s Break Up. The latter was released a full year before Reynolds and Johansson announced that they had separated, the former filing for divorce on December 23rd, 2010, citing irreconcilable differences. Johansson simultaneously filed for divorce. At least they were in agreement about something. And when it comes to her old day job, Johansson is clearly trying to get her house in order. Which, for an actor, means hitting the stage, and proving that you can do it without the help of fast editing, trick lighting and a funky soundtrack. In 2010, the young actress got some of the best reviews of her career for her part in a revival of Arthur Miller’s 1950s-set drama A View From The Bridge, which ran for 14 weeks on Broadway (“I was completely exhausted by the end”). For her troubles Johansson bagged herself a Tony Award – which is basically an Oscar for geeks. Sorry, serious actors.
“That’s an experience that’s going to stay with me,” says Johansson. “It’s a very different experience, playing in front of an audience, and have them believe. That’s the key, and that’s the pay-off. You can feel as though you’ve caught something on camera, but you never truly know until it’s up there on a screen and an audience are reacting to it if it truly worked. Theatre is right there in your face. “To have the audience there with you, night after night, that was incredibly frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Took me a while to shake off that high. Once it was over, it felt like the morning after, and you just wished the night hadn’t quite ended yet.” That Johansson was also going through a very public divorce with Reynolds didn’t help either. Even five months running around town with Sean Penn couldn’t quite fill the void. Or having nude self-portraits suddenly hit the internet. You have to admire Johansson’s quick dismissal of the hacked photographs, quipping, “I know all my best angles”. The shots were three years old and intended solely for her then-future husband, Ryan Reynolds. “It’s not like I was shooting a porno,” Johansson has said, before adding, “although there’s nothing wrong with that either.”
Besides, Johansson has been too busy throwing herself into her work again to take too much notice of a few saucy photos. Whether it’s “becoming the fittest I’ve ever been” for next year’s The Avengers, in which she once again plays her Iron Man character, The Black Widow, or finding her inner civilian for this month’s We Bought A Zoo, Johansson is making the most of her rekindled passion for acting. In Cameron Crowe’s family film We Bought A Zoo, Matt Damon is the widower father of two who buys, as Johansson has put it, “a decrepit Grey Gardens of a zoo”, determined to restore it to its former glory. Aiding and abetting him is Johansson’s head zookeeper, a role the actress took seriously enough to shovel shit, feed those animals and, gulp, even go without make-up. “It’s going to be difficult for audiences to look at a familiar face and believe that she runs a zoo,” says Johansson. “I wanted to get as far away from any sign of glamour as I possibly could, and that meant doing everything my character would do. And she wouldn’t wear make-up. The elephants just aren’t impressed by eye-liner.”
Having made her stage debut aged eight in the off-Broadway production Sophistry (co-starring Ethan Hawke), and her screen debut aged nine in Rob Reiner’s North, Johansson laughs when I mention that she’s been in this job for almost 20 years now. “It feels longer,” she quips. “And yet, it feels like it could all go away tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, but this is a crazy business, where money is the only real concern when it comes to what gets made and what doesn’t. “I’ve managed to work alongside some incredible people – it’s taken me 12 years to convince Cameron Crowe that I’m his leading lady – and my plan is to work with quite a few more greats. That way, I might actually learn something. “Oh, and make the odd great movie every now and then…”
WE BOUGHT A ZOO hits cinemas on March 16th Words – Paul Byrne