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Stylist meets Scarlett

With a self-assurance that defies typecasting, Scarlett Johansson challenges Stylist to rethink our preconceptions...

Picture credit: Getty

Hollywood has a time-honoured tradition of placing its stars, especially actresses, in immediately identifiable boxes. But Scarlett Johansson just isn’t that easily pigeonholed. True, like Angelina Jolie, her looks will always make it easier to see her as the sultry Lana Turner archetype rather than the clean-cut Doris Day, but there’s much more to the New York native than her screen siren glamour.

We meet in a suite at New York’s Ritz Carlton hotel, overlooking Central Park, to talk about her latest role in director Cameron Crowe’s family-friendly We Bought A Zoo. It’s based on the book by Benjamin Mee, a British father of two and widower who rescued a ramshackle animal sanctuary in Devon. The action has been shifted to California and Mee is played by Matt Damon; Johansson is the zookeeper love interest, Kelly Foster.

From the outset, Johansson is keen to correct the assumption that the frills-free Kelly is a dramatic departure for her. “People seem to think this is a very different role for me, that I always play the femme fatale. But I don’t actually think I’ve played that many traditionally sexy characters,” she counters, more with curiosity than irritation.

In person, Scarlett Johansson is smart, self-assured and clearly extremely comfortable with herself. The daughter of Karsten Johansson, a Danish architect, and Melanie Sloan, a producer, she grew up in Manhattan with older siblings, Vanessa and Adrian, and twin brother Hunter, who works in local politics.

After persuading her film-buff mother to take her to auditions as a child, Johansson worked consistently from the age of 10, appearing in a run of family films before appearing in indie favourite Ghost World (2001). Then came Lost In Translation (2003) and everything changed. Director Sofia Coppola’s knew exactly what she wanted from Johansson – the Lost In Translation poster was a cropped shot of Johansson’s back and bottom in a mismatched vest and sheer knickers, lying on rumpled bed sheets. Whether you saw the film or not, everyone knew that poster. As Charlotte, the bored young wife sequestered in a Tokyo hotel, Johansson won a Bafta for the role. She was just 18 and, captivating ad campaign or not, her talent was undeniable.

The transition from child star to siren was swift and immediate. The same year she was perfectly cast as Griet in The Girl With A Pearl Earring and soon became Woody Allen’s muse, appearing in three of his films, (“She livens up the set – the minute she walks in, the amperage goes up 200 points,” says Allen) and has been on the A-list ever since. But although her physicality has in many ways been the making of her, Johansson is keen to stress she brings more to the table.

“Maybe it’s because I am curvy and confident about it,” she shrugs. “I think that no matter who I play, people hone in on that somehow, and reduce it all to something that is merely physical.”

We all know what Johansson looks like (today she’s casually dressed in a polka-dot blouse and black jodhpurs; “I honestly don’t know who anything I’m wearing is by, it’s all just really old,” she insists) and we’re in danger of re-hashing the same old schtick about her being a ‘real woman’ compared to the usual Hollywood gamine. So, what else is there to know about her?

Artistically, she’s a keen singer and released an album of Tom Waits covers songs in 2008 (Anywhere I Lay My Head) and has contributed to several film soundtracks. She won a prestigious Tony Award for her Broadway debut in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge in 2010; and she’s adapting a Truman Capote novel, Summer Crossing, to be her own directorial film debut, set for release in 2014.

I think there’s maybe a misconception; that playing a confident woman is interpreted as you relying on your sexuality.

Personally, she’s a 27-year-old divorcee, after her two-year union with actor Ryan Reynolds came to an end last year, and has had a brief relationship with Sean Penn since. Politically and philanthropically, she’s an ambassador for Oxfam, campaigns for women’s healthcare in the US and is an active and ardent Obama supporter. “It would be irresponsible not to be,” she tells me. “Being in the spotlight, it’s nice to be able to shine that light on political issues or non-governmental causes. If I am standing on the soapbox, I might as well be talking about something valuable.”

Next up, she stars in the A-list-laden movie Avengers Assemble, Iron Man 3 and musical drama Can A Song Save Your Life? She’s also just been confirmed to play Janet Leigh in Sacha Gervasi’s new project about the making of Psycho. But before she steps into the shower, she’s got to take one more walk in her zookeeper’s khakis…

One of the themes in We Bought A Zoo is the notion that you only need 20 seconds of courage to take a chance. Are you courageous?

When I was a child, I auditioned fearlessly and had a lot of courage, and the fact that I am here today is probably testament to my 20 seconds of courage back then. I think in the film industry, you have to have that courage, because actors are asked to do things that are out of their comfort zone all the time, whether that’s hanging on the side of a building or crawling through the woods, or revealing yourself emotionally. You find yourself thinking, ‘What am I doing? This is crazy! Oh, the camera is rolling? Oh god, I’m just going to have to wing it.’

Director Cameron Crowe called you a ‘roll-up-your-sleeves-get-on-with-it’ kind of girl. Is that how you see yourself?

I think I’m up for every kind of challenge and I like to get down and dirty, yes. I really liked that aspect of Kelly, that she is a no-frills kind of girl, very grounded and practical, with that salt of the earth quality. That’s the body language I created for her too; she’s comfortable in her body and in her stance.

Kelly also seems quite resilient, with a lot of emotional reserves. Can you relate to that side of her?

I learned at a really young age that you have to have something of a hard shell to take some of the batterings that you get in this industry. We’re constantly rejected and scrutinised and it’s important to take a lot of it with a pinch of salt in order to be able to survive and press on.

Does your shell ever crack?

Yes, of course, it’s only human that sometimes some things will get to you. But most of the time I think things happen for a good reason. I know that probably sounds idealistic, but it’s so true. The projects that I have wanted to work on and haven’t got, or when something hasn’t gone right for me, those times have forced me to use my brain in a different kind of way, and to approach things differently. It’s good to have that challenge; it makes you a better actor and a stronger person.

As an animal-lover, what was it like to work on a film with lions, bears and snakes?

It was wonderful; I felt like they all belonged to me. I would show people around the set saying, “Those are my zebras, that’s my lion.” I was super-proud of ‘my zoo’. The crew had to keep reminding me, “Scarlett, it’s not your actual zoo”. But I still felt like it was.

13-year-old actress Elle Fanning plays your young cousin in the film. Having been in her shoes yourself, what would you say are the biggest challenges for young actors in Hollywood?

When I was the age that Elle is now, it was the era of the Scream films, and a lot of the roles that were around were all in slasher movies. It was hard to find good projects and I felt I did a lot of waiting for the right things. Roles like the ones I had in Ghost World (2001) or The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) didn’t come round very often. Women get pigeonholed easily and it is still always a challenge to find the right project that doesn’t do that. I try to avoid playing into a certain stereotype of a young woman, whether that’s as the girl-next-door, or the femme fatale, or the other woman or whatever.

Does the notion that you always play the femme fatale annoy you?

It’s a little bit annoying to have to justify it, to say that it wasn’t my intention to play that role as a seductress. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I don’t think my character is necessarily a femme fatale. She’s free with her sexuality, but she’s not a vixen – she’s just a confident woman. I think there’s maybe a misconception there; that playing a confident woman is interpreted as you relying on your sexuality.

Is there an overt sexualisation of young women in Hollywood?

Definitely. Way more now than there has been ever before. It seems to be getting younger. You see 16-year-old girls in these photoshoots that are frankly mind-blowing. It seems as if people want to label you as a woman before you really are a woman.

Do you feel that living in New York gives you some distance from that Hollywood scene?

Living in New York forces you to constantly come into contact with so many people from different walks of life on a daily basis. That keeps you from living the kind of isolated lifestyle that a lot of actors and people in the spotlight find themselves in. In LA, you lose a sense of reality. It’s very unhealthy in many ways, and you also get a false sense of self-importance when you are isolated like that.

Is there more privacy for celebrities in New York than LA?

The paparazzi is still pretty bad here, but it’s pretty bad everywhere. I know this city like the back of my hand and it envelops you, so you can disappear into it a bit. I feel like I have a certain amount of privacy here because it’s my home town.

Your email was hacked last year [and pictures of a naked Johansson were leaked online]; how did it feel to be exposed in such a brutal way?

It was really terrible; I felt absolutely violated. I wasn’t really aware of how vulnerable all of us are, but I think everybody is just discovering that now, especially with the recent phone-hacking scandals. It isn’t just celebrities, it’s all kinds of people who are not asking for the spotlight. Being hacked made me feel more vulnerable than I ever had previously. I couldn’t figure it out. For a while, I thought it must be someone that I knew who was posting these pictures of me and that was making me incredibly paranoid. I was looking around at all of my friends, who I have known for 20 years, wondering who the backstabber was. So to find out it wasn’t a friend who hacked in was a relief, oddly.

When you were married to Ryan Reynolds your life was heading down a certain route, which it isn’t anymore. How did you cope with that change?

I think life throws you a lot of curve balls and you’re constantly learning to change and be more tolerant of things. I think I’m in that place now where things that I thought I knew, I actually didn’t. And I’m more willing to admit that I was wrong, and to change my perspective and route.

What helped you through it all?

Work; that has been my therapy. I was really happy to be able to have the safety net of my job and projects like this one, which were so welcoming and challenging. You can’t bring any of that stuff to work, especially with what I do, you have to leave it at home.

What advice would you give other young women in the same boat?

No matter what you do, when something is thrown at you that is unexpected, I think you have to reassess where you are at. If the goals you’ve always had are still the same now, then it’s important to keep working towards them. It’s not about feeling helpless; it’s about accepting your own fate and owning it, but not allowing it to affect your dreams or your goals.

We Bought A Zoo is in cinemas nationwide on 16 March