The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

IN the snow, New York City be­comes a fan­tasy ver­sion of it­self. A blan­ket of win­ter weather slows this fran­tic city down, hushes the hurly-burly, cov­ers it in a quiet beauty that turns a mun­dane walk into a ro­man­tic stroll. Snowy New York is the New York you dreamed of: old-fash­ioned, el­e­gant, ir­re­sistible. Un­til a city bus plows by at 100km/h and sprays you with muddy, brown slush.

I am go­ing to meet Scar­lett Jo­hans­son for lunch, and the mid­day snow­fall some­how feels ap­pro­pri­ate. By now it’s a thor­oughly ac­cepted premise that Jo­hans­son is her­self a ro­man­tic throw­back, a bit of an old-fash­ioned fan­tasy — a smoky-voiced re­minder of a lush, more glam­orous show-busi­ness era. I be­lieve this makes me the 100,000th per­son to de­scribe Jo­hans­son as “smoky-voiced”, for which I should have my com­puter key­board stripped and tossed into the Hud­son. But the cliche is true. So is the throw­back part. Jo­hans­son’s choice of a meet­ing lo­ca­tion to­day is not a sleek, mod­ern aerie with an­gu­lar fur­ni­ture and Euro-disco, but the Car­lyle Ho­tel, off Madi­son Av­enue, a low-lit clas­sic merrily frozen in time.

In the snow, I am 20 min­utes late. She is 25 min­utes late. This is OK. It doesn’t feel like a day to rush. When she ar­rives, she’s dressed in a black goose-down coat, a thick striped sweater and black wool pants, and she is wear­ing a pair of tor­toise­shell eye­glasses that would fit com­fort­ably on the nose of a prep-school English teacher. There is quick chat­ter about the weather and the crazi­ness and the way the taxis and buses were swerv­ing all over the road. And of course how this city looks per­fect through it all. “A lot of people have that thing in New York where they need to get out — they’re like, ‘ Oh you have to get out in or­der to love it,’ “Jo­hans­son says. “I never had that.”

Yet she no longer lives in the city. At least not as much as she used to. Jo­hans­son grew up in New York, a child ac­tress who at­tended the Pro­fes­sional Chil­dren’s School on West 60th Street, but she now spends most of her life in Paris, on the Left Bank, with her fi­ance, Ro­main Dau­riac, a for­mer mag­a­zine edi­tor turned cre­ative di­rec­tor of a French ad agency. Ear­lier this year she cre­ated a mild dustup with her adopted coun­try, af­ter jok­ing on David Let­ter­man’s talk show about the rude­ness of Parisians. The com­ment was in­tended more as a wry ob­ser­va­tion than a scorch­ing re­buke, but not ev­ery­one saw the hu­mour.

“You’re al­lowed to com­plain about places you live be­cause you love them,” Jo­hans­son ex­plains. “Then I got off the stage and I go, ‘Oh my god, did I just of­fend a na­tion of people?’ ”

Jo­hans­son says Dau­riac called and re­as­sured her that her com­ments were ac­cu­rate, that ev­ery­one in France said the same kinds of things about pushy Parisians. “But of course his fa­ther called him and said, ‘What is she smok­ing? What is she think­ing?’ ” She laughs rue­fully. “Hope­fully they will ac­cept me back there.” THE first time I met Jo­hans­son was around the time she ap­peared — ar­rived is prob­a­bly a bet­ter word — in Lost in Trans­la­tion, Sofia Coppola’s sub­dued com­edy set in Tokyo in which Jo­hans­son’s char­ac­ter, Char­lotte, de­vel­ops an un­likely friend­ship with a lonely movie star played by Bill Mur­ray. It is crazy to think that Lost is more than 10 years old. Small but crit­i­cally ac­claimed, the film turned the then-teenaged Jo­hans­son (who had al­ready ap­peared in movies such as The Horse Whis­perer, Manny & Lo and Ghost World) into an in­stant sen­sa­tion, the in­genue of in­genues. When I en­coun­tered her, she had plat­inum blonde hair and spent part of the in­ter­view try­ing to teach her­self how to care for a Ja­panese Ta­m­agotchi egg (re­mem­ber those?). The crush of fame around her felt bright, new, frag­ile. Un­spo­ken was how Hol­ly­wood could be cruel, es­pe­cially on young ac­tors. Who knew how this all would go?

It is more than a decade later and Jo­hans­son, now 29, is one of the most suc­cess­ful ac­tresses of her gen­er­a­tion — rel­e­vant, bank­able and all those ter­ri­ble, tacky words. But her suc­cess owes it­self less to any kind of star-mak­ing al­go­rithm than it does a will­ing­ness to step out­side ex­pec­ta­tions and ex­per­i­ment. “She is not the kind of per­son or ac­tress who has a mas­ter plan that she fol­lows,” says Rob Ash­ford, who di­rected Jo­hans­son in her Broad­way turn last year as Mag­gie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “Her mas­ter plan is to keep work­ing on projects that in­ter­est her, to con­tinue be­ing chal­lenged.”

At the mo­ment, Jo­hans­son is fresh off the suc­cess of Her, Spike Jonze’s mood­ily sweet ro­mance star­ring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with his op­er­at­ing sys­tem. Jo­hans­son plays the OS. It’s an un­usual role: Jo­hans­son is heard and never seen, yet she im­bues Samantha with such soul that she be­comes a vivid char­ac­ter, as if fully fleshed. Jo­hans­son was a late ar­rival to the project — Jonze had al­ready filmed a ver­sion of Samantha with ac­tress Samantha Mor­ton — and she is mag­nan­i­mous about her pre­de­ces­sor’s con­tri­bu­tion, call­ing the fi­nal prod­uct “sort of a com­bi­na­tion of both of us”. Record­ing was harder than ex­pected. Some scenes were filmed on a sound­stage with Jo­hans­son housed in what she called “a tiny lit­tle iso­lated prison booth”, of­ten with Phoenix vis­i­ble in the dis­tance.

The per­for­mance ended up be­ing among the most cel­e­brated of Jo­hans­son’s ca­reer. Though



one critic was not con­vinced. At the mo­ment, Jo­hans­son is the tar­get of an amus­ing (and oneway) feud with Siri of the iPhone who, af­ter a play­ful in­ter­ven­tion by Ap­ple pro­gram­mers, de­scribed Jo­hans­son’s OS as “ar­ti­fi­cial”.

What the hell. When am I go­ing to get this chance again? I re­move my iPhone from my pocket and ask in the pres­ence of the real thing: “What do you think of Scar­lett Jo­hans­son?”

“I don’t think she’s go­ing to have an opin­ion,” Jo­hans­son says. Siri pings a curt re­sponse: “I re­ally couldn’t say.”

In­ter­pret Siri how you wish. Her was the lat­est ex­am­ple of the au­teur cred­i­bil­ity and col­lab­o­ra­tion that has de­fined Jo­hans­son’s ca­reer. Al­ready she has worked with Robert Red­ford, Coppola, Woody Allen (three times), Joel and Ethan Coen, and Jonze. She also made a stun­ningly well-re­ceived run on Broad­way as Cather­ine in A View From the Bridge, win­ning a Tony award. But a few years back she re­alised there was some­thing she hadn’t ac­com­plished, and wanted: a role in a juicy block­buster.

There had been un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts: 2005’s The Is­land, di­rected by Michael Bay, and The Spirit, writ­ten and di­rected by Frank Miller, which quickly came and went in 2008. She wanted to give it an­other try. She’d seen Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Pal­trow in Iron Man and was struck by the in­tel­li­gence wrapped around all that CGI.

“I was like, I want to be part of some­thing big like that,” Jo­hans­son re­calls. “I want to be in a re­ally suc­cess­ful, huge film that’s good and works.”

Her can­dour on this sub­ject is re­fresh­ing — but a butt-kick­ing part held other ap­peals to Jo­hans­son. “I wanted to prove to my­self that I could do it,” she says. “I wanted to stretch my­self phys­i­cally, out of my com­fort zone, and still suc­ceed. I’m prob­a­bly like most ac­tors. We have huge egos, and you want to know you can be suc­cess­ful, no mat­ter what. I don’t want to be pi­geon­holed in one genre or budget or what­ever.”

Her break­through came in, of all things, 2010’s Iron Man 2, in which Jo­hans­son de­buted as the cat-suited Natasha Ro­manoff, aka the Black Widow, of the Marvel comic uni­verse. The se­quel was a huge hit. Then Jo­hans­son’s Natasha head­lined in Joss Whe­don’s Avengers, along­side Downey Jr’s Iron Man as well as ac­tors such as Mark Ruf­falo ( The Hulk), Chris Hemsworth ( Thor) and Chris Evans ( Cap­tain Amer­ica). Like Iron Man, Avengers paired its raz­zle-dazzle with gen­uine ac­tor cred, and the film was cat­nip for su­per­fans and main­stream au­di­ences. Avengers earned an as­ton­ish­ing $1.5 bil­lion world­wide, putting its all-time rev­enues be­hind only Avatar and Ti­tanic.

“I don’t think any­body could have pre­dicted

how suc­cess­ful it would be,” Jo­hans­son says. “It was ba­nanas. To­tally ba­nanas.”

She’d found her fran­chise. Jo­hans­son’s Natasha was seen last month with Evans in Cap­tain

Amer­ica: The Win­ter Sol­dier, and of course there will be Avengers 2, sched­uled to ar­rive next year. The films have broad­ened Jo­hans­son’s au­di­ence in un­fore­seen ways. “My friends’ kids are way more into me than they were be­fore,” she says. “I don’t think they were even al­lowed to see half the movies I’m in. And now, kids are like, ‘ Does Cap­tain Amer­ica have a sis­ter?’ All these ques­tions. ‘ Who would win a fight be­tween ...’ I get a lot of that.”

Should the suc­cess con­tinue, there’s no rea­son the Avengers fran­chise can’t last for many years and spin-offs, though Jo­hans­son says the phys­i­cal de­mands of her ac­tion parts are tak­ing a toll. She ticks off her in­jury in­ven­tory: a painful wrist that “drives me nuts,” knee aches, pain on the side of her body. “I have all kinds of crazy things.”

Jo­hans­son will also be seen in Un­der the Skin, an ar­rest­ing in­die di­rected by Jonathan Glazer ( Sexy Beast) open­ing on May 30. Jo­hans­son plays an alien who preys on a string of men in rainy Glas­gow, but that de­scrip­tion barely scratches the full ex­pe­ri­ence.

Un­der the Skin is a strik­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally ter­ri­fy­ing film about iden­tity, with long, non-ver­bal stretches and haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful cine­matog­ra­phy. Jo­hans­son spent many ses­sions dis­cussing the film with Glazer, a di­rec­tor she ad­mired, with­out be­ing cer­tain the film would be­come a re­al­ity.

“There are sev­eral di­rec­tors with whom I’ve had kind of a cre­ative re­la­tion­ship but have never worked with,” she says. “We like to imag­ine that we will, but who knows?” (Jo­hans­son’s spare per­for­mance did not sur­prise Glazer. “Good ac­tors are able to tackle dif­fer­ent roles,” the di­rec­tor says mat­ter-of-factly.) Jo­hans­son with Bill Mur­ray in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in

Trans­la­tion; as the cat-suited Black

Widow in Iron Man 2, be­low While there’s an ocean of dif­fer­ence be­tween

Un­der the Skin and a block­buster, Jo­hans­son glides nat­u­rally be­tween the two. She seems un­in­ter­ested in tak­ing any ob­vi­ous path. “I’d rather take the chance of a film not work­ing than be stuck in a pat­tern of mak­ing the same movie over and over,” she says. Get­ting older doesn’t un­nerve her, ei­ther. “I don’t want to be the in­genue any more,” she says. “That part I’m happy about. It’s nice to be glam­orous, but I don’t want to al­ways have to be trendy and glam­orous and an ob­ject of de­sire. I don’t want to be stuck in that for­ever. Be­cause it doesn’t last.”

Still, Jo­hans­son speaks with ur­gency about the ten­sion ac­tresses of­ten feel be­tween bal­anc­ing their ca­reers and per­sonal lives, par­tic­u­larly on the sub­ject of fam­ily. It’s a topic that turns out to have happy ur­gency: Jo­hans­son and Dau­riac are ex­pect­ing a child. “It seems so stress­ful to not be able to spend time with your fam­ily be­cause you’re con­stantly chas­ing the tail of your own suc­cess,” Jo­hans­son says. She continues: “There must ex­ist a world in which I can bal­ance those things, be able to raise a fam­ily and still make a film a year, or work on my own, de­velop things, do theatre. I want to be able to have it all.” She laughs. “Self­ishly.”

“I know that with that there will be some sac­ri­fices. I know that’s the strug­gle with work­ing moth­ers and suc­cess­ful ca­reers. It hap­pens.” But the scent of dou­ble stan­dard is ob­vi­ous, and Jo­hans­son doesn’t shy from it. “With (male ac­tors) it just doesn’t hap­pen that way. You can be ev­ery woman’s fan­tasy, and no­body thinks twice about the fact that you have eight kids or what­ever.”

She has learned to roll with the mad­den­ing frus­tra­tions of the busi­ness, and she hasn’t been un­scathed by the celebrity grind. There was a mar­riage and di­vorce to ac­tor Ryan Reynolds, a break-up that played out on the cov­ers of su­per­mar­ket mag­a­zines. There was a ter­ri­bly in­va­sive hack­ing crime in which Jo­hans­son’s (and other celebri­ties’) pri­vate in­for­ma­tion and pho­to­graphs were stolen; the per­pe­tra­tor jailed for 10 years. “A bumpy time” is how she de­scribes that pe­riod. “But I al­ways in­tended to get off that crazy gos­sip wagon and back to my reg­u­lar life.”

As her 30s ap­proach, Jo­hans­son seems con­tent to fly low to the ground. Her re­la­tion­ship with Dau­riac, whom she met in 2012, is not wild gos­sip fod­der. “Our life is quiet,” she says. (As ev­i­dence, the cou­ple has been mer­ci­fully spared a mor­ti­fy­ing re­la­tion­ship acro­nym. “Scar-Ro? Scar-Main?” Johannson jok­ingly sug­gests.) She is vague about wed­ding tim­ing (“our plan is to get mar­ried at some point”), but she ad­mits that her French is rusty. Dau­riac’s fam­ily mostly speaks French around her, but at home the cou­ple usu­ally sticks to English. “When you’re in a re­la­tion­ship with some­body and you’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing with them, you want to be as clear and con­cise as pos­si­ble. We try to speak French a lit­tle, but it’s mostly like, ‘I like this sand­wich.’ ‘That’s a nice colour.’ “She in­tended to take a month off and study French with a tu­tor. “You go out, you go to a mu­seum, or­der lunch, try to do a con­ver­sa­tion.”

Af­ter­noon beck­ons. It is time to go. Jo­hans­son pulls on her down jacket. Paris may be sublime. But out­side it continues to snow, trans­form­ing New York into a cap­ti­vat­ing city that still very much feels like Jo­hans­son’s kind of town.

The Wall Street Jour­nal Mag­a­zine

Un­der the Skin opens on May 30.

Scar­lett Jo­hans­son; and as an alien se­duc­tress in her lat­est film, Un­der

the Skin, be­low

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