Frankly, Scar­lett doesn’t give a damn about the sex

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK — In a de­ci­sion that will make many a man sigh un­hap­pily, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son won’t be bring­ing sexy back to Broad­way.

The ac­tress with the pouty lips and gen­tle curves that GQ mag­a­zine once called “Babe of the Year” is de­ter­mined to be a more nat­u­ral­is­tic Mag­gie the Cat in a re­vival of Ten­nessee Wil­liams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that opens Jan. 17.

That’s the same role Elizabeth Tay­lor em­bod­ied while vir­tu­ally purring in a satin slip. And her suc­ces­sors — Anika Noni Rose, Ash­ley Judd and Kath­leen Turner, among them — all played it to var­i­ously breath­less, sexy de­grees.

But Jo­hans­son talks about how she ap­proached the preda­tory fe­line of Wil­liams’ clas­sic South­ern play sound­ing like the way she her­self would pre­fer to be de­scribed.

“I think her sex­u­al­ity is of­ten over­played and over-ap­pre­ci­ated. It’s such an unim­por­tant part of this story,” Jo­hans­son says one re­cent morn­ing dur­ing re­hearsals.

“I mean, it comes with the cir­cum­stance, of course, and the set­ting and the words — that’s al­ready there. There’s no need to drape your­self all over the stage and roll around in a satin sheet.”

If that puts a dent in the box of­fice, so be it, says the four-time Golden Globe nom­i­nated star of Lost in Trans­la­tion and The Avengers. Quips Jo­hans­son: “There’s al­ways the half­price ticket line.”

The new pro­duc­tion is led by di­rec­tor Rob Ash­ford and co-stars Ben­jamin Walker as Mag­gie’s drunken, dis­in­ter­ested hus­band, Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy and De­bra Monk as Big Mama.

“It’s really a beau­ti­ful play, really a per­fect play, I think,” she says, smoul­der­ing even though she wears a de­mure dark pantsuit and striped top. “If the play fails, it’s our fault.”

Jo­hans­son ar­rives for her morn­ing in­ter­view al­ready tired, hav­ing wo­ken be­fore dawn to ap­pear on the To­day show. “If I have any more cof­fee, I’ll ex­plode into an­other strato­sphere,” the ac­tress warns.

Jo­hans­son, 28, has al­ready proved she has the act­ing chops for Broad­way, hav­ing won a best fea­tured ac­tress Tony Award in 2010 in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge op­po­site Liev Schreiber.

It was a vic­tory from a stage novice that si­lenced crit­ics who had moaned about movie stars with du­bi­ous skills show­ing up in Times Square sim­ply to sell tick­ets. Jo­hans­son in­sists she had noth­ing to prove.

“I’m just happy the stage door is still open and I can walk through it,” she says. “I was just happy to sur­vive the run, really. Hon­estly. I ex­pected to be lam­basted. I knew that was a pos­si­bil­ity go­ing into it. But that’s OK.”

She has thrown her­self into her new role, see­ing Mag­gie as “a force of na­ture” and hav­ing “an al­most di­vine de­ter­mi­na­tion.” Ash­ford says Jo­hans­son came into re­hearsal the first day al­ready hav­ing mem­o­rized her lines, im­press­ing her co-stars.

“She loves the work, she loves cre­at­ing the characters,” he says. “She’s an ac­tress. She’s not a the­atre star or a movie star. She’s an ac­tor first and so she’s both, there­fore. She can do both, as she’s proven.”

Jo­hans­son has avoided as best she can see­ing other ac­tresses play Mag­gie, although she was in the au­di­ence to see Judd por­tray her op­po­site Ja­son Pa­tric in 2003.

She has man­aged to avoid ever catch­ing Tay­lor in the 1958 clas­sic film, ex­cept for a few min­utes. It hap- pened while she was look­ing up a Mar­lon Brando film on­line and YouTube rec­om­mended a clip from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

“I clicked and watched a cou­ple of min­utes and I re­al­ized it was a ter­ri­ble idea,” she says. “Not say­ing any­thing about the film, it’s just a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the story.”

She and Ash­ford are af­ter a more nat­u­ral­ized take. To that end, Mag­gie will be try­ing to se­duce her hus­band emo­tion­ally, not phys­i­cally. “What we’ve set out from the be­gin­ning is to take th­ese characters off th­ese pedestals where they’ve been placed and try to put them back in the play,” Ash­ford says.

OK, then what about the poster for the show, which features a re­clin­ing Jo­hans­son, lips slightly apart, loosely wrapped in white ma­te­rial and look­ing al­most post-coital? Ash­ley sees not sex, but ache. “I think it’s her long­ing,” he says.

Jo­hans­son had been look­ing for a way to re­turn to Broad­way since A View From the Bridge closed. She sifted through new scripts and clas­sics, search­ing for some­thing meaty.

“I think af­ter do­ing View, I re­al­ized that I didn’t want to work on any­thing that wasn’t chal­leng­ing in some way and that brought me into a whole dif­fer­ent world. I didn’t want to do an easy job,” she says.

“One day I was day­dream­ing and re­mem­bered Cat and thought, ‘I should read that again,”’ she re­calls. “It was just ter­ri­fy­ing. It was the first thing I felt that way about in the cou­ple of years that I’d been look­ing.”

The ac­tress was raised in New York and she and her mother of­ten made their way to Broad­way, see­ing Gypsy, Se­cret Garden, Carousel, My Fair Lady with Richard Cham­ber­lain and Brian Den­nehy in Death of a Sales­man, among oth­ers. Will mom be happy her lit­tle girl is back where they shared mem­o­ries? ”I hope so. That’s what we all hope, any­way. That mom will be happy,“says Jo­hans­son.

Though A View From the Bridge was her Broad­way de­but, she had one other stage credit — in an off-Broad­way play in 1993 called Sophistry with Ethan Hawke where she had only one line. (She still re­mem­bers it — “Mom, some­thing smells, some­thing smells.”) Of her sub­se­quent success, Jo­hans­son laughs: “Yeah, mov­ing on up.”

Af­ter tack­ling Miller and Wil­liams, is there any stage star she’d still love to por­tray? Of course: Jo­hans­son points to Sun­set Boule­vard. “Some­day I want to play Norma Des­mond,” she says. “But ev­ery­body does.”

The ac­tress, who is re­bound­ing af­ter her di­vorce with ac­tor Ryan Reynolds and the il­le­gal leak of in­ti­mate naked pho­tos, says she tries to live as nor­mal a life as pos­si­ble.

“It’s hard to keep your pri­vate life pri­vate be­cause peo­ple are very pry­ing and they have ideas of your ro­man­tic life or the kind of crazy life­style you live or what­ever,” she says. “I live a rel­a­tively low-key life­style.”

That means that Jo­hans­son can some­times be found in Mid­town do­ing some­thing quite unglam­orous. Like curb­ing her pets. “When you’ve got two dogs, you pick up their poo,” she says, laugh­ing.

HARRY E. WALKER / MCT

Jo­hans­son says Mag­gie the Cat’s sex­u­al­ity is of­ten “over-played and over-ap­pre­ci­ated.”

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