At one point in Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, the disaffected photographer’s wife who spends much of her time lounging in her underwear in a Tokyo hotel room, laments to Bill Murray’s Bob, the jaded movie star she befriends during her visit, that she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. Many young people grapple with the same existential dilemma, but Johansson, unlike Sofia Coppola, the film’s writer-director, who caromed from actress to clothing designer to photographer before finding her bliss as a filmmaker, is not one of them.
“I’ve known I liked to perform forever,” says Johansson, “and I couldn’t feel more fortunate for that.”
At 18, Johansson may be, to borrow one of the more insipid pop lyrics in recent memory, “not a girl, not yet a woman,” but the sandpaper-voiced indie princess doesn’t have a Britney bone in her body. Nevertheless, in both Lost in Translation and the upcoming period drama Girl With a Pearl Earring, she plays young women who, far more subtly but no less effectively than La Spears, stir up carnal longings in older men. (A similar vein courses through A Love Song for Bobby Long, the drama she is currently shooting in New Orleans with John Travolta.)
Like so many of her recent characters, the Manhattan-bred Johansson, whose other credits include The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn’t There, is in a transitional phase. Indeed, an interesting contrast may be made between Johansson and her Horse Whisperer co-star Kate Bosworth. Despite a more substantial body of work, Johansson, a favorite at once of discerning art-house habitués and of the cynical teens she and Thora Birch captured so brilliantly in Ghost World, is harder to pin down, and less conventionally beautiful, than the classically blond Bosworth. Which presents a challenge. No one disputes Johansson’s talent, yet Bosworth is the one headlining studio movies, while Johansson, at the moment, remains primarily an alterna-ingénue, a refreshingly real, defiantly unmanufactured antidote to the buffed and polished Amanda Byneses and Hilary Duffs of the world.
But on the strength of Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring (in which she stars opposite Colin Firth as a shy housemaid who inspires one of 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Vermeer’s most famous paintings), greater recognition seems imminent. Sure to help matters is the fact that Johansson has hired her first publicist (her mother, who is also her manager, has handled her press until now). And not just any publicist, but Stephen Huvane, a canny strategist whose clients include such top-tier actresses as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Liv Tyler, Kirsten Dunst, Julianne Moore, Helen Hunt and Demi Moore.
From the outside, it might appear that she has called in a big gun to guide her toward the mainstream. But when asked about her decision to hire Huvane, Johansson confirms beyond any doubt that her commitment to independence extends well beyond the films she makes.
“I didn’t really meet anyone else,” she says. “Stephen is a great guy, and just pleasant. I’m lucky — I have a team of people working for me who I really enjoy personally and professionally. But all in all, I’ve learned that nothing comes as easily, or turns out the way you want it, unless you do it yourself.”
L.A. WEEKLY: Sofia is one of several woman directors you’ve worked with. Do you find the experience significantly different from working with male directors?
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: There are obvious differences, I suppose. Walking around in my underwear in front of Sofia is not the same as walking around in my underwear in front of [Horse Whisperer director] Bob Redford. But at the same time, when the cameras are rolling, gender lines are irrelevant. A good director is a good director, and I don’t think it has anything to do with your sex. I’ve worked with a lot of woman directors, and I’ve tried to think if there’s been a connection between all of them, but it’s impossible. It would be like making a connection between all male directors. There’s nothing similar about them other than those girly feminine things that a woman has with another woman. I’m sure if I turned to Sofia and said, “Do you have a tampon?” she wouldn’t laugh in my face. But I wouldn’t want to ask [Ghost World director] Terry Zwigoff for a tampon.
Charlotte is a fictional character, but in certain respects she seems to closely resemble Sofia.
People always say, “Is Charlotte based on Sofia?” It’s an obvious thing. My character has long hair, she wears Marc Jacobs, and there’s a quietness about her. And when you meet Sofia, the similarities are undeniable. But it’s like giving a line reading. I would never impersonate her.
Just as Charlotte is in a period of transition in her life, you seem to be as well. Where do you see yourself going in the future?
For me, the next step is directing. I’ve been doing this for so long, and I have so much experience, that it just doesn’t seem like it could go any other way. I would like to explore every aspect of filmmaking because I love it so much, and the idea of directing just seems like the greatest thing ever. Not that I would stop acting — and I would never direct myself. That would just be awful.
In a previous interview you said, “The most important thing to me is that the character is something I can play. I can’t play a cheerleader. It’s going to come out awful. I don’t feel comfortable baring my stomach. I wouldn’t pay 10 dollars to see it.” Based on your latest projects, it seems you still feel that way.
Unfortunately, terrible movies are made all the time, and they’re just making more bad ones as we speak. I think that’s what’s so great about Lost in Translation — it’s just so refreshing. For Christ’s sake, you leave the theater and you’re talking about the characters! When was the last time you did that?
When people say, “It must have been really challenging for you to play in Lost in Translation and Girl With a Pearl Earring,” I think, “Are you kidding? They were a breath of fresh air. They were all you could wish for.” It’s difficult when you’re trying to make something work that’s stupid or unrealistic and sappy. It’s terrible to have to do that kind of work. And it’s a shame because there are so many great actors who don’t really have any other option. I like to think that everybody wants to play the parts that I get to play. But it’s not like I don’t see my share of the worst material. In every script I get, it seems my character is a detective or something. It’s like, “Oh, come on!”