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Scarlett Johansson

Sunday Herald (November 2001)

Scarlett Johansson has had an “interesting” morning. Like many other seventeen year olds living in Manhattan, she woke up to yet another day of high school. She only has a few months to go before she can graduate to college and pursue her dream of one day directing a film, so for the moment she’s waiting it out. She doesn’t mind. She was born and raised in NYC and loves the place so much she “can’t bare to leave”. After all, every second brings another new experience to savour.

“Somebody sang to me on the subway today,” Johansson recounts, her smoky voice heavy with wry bemusement. “He was like ‘ladies and gentlemen, I’m just trying to collect some money and I’m going to sing a song’. I was like ‘oh how nice’. Everybody’s looking at him and he turns to me and sings ‘you are the love of my life’. Everybody on the subway started to stare at me and I was like ‘this is too early for this shit.’ He just kept singing. It was really funny. I felt very lucky.”

To truly appreciate the smirking disdain that Johansson imbues into the word “lucky”, imagine a teenage Marge Simpson ending a story to her chainsmoking sisters with the phrase “and then I caught <I>rabies<I>”. Anyone who saw her deliciously acerbic Rebecca in the rites of passage movie “Ghost World” or her knowing take on Lolita in The Coen Brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” will know that Scarlett Johansson can speak volumes with a simple raised eyebrow. What becomes apparent with her forthcoming role in the mock disaster flick “Eight Legged Freaks”, however, is how much dry comedy runs in her bloodstream.

Johansson’s passion for acting first developed when she saw “Silence Of The Lambs” at the tender age of seven. “I loved it,” she grins, sitting in the apartment she shares with her architect father and twin brother. “I also remember watching a lot of musicals when I was younger. We loved old Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and ‘Mary Poppins’ and Julie Andrews.” Not long after, Johansson announced her ambition to be an actress to her mother. “I told my mom to take us all to the talent agency, and the only person they wanted was my older brother. It was so devastating. It wasn’t even the rejection. There was something inside me. I always wanted to do it.”

A string of auditions for TV commercials followed but directors were put off by Johansson’s husky voice. Now, of course, the way she sounds is a huge part of her appeal. “It’s weird because people have made a really big deal out of ‘her gravely voice’. Well it is low, it’s pretty deep. I hope it’s appealing to cute guys but I don’t know if I want it to be my only attribute. ‘Scarlett, you’re a terrible actor but we just love your voice and it would sound so good next to Jim Carrey, so we’ll hire you’.”

But please put this bag over your head.

“Yeah, right! ‘Scarlett, we want to dress you because your voice is just priceless’. I hope not.”

Johansson’s CV to date is a curious mixture of underground cool and mainstream gloss. Her first role was in Rob Reiner’s “North” when she was eight years old. She then played Sean Connery’s daughter in “Just Cause”, received a Best Actress nomination at thirteen for her part in the indie hit “Manny And Lo” and went on to star in “Home Alone 3” (“That was really hard acting. I studied daily with a coach,” she deadpans. “No, I’m just kidding”) and Robert Redford’s “The Horse Whisperer”. Redford famously described her as “13 going on 30”, while “Ghost World” director Terry Zwigoff hired her for her “eccentricity”.

“I guess I’m a little strange,” Johansson smiles. “Everybody’s strange in their own way. Terry glorifies being different so to have that from him is a compliment I pity the person that’s not slightly strange. It adds excitement to it all.”

Most people will own up to a maybe a couple of obsessions and eccentricities, but Johansson has a list to last her a lifetime. She’s besotted with Patrick Swayze (“Ever since I saw him in ‘Dirty Dancing’ when I was very very little, I’ve had an obsession with him. He’s just grand. I would love to be in ‘Dirty Dancing 2’. That would be my dream role. I want to play Jennifer Gray’s part. Oh gosh. Cast me”); orange tic tacs; pistachio nuts (“I’ve been eating pistachio nuts for the past six months. I eat them for every meal. I love pistachio nuts. I can’t get enough of them. I’m salt obsessed”); David Bowie (“My dream date would be with David Bowie”); and, inevitably, lizards.

“I got into a reptile stage when I was eleven and got a leopard gecko. I still think lizards are really cool but we’re not as close as we used to be. I’ve moved onto to bigger and better things. Like mammals.”

Why did she want a lizard?

“I’ve no idea. I had some anoles, which are these little common lizards you find in Florida, like tree lizards. They turn from bright green to brown. My leopard gecko comes from the Lebanon and has leopard printed skin. He’d make a really nice watch, but I don’t tell that to him.”

Her other great obsession is pool. “I can’t not play. I play all the time. But I’m not up to the calibre where I can say ‘I need to have a pool table in my trailer’.They’d be like ‘hell no! We’ve decided to give this part to Kirsten Dunst’. I haven’t gotten to Mariah Carey status. Yet. I’m on my way, though.”

Has she ever won any money playing pool?

“No. I don’t really play for money. I just play for the point of being better than the opponent. I’m a pretty competitive person. I’m competitive about getting parts and competitive about being right. Especially when it’s my dad. I’m a very good argumenter, arguementeer…”


“Arguer. There you go. Thanks. I would have brought my dictionary or my thesaurus. I’m pretty good at arguing. I usually convince myself anyway and that’s all that’s important. As long as you’re convinced.”

For her role in “Eight Legged Freaks”, Johansson’s chief responsibilities were to “scream a lot. Scream and run. And be a sarcastic teenager.” It’s probably not an Oscar-winning milestone in her career, but the absurdity of the film appealed to her sense of humour.

“It’s a campy old fashioned movie. It was hysterical. Two months in the Arizona desert with awesome special affects and David Arquette. What more could you want?” Is she a good screamer? “I’m a pretty good screamer. I’m good at being a sarcastic teenager. But the whole running thing. I just don’t like running. You go at a certain pace that feels unnatural. ‘Wait don’t run so fast because the camera’s following behind’. Are you shitting me? If those spiders were coming at me, I would be running like eighty miles an hour.”

“Eight Legged Freaks” was originally called “Arac Attack”, a title that was swiftly dropped post September 11th.

“Isn’t that hysterical? Not like anything’s hysterical about September 11th obviously, but before that happened people would ask me ‘is it called “Iraq Attack”?’ I was like no but that’s so funny. ‘Eight Legged Freaks’ is quite the name. It comes on with this corny, ‘Monsters From The Black Lagoon’ title. It’s great. It’s so funny.”

Johansson’s current frustration is that after playing excellently observed teenage characters in “Ghost World” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, she’s finding it difficult to find new roles that match up. The occasional “American Beauty” aside, there’s either the post-“Buffy” squeaky clean mallrat characters or their R-rated equivalents in the “American Pie”-style films.

“Most of the teenage parts don’t have any depth,” she sighs. “A lot of people who write about teenagers were unaware when they were young. The characters in ‘Ghost World’ were awesome, but that’s rare.”

Did she relate much to Rebecca’s wisecracking ennui?

“Yeah. She’s like slightly compulsive and I am slightly compulsive. I’m compulsive about doing work I think is good and I’m compulsive about stupid stuff. I have to get this dental cleaning. I’ve got to make the appointment and that’s all I think about, dental cleaning. I’ve got to get the dental cleaning. I call the dentist, I go out on the dental cleaning, they tell me I’ve got to get a filling, I’m like ‘alright, I want to make it in two days’. I just like to get things finished.”

What does she think of the “American Pie”/“Scream” school of teen film?

“I don’t particularly like them. It’s entertaining. It’s not like you’re going to watch them and be bored. It’s just mindless entertainment. I actually never saw ‘Scream’. I saw the third one. All my friends were meeting up to see it and I was dragged along. I had no idea what the storyline was but you didn’t really need to see the prior movies. It was the same thing as the first I guess."

Would she do “American Pie 4”?

“No. Probably not. Unless they were like, ‘here’s three million dollars’. I’d be like ‘alright, whatever. I’ll make it up in the next couple of years’. Like Steve Buscemi. He was in ‘Armageddon’ and then he was in ‘Reservoir Dogs’. If you can play the role well then who cares, of course there’s some corny stuff you’re going to do.”

One possible solution to the drought of decent roles is to create her own. She dreams of directing the film version of “Catcher In The Rye” and is enthusiastic about making an inner city story about her beloved New York. If all else fails, she’ll always have New York.

“New York is one of the most important parts of who I am,” she nods. “I’ve lived here my whole life, so it’s had a lot to contribute to the way I see things and just dealing with living in an urban environment, which is something I’m crazy about. I guess I really couldn’t leave, it’s my home.”

Does she have a typical New York personality?

“What is a typical New York personality? I guess, maybe. I don’t know if there is a typical New York personality, that’s what makes New York so wonderful. Yeah, sure you’re all nasty, but actually New Yorkers are so polite. We get such a bad rap and I don’t know why.”

No wonder, then, that Johansson’s ultimate ambition is to star in a movie by the city’s most infamous chronicler.

“I’d like to be in the next Woody Allen movie. So that’s my shout out to Woody Allen to cast me in something soon. Like Helen Hunt. How did she get that role? She was very lucky. I’m blonde. Come on. I want to play the female Holden Caufield, that would be nice. I want to play the female ‘Graduate’.”

And at least Woody Allen would never ask her to do anything repulsive with rats or pigs. “I did this movie that never came out called ‘My Brother The Pig’ and there was this scene where I had to be sleeping and a rat was supposed to be touching my feet,” she shudders. “I really don’t like anything touching my feet. It’s not that I hate rodents, I’m not the kind of person that would scream, but rats are pretty disgusting. It was so terrible. That required many meditational skills. I had to hold a pig in that movie too.”

In the meantime, though, there’s always school to think about. And her friends. And her many, many obsessions. She may be on the verge of being swept up by the most surreal business on the planet, but you suspect she could face any of its oddities and inconsistencies square on. Even the fallout of being the screaming, sarcastic teenager in a film called “Eight Legged Freaks”.

“Yeah,” she smirks, with impeccable timing. “Crawling to a theatre near you.”

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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