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Scarlett Johansson: the sex symbol

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson
is relaxing, legs stretched out before her on a sofa in one of London’s most luxurious hotels, and pondering the strange phenomenon that is life as a modern-day sex symbol. Think Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren transported through time – the hour-glass figure and sprayed-on frocks – and you have some idea of the cinematic heritage of Ms J, a woman who, at just 24, has men young and old (including Woody Allen and just about every other director she’s worked with), praising her as a siren, a muse and a pin-up for our times. Women, too, can appreciate La Johansson. According to one glossy, she possesses the body that most admire.

“Oh yeah, that stuff,” she drawls in that unmistakable, husky voice, raising a pencil-thin eyebrow. “Well, I never expected that kind of thing, to be honest. I think that comes with my age, the whole sex-symbol thing. I’ll grow out of that. It’s a phase. And people want to turn you into merchandise in some way, don’t they?”
Scarlett Johansson
If it’s an image that she hasn’t particularly courted, it’s also one that she’s not afraid to exploit. In one of her two new films about to be released in the UK, The Spirit, a visually striking adaptation of a comic book, she’s a femme fatale with the kind of plunging neckline that will ensure teenage boys flock to the multiplexes in their droves, while their girlfriends weigh up the merits of a Wonderbra. “I was inspired by those actresses from the Forties and Fifties, and all that movie-star glamour… you know, that Golden Age of Hollywood. I like that look,” she admits.

Today, her look is more Pippi-Longstocking-meets-Gap: her hair is piled up in plaits, and she’s wearing blue jeans, white and green trainers and a grey slip over a matching cardigan (which is covering a recently acquired tattoo, of a sunrise, on her right forearm). In person, she’s friendly, bright, articulate and supremely composed. If anything, she appears even younger than she is. Indeed, the casually dressed, tiny (she’s 5ft 4in) woman who walked past me in the corridor – followed by a minder twice her size – a few minutes earlier didn’t attract so much as a second glance.
Scarlett Johansson
But put Johansson in front of a camera and you see genuine screen presence. She commands the eye in a way that few of her contemporaries do – she was luminous in Girl With a Pearl Earring (playing the maid who inspires Vermeer to his greatest work), and drop-dead sexy in the Forties-set noir thriller The Black Dahlia.

“I think it’s hard to have any kind of perspective on the image that builds up around you,” she says. “It’s funny because I live a quiet life. I do. I turn up for a premiere or a charity event, and then I have my life. And, really, it’s a relatively normal life.”

Johansson has been in the spotlight since she was a teenager. She was born in New York and has a twin brother and an older sister and brother. Her mother, Melanie, is a film and TV producer, and her father, Karsten, a Danish-born architect. Johansson loved acting and singing as a child, and from school plays graduated to TV appearances and minor film roles. Her breakthrough came with The Horse Whisperer, playing an awkward young girl traumatised by a riding accident. Directed by Robert Redford, it announced her as a talented actress with huge potential. But even though she earned good reviews, not even Johansson herself could have predicted the meteoric rise that would follow. She looks back on that performance with a mix of fascination for her younger self and pride.

“That feels like an age ago, and yet it’s also fresh in my mind,” she says. “I was 12 when I made the film and 14 when it was released. It feels like for ever. I’ve spoken to other artists about this and there’s a purity, an ease, an innocence that comes with earlier performances. And although you learn from experience and you grow, there’s something that you never really get back.”

This is a little harsh. Although Johansson was indeed remarkably natural in The Horse Whisperer – and excellent as a 17-year-old in the much darker Ghost World – she has made the difficult transition from child to adult actor with ease. Her best performances have come opposite heavyweight players, too. She matched Bill Murray – no mean feat – in Lost in Translation, in which she played the new wife of a musician stranded alone in a Tokyo hotel, who strikes up an unlikely bond with a middle-aged actor in town to do a commercial. Directed by Sofia Coppola, Johansson was thoroughly charming and won herself a Bafta for Best Actress in the process.

She earned another Bafta nomination for Girl With a Pearl Earring, and even when the films she’s appeared in have been duds (The Island, with Ewan McGregor) or average (The Nanny Diaries), Johansson is usually worth the price of a ticket. “I’ve been fortunate,” she says. “I’ve worked in a lot of really great productions.”
Scarlett Johansson
Now the aim is to ensure career longevity. It may seem a long way off, but, in one sense, she is anxious to leave her twenties – and that sex-symbol baggage – behind and get on with it. “I look forward to growing in the industry and ageing in the industry. A lot of actresses take their meatiest roles in their thirties and forties. And I’m looking forward to that. I’m at a little bit of a funny age where I get that ‘sexiest woman’ thing, and it feels like a label for right now. But maybe when I get older, it won’t be like that.”

Not that she’s complaining. Mostly, she seems rather bemused by the fuss that surrounds her. There are stories of a feud with Lindsay Lohan and songs written in her honour by a pop star (Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl) she has never met; there’s gossip – flatly denied – of a passionate encounter with Benicio del Toro in an elevator, and one fan bidding $40,000 on eBay to attend a party at her side. “It’s part of the whole media circus,” she says of the relentless tittle-tattle. “But why me and not somebody else? I guess it has something to do with the fact that I’m confident and speak my mind, so I guess I’m labelled in some way or another.”

She claims that an article in Cosmopolitan about her private life contains quotes that were fabricated. Her complaint is being investigated as we go to press. The Lohan “story” is another good example, she feels. Lohan apparently scrawled “Scarlett is a c***” on the wall in the bathroom of a New York nightclub. Quite why is a mystery to Johansson. “The first I heard about it was when a journalist mentioned it to me,” she says. “I’ve only met Lindsay Lohan a couple of times. But you know, as soon as you mention her name, the media loves it. They like to be able to say, ‘Scarlett answers back!’ I just thought that it was a little tacky and it makes me seem like I’m holding some kind of grudge, which is just nonsense.”

She likes to keep her private life to herself. A few months ago, she married Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds in a “quiet ceremony” near Vancouver after dating him for 19 months. They pulled off the remarkable coup of keeping the event secret until it was all over. “Being married is lovely, thank you,” she says, clearly on guard. “I feel like I’m in a good place. I’ve grown up. Everything seems to be going in the right direction.” Does being married make her feel more secure? “Maybe. That’s something I think you need a little perspective on. But it’s nice when you go out in the world to know that you are married. It’s kind of liberating.”

The work, she stresses, is still a huge part of her life. She can pick and choose from the best scripts on offer for the young Hollywood A-list, on which she occupies, arguably, top spot. This year, she even found the time to record an album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, which features her take on ten Tom Waits songs. When an actor dabbles in music, the result is usually an embarrassment; not so with Johansson. “Sexy, intoxicating and haunting,” gushed one critic, while another suggested that if she were an unknown, we would all be hailing a major new talent. Her singing voice is a sexy, late-night rasp that suits Waits perfectly. “I grew up listening to Tom Waits. Yeah, I would do more music. I would always hope to be able to explore different things. I love film, but I also love music and fine art and fashion. You never know, I might be the next Philippe Starck…”
Scarlett Johansson
She has worked with Woody Allen three times: on Scoop, Match Point and, now, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The latter is viewed as the director’s best film for years – it received glowing reviews and a standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes. It’s smart, funny and very sexy: Johansson plays a young American, Cristina, who, along with her friend Vicky (portrayed by the excellent Rebecca Hall, daughter of Sir Peter Hall), spends a summer in Barcelona, where they meet and are wooed by a bohemian artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Allen is on familiar territory – exploring the complexities of relationships – but it feels fresh and contemporary.

She is, understandably, delighted with the finished film. “I’m always surprised when I see a movie I did with Woody because we never get to see anything when we are making it; the monitor, the dailies, nothing. So you have no idea what the movie looks like or whether it’s going to make any sense. You are working scene to scene, and everything is out of order and you have no real sense of the story as a whole. So yes, I was very pleasantly surprised.”

Allen is clearly besotted, at least professionally, with Johansson, and admits that he’s written several screenplays with her in mind. “Every now and then, I find an actress with the kind of gift that inspires me to create parts,” says Allen. “Scarlett’s very smart, sexy, very gifted and with a big range. And she’s lightning fast with her sense of humour.” Praise indeed. You do wonder, though, whether it’s just a little embarrassing being Woody’s muse? “Um, yeah,” she laughs. “We both kind of cringe when we hear that word used. It’s like I suddenly appeared in his life looking for a story and a plotline: ‘Scarlett! Here she is.’ I think I fit into the young-woman category in his mind, and I feel, of course, I’m replaceable. But I love working with Woody because we get along so well, it’s always fun and interesting and what actor wouldn’t want to have that dialogue?”

The Spirit couldn’t be more of a contrast to a Woody Allen movie. “But that’s the point, right? To try different things. And I really wanted to work with that man [Frank Miller]. He’s a genius.” Miller, the comic-book writer and artist who turned to directing with an acclaimed adaptation of his own Sin City, has now brought Will Eisner’s The Spirit to the screen. Starring alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes, Johansson is the gloriously named Silken Floss, which sounds like an upmarket dental treatment. “It’s a great name,” she agrees. “Silken Floss. It just rolls off the tongue.”
Scarlett Johansson
Doubtless, the teen boys will love it. “Oh, and the girls and the older guys and women, too,” she protests. Maybe so. But for Scarlett Johansson, it’s just one step nearer to the time when everyone stops referring to her as a sex symbol. “I feel like I’ve done a lot of different kinds of work, and it would be such a waste, I think, if I could only be a sexy sidekick or something. I would have to open up a store somewhere and quit the business,” she says.

This is followed by a low, throaty laugh. Ms Johansson is joking, of course. After all, you have to have a sense of humour about this sex symbol stuff.

(Times Online)

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December 27, 2008 - Posted by | Scarlett Johansson

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