“We’re oceans away,” Scarlett Johansson says to me during the first few seconds of our phone interview. The connection is terrible, but there’s no mistaking her low, smoky voice. She’s calling from nearly 9,000 miles away in New Zealand, where she’s filming “Ghost in the Shell,” a fantasy drama set to premiere in early 2017.
The 31-year-old New Yorker is no stranger to sci-fi, most recently playing the Black Widow in the Captain America movies — the latest film, “Captain America: Civil War” hit theaters earlier this month; a woman with psychokinetic abilities in “Lucy”; and, back in 2005, a vengeful clone in the dystopian “The Island.” But in reality, Johansson isn’t a stranger to any genre, which is why the Gene Siskel Film Center is honoring her with the Renaissance Award at its annual benefit June 30.
At the “Celebrate Scarlett” gala, film critic Richard Roeper will sit down with Johansson to look back on her 20-plus years as an actress.The youngest recipient of the award, Johansson joins a prestigious group of past honorees like Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.
“Her strengths include the confidence to strike quiet, subtle notes as an actress and not try to steal every scene; a sense of humor about her sexiness; and she has that timeless, almost impossible quality known as the ‘It’ factor,” Roeper says. “Like Grace Kelly and Julia Roberts and Halle Berry, Scarlett is simply made for the movies.”
Here, Johansson weighs in on her career, while we highlight her evolution as an actress and the roles that led her to become one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood.
“When I was in my late teens and 20s, I, rightfully so, got cast in this kind of ingénue role that was searching and directionless. I think part of that was what was popular, but also what was available for young women at that time. I think now, women in their early 20s have a much wider range of [roles] to play.”
On screen: As a teen, Johansson starred opposite Bill Murray in the indie hit “Lost in Translation,” directed by Sofia Coppola. As described by the late film critic Roger Ebert, “Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play two lost souls rattling around a Tokyo hotel in the middle of the night, who fall into a conversation about their marriages, their happiness and the meaning of it all.”
“I find the relationship I have with the director is what allows me to add dimension to a character. Right now, I’m working in a sci-fi genre and there’s not much said on the page, so you have to create this world with the director. [You have to] understand the reality of the world you’re working in: the world you’re creating for that audience, what the rules are and what the emotional rules are.”
On screen: In the Woody Allen film, “Match Point,” a former tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) falls for Johansson, an actress who’s dating a wealthy student (Matthew Goode). “[There is such] a range of emotion,” says Jean de St. Aubin, the Gene Siskel Film Center’s executive director. “It feels like a Hitchcock film, even though it’s Woody Allen.”
“I look for roles that have unique challenges to them, whether it’s physical or emotional … roles that ask existential questions of themselves. I’m always trying to imagine the unexpected choice or what’s surprising — how can I surprise myself? I sit with the work a lot and live in it.”
On screen: In 2008, Johansson played an American traveling to Barcelona, who becomes embroiled in a love triangle with a suave painter (Javier Bardem) and his emotionally unstable ex-girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) in the Woody Allen-produced comedy-drama, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
“[Since becoming a mom,] I haven’t had a lot of time to think about what’s sexy anymore. I think there’s a time and a place for that stuff, and it’s nice to feel desired. The reality is much different than the fantasy, and I work in the realm of fantasy, so I appreciate the smoke and mirrors that go into [that].”
On screen: Johansson, Esquire magazine’s Sexiest Woman Alive in 2006 and 2013, dove into the world of romantic comedy in 2009 when she appeared in “He’s Just Not That Into You” as a struggling singer/yoga instructor whose overt sex appeal tempts a married man (Bradley Cooper) into having an affair.
“The greatest compliment you can receive as an actor is that the audience felt connected to you emotionally. It has nothing to do with any specifics of age group, gender or whatever; it just has to do with connecting human-to-human. That’s what I think is so alluring about acting, that it gives you an opportunity to explore this range of emotion and then simplify and refine it. It’s a delicate craft and I’ve realized that over the years.”
On screen: In “Her,” a writer (Joaquin Phoenix) attempts to mend his broken heart by downloading an operating system, dubbed Samantha (voiced by Johansson), designed to facilitate all of his professional and personal needs.
Lead photo by John Russo
JOIN THE CELEBRATION | For tickets (starting at $500) to the Gene Siskel Film Center’s
“Celebrate Scarlett” gala, call (312) 846-2072 or email Dsmith16@saic.edu.