Scarlett Johansson at 23, has already sizzled her way to the very pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. Now that stardom jouneys halfway around the world to co-star with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in Woody Allen’s new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a uniquely international take on a Spanish-accented ménage-a-trois. Buzzine's Izumi Hasegawa sat down with Scarlett upom her return to California to get a revealing, personal, in-depth take on her new film, and where it fits in her amazing life and career so far.
Izumi Hasegawa: Woody Allen creates these extraordinary female characters, which you’ve played before, in Scoop and Match Point. What do you think sets your character in this movie apart from the predecessors?
Scarlett Johansson: They’re all such different characters. It’s a difficult question to answer because everything about them is so different, other than blonde hair. [Laughs] It would be hard to find some comparison between my present character, Cristina, and those others. But I think that’s the best thing about working with Woody, other than getting to spend every day chatting with him and bothering him, poking him and stuff like that. [Laughs]
IH: Poking him?
SJ: Sure, why not? Got to make sure he’s still like awake. [Laughs] He writes such fantastic female roles, and the most exciting part about reading the script is getting to see what are we all? – meaning Penelope [Cruz] or I, or other women in the film – what are we going to be doing next? He has such an appreciation and understanding of the intricacies of the female mind. I think he’d say we’re a superior species or something. He really loves women – the way we think – and it’s always some inspired character (in his films).
IH: Do you identify with the character Cristina?
SJ: I can identify with certain aspects of her philosophy – her sort of ‘Seize The Day’ attitude and her willingness to let life happen in front of her, and just take a chance and live, live, live. I can appreciate that part of her philosophy, but we have our differences as well.
IH: How much ad-libbing did you do on this? It seems like there was a lot of that going on, according to Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.
SJ: I usually stick to the script, but I think probably, for Chris [Christopher Evan Welch] and Rebecca [Hall], it’s so unusual to work with a writer-director that the script isn’t completely “precious” – and they’re not so married to the dialogue. Woody would say, “Just make it your own,” or whatever, and I remember Rebecca being like, what do you mean, make it our own? [Laughs] “Does he mean that?” And every actor that worked on this, before our first day, came to me and asked, “How married to the dialogue is he?” [Laughs] He is precious about it, and especially Penelope and Javier – I think they were a little worried because it’s so nuanced, and I said, “No, you’ll see.” I felt like the old shoe – but of course you keep the idea. His writing’s so brilliant there’s not much… you know, you want to keep it.
IH: But Woody said that even he didn’t know what Javier and Penelope were saying in Spanish until it was translated later. So in those scenes where they’re having arguments in Spanish and your character’s there, we’re supposed to really not know what they’re saying? Did they tell you what they were saying?
SJ: Not really. I didn’t really want to know. [Laughs] I could understand a couple of the words and I was like, “Ooooh, that sounds bad,” [Laughs] but it was not that important. I think certainly my character was in a similar situation as I was, which is like, pick up a couple words – but that’s part of her. I think part of the problem is she always feels a bit out of the loop. It’s like one minute she’s coddled, then she’s kind of forgotten, and she can’t figure out how to balance it all. It doesn’t feel harmonious to her, and I think, in the end, that’s what makes her say, “I love the summer, I love you both, and it doesn’t feel right. It’s not working for me.”
IH: I’m intrigued by your relationship with Woody Allen in the sense of coming in and sort of rescuing him on Match Point after someone else dropped out – Kate Winslet. Since then, many have described you as Woody Allen’s new muse. Are you comfortable with that idea, and how do you perceive your relationship, which seems to have inspired a series of films?
SJ: I often hear the muse thing and we always say no, it’s not that way. I’m fortunate enough to fit into the young girl part of the story, the young woman, the same as Judy Davis would fit into a certain part, or Dianne Wiest would. I think Woody also appreciates how wonderful it is to work with your friends, and it’s fun and we have a great time. We entertain each other and understand each other, and we poke each other. [Laughs]
IH: So it’s more that now you’re part of a group that could be described as his “repertory company.” Is that how you perceive it?
SJ: Yeah, I think that’s more accurate. I don’t think Woody sits at home with a thing of Lo Mein and a typewriter, thinking, “What is Scarlett doing now [Laughs] and how can her life inspire this tale…?” I know certainly not.
IH: But in our interview with Woody, he was very high on your acting. Are you surprised that he has begun to perceive you in that way, and that you seem to have grown and evolved since you started working with him?
SJ: After my monthly payments, I’m not surprised he would say that. I just write him a check and… [Laughs] No, I’m always surprised how fortunate I’ve been. I can never quite understand what’s happening [Laughs], and I always feel lucky to be employed. So for me it’s a high compliment for him to see me in any role, that he can imagine me doing anything. For an actor, that’s the best compliment – that you don’t get pigeonholed into some type, and you can seamlessly manipulate yourself into these different roles and different time periods, different characters. That’s what you hope the audience feels as well. It doesn’t always work that way, but it’s nice for somebody like Woody, who I’ve always admired and aspired to work with – for me to finally have worked with him now three times… It’s been a dream-come-true for me and, as an actor, there’s no higher compliment.
IH: In this film there’s this gal-pal dynamic of women who go on vacation together. Have you ever gone on a trip with a female pal who wants to do the total opposite of what you want to do?
SJ: I’m lucky I have a couple of very close girlfriends, and our interests are similar, which is why we’re friends. We have similar things we appreciate. They’re not actors, but we have a certain aesthetic or things we like to do. But when it comes to men, you’re always going to differ from another woman [Laughs]. What she likes and what she’s into and how you feel about her boyfriend, and how she feels about your boyfriend, all that stuff. Of course, it’s great to be close with a girl so you can talk about these things and get another woman’s perspective. But I’ve never been in this situation where I was on vacation and one girl wanted to go guy crazy [Laughs] while I was left in the hotel. [Laughs] With most of my girlfriends, we’re pretty solid. We go away together because we want to see each other. But in this circumstance in the film, the two characters are in different places in their lives. They’re close friends, but perhaps they realize over the summer that they kind of branch out – one is engaged to be married so she’s taken a more conservative route, and maybe she wasn’t like that in college or something. Then my character’s still wandering and aimless and hasn’t quite figured out what she wants. Friends can grow apart. I think that, for this summer, these certainly do. They’re different, probably very different when they come home.
IH: Can you talk about how it was working in such a steamy scene with Penelope and Javier? [Laughs]
SJ: Well, it’s funny because people are so conservative. It’s amazing. These characters fall in love, and people who fall in love are intimate. Also, when you’re shooting, there’s like 60 grown men eating salami sandwiches, waiting for when they can go watch the game or whatever. And you think, “God, are we rolling? There are trays of food being passed. Oh, we are rolling. Okay.” [Laughs] Nobody cares while you’re doing it, of course. It’s like your day at work and this is part of the story – but then people get excited because they associate two women in gowns at an award show and – gosh, the possibilities! [Laughs] I just go home at the end of the day and prepare for the next day.
IH: Woody made a big joke about that yesterday and said he would just allow you and Javier to just kiss and kiss and that would be the end of it…
SJ: Of course, that’s how it always is, but you guys know that.
IH: But it is very erotic on the screen.
SJ: Which is great.
IH: It’s more erotic than most Woody Allen lovemaking scenes.
IH: And it’s still PG-13, so he’s pulled off something really intricate without showing anything. He suggested everything.
SJ: There’s a lot of chemistry between the characters, and all of us as actors. So that’s where the steaminess comes from, because it’s not real explicit. People kissing, and as you said by the rating, nothing is crazy about it. But because there’s such chemistry between the characters, and you’re so invested in them, and it’s such a turn, it’s like whoa, wait a minute – I thought this wasn’t going to work out, but seemingly… my character’s kind of surprised herself.
IH: The press reports at the beginning were all about the threesome and is it going to be Woody Allen’s hottest movie…
SJ: When you’re working you’re so isolated – I never opened a newspaper. You’re tired, you come home exhausted. I never research what the world thinks about a film, but it’s funny because… I mean, it’s Woody. The idea of Woody Allen’s steamiest film is so ridiculous to me. [Laughs] It’s not like it’s Bertolucci or something. Woody’s so conservative with that kind of thing. It’s sweet, and I think he’s quite respectful of the relationship.
IH: How was working with Javier Bardem?
SJ: No complaints. It was an easy day’s work. [Laughs] You know, you go in, and you don’t have to worry about wardrobe. Javier’s so respectful, he’s such a gentleman, that it was very easy to work with him.
IH: In the scene when you’re looking into Javier Bardem’s eyes, are you thinking, “This is a good job?”
SJ: Into Javier’s eyes? Of course. “And they pay me to do this?” Well, on a Woody Allen movie, no one necessarily pays you to do it, but at least you’re semi-employed or whatever. It’s great. Javier is fantastic. He’s so sweet and lovely and such a great actor, so of course it’s easy to look dreamily, lovingly into his big brown eyes.
IH: Can you speak about being in Barcelona while you shot this and what you think that city brings to the film?
SJ: The city’s obviously magical in summer, and it’s so romantic. There’s something happening at all hours of the night, and people are outside drinking wine, being merry or whatever. I, on the other hand, was like, “I have to get up at 5:45.” I stayed outside the city, so all those tourist things we do in the movie, I was experiencing for the first time. I was like, “Oh, that’s that.” I was so far out of the loop, as far as the Barcelona crowd went. But it is that idyllic, summer-in-Europe kind of place to be. I think there are a couple of cities where this film could’ve been shot. Rome is like that and some Italian cities, maybe Paris. But Barcelona is the perfect place for a spicy, steamy romance.
IH: Will you go back with dark glasses, so no one will know you were there?
SJ: Yeah, it’s funny. I was there one day before anyone caught wind that we’d arrived, and I got to walk around a little, which is nice because I don’t think people would expect to see you. I’m from New York, so by the time they recognize you, I’m like four blocks away. I’d love to go back. I’m a little gun-shy from our whole experience. It was slightly overwhelming – but I’d love to see some other parts of Spain as well.
IH: Do you have an opinion on these two girls’ idea of what love is? Is one of them right?
SJ: I don’t know if it’s necessarily either. People are complicated and so are their relationships. It’s more than just my character who has that philosophy that love needs to be tumultuous and painful, this tug-of-war, to be visceral to be real. I don’t necessarily feel that way. It seems exhausting to be that way, and very temporary as well. Rebecca’s character – I don’t know just what her view is on love. You’d have to talk to her. I believe in commitment and all those things, but I don’t know what her back story was. I don’t know how long she’s known this person and what she sees in him, all of that.
IH: Woody Allen said you can do anything as an actress. Is there anything you can’t do as an actress – something you would shy away from?
SJ: No. First of all, that’s the highest compliment any actor can receive. You wish the whole audience would always feel that way, like, “Look how she so seamlessly blends into every role.” [Laughs] But there’s nothing I wouldn’t try. I want to do it all. That’s the fun. What’s the point otherwise? If you’re playing the same thing over and over again, it’s boring. You want to have a new story, a whole new brain that you almost get to inherit with each character and past. That’s exciting. As an actor, you’re always becoming an expert at something in two weeks. For The Nanny Diaries I had to learn how to play a Beethoven Sonata. I was like, “Okay. I’ve never touched this thing before.” In The Horse Whisperer I had to learn to ride and I was like, “I’m from Manhattan.” So you’re always learning a fight or some kind of dance, and it’s great. That’s always a plus. Every actor is like a minor expert in one thing, can speak four sentences in some strange African dialect or something like that.
IH: How was it working with Penelope Cruz, and would you work with her again?
SJ: I would work with Penelope in any way or form. She’s wonderful. She’s a gem. She’s a lovely woman, beautiful inside and out. She’s certainly a fantastic actor. She’s proven herself a million times over, and she’s a chameleon. She could play anything. She’s completely committed to everything she does. She comes in with notes. It’s crazy. I felt so out of the loop. She and Javier both work in a kind of refined method and I prepare in a different way. I learned a lot about myself as an actor, working with them – how to play well in the sandbox and go along with improvisation. They almost live it. It’s like all of a sudden the three of us became this little family in a way, and it made our scenes together real and truthful. We all got along well, which helped, but even on days when we were supposed to be spending the day together, all working, we really would spend the day together and it was just wonderful. I loved working with both of them.
IH: Your character is different from Javier and Penelope’s characters, and yet there is that feeling of a family being formed.
SJ: I think Penelope and I have some similarities, which is why we get along so well. I can appreciate things about her and she can appreciate things about me, and we share a certain view. We formed a really nice friendship. That’s one of the wonderful things about this job – meeting people you have such an intimate experience working with for months. Sometimes you think you’ll never see this person again, but you always see people again. So it’s great.
IH: Is working with Woody now different than the first time? Does it change a lot or is it basically the same?
SJ: Just because of our friendship it becomes richer. We know more about each other. We have such a nice time when we work together. We’re good friends. We entertain each other and search each other out. We’re kind of like buddies on the playground, like, “Where’s my friend?” It’s so nice to have that, and it makes every day a pleasure, to come to the set and see his little smiling face. It’s sweet. I also think that because we’ve formulated such a comfortable working relationship, our communication is so strong. We communicate almost silently, as friends kind of do, and we inspire each other. If something seems strange to me, like, “Why is it after this whole intimate relationship, all of a sudden the character is so almost removed from it and ready to move on?” He’ll be able to explain the psychology behind that, and it’s nice to be directed like that.
IH: So it’s working in an amiable way?
SJ: Yeah, just two people who understand each other. I never have yelling. I could never concentrate that way. You’re so vulnerable as an actor. It’s like you’re raw. You’re providing this raw emotion, and if you’re holding on to anything, it takes an unfortunate toll. You have to be able to be malleable and available. A director is never going to be able to get a good performance out of someone by screaming at them, unless they’re like Maureen O’Hara at 11 years old or something. It’s obviously unproductive.
IH: Do you believe, like your character in this believes, that only unfulfilled love is romantic?
SJ: I think the line is “Only unfulfilled love can be romantic.” No. Of course, I’ve never strived for something that wasn’t available or full. I think everybody wants to be full of love or full of someone else, being filled with love for them. I think the idea that romance would only come from something unrequited or unavailable is sad. Also, I think the most romantic love is seeing people who have been together for so long, or have known each other so long, like two best friends or a husband and wife who’ve known each other 40 or 50 years, and are still excited to see that person come home. That might be rare, but it’s the most romantic love, I think.
IH: You don’t seem to have a lot of projects coming up. Did you take some time off?
SJ: Not intentionally. I did other things during that time. I released an album. I directed a short film. I’m productive in other aspects of life than my career, maybe. I don’t know. I think I want to work not just to work. I want to feel like there’s a purpose behind it. It’s hard to find good roles for young women. They don’t come along that often. It’s a kind of weird age group. I’m 23 and it’s like I’m quite a young woman, but I’m at a certain kind of transient phase in my life and things are changing for me. Obviously, I’m growing up. It’s a hard time. There are only so many parts available for that. So I’ve been focusing on other things I’ve been excited about.
IH: But that’s a lot of work – an album and directing.
SJ: Well, it’s not like I’m a trauma surgeon or something like that. There are more stressful jobs. I’m working on things I love. I’m like any artist. I’m productive and this is what I do. This is what I do for a hobby. It’s what I do for a living. I have my private and personal life, and the time that I take to relax and spend with my family, and then there’s this job I do, just as anyone would, just as a college professor would be working ten months out of the year or whatever. I’m working sporadically for that same period of time.
IH: Parade Magazine named you as a person who most consistently sets a good example.
SJ: Oh, that’s nice.
IH: Does that surprise you?
SJ: I don’t know. It’s a funny thing to say. Any time someone makes a huge generalization about you, you’re just like, “Okay. I guess so.” I do work hard with certain non-governmental organizations, and I try to use whatever interest people might have in me to shine the spotlight on these certain causes I’ve researched and believe in, and have seen work first-hand. I try to focus on those things I’m passionate about. I’m hard to distract. It’s probably a good quality and a bad one, but when I’m focused, I’m focused on something.
IH: Can you talk about working with Frank Miller on The Spirit? How much can you divulge?
SJ: I loved working with Frank. He’s wonderful. He’s such a visionary and he’s just fantastic. He would come on set and almost lead the whole crew into some kind of presentation. Like, he would draw the storyboard and kind of lead us. I mean, he sees it. He can see how he wants it to be. And it’s very exciting to do that, ’cause everybody disperses. We all know what we’re going to do, and he’s so excited about the characters. That’s obviously his thing. He creates these fantastic characters and some of them are just so rotten. It’s like none of us are heroes – they’re all kind of gray, and I love that.
IH: Are you rotten in that?
SJ: You’re just going to have to see. [Laughs] It was such a wonderful time, and working with the green screen was really interesting. We were shooting in these huge… I don’t know what… must have been like an airplane hangar or something, converted with all this green screen. But then Sam [Samuel L. Jackson] and I had a lot of props and we had our whole set right here. So it was almost like a theater, in a way, and the camera would be way back or overhead or some crazy angle. The performances, I think, are really theatrical, which is great because the film is a fantasy. You know film, and even when we were doing some of the post-production, like when he was doing some sound editing, we’re so loud because we’re in this huge room. We have to fill this huge room, and Sam is loud and the two of us were just [Laughs] so enthusiastic about the whole thing. Frank was like, “I actually had to bring the volume of the performance down [Laughs] a little and make it a little more intimate.” It was a lot of fun. We had a really good time on it.
IH: Can you talk about the satisfaction that you get from doing something like Lost in Translation versus something like The Spirit? Do you enjoy them equally?
SJ: Working with Frank Miller was so exciting for me. He’s wonderful. He’s such a visionary. Literally, he’ll sit with the crew there and come in with a big board and lead you through the storyboard that he’s drawn out, and everyone disperses and we’re all excited about the next thing. It’s so much fun. Then working with Sam Jackson, who I love and have always admired, is so great. What a co-star! You couldn’t ask for a more exciting co-star. He’s just a pro. That, to me, was such a fun time. I loved playing a big character where the dialogue is so black and white. Of course, doing a film like Lost in Translation has its perks as well. It was a whole other pony. It’s not even comparable. As an actor, as I said earlier, it’s nice to be able to play these different things. If I was just doing a green screen or just doing independent film – obviously independent film is broad – but if I was just making a specific kind of story of a young girl and an older man in this foreign location, there’d be no purpose to it and that would be boring.
The Weinstein Company's 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' is in theaters now.