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Under the skin of Scarlett Johansson

Exploring the City of Light after dark with the most talked-about actress in the world

Scarlett Johansson is quoting Baudrillard at me in a tiny Parisian toilet. “Smile and others will smile back,” she begins in her deep Nuu Yawk timbre. “Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference shine out spontaneously in your smile.” Johansson pauses and looks up, her green eyes glimmering behind an oversized pair of black-rimmed reading glasses. “Was that okay?” The actress doesn’t typically introduce herself to journalists via private cubicle recitals of deceased poststructuralists, but it’s the quietest place she could find to record her narration for Benjamin Alexander Huseby’s cover film. If water-closet acoustics are good enough for Jim Morrison and John Lennon, they’re good enough for Ms Johansson. A lifetime of improvising on the clock doesn’t come without learning a few neat tricks, it seems.

An hour ago, the world’s most beguiling movie star was on more familiar ground, smouldering deep into a camera lens. With her all-black outfit, slicked-back hair and lips daubed in killer red, a bystander could be forgiven for thinking she was starring in a remake of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video. When that song took over MTV in 1986, Johansson was not yet two years old. Her parents could hardly afford the rent, let alone cable television, and were constantly moved around Manhattan’s government housing projects with their five kids. Inspired by her mother, a film obsessive, she caught the acting bug early, starting her movie career aged just nine in the fantasy comedy North. Over the following 20 years, roles in pivotal movies like Ghost World, Lost in Translation, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the Avengers franchises and, most recently, Don Jon and Her have made her our generation’s most coveted screen siren. 

Yet the young woman standing opposite me reciting lines from America bears little resemblance to the red-carpet glamour puss beloved by tabloid picture editors. She’s replaced the Saint Laurent leather jacket with a baggy blue denim t-shirt, washed her shoot make-up off and piled her strawberry-blond hair into a casual ponytail. Obviously she’s still stunning, but right now the bombshell is off duty. This is Scarlett in the raw.

After a few more vocal takes, she suggests going for a drink. We ride a cramped elevator down to the street, with the actress cradling a gargantuan bouquet of roses that have just been delivered to the photo studio. Outside, darkness has descended on the 11th arrondissement. It’s bitterly cold and Johansson’s not familiar with the area, so she calls her limo to take us to Montparnasse, her current stomping ground. 

The black Mercedes S pulls up within a minute. Midnight-blue mood lighting snakes its way around the interior. Didier, the driver, is bumping TLC’S 1992 debut, Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip. Perhaps he’s unaware that his famous passenger once recorded an album of Tom Waits covers with Dave Sitek that featured David Bowie. Not that it would make any difference – Didier later declares that he only cruises to new jack swing. “We’re going to a bar on Rue Delambre in Montparnasse, right by Le Dôme – you know, the fish restaurant?” Johansson instructs him after consulting a new banana-coloured iPhone, her first ever. “It’s called the Rosebud.”

“I’ve had roles which have become all-encompassing, when I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, where’s my life?’, and felt like the floor had been swept from underneath me”

Paris has been the actress’s home of late, following her engagement to Romain Dauriac, a debonair French advertising executive. She has also just wrapped work on Luc Besson’s latest, Lucy, in which she’s forced to become a narcotics smuggler and develops strange powers when illegal substances seep into her bloodstream. Johansson is currently in decompression mode, which is understandable after spending so many months getting deep into the mindset of a drug mule. “It’s hard, I don't really have a perspective on it because I only finished it a week ago,” she says as the bright lights of La République rush by. “When I finish work I just want to get as far away from it as possible. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re done, let me try to regain my sense of self!’ I’ve never been a method actor but as I’ve gotten older, I have a better understanding of myself so it has become easier for me to stay grounded. I don’t have to lose myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take work home with me either – everyone does. I’ve certainly had roles which have become all-encompassing, when I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, where’s my life?’, and felt like the floor had been swept from underneath me. But the more experience you have, the less carried away you get.”

Scarlett wears clothes and accessories by Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane Photography by Benjamin Alexander Huseby, Styling by Jacob K

Johansson’s executive spaceship glides over the Pont d’Austerlitz, leaving nothing but the aural vapour of T-Boz in its wake. On the Left Bank, it’s immediately confronted by a metal wall of rush-hour traffic. With the unflappable urgency of a getaway driver, Didier squeezes the Benz through a tiny gap, blocking two lanes of irate taxis in the process. Hidden behind a blacked-out window on the other side of the car, Johansson seems unconcerned about the very real possibility of being blindsided; perhaps hanging out with the Marvel gang has given her a heightened sense of invincibility. Has she always been a cool-headed character? “It can be a high-pressure job,” she says as the cabbies sound their horns. “Just being in the public eye is pressure, but trying to impress your director and yourself is a whole different kind of pressure. I have been working for 20 years and I think that longevity has taught me that it’s no more pressure to make a big blockbuster movie with a big studio than a small film with one of your favourite directors. You have to have your own artistic integrity, and then you don’t cave in to pressure. I don’t know what the audience or the studio are going to like. I just follow my instincts.”

“I don’t know what the audience or the studio are going to like. I just follow my instincts”

Fittingly, next month she stars in a pair of films that couldn’t be more different from one another. First up is Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited adaptation of Michel Faber’s haunting science-fiction fable Under the Skin. In it she plays an alien seductress with identity issues who roams Glasgow picking up single men in order to harvest their organs in a creepy bedsit. In stark contrast to today’s plush ride, she spent months driving a white transit van around desolate A-roads, Morrisons car parks and Scottish council estates on the prowl for victims, with Glazer and crew covertly filming in the back. Disguised beneath a thick black Rose West wig and a cheap high-street fur, Johansson even managed to go shopping and clubbing without being rumbled. “Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Hey, what about that zombie movie you did with Jonathan Glazer?’” she recalls with a laugh after revealing that she developed a taste for vegetarian haggis (but not Irn-Bru). “I was like, ‘Zombie movie?’ ‘You know, you’re playing an alien zombie. What’s up with that?!’ I’m thrilled with it. It was crazy when we went to the Venice Film Festival. At the end, half the audience really violently booed and the other half were standing up and cheering so loudly. They all just felt so passionately about it. I remember looking over to Jonathan and he was overjoyed. You don’t make a film like that and expect everybody to like it.”

Following Under the Skin, Johansson slips back into her trusty Black Widow PVC suit again for another outing as Russian super spy Natasha Romanoff in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Coincidentally, her contract for Avengers: Age of Ultron came through yesterday, and shooting starts in April. Blockbusters don’t come any bigger than this – the first instalment grossed over $1.5 billion worldwide. Perhaps indie films are a form of therapy for her. After all, superheroes need to unwind too. “Working with Marvel and playing Natasha again and again is fun for me because there’s progress and it’s over a long period of time,” she says as Blvd Saint-Marcel turns into Blvd de Port-Royal. “That’s an opportunity I’ve only ever had with that character, which I enjoy. Usually I don’t look for projects that are similar, although the characters in the Besson film and Under the Skin have some interesting similarities. One is discovering her identity while the other is losing hers. They’re both struggling to understand who and what they are. That’s interesting to me. Luckily I’ve had more opportunities to play a wider range of characters as I’ve gotten older.”

As we pull up outside the Rosebud, a boozy old haunt of Jean-Paul Sartre, the Montparnasse streets are noticeably buzzing. Johansson gets out and tries the door, but it’s locked. Unperturbed, she suggests another of her favourite spots, Le Select, just down the road. Walking there, no one seems to notice the petite star in her civilian garb. She must relish life as an undercover tourist. “Um, yeah! I still feel like a tourist,” she laughs as the café’s pink-and-green neon sign blinks in the distance. “You certainly do when everybody’s speaking another language and the culture is so different to your hometown. I actually moved here before I was engaged because I just like being in Paris. My French is still not great though.”

“I don’t see myself as a role model; I never wanted to step into those shoes. It's not my jam. I still struggle to adjust to being recognisable”

As we pass the ferns guarding the entrance, the waiters greet her like one of the locals, and proceed to seat us in a quiet corner. Johansson confidently orders a carafe of dry white wine and some olives. It’s good to see that the essentials aren’t, ahem, lost in translation. “Oh, I know how to order drinks!” she exclaims with a smile. “I think as long as you know how to order a drink, you’ll be fine anywhere. The language gets easier and you become more fluent automatically. When everyone’s drunk you can be speaking anything. Usually, in my case, gibberish with an accent.”

Since 1925, generations of artists, writers and filmmakers have fallen for Le Select’s charms, from Lost Generation Americans like Ernest Hemingway (who mentioned it in The Sun Also Rises) to Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Vladimir Nabokov and Jean-Luc Godard. Even Johansson’s old pal Bill Murray has been seduced by its laidback ambience. The actress loves it because she can relax and have a quiet drink without being hassled by TMZ or super stans. “I appreciate manners and I appreciate Paris for that reason,” she says. “I think that people are mostly civilised here. When I was 19 and thrown into the glare of the media with Lost in Translation and Match Point, I could still run around not worrying about what people saw me doing. Now it’s crazy with iPhones and social media. There are moments where I’m like, ‘What do you want? You gonna sit there with your cameraphone and photograph me for this whole meal? Like, really? What, were you raised in a barn?’ There are still moments like that where I go, ‘Oh my God, people are unbelievable!’” 

Scarlett wears bodysuit by Wolford, accessories by Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane Photography by Benjamin Alexander Huseby, Styling by Jacob K

Johansson has used her fame to highlight public causes that are close to her heart – she’s an avid political campaigner for the Democratic Party and, before her recent SodaStream controversy, was an Oxfam Ambassador for eight years. But her weariness about strangers attempting to hijack her private life is palpable. In 2011, a Florida man was fined $66,000 for hacking into her computer and distributing a series of intimate selfies she had snapped for her former husband, Ryan Reynolds. Suffice to say, she is not a fan of fanaticism. “I never take pictures with fans,” she says, sipping her wine. “I’m not the Statue of Liberty. I will always sign an autograph, but never take a photograph. I think it’s rude to ask that if you don’t know me. It makes you suddenly very conscious of yourself. I don’t see myself as being a role model; I never wanted to step into those shoes. I don’t profess to know more or less than anybody else. If that’s a by-product of whatever image is projected on to me, I don’t feel responsible as an artist to give anyone that message. It’s not my jam. We hold celebrities at this impossible standard. I still struggle to adjust to, you know, being recognisable.”

Being a reluctant role model is one thing, but being a global sex symbol is quite another. Since Sofia Coppola’s lingering shot of her bum in sheer pink panties at the start of Lost in Translation, Johansson’s body has been scrutinised and fetishised on an almost unparalleled scale. Even Siri – yes, Apple’s voice recognition software – started bitching after critics praised the actress’s impressive voice work in Spike Jonze’s Her, a film noticeable by her physical absence. Quite what will happen when the wider world sees her first ever full-frontal nude scene in Under the Skin is anyone’s guess. The internet will probably implode. “Right underneath my ‘Lucky You’ tattoo it says, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’,” she jokes as a tray of glasses smashes in the background. “More than just being naked in front of the camera and being like, ‘Oh God, people are going to see this!’, the most difficult part was not judging myself. It made me realise how judgmental and conscious I am of my body, not just as somebody in the zeitgeist but as a woman. Women think about their bodies a lot, some more than others. We think about how we look naked, how we look in clothes, what other girls think we look like, what our lover thinks. It’s normal.”

How did she feel when she saw the scene in a movie theatre for the first time? Being exposed like that would surely be terrifying for anyone. “When I actually saw myself naked onscreen I was really surprised that I wasn’t as glaringly critical of myself as I thought I was going to be,” she recalls. “I was happy that the character is womanly and sensual and seductive. Imperfection makes her attractive. It makes the people she’s seducing more engaged because she’s within reach; she’s not like some sort of iconic poster girl. It’s funny because as my body starts to change and become more womanly or whatever, I think I probably should have exploited my younger 19-year-old body a lot more, but you know, it doesn’t work that way.” 

Body issues may be the obvious recurring themes of Don Jon, Her, Under the Skin and Lucy, but at their cores lie tales of deep alienation. Each focuses on lonely figures who have difficulty in relating to everyday aspects of modern life and withdraw into their own tormented worlds. Some make it out. Others fall short. “I don’t think it’s purely a coincidence that the films that we’re talking about have a lost character that’s having a twisted virtual relationship,” she says. “From Joaquin (Phoenix) in Her to Don Jon, a man who is completely alive in a virtual world but completely dead in reality. In Under the Skin you have these men who are completely absorbed with a reckless abandonment in this alien. They get lost in this magnificent specimen who is beyond their wildest dreams.” Listening to her dissect each character trait makes me wonder if Johansson herself has ever felt lost or suffered from loneliness herself. “I don’t think I’ve ever fallen so deep that I haven’t been able to crawl back out of the hole,” she states. “But I’ve dipped in the hole, like anybody. Growing up is painful. When you take risks sometimes the results can be painful. When you push yourself it can be quite lonely at times. There is something very liberating about falling down that hole because you won’t allow yourself to be sad. While that can manifest itself with dark moments, when you come out of it, it is really enlightening and exciting.”

In November, Scarlett Johansson turns 30. The amount she has already achieved is staggering. Does she ever feel like a veteran, protecting her patch from rising starlets? “That makes me sound like an old woman!” Johansson chuckles after discussing her plans to retire to a Napa Valley vineyard with her two chihuahuas, Pancake and Maggie. “No, I’m happy to pass that torch. There might be a little tinge of nostalgia when you see the up-and-comers, but it’s not jealousy, it’s more about acknowledging the time that’s passed and what you’ve accomplished. Nostalgia is a sticky-sweet place. It’s warm and cozy. You can dip your toe in, but try not to get stuck there. I’m really looking forward to doing different things as I get older. I'm directing my first feature in the summer (an adaptation of Truman Capote’s abandoned first novel, Summer’s Crossing), which is a project I have been trying to develop for five or six years, and I'd like to return to theatre soon. I have a lot of things I'd like to do. I want to move forward as an artist.”

“How could I wake up every day and be a normal person if I was completely aware that my image was being manipulated on a global platform. How could I sleep? You’d go crazy, anybody would go crazy”

Spending time in Johansson’s company, it becomes clear how utterly consumed by her craft she is. If anything threatens to undermine it, she gets pissed off, and rightly so. After all, she’s dedicated over two-thirds of her life to acting, winning a Tony and a Bafta and becoming a household name in the process. So when a meme of her falling over on a Glaswegian pavement while filming Under the Skin went viral, she failed to see any humour in it whatsoever. “I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?!” she says as the carafe runs dry. “It just made me feel embarrassed and strange. It was enraging that people thought it was me and not my character because they don’t realise it was part of a film. I’m like, ‘Why me?’, and I start to defend it because it’s me. That’s totally unhealthy, I shouldn’t feel like I have to get worked up and defend myself when there’s nothing to defend. If I focused on it, that would be maddening. How could I wake up every day and be a normal person if I was completely aware that my image was being manipulated on a global platform. How could I sleep? You have to have peace of mind. You’ve got to be able to protect those things. How else could you exist? You’d go crazy, anybody would go crazy…” She finishes her drink. “Let’s get out of here!”

Bidding the waiters a cheery “au revoir”, Ms Johansson heads back out into the icy Parisian night. Tomorrow she’ll be up bright and early to shoot a new campaign for Dolce & Gabbana with Mert and Marcus. She’ll then jet back to New York to see her family. When the SodaStream-shaped PR thunderstorm breaks a few weeks after we meet, her qualms about being a role model take on a whole new dimension. Whether she likes it or not, everyone has something to say about Scarlett Johansson. But tonight, the most pressing thing on her mind is where to get a spicy curry with her agent. Giving me her bouquet of roses as a parting gift, Johansson turns on the heels of her leopard-print boots and walks down Blvd du Montparnasse in search of samosas. Within 20 metres she’s completely blended in with all the other pedestrians, just another anonymous face navigating the City of Light after dark – and no doubt loving every rare second of it.

Under The Skin is available digitally now and on Blu-ray and DVD from July 14

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Scarlett Johansson Fashion Film

Hair Eugene Souleiman at Streeters; make-up Petros Petrohilos at Streeters; set design Sophear Froment; photographic assistants Sascha Heintze, Jack Wilson; styling assistant Clemence Lobart; hair assistant Josefin Gligic; make-up assistant Ai Cho; set-design assistants Agnes Lelclair, Thibault Biscos Perriand; digital operator Matthew Thomas; production Rep Limited; on-set production JPPS; retouching Tweak Productions