The young waiter from the island of Mauritius stood tongue-tied in the dining room of the Spa Hotel in Kent, England, baffled by the movie star who was focused on his French accent instead of his list of Frenchified entrÃ©esâ€”trout millefeuille and tenderloin en croute. He did not understand why his native dialect made her think of black magic, Mardi Gras, and dolls with pins.
“You know, voodoo? Witchcraft? Is that part of the culture?” Her voice lowered coaxingly. “You can tell us.”
Scarlett Johansson has a habit of talking forcefully and teasingly to strangers, charging past her own youth and soft, delectable looks to establish a beachhead of individuality. The waiter, the driver, an autograph-seeking fan, a man giving directions on the streetâ€¦all are treated with the same kind of good-natured raillery.
In person, she is petite and almost delicate. On-screen, though, she is more lush than lithe and proud of it. Johansson is one of the few young Hollywood stars who say they neither diet nor exercise and actually mean it. When I asked her about the surgery addictions, gym jags, and eating disorders plaguing so many of her peers, Johansson shrugged. “I’m 22. I can dress in whatever I want,” she said, adding with a sly smile, “Besides, some fellows like me.”
Johansson’s voice is husky, but her manner is matter-of-fact and direct, not wispy or tentative. It’s the brash, brainy quality that Allen poured into her character in Scoop and that made her plausible as a soul mate to a burned-out, middle-aged Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. She even has it as a postcollege slacker in her latest movie, The Nanny Diaries, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, the team that made American Splendor.
The Nanny Diaries is her first starring role in a major romantic comedy. Johansson plays a young woman so rattled by the pressures of adult life that she bolts from a corporate job interview to become a Park Avenue nanny for two Upper East Side employers from hell, played by Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti. But Johansson’s comic persona is not that of a flibbertigibbet or an adorable ninny in the school of Kate Hudson or Reese Witherspoon. Even as a put-upon baby-sitter, she has a certain moody, streetwise gravitas. The actress persuasively pushes the class differences between the haughty, plutocratic employers and the lower-middle-class girl from suburban New Jersey she plays without resorting to stereotypes or schtick. She’s a subtle actress, but the role also accords with how she likes to see herself, as a city kid who grew up without frills or preppy pretenses. “I’m not one of these collegiate girls,” she said, almost proudly. “I went to public school; nobody was playing any tennis.” In Johansson’s world, the closest thing to a racket sport, she said, was handball.
“I’m definitely spent,” Johansson said, explaining that after finishing The Other Boleyn Girl, she was taking her first long break in five years. “It’s important for an actor to have a life you can draw from,” she said. “But I’ll be working; it’s just that not filming is a break for me.” Her non-filming schedule included publicity for the film, recording a CD, and going with Oxfam on a fact-finding trip to India and Sri Lanka to report on tsunami-relief efforts. She became interested in Oxfam while living in London. When Bono and Bobby Shriver organized the RED campaign with Gap U.K., she was the first celebrity to sign up, wearing Product RED clothes on the covers of two U.K. magazines. (Johansson takes an interest in local crusades in places she has worked: She filmed the 2004 movie A Love Story for Bobby Long in New Orleans and recently took a trip there with Stan Curtis, the founder of U.S.A. Harvest. In order to help rebuild an art auditorium destroyed by Katrina, she decided to donate the money Disney paid her to pose as Cinderella in a current promotional spread. “It’s hard to find one project to focus on,” she said. “Everybody says that with what it takes to build two homes in New Orleans, you could build 75 in Africa. I’m like, Guys, what are we going to do? Yes, there is poverty everywhere, but there is a gaping hole in our country.”)
Johansson didn’t seem spent, or even tired, on location with costar Natalie Portman in Sussex last November to film The Other Boleyn Girl, a historical romance set in the castles of Henry VIII, her last film before her extended break. Johansson turned her billet at the Spa Hotel, in the faded town of Tunbridge Wells, into her own royal court. The concierges, bellmen, drivers all knew who she was, and she was flatteringly friendlyâ€”and mock-flirtatiousâ€”with all of them.
When we met in the lobby of her hotel, Johansson had come straight from the set. Her face was made upâ€”a Kim Novak slash of eyeliner and red lipstickâ€”and she wore a casual, floral-patterned red dress, black stockings, and a black cardigan that made her look like a World War II-era English girl headed for the Underground during the Blitz, her frock unbuttoned just low enough for her to risk catching a fatal cold. She rolled her eyes slightly as we entered the formal dining room, where the overwrought decorâ€”turquoise and gold drapery and sparkling chandeliersâ€”matched the pretension of the menu. The Spa, only a few miles from Hever Castle, where the Boleyns grew up and where Johansson had been filming, has the kind of provincial aspirations to continental chic that are mocked in the novels of David Lodge. Johansson was amused by it but careful not to hurt the feelings of the employees forced to live up to the management’s delusions of grandeur.
A waitress brought over an amuse-bouche from the chef, which she described as a “venison cappuccino.” It was a brown, soupy essence of deer served in an espresso cup and topped with a savory white foam. Johansson sampled a spoonful and smiled. “It’s like gravy, right?”
I asked her why she chose to play Mary Boleyn, a little-known historical figure who was briefly Henry VIII’s mistress before her more ambitious sister, Anne, supplanted her and became queen (for a thousand days). “I first became involved because Natalie was doing it,” Johansson said. She and Portman had never worked together before, and Johansson said that even before reading the novel or script, she leaped at the chance to make a film with the young actress whom she admired. “She’s a wonderful actor, just a great scene partner,” Johansson said. “I guess I had never really worked with a young woman my age. She’s so professional. And she’s not pretentious or anything, just a really nice girl. It also helped that she’s from New York.”
Portman was just as impressed by Johansson. “The thing about her is she’s an amazing actress. You look at her and instantly believe you are in the place you are; she makes it immediately real,” Portman said. “She’s so supportive and giving and passionate about her work,” she added. “She’s really direct about everything she wants or feels, whereas I am a little more timid.”
The two young actresses hit it off well enough on set to spend much of their time together after work, including late-night clubbing in London’s Soho. “We were allies and coconspirators,” Portman explained. “It’s so rare that we get to work with actresses our own ages. You can relate at a friend level: We’re at the same places in our lives; we were able to talk about boyfriends and go out dancing.”
Boyfriends are not a subject Johansson readily shares with the public, though her name has been linked in movie magazines to a range of men from Benicio Del Toro to Jared Leto. Tabloids have breathlessly speculated about the demise of her relationship with Josh Hartnett, who was her costar in Brian De Palma’s film noir The Black Dahlia.
The next time we met, in New York City, her picture was on the cover of Us Weekly, pasted next to one of Justin Timberlake under the headline JUSTIN’S REVENGE ROMANCE. Gossip columns reported that they became involved after he asked her to appear in one of his music videos. When I asked if they were dating, she looked appalled. “Of course it’s not true,” she said. “The whole article was so ridiculous. We had fun together, but it’s not like the first time I’ve ever hung out with him. I think this happens because we’re both single and in the spotlight, and obviously Justin’s a very high-profile person.”
Johansson said she took pains to avoid unwanted publicity. “It can really put a damper on your day when someone is following you around on a motorcycle all the time. You want to meet friends for a slice or go to a movie, and they never go away.”
Twice while we were eating at Il Buco, strangers came up to ask for an autograph, and she readily complied. But when they whipped out their cell-phone cameras to ask for a picture, she said no. She poses for fans at a premiere or on the street but draws the line at being interrupted in a restaurant. She says she works hard to keep her private life private. She still has an apartment in Los Angeles but considers downtown Manhattan her home. “I try to live a very non-Hollywoody lifestyle.”
She spoke quite passionately about the stupidity of gossip-magazine innuendo. “The tabloids will say anything, and they are so silly. They have these articles that are non-articles: ‘So-and-so may or may not beâ€¦.’ ” When I asked if this was true for those concerning her relationship with Josh Hartnett, however, she grew silent and, for the first time in any of our conversations, a shade embarrassed. She turned away, slouching a little, and touched the brim of the jaunty black fedora on her head as if to cover her face. “I’d rather not comment on my personal life in that way,” she said quietly.
Johansson is not known for reticence. She has not yet lived down having told an interviewer that she gets tested for HIV twice a year. “It was so bizarre: People said, Oh, she’s so promiscuous,” the actress said plaintively, arguing that she merely meant that she gets a full range of blood tests at her twice-yearly checkups. “Doesn’t every woman go twice a year?” she asked. When I replied, well, no, not usually, she looked abashed. “They should. Well, I do.”
The actress is almost unnaturally serene for a person her age and in her profession. It’s as if she were the recipient of a Heaven Can Wait body transplantâ€”an old woman who magically usurps the body of a young girl and revels in her renewal without the inhibitions and insecurities that tether people in the teens and early 20s. And that, as much as her tantalizing looks, may be what makes Johansson such a magnet for older menâ€”she’s as young as their daughters but as knowing as other men’s wives. Johansson is always quick to remind interviewers that she has been in the public eye almost her entire lifeâ€”she started onstage at the age of eight, alongside Ethan Hawke in an Off-Broadway play, and had her first film role at the age of ten, playing the daughter of John Ritter and Faith Ford in Rob Reiner’s 1994 film North. A string of roles followed, and in ninth grade she entered Professional Children’s School.
Johansson says she is close to her three siblingsâ€”she has a twin brother, Hunter; an older sister, Vanessa; and an older brother, Adrianâ€”and to both her parents, who divorced when she was thirteen. Her father, a Danish architect, lives in New York, and her mother, Melanie, who is her manager, in Los Angeles. Johansson delivers a sanguine view of divorce. “Your kids know everything that’s going onâ€”I knew everything they were going through,” she recalled. “The marriage had run its course. I was happier to be in a household where both parents were equally happy instead of living this constant struggle.”
She credits her mother for her love of musicals, a taste she developed at an early age. Some fans may have been surprised by her first appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2006, when she sang in several skits and more than held her own. Not surprisingly, her voice is a velvety alto. Less predictably, her first CD is a collection of her favorite Tom Waits songs. I assumed her parents might have introduced her to his musicâ€”Waits has had a cult following since the seventiesâ€”but she said that musician friends in high school brought his music to her attention, and she remains an avid fan. She had originally planned to record an album of standards, then changed her mind after adding “I Never Talk to Strangers” to her repertoire. “I’ve always considered Tom Waits to be kind of a composer of modern standards; he has a lot of beautiful ballads and really heartbreaking songs.”
Johansson graduated from high school in 2002, didn’t go to college, and doesn’t seem to regret it or have any insecurities about her education, even when she hung out with Natalie Portman and some of her Harvard classmates. “I met a couple of her friends from school, and they’re all absolutely lovely,” Johansson said. “Natalie had a really nice college experience, but she wanted to go, and I didn’t.” The actress, who does want to direct someday, briefly considered film school, then changed her mind. “I’ve been acting since I was eight years old. I couldn’t imagine going to school and sitting in a classroom and having someone tell me what the conditions of a film set were going to be like,” Johansson said.
And Johansson apparently knows her way around a set and in front of a camera. “What is she, twelve?” Paul Giamatti laughed. “You’d never know itâ€”there’s no flopping around; she’s really good,” he said. “She knows exactly what to do, with none of the Sturm und Drang about ‘What am I doing in this moment?’ ”
Her biggest role as a child actress was as the handicapped teenage daughter in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. But 2003 was the year she came into her own as an adult. Silent, her head wrapped in a scarf and her eyebrows bleached, Johansson was eerily luminous as Vermeer’s maid in Girl with a Pearl Earring, and completely different from the hip but depressed philosophy student she portrayed in that same year in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. These films led to supporting roles in a number of studio movies, including Dennis Quaid’s daughter in In Good Company. But it was Match Point, in which Allen cast her as the sexy, needy mistress of a married man, that showcased her as a star.
She is reverent about Woody Allen (“Would I work with him again? I’d sew the hems of his pants if he asked me to”), but she also talks about him with amused affection. She described their first workdays together as puzzling, noting that she was not accustomed to directors stopping her mid-scene for a redo. “He’ll stop in the middle and say, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’ At first I was like, ‘How could you do this to me?’ ” she said with a laugh. “Then you learn to appreciate it.” Allen recalls it differently. “She’s a fabulous actress with a very big range, extremely beautiful, highly intelligent, witty, always tops me in any exchange. Hence, the task of directing her consists of handing her the script, making sure she has enough junk to snack on, getting out of her way, and letting her make me look like a hero.”
Fittingly, the actress named Scarlett is most memorable in red. Woody Allen disguised her in glasses and dowdy, collegiate clothes in Scoop, camouflage that only sharpened the impact of her va-va-voom momentâ€”stretched out on the edge of an indoor swimming pool in a one-piece bloodred bathing suit.
The cantilevered bodice on the tight coral Roland Mouret she wore to the Golden Globes in 2006 was so striking, Isaac Mizrahi couldn’t resist groping her dÃ©colletage on the red carpet. But many gowns have had the same La Dolce Vita effect, particularly other curve-hugging evening dresses by Mouret, the London-based designer. They met by accident: While in London for Match Point, Johansson was running from British paparazzi and ducked into a Kings Road showroom to escape. Mouret was there alone, and the two became friends. Johansson met Tara Subkoff, the designer of Imitation of Christ, when she was in high school; now Subkoff dresses her in sexy, low-cut sheaths the color of saltwater taffy.
Johansson doesn’t apologize for her preference for classic pinup-girl outfits. “Just because I make films that have a low budget doesn’t mean I should dress low-budget,” she says. “If you go to a glamorous event, you should look glamorous.” Johansson says she chooses forties- and fifties-style evening gowns like Mouret’s because they work best for her figure. “I’m very small and very curvy. And those kinds of clothes look good on me.”
Off the red carpet, Johansson has a more downtown look. She recently signed a generous contract to design and represent a new fashion line for Reebok called Scarlett â™¥s Rbk. Johanssonâ€”who, it can’t be stressed enough, does not exerciseâ€”is lending her name to aprÃ¨s-sport sneakers, rain boots, and casual streetwear. “It’s cool because I can design clothing for my friends,” she said. She paused and added with a touch of self-mocking sarcasm, “Which they’re really happy about.”
There is nothing sporty, though, about what she wears even on a lazy Saturday afternoon downtown. She showed up at Il Buco, an Italian restaurant with the look of a country thrift store, in a brown-and-orange-flowered prairie-style pinafore over an olive turtleneck, with gray wool tights, lace-up granny boots, and a black fedora, which she kept on indoors. Her white ceramic Chanel watch on one wrist and big black Chanel quilted handbag on the other seemed a little forced, as if she were a girl playing dress-up in her mother’s Sunday best. She claimed to be unhappy with the tweedy gray jacket she was wearing, and lamented that she had lost a beloved black Calvin Klein pea jacket at a club a few nights earlierâ€”she concluded that another customer had made off with it, and playfully confiscated the manager’s coat to increase his incentive to track hers down. (He failed, and she sent it back.)
As we left, Johansson’s face hardened with determination. We were almost in SoHo, and she suddenly began walking fast, intent on finding a substitute black peacoat right away. “Hard left here,” she barked, and we sprinted for two blocks and entered a fashionable boutique called If. Johansson shops the way she talks, directly and forcefully, flipping through the racks of black Comme des GarÃ§ons coats like an executive secretary riffling through a Rolodex. Only one came close, and it was too big. We headed for A.P.C. and came up empty again. “I may have to go to Bloomingdale’s,” she said resignedly. “I once needed a raincoat that was waterproof. And when I found one at Bloomingdale’s, I asked the saleslady if it was really water-resistant. She just picked up a glass of water and tossed it on the coat. I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
It was dark when we left A.P.C., and for a second we were both disoriented and not sure of the way to Greene Street. The block was almost deserted, but Johansson spied a parking-lot attendant across the street and yelled at him for directions. He rather vaguely shook his left arm and said, “That way.” Johansson wasn’t sure he had it right. She cocked her head, put her hand on her hip, and saucily asked, “Are you lying?”
“Scarlett Letters” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the April 2007 issue of Vogue.