Scarlett Johansson has been in the film business for 20 years, making her big debut at the age of nine as John Ritter's daughter in the 1994 movie, "North." She then went on to star in "Manny & Lo," "The Horse Whisperer" and "Ghost World," before nabbing her breakout role in Sofia Coppola's 2003 film, "Lost in Translation," for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
Now 29, Johansson has expanded her resume, appearing in movies that range from rom-coms to action-adventure. And speaking of those latter features, Johansson has slowly taken on the title of the "it-girl" when it comes to playing strong (ahem, kick-ass) female characters. After starring in a handful of Woody Allen films, Johansson put her husky voice to good use once again as she took on the iconic role of Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, proving that she's perfectly fit to play a superhero.
Her latest performance in "Lucy" also sets her up for world domination. In the action-drama -- directed, written and edited by Luc Besson, the visual guru behind "The Fifth Element" -- Johansson goes from your average Joe to superhuman after a drug implanted in her body by the mob accidentally leaks into her system, allowing her to use more than the normal 10 percent of her brain's capacity. (Yeah, it's as crazy as it sounds).
Johansson spoke with HuffPost Entertainment about this unique character, her career and the rumors surrounding her role in the latest Coen Brothers movie, "Hail, Caesar!"
What drew you to playing this role in “Lucy”?
I first met Luc when the script was sort of a work in progress. I was doing a play in New York at the time and Luc had come to see it. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have taken a meeting while I was doing a play -- just because it’s so hard to think about the next project while I’m already on one -- but I was really interested to hear what he was doing next as a director. And he really came with this passion for his project that he’s been developing for 10 years. I think he needed to meet with me to sort of describe the story and his vision for it because it’s pretty abstract. Even reading the eventual script, it was pretty sparse. It was accompanied by a huge visual dictionary of sorts that he had put together because I needed those references to know exactly what he was imagining. This project is a conceptual one, maybe even more so than some of his previous work, it’s really coming from his visual kind of world that he’s known for and that he lives in.
I guess it was the challenge of the project itself that drew me into it. It was me having to put trust in Luc and him having, in turn, put trust in me. We had to weed each other into finding the core of the character and the story.
Johansson in 2014's "Lucy."
I saw the movie and, yes, it’s abstract in many different ways. There are so many visual effects, which I’m sure you’re used to working with in the Marvel movies, but how did you get in character for all those scenes that would eventually be dominated by visuals?
I guess as an actor you’re not always reacting to things that are right in front of you or that are really tangible. Sometimes you’re already kind of existing or free-floating in a story that you’ve constructed for yourself and the character. I mean, it’s always nice to have the actual tangible thing to react to, but you’re already coming from a place that doesn’t really exist. Your emotions are there for what you created for the character, but it’s a “make believe world," in a sense -- that’s a silly way of saying it, but it’s true. And I think the next step in that is [realizing] it doesn’t really matter what you have in front of you, or whether the things are real or not, because you’re in the reality of the emotion that you created. And, of course, more and more actors get to channel some level of imagination because there is so much production work in movies now. But I wouldn’t say it’s more challenging than doing an improv class where you don’t have all these physical tools. It’s part of being in the moment, I guess, and you trust your instinct about something and it appears! [laughs]
This year you had “Under the Skin,” “Captain America 2” and “Lucy,” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is currently filming. Have you enjoyed playing these strong, kick-ass female characters? Is that, sort of, your “thing” now? Because, hey, you’re very good at it!
Oh, thank you! Those characters are so different, of course. My experience shooting “Under the Skin” was so different than playing Black Widow in “Captain America 2” or “Avengers” and doing “Lucy” brought its own sort of challenges. The character of Black Widow is a person with a history. She’s someone who’s hardened and flawed and she’s a superhero with quite a complex emotional vocabulary. And Laura in “Under the Skin” is not a person at all -- she’s a different species and there’s no vocabulary for the emotion that she feels because she doesn’t have any feelings that we can, at all, relate to. She’s walking around with a different set of very primal instincts. And in “Lucy,” the character’s challenge is that she’s in a constant state of transition. At any given moment, something extraordinary is happening inside of her and she’s having this incredible insight, but it’s a constant change. So what’s she’s desperately holding onto is any kind of remnants of the person that she was that she can still connect back to humanity in some way.
So all the characters of those films, they’re different, but they are all sort of survivors, I guess in a way. Maybe that’s what you mean by strong -- they have a drive for a specific purpose, and it’s kind of a selfless one. If you find a purpose in the character that you’re playing, that’s the key. I look for a character that has some purpose as apposed to can this character kick ass -- although, that’s nice too! That comes with it, I guess.
Johansson in 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
“Horse Whisperer,” “Lost in Translation,” “Match Point,” “The Other Boleyn Girl,” “He’s Just Not That Into You” -- you’ve been in so many genres of movies and played so many roles. Is there any specific film, character or experience you can remember where you thought, “Wow, I want to be an actress for the rest of my life”?
It’s hard to say because I’ve been working for 20 years and that has changed over different periods of time. Like, when you have more choices in the work that you’re doing, you understand why you’re doing what you do -- it’s clearer to you. But then, there are other times where you might struggle to find the work that you connect to and you can question your purpose as an actor, like, “Why am I doing this? What am I looking for? What work would be satisfying to me? What does this job mean?” And then all of the sudden you’ll have some breakthrough -- a challenging role that really inspires you -- and you say, “Hey, this is why I’m an actor! I love my job! I feel fulfilled.”
I think every artist has a career that sort of flows in that way. Mine, I’ve had those kind of moments of profound satisfaction at different points. Certainly doing theater has excited me and fueled my drive, my passion and my curiosity for what I do. When I did “A View from the Bridge,” it came at such a wonderful time and it was kind of perfectly placed in my life and in my career -- I needed that challenge to help me understand myself better as an actor. And that’s happened at various times over 20 years. It would be hard to pinpoint a specific one. Even doing “Girl with a Pearl Earring” when I was 18 was such a wonderful experience for me. Shooting that and having the ability to work in such a quiet and nuanced way, I felt very deeply connected to that project. And at that time they were still using film and camera and you could hear and enrich the experience. So, there have been different challenges along the way that have reignited that flame that I have for what I do.
Johansson in 2003's "Girl with a Pearl Earring."
Speaking of career-defining moments, there are rumors floating around that you are going to be in “Hail, Caesar!” -- the new Coen brothers movie. Can you speak to that?
No, not really, but I know the project and I think there are talks of working that out! I would love to be able to work with the Coen brothers again -- it’s been a decade or more [since "The Man Who Wasn't There" in 2001] -- and I’m always grateful for the opportunity to collaborate time and again with someone. I see that as a compliment. And it’s another opportunity to try and get it right, so hopefully that will come true, that will happen.
"Lucy" hits theaters July 25.
This interview has been edited and condensed.