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18 January 2016

Scarlett Johansson

“You have to want this. I can’t want this for you.”*

Scarlett Johansson is curled comfortably on a stiff slate couch while she narrates to me the details of a popular YouTube video. “It’s two minutes-old twins and they’re being washed for the first time in warm water,” she says, “they’re in the position they were in in-utero and the warm water recreates the womb for them.” She tells me that the video is amazing, her face has a slight glow as she talks about it. “If you really want to see something miraculous,” she says, “It’s so beautiful.” I vow to watch it when I return home—I’d like to get a better understanding for what it must be like to have another human be a direct copy, a DNA complement to yourself. Having a twin sibling, like Johansson does, is a mystery to those who are unmatched.

“My brother and I started life this way,” she says. “In that sense, I’ve never really been alone—ever—which is interesting and probably affects my whole life. We’re extremely close. You have a witness to your life in my many ways. Even if we’re far apart, we have this deep connection with one another.”

There is “something disarming about”*.1 the fact that Scarlett Johansson, the 31-year-old New York City-bred actress with the iconic drowsy voice and over 20-year career on screen, has a human copy out there in the world. Johansson is one of the most recognizable and inimitable actresses in Hollywood because of her performances in movies like Lost in Translation (2003), Lucy (2014), Under the Skin (2013), and as a listless teen in Ghost World (2001), but even if you couldn’t see her face, you’d know she was in the room. Within one minute of meeting the actress, she said that I looked really familiar to her. Releasing an awkward laugh, I politely replied no, there was very little chance we’d met before. I like to think I’d remember meeting Scarlett Johansson. There are so few people like her.

Johansson is telling me about her brother Hunter because I’d asked if she had any heroes in real life. I’m reading off a list of questions from the famed Proust Questionnaire, cribbing the idea from the back pages of Vanity Fair. When I explained to Johansson earlier that I’d be substituting my questions—I was dying to know her thoughts on Anthony Lane’s extremely creepy and instantly criticized 2014 New Yorker profile of her—for interview questions found elsewhere, suiting to our issue’s copy/paste theme, she was game. Despite her recurring role as Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers films, a superhero with the power to make Iron Man look puny, Johansson insists that the term hero is too loaded: “I very much admire people who commit heroic acts, people that are selfless and put their lives in danger for the lives of others, protect innocent people, and speak out, and you know, give a voice to those who don’t have it,” she says, but she doesn’t necessarily have heroes. She tells me, instead, that her brother is someone she greatly admires. In his response, Proust had incredibly not named his mother.

In the late nineteenth century, the famed French author responded to questions in a confession album called An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, etc., a survey of his personality and tastes. “What is your present state of mind?”*.2 yielded an answer from the author marked by predictable ennui: “Boredom from having thought about myself to answer all these questions.” When I ask Johansson the same question from Proust’s questionnaire, she is decidedly more deliberate:

“I’m in a sort of transitional period,” she says, her face awash in serious thought. One habit I notice in my conversation with Johansson is that she is not intimidated by the passing of time: before speaking, she pauses and looks around, crinkles her forehead. She’ll even occasionally start a thought, then stop, breaking to recalibrate her ideas and words so that they come out carefully. To say she is measured is an understatement, but it’s not in the way that many celebrities tend to be, thinking of the best words to use to cover the most ground and end up saying the least. Johansson is markedly discreet. She is self-aware.

“Many things are changing, or have changed. I’m still kind of settling in and understanding this new chapter of my life—even with my career and moving forward with my career and understanding the choices I’ve made and what I want to do, how I want to grow.” Johansson only a year ago became a mother for the first time. “Having a family [is] profoundly transformative. It’s this time where many things are happening or changing.” Earlier, the actress had told me that though being a working parent is difficult for anyone, she’s found that giving over a little of her power and making sacrifices for her newborn is “a pleasure.” “I’m kind of entering a new phase of my womanhood. I feel much more confident in some ways, and also insecure in other ways. I feel vulnerable or I’m more comfortable being vulnerable, that’s new. I think I’m learning more about what I want, what I need from my relationships with people and from myself. I think it’s just part of growing into yourself. I think it’s being more accepting of change.”

In the next year, there may be considerably more changes in Johansson’s life than we’ve seen lately: a third Avengers film; a role in Hail! Caesar, the Coen brothers’ film about a Hollywood studio in the ’50s; voicing Kaa, the duplicitous snake in the live-action update of The Jungle Book; and playing a cyborg cop in an American version of the popular Japanese sci-fi property, Ghost in the Shell. Filming for the sci-fi picture will take place in New Zealand, far away from Johansson’s split homes in Paris and New York, though you won’t see the actress sharing photos of the country’s lush landscape. She still abstains from all social media: “It’s too much time spent with something that doesn’t have real substance. It’s totally intangible. It doesn’t feel real to me. It’s too involved.”

I ask Johansson, “What would you like to be?”*.3 to which she answers “a good friend to those I love.” A natural gift she’d most like to possess? The ability to play a musical instrument (though I contend that she sings, which is its own kind of instrument). Her most marked characteristic? “My voice probably. It can be extremely inconvenient at times.” She laughs. “I just hope that all the characters I voice don’t remind people of my character in Her (2013).”

Our conversation concludes with a question from the famous Monsieur Parvulesco interview in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: Is it possible to believe in love in these times?*.4 Parvulesco, sporting a serious, somewhat indignant look, says in the film, “Love is all one can believe in.” Johansson, perhaps herself being playful with the idea of copying and pasting, provides me with an update on Parvulesco’s seven-word answer.

“I think you have to believe in love in these times. Maybe it’s not even in these times. Life is hard for everyone in relative terms and I think believing in love is kind of what helps it not be so hard. I don’t just mean romantic love, but just love amongst people; human kindness and compassion. I was always very close to my siblings.” She pauses, looks down at her fingernails, shuffling a leg under her body, letting the answer come to her slowly. “My mom encouraged us to be very kind to each other and close. I think that has conditioned me—in a good way—to accept love.”

Photographer: Michel Comte for wschupfer.com.

Stylist: Tracey Nicholson for streeters.com.

Hair: Sean Mikel.

Makeup: Frankie Boyd for timhowardmanagement.com.

Manicure: Tracylee for timhowardmanagement.com.

Set Designer: Adrian Crabbs at Adriancrabbs.com.

Location: Milk Studios, New York City at milkstudios.com.

* Lane, A. “Her Again,” The New Yorker, March 2014.

*.1 Simonini, R. “An Inherently Paintable Moment,” The Believer, June 2015. & Shubert, A. “Obsessive Compulsive: Don Jon,” Critics At Large, September 2013.

*.2 Proust, M. (1969). Cent écrivains français répondent au “questionnaire Marcel Proust.” Paris: A. Michel.

*.3 Ibid.

*.4 Godard, J. (Director). (1960). À bout de souffle [Motion picture]. UGC.

Written by Dayna Evans

Photographed by Michel Comte