There is a lonely writer, Theodore, somewhere in the near distant future, who is trying to come to terms with his divorce. There is a young woman, Amy, a friend of his, who finally decides to walk out of her unhappy marriage and discover her true self. But, surprisingly, in Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romantic drama Her, which won the Academy Award for best original screenplay this year, it is not these two characters who manage to dwell in your head long after the credits have rolled.
It is Samantha, the futuristic and friendly operating system, whom we know only through her husky voice and who never makes an appearance on screen (of course, because she has no body) that we are touched by the most. Her funny banter with Theodore puts a smile on our faces, too; we feel sorry for her when she earnestly tries to deal with human emotions that are new to her; we revel in a great sense of satisfaction when she finds love; we are left confused with every new thing she discovers about herself and her being. To think of it now, it would have been impossible and near crazy to expect viewers to sympathise with a full-length in-depth character, who goes through such a wide range of experiences, with no face to fall back upon. But the effect her husky voice has created is phenomenal and it is completely justified to tag it as what actor Scarlett Johansson, who ‘plays’ Samantha in the film, likes to call it “a vocal performance”.
When Jonze spoke to Johansson’s agent seeking her availability to do the voiceover for the part, the actor thought it would be a “four-day schedule”. However, when she read the script and met Jonze, it turned out to be days and days of brainstorming sessions, trials, rehearsals and discussions. The result of such deep involvement is out there for everyone to see. After Her, it was Johansson’s Black Widow act in ensemble action flick Captain America: The Winter Soldier that hit Indian screens. This was followed by Jon Favreau’s Chef, an indie comedy, in which she looked content playing Molly, a supporting character, who had a considerably short amount of space on screen and in the script. Earlier this year, Johansson also portrayed the role of an alien in Under The Skin, another sci-fi film, which is yet to release in India. And before that she played the bomb shell girlfriend of the lead in Joseph Gordon-Lewitt’s directorial debut Don Jon.
Her choice of roles in these films talks a lot about the level of maturity Johansson, probably, has attained in 20 years of being in the show-business. The actor, who started out at the age of nine claims that these choices are a result of an active choice she made quite early in her career. “When I was a teenager, I had decided that I would not to do certain kinds of movies,” says Johansson, in an exclusive email interview to THE WEEK magazine. “I was way more into indie films from then itself — back when indie films really were independent — and the people in that scene were so welcoming to me that I became, not a fixture, but I guess [I ] got sort of ingratiated into that.” All these projects have allowed her to explore and work from a very expansive place, says Johansson, who is promoting her upcoming film, again a sci-fi action flick called Lucy, directed by Luc Besson, which will release in the country on August 1.
In Lucy, Johansson plays an unsuspecting young woman living in Taipei, who is dragged into the dark world of drugs, when her boyfriend tricks her into being a drug mule. The unthinkable happens, with the drug leaking into her body, unleashing a superhuman into Lucy’s body by unlocking her brain capacity to unimaginable levels. Johansson, who shares screen space with Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman and Oldboy fame actor Choi Min Sik, says that it was the challenge of playing somebody who was in a constant state of transition that attracted her to playing Lucy. “When we started really getting into it, Luc sent me a huge package of visual cues, a sort of dictionary he had put together of Lucy’s transitional phases,” she says. “It was like a flip book for the film. This instilled in me a trust in Luc’s vision and drew me to this project.”
Starting out at a young age has always been an advantage, believes Johansson. Having grown up in a modest neighbourhood in New York, even as a child she was clear where her heart was. By 18, she broke into Hollywood with adult roles in Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed Lost in Translation opposite the much older and experienced actor Bill Murray and with Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which she plays painter Vermeer’s muse. Her formula has always been to not set any boundaries for herself, she says. “I think of myself as an actor for hire and I think of my career as being freeform,” she says. “So that way I haven’t properly mapped it [her career]out and I like it that way.”
Despite her intelligent choice of roles and exemplary performances, Johansson has always been projected as the sex symbol in the media. The actor, who recently got engaged to and is pregnant with the baby of French journalist-turned advertiser Romain Duariac, says, she doesn’t care much of such labels. “I love my job. I love going to work in the morning, unless I’ve missed my cup of coffee,” she says. “I like the process and that’s something I’ve always kind of carried with me, the enthusiasm for the possibility and the potential of the day, and trying to find that one spark that, when you’ve got it, it’s on celluloid and captured forever. And that’s where the magic starts.”
The actor, who will be seen next in Avengers: Age of Ultron expected to release in May 2015, had also expressed her interest to direct a film based on author Truman Capote’s posthumously discovered novel Summer Crossing. “I’d love to do something really kind of delicate and involved and fragile now. It’s fun for me to do all these different kinds of things as I get older,” she says, adding that she is also toying with the idea of doing some work in television,too. “I like the idea of the television, the long format of it. I’ve thought about it and it depends on if that was brought to me or created by me. But I like the idea of having the time to really imagine a character in a much more in-depth way. Having that freedom sounds kind of fun.”
As of now, she is content that she is getting to play strong and well-scripted characters, but rues over the fact that “the real tour-de-force kind of roles, those Academy-Award roles, those are still hard to find”. “But I am happy that I was fortunate to play one of the first really independent, enigmatic super heroines,” she says. However, the key to reap the best out of her work and the success that follows, says Johansson, is to be detached. “As I know myself better — as I get older — I don’t have to relate all of my work to my own experience, necessarily. It’s not as important to me to be able to have a total relationship with the character I’m playing,” she says. “This gives me more choices. So I just take it as it comes and I don’t have any expectations [from my career].”