She’s played an alien (Under the Skin), a disembodied operating system (Her), and a porn addict’s girlfriend (Don Jon), but that’s nothing compared to the turbocharged amazon Scarlett Johansson gets to play in LUCY, an action thriller directed by Luc Besson. The film carries on the legacy of the French filmmaker’s previous depictions of strong female characters in ‘La Femme Nikita,’ ‘The Professional,’ and ‘The Fifth Element.’ This time out, Johansson becomes the ultimate object of his obsession with depicting ‘the strengths of women and the weaknesses of men.’
In Lucy, Scarlett Johansson plays the title character whose work as a drug mule goes wrong when she accidentally ingests experimental pharmaceuticals that increase her brain usage from 10 to 100 percent and turns into a one-woman wrecking crew.
‘I love making action films,’ Johansson says. ‘I also like doing as much of my own stunt work as I can even if I wind up getting a lot of bruises and scrapes. It adds something when the audience can see that it’s you doing your own fight sequences or jumps and not your stunt double.’
It was while preparing for The Avengers and the Captain America: The Winter Soldier that Johansson first went through the kind of rigorous training required for the demanding physical performance required of her on Lucy. Her martial arts skills came in ‘very handy’ for the multiple fight sequences that are spread out through the fast-paced film. Shot in Taipei and Paris, Lucy, which also co-stars Morgan Freeman, could well become one of the 29-year-old New Yorker’s biggest movies ever and establish Johansson as the leading female action star in the business, a strange twist of fate for someone whose professed real ambition is to be a ‘character actress.’
In the meantime, Johansson is now spending her time away from film sets living in Paris with her French fiancé, journalist Romain Dauriac, 32, whom she first began dating in November, 2012.
Q: Scarlett, what attracted you to a project like Lucy?
JOHANSSON: I’ve admired Luc Besson’s work for many years and so this was a great chance for me to work with him and also be part of what I thought was a very interesting story. When Lucy ingests the drugs it has the consequence of transforming her brain where one normally uses only 10 percent of its capacity to fully 100 percent and how that alters her personality.
Q: How would you describe your very powerful female character?
JOHANSSON: She’s basically a raw nerve. Everything is happening so fast for her, and it’s totally overwhelming. There’s a warm spot in my heart for the woman who means business and doesn’t use every opportunity to pose and look sexy in a catsuit. (Smiles)
Q: Does it ever strike you as odd that some of your greatest successes in film of late have seen you playing a female action star as Natasha Romanoff and now as Lucy?
JOHANSSON: I’m very fortunate to be a part of those Marvel films because they have a lot of substance, actually. Most superheroine films are simply not really good. They’re just not well made. They fall back on this hair-flipping, pose-y, hands-on-hips thing. We do a little bit of that in The Avengers, of course, because it’s important that it looks good, but I’ve really had a great opportunity. I love the fact that in The Avengers went against the trend of presenting female characters that are usually bookends or ornaments in the film to sell the sex appeal. I enjoyed the fact that Joss (Whedon, director of The Avengers) turned Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff) into a character that could get punched in the face and could deliver the blow. She was an intelligent, complex, and really strong female character…and I’m happy to be playing her again. (Johansson recently completed filming on the Avengers: Age of Ultron sequel – ED.) It’s been a real pleasure for me to play those multi-layers and to really be able to act and not just pose. I’m not just the romantic interest, and thank god for that. It makes (it) more interesting and interesting to watch, too. I give Joss a lot of credit for creating a very multi-layered character and not just wanting to sell her physical attractiveness.’
Q: It’s been over a decade now that Lost in Translation turned you into a star. How do you approach your work differently today as opposed to then?
JOHANSSON: I have a greater appreciation of my work and what I have to put into it now. It just changes the decisions I make. I think I’m able to make braver choices because I feel braver now and have had more life experience. I have a greater trust in my ability, and I’m curious about taking on the unknown. I feel most confident now. At the same time, I never lose the enthusiasm I have for working. It’s been 20 years, but I still have those moments when I walk around a set going: ‘Wow! We’re making a movie!’
Q: You’ve spoken out at times about the way you and other women in the industry tend to be objectified as sexual objects. But isn’t that part of the natural process that draws people towards movie stars and celebrities?
JOHANSSON: I’ve been a victim of objectification, but no more than anybody else. I don’t feel I’ve been particularly effected by that any more than others who are in the spotlight. Or anyone, really. All you have to do is go out to a nightclub and you see it happening right away. It’s not always the case that a man is trying to get to a woman’s brain first! But I think it’s something that I’ve been able to use to my advantage, while trying to avoid getting pigeonholed. I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with cosmetics campaigns and clothing campaigns, to be photographed by the best photographers and make beautiful pictures and all of that stuff. In other ways, it can be very frustrating at times because I’ve always thought of myself as being a character actor and . . . you can be placed in this specific stereotype that the media puts you in, but the fact is that a lot of the work that I’ve done isn’t necessarily overtly sexual.
Q: You’ve worked a lot the past few years and done a number of provocative films including Under the Skin with Jonathan Glazer which had you playing an alien?
JOHANSSON: I also just had an interesting experience working with Jonathan. He hasn’t made a ton of movies, but he spent ten years working on (Under the Skin). But it’s hard to compare your experience working with different directors. I could never compare working with someone like Terence Malick to someone like Scorsese. I think while the work and quantity are different, it’s impossible to compare the quality. It’s always interesting to kind of jump off of a cliff with new directors and you never know what you are going to get, but that’s not just a first time thing. It’s like that with any collaboration.
Q: Were you uncomfortable at all with the nudity you did in Under the Skin?
JOHANSSON: I’m not fond of nudity. Like everyone, I am aware of my body and in this film I put aside prejudices to get into the skin of an alien. I had the collaboration of an artist, as Jonathan Glazer protected me at all times. The nudity in this film is not exploitative…I’ve avoided it in the past mainly because it transforms all the attention about you and obscures the kind of response you want from people who look at your work. You don’t want to feed that kind of process.
Q: Do you have better intuition now when it comes to choosing projects?
JOHANSSON: Intuition comes into picking a project quite often, knowing if it makes sense to do something commercially or artistically, and no one really knows the proper formula for either one of those. You have to feel it, you know? Otherwise, forget it. If you don’t know why you are there or what you are doing, then why be there? You have to take risks and trust your instincts, initially. That’s vital, I think.
Q: Will you ever do another romantic comedy?
JOHANSSON: I haven’t really read any romantic comedies lately that I’ve really liked. Don’t get me wrong, I like the genre, but they’re difficult. There are so many clichés and I think it’s hard to find one that hasn’t been done before. I think that’s why I tend to avoid that genre, because I never want to make something that I’ve seen before.
Q: You’ve become quite a fashion icon of late. Are you getting more comfortable walking the red carpet and wearing choosing from different designer outfits?
JOHANSSON: I’m not really someone who follows the latest trends and I don’t pay that much attention to choosing outfits other than finding something that I like and I feel comfortable wearing. When I go to film premieres I like to be able to choose something that refers back to classic dresses of past eras.
Q: When you assess how things are going at this point in your life, what would your immediate impressions be?
JOHANSSON: I’ve just been really fortunate to have quite a productive and diverse past couple of years…I also feel that I’ve dealt with a lot of things during my twenties and that now I feel very happy.