BWW Exclusive: InDepth InterView: Scarlett Johansson
Last weekend, I had the exceptional privilege of conducting an InDepth InterView with 2010 Tony-winning Best Featured Actress In A Play: the luminous and winsomely witty film and stage star Scarlett Johansson. We talked about her work in the theatre on this year's highly-praised revival of Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, as well as her feelings on musicals, Stephen Sondheim, and growing up in New York, which then veered off into a considerable discussion of her film work and working with actors like Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey Jr. and Penelope Cruz, as well as directors like Woody Allen and Christopher Nolan. Additionally, we discussed her love of musicals, her favorite shows, scores and cast albums, singing showtunes with Hugh Jackman, her thoughts on a Woody Allen musical, what Sondheim roles she would like to play, GLEE, and, of course, a detailed and descriptive discussion of the entire process of bringing BRIDGE to the stage. This is the complete InDepth InterView you have all been waiting for - of course, two sneek peek samples have gone up on BWW this week and have so far been quoted and reprinted in US WEEKLY, Perez Hilton and Oh No They Didn't, just to name a few, all of whom also reprinted her e-mail response to me. She is without a doubt one of the brightest stars of our age and it was a extreme privilege for me to help her shine some light on the more obscure corners of her career, as well as the highs - on Broadway, in Hollywood and elsewhere. Enjoy!
View From the Top & VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
Some people are just born with Broadway in their blood. Scarlett Johansson is surely such a case, having been born and raised in New York City and having found that her connection to theatre enriches her relationships with contemporaries and collaborators like Hugh Jackson, Jessica Hecht, Liev Schreiber and many more, as well as enriches her experiences as a human being and theatre activist. Besides being in the highest grossing film of the year so far - IRON MAN 2 which co-stars Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke - Scarlett Johansson also managed to win a 2010 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress In A Play, and - if those accomplishments just weren't enough - she was magnanimous and gracious enough to give me forty-five minutes of her highly-prized time to talk about it all. Someone as ravishingly beautiful and quick-witted and eloquent as she is would not be automatically assumed by most to be the best dramatic and comedic actress of her generation - the next Meryl Streep if there ever were any - but, she is. She is. For further proof, see: LOST IN TRANSLATION, THE PRESTIGE, THE BLACK DAHLIA, MATCH POINT, SCOOP, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA & IRON MAN 2. She is the real deal, whether on a Broadway stage or a soundstage.
PC: Let me be the first to congratulate you on winning the BroadwayWorld Fan's Choice Award.
SJ: Wow! That's intense.
PC: Do you know BroadwayWorld? Do you read us? You have lots of fans here!
SJ: Oh, I know who you are! I am very well aware of your website! (Laughs.) It's a great site. It's very user-friendly!
PC: Could you tell me about working on VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE?
SJ: I never thought that I would be making my Broadway debut in this particular play. I just - going into it, I thought I was too old for the part and I've always been very wary of young adult actors playing childlike roles in a very, you know, childlike way. It's like a pet peeve for me. But, this role was not at all childlike. There was nothing childlike about it and I realized that if I just played it from my gut that the fragility of the circumstances between Eddie and Catherine in their relationship would kind of carry the story along and the age then wouldn't be an issue because it was greater than just that. I just was so fortunate to have Greg Mosher - who convinced me that I could do it, that I was right for it and to give it a shot. I mean, the experience is just, you know... it's so hard to put into a sound byte. All those months of work...
PC: Of course you played 25 at 18 in LOST IN TRANSLATION - but, with nothing childlike about it.
SJ: Yeah, it's funny because I've just always been really sensitive about young adult actors playing these characters as little girlies or little boys. I just hate that so much because when you come down to it you realize that, in fact, we've all gone through these emotions. And, for me, obviously, being seventeen not that long ago, it's there. It's all there. You can conjure that without putting on this kind of façade as a youthful person. Not that I'm not a youthful person...
PC: You've got that right!
SJ: Yeah, but I mean a young, kid-like kind of fake thing. Ugh, I just hate that.
PC: It's so interesting you mention this notion given the content of the play itself.
SJ: Of course the circumstances of the characters in the play when we find them - I mean, they have such a history with one another, obviously. You know, Catherine has been living with the Carbone family for probably seven - six or seven - years and has been pretty much raised by this family since her mother's death. So, for her, it's not like she has some schoolgirl crush on Eddie: she loves him. He's a father figure to her. And many other connotations, to many other things - he represents the male figure in her life, and, of course, she's very coddled and sort of kept by the family - particularly by Eddie - and she doesn't know any other man and she has never known any other man. So, I think to her Eddie represents: a father, a romantic figure in some way...
PC: What about a confidant?
SJ: Absolutely. He's such a confidant! The two of them... you can imagine it. I mean, he comes home and she sits on his chair and they talk about his day. When he brushes his teeth, she sits on top of the toilet and listens to him tell stories about what happened to her. I just think they have their own little world, the two of them.
PC: Definitely. What about that first moment when you're sitting in his chair? Did you find that in the text or did you find it in rehearsal with Greg and Liev?
SJ: There's a lot of stage direction in Miller's text. Actually, when you kind of pull it all apart, the stage direction that Miller wrote really informs the direction of the scene. So, it was actually not only written into the book of the play, but it was also sort of an instinctive thing. I noticed that all of these instincts that we have... I mean, I'd look down at the text while playing a scene and say, "Actually, funnily enough, it's written right here how I cross to him so I‘ll just go ahead and do that now." (Laughs.)
PC: So, the actions grew organically out of the text, whether explicitly written by Miller or not.
SJ: Absolutely. It was just kismet. I think that just goes to show you what an incredible - and incredibly sensitive - writer Miller was. He had such a sensitivity for actors and their instinct that everything that was written in - all that stage direction - just came naturally to all of us. We didn't even need to force any of that, anything.
PC: You all seemed like you had had a very thorough process and had been playing these roles for nine months, or years. Did Greg Mosher require that? It's a sort of tricky play to pull off today, but you all found your characters so well.
SJ: We had a very, very intensive rehearsal process and I think all us were terrified... (Laughs.)... that this wasn't going to work. Because of that - all of us, with our own reasons - felt it might not work, so because of that we hunkered down and just did the work. There was just no time to mess around. We just got right to it and cut to the chase. Of course, the show found itself by the end.
PC: You can say that again!
SJ: You know, the last month or so of performance were, for me, some of the most exhilarating because they were just so tight. Because we were confidant in the choices that we were making, it enabled us to really play around and just be totally raw with it. So, that was really fun. It was really inspiring to me.
SJ: Thank you. It was a great, great experience.
PC: From Broadway to Hollywood: what about working with Woody Allen? MATCH POINT and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA are some of his strongest films ever - and some of the best of the last fifty years. What's it like to be his muse?
SJ: Of course working with Woody - I mean, now we've made three movies together - we have such a wonderful friendship between us. It's really just like working with your friend. It's become almost impossible to separate Woody, the auteur, from Woody, just the guy I share my sandwiches with, but...(Laughs.) It's hard to say! But, I think the thing about Woody that is so inspiring to both audience members and actors - and also the whole crew - is just his ability to reinvent himself. He's just so fresh. He so... he has such a zest for life and characters. He sees the irony in everything. He sees the irony in the, you know, (Booming Voice.) the gods laughing at us! I think because he plays around with these ideas of his own mortality and the inevitable slow decline of man he has a sort of creative freedom and he is just such an incredible mind. I've been so fortunate to have a friendship with him and a working relationship with him. I really cherish that.
PC: What was it like working with fellow Broadway baby Hugh Jackman in SCOOP & THE PRESTIGE?
SJ: You know, working on SCOOP with Hugh, of course, I was just very fortunate to work with Hugh. He's just - I mean, we call him the Mayor of Hollywood - he's just all around amazing. A triple threat: singing, dancing, acting. And unbelievably, ridiculously gorgeous.
PC: Well, you are all of those things, too, so you must be the Mayoress of Hollywood!
SJ. (Laughs.) Thank you. But, he's just the bee's knees and I got really lucky to be able to spend a lot of time with him on the set of SCOOP. Of course, we both discovered that we love musicals. I love musicals, I started acting because I wanted to be in a musical. I loved Rodgers & Hammerstein and Cole Porter and Gershwin. We would just spend our whole morning in the hair and make-up trailer singing CAROUSEL and OKLAHOMA! and DAMN YANKEES. Then, you know, we got to work together again on THE PRESTIGE.
SJ: No way! Could you imagine? THE PRESTIGE definitely has that kind of - I don't know, a sort of Sondheim-y quality to it.
PC: Especially the big twist.
SJ: Absolutely! It's twisted and it's dark and it's mysterious and it's kind of grey.
PC: So working with Hugh on THE PRESTIGE was great, too?
SJ: We just totally were singing it up all the time and I was just thrilled about that! (Laughs.)
PC: Christopher Nolan is known as being a bit of a strict taskmaster. Was it a lot different working with him as opposed to a director like Woody who allows a lot more freedom to improvise?
SJ: They were just very different. Of course, with THE PRESTIGE we were doing a period film and the plot was incredibly tight. So, because of that, I wasn't looking for a lot of room to improvise. I mean, you are delivering a lot of information to the audience. The script was so incredibly well-written, there was really no need to improvise. Chris is very focused. Unbelievably focused. A visionary. He is incredibly professional so that, as an actor, is an absolute pleasure because you feel like you are in the hands of someone that is beyond capable. I that he is just... he sees the film before anybody else does...
PC: In his head...
SJ: Yeah, and that's why he can be so incredibly prolific, too.
PC: Since you just mentioned Sondheim, I am compelled to ask: what Sondheim roles would you like to play? I could see you as Dot in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE or maybe Amy in COMPANY? Do you like or appreciate Sondheim's stuff?
SJ: I do. I've always loved Sondheim. I mean, being able to play Dot would be amazing. I don't think I could ever be in a musical on Broadway. But, perhaps in the movie musical version!
PC: Why do you say you wouldn't want to do a musical onstage? You really wouldn't, even with your gorgeous voice?
SJ: No, I think my musical days are over. You know, it was a childhood dream of mine. I look at actors - this whole season I've been very fortunate to be in New York and see a lot of the shows this season - I am just constantly blown away when I see incredibly talented actors, singers, dancers. That kind of triple-threat. I've never trained that hard, I've never trained that way. I think it's just a gift that is something I can only admire from afar. (Laughs.)
PC: You're far too humble! What about doing a Tom Waits stage show? Those Foreman productions of his shows are so innovative and avant-garde. I love your Tom Waits album.
SJ: Working with Tom Waits would be an absolute dream come true, are you kidding? But, he would probably think I'm some sort of stalker fan freak. I mean (Hi-Pitched Voice.), "By the way, I just made you some cookies and...." (Laughs.)
PC: Since you've worked with Tom Waits and Sofia Coppola, I have to ask you if you've seen Francis Ford Coppola's movie musical ONE FROM THE HEART with a score by Waits?
SJ: No, I've never seen it before.
PC: You'd love it. The DVD is fantastic. It's with Teri Garr and Raul Julia.
SJ: Oh, my gosh, I love Teri Garr and Raul Julia. I have to get that on Netflix.
PC: Have you ever spoken to Woody Allen about the stage version of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY? Marvin Hamlisch and Marshall Brickman workshopped it several years ago, I believe. You'd be so great in the Jennifer Tilly role!
SJ: I love that movie so, so much. You know, I've actually never spoken to Woody about that. I know that recently he directed an opera, oddly, in LA, last season.
PC: It looked gorgeous. It got good reviews.
SJ: Yeah, he was telling me he wanted everyone to have giant ant costumes. (Laughs.)
PC: Like SLEEPER onstage!
SJ: Yeah, I'm very curious to know if he would direct a Broadway show. He has acted in them and written them. But, it's been a long time.
PC: Of course he did PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM.
SJ: Yeah, so I think it would certainly be nice for him to return to New York.
PC: What were some of your favorite plays and musicals this season?
SJ: I haven't seen a lot of musicals. I saw a lot of straight plays this season. I saw FENCES. I loved RED.
PC: Oh, what did you think of Eddie Redmayne and Alfred Molina?
SJ: I was just incredibly, totally in it. I was totally sucked into it. I was really taken away by the story and by those performances. Everything about it. I just thought the production was fantastic.
PC: I can tell by your description how much you love live theatre.
SJ: I think I love it so much because of my mom... when I was little, she would take me to see everything with her.
PC: What shows do you remember seeing growing up in the 90s... MISS SAIGON?
SJ: I think when I saw MISS SAIGON I was just blown away by the helicopter! (Laughs.) I loved SUNSET BLVD, I saw it like three times.
PC: Who did you see it with as Norma? Glenn Close?
SJ: Glenn Close. And then I saw it with Elaine Paige.
SJ: Oh, my God, she's so incredibly talented! I loved that show so much. I became completely obsessed with it.
PC: You'd be perfect casting for Betty in the movie!
SJ: I'd be too sad, I'd want to wait to play Norma Desmond! (Laughs.)
PC: You could do the remake, too: when you‘re the right age!
SJ: I love that show.
PC: Define collaboration.
SJ: For me, collaborating is a marriage of the minds. It's two or more people coming together and making an idea come alive. Using their own creative knowledge or creative spirit to make the best version of an idea. To inspire an idea and to challenge it to be better than just one person's vision for it.
PC: What did winning the Tony mean to you?
SJ: You know, I look at the work that we did on VIEW and, to me, it became more apparent than ever that actors are actors. We are all a vessel or a means to sort of hold up a mirror to an audience, whether that's through different mediums - films, television, theater - for me, that's what my creative drive is. To be able to be welcomed the way that I was into the Broadway community knowing that there might be a sort of possessive nature or feeling to it - which is neither here nor there, but I get it - I think that the way I was not judged... the absence of judgment, it was just... I was incredibly touched by that, and humbled by it. I have to say that I am still walking on a could! (Laughs.) I mean, it was such an incredible, incredible night for me. To be able to celebrate with the community, with our cast. The fact that Liev was recognized and Greg Mosher and Jessica Hecht and the play itself that we put so much work into was recognized. It just was really validating, I have to say. I think that, more than anything, I know that it allows me to come back and that was I was most concerned about going into it. (Affects drama queen/Helen Sinclair-type Voice.) "If I'm panned, if I'm not accepted, then I'll never be able to have a chance to come back!" I love the theatre so much. So, anyway, I'm incredibly grateful for that opportunity to tread the board again.
PC: And you share the love with people like us!
SJ: Yes, yes! (Laughs.)
PC: What's next? How are you going top this year? #1 movie of the summer, Tony for Best Featured Actress...
SJ: I don't know! I mean, I'm just so spoiled by Miller. I've been saying this to Greg, "I was so spoiled by Miller that it really makes it difficult to read a script." They give it to me and say, "This is fantastic!" and I'm like, (Pause. Then, SEINFELD-esque whine.) "Na!" (Laughs.) It's an impossibly high standard!
PC: As a screenwriter/director myself I have to ask: what do you think of the scripts that are out there now? It seems like there's a dearth of good, original stuff.
SJ: I read some scripts that I loved - you know, that were forward-thinking and progressive - and it's hard to push those movies through.
PC: You're telling me! (Laughs.)
SJ: Yeah, you know better than I do. (Laughs.)
PC: No, there is nothing in Hollywood you know more about than me. You've been in this business forever! Do you find that you want to champion scripts but even you can't get them made?
SJ: Absolutely. I think it's just incredibly difficult. There are very, very few people - actors, anyway - out there that can champion small movies and interesting ideas. You know, because the studio looks at that and the script and says, "How are we going to market this?" Before they even green light it they are so curious as to how they are going to market it, how they are going to sell it as a product. It's very unfortunate that it is that way, that there is a lack of room to make these mid-level movies - or even smaller independent movies - there's really not that many people championing that. I think it has to do with our sort of pop-culture, what the audience demands.
PC: The audience decides for itself if it‘s any good, though... right?
SJ: Yes and no. I think people follow trends, obviously. We all do - Every one of us, myself included. I think that it's because people don't... there's just a lack of film history and because of that there's a certain quality in films that's missing today. I think it's because if you don't know what you could have then you don't demand it, if that makes any sense.
PC: The people reading the scripts don't get the references.
SJ: Yeah, and it's not only the people that are scriptreading but the audiences as well. They're not demanding something else, they just kind of go for the status quo. You know, movies are so incredibly expensive to make and the studio is contending with piracy, which is a major, major, major problem.
PC: Since you are a recording artist with two albums, I'll also ask you your opinion of the current state of the recording industry: is it over?
SJ: I know very little about the recording industry. To me, the recording industry is a total, complete, like, puzzle to me. I don't know how it all works. I have a lot of friends that are up-and-coming or struggling musicians and they're like, "What should I do?" and I have no idea! For me, I try to maneuver my way around the entertainment, the film industry and find myself just throwing my hands up in the air in frustration!
PC: Could you comment on Hunter Foster's Facebook campaign, "Give The Tonys Back To Broadway"? Is it just sour grapes?
SJ: You know, I pounded the pavement for years and I know what it's like to struggle as an actor. A lot of it is luck and, certainly, a lot of it is opportunity - and the lack of that. So, I totally understand the frustration there. There's not much else that I can say about it, really...
PC: It's a sensitive issue.
SJ: I mean, I am very sympathetic to that. I totally understand it. A lot of my friends who are struggling actors are going through the same thing. But, I can't apologize for it. I have worked my ass off to get to where I am so I understand that struggle. For me, it's more about hiring the right person for the job. You know, who fits that description. If somebody is cast because they are a name but they're not right for the job, well, it's very frustrating. I see that. As an actor, you're trying to get one foot in the door all the time. It's the most competitive and challenging, one of the most competitive, though, for sure...
PC: Definitely the most competitive. But, with you, there's no equal grounds for competition to be had, for sure!
SJ: Aww, you're too sweet.
PC: One thing a lot of theater fans seem to love is GLEE. Since now that you're a part of the Broadway community, are you a Gleek, too?
SJ: I do like GLEE. I have to say, I've only seen one episode, though, really not the whole thing. I don't see a lot of that kind of TV. Everybody loves it so they're doing something right. It's an amazing cast. Actually, it's funny, Jessica Hecht [Co-star in VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE], by the way, before every performance would just like - when we were waiting in the wings to go on - she would just be like, "How can I get on GLEE? I've been trying to figure it out for months!" Every single show, she'd be like, "Do you know anybody who knows anybody?" And I'm like, (Laughs.), "Jessica, I'm sure you could get on GLEE if you really try!"
PC: Everybody wants a piece of GLEE, and everyone wants a piece of you. Surely, you couldn't ask for much more than to have the top movie of the year and a Tony Award simultaneously!
SJ: I've had such an incredible time in the industry... practically twenty years. If it all ended now, I would have, like, a lifetime of memories to look back on. As devastating as that sounds! (Laughs.)
PC: And as devastatingly beautiful as you look! A feature that is only superseded by your immense talent!
SJ: Thank you. Thank you so much for that.
PC: You've been so open and honest and accommodating. I'll be singing your praises until the cows come home!
SJ: (Laughs.) It's my pleasure. It was really a pleasure to get to know you and talk to you for this time. Have a wonderful day!
The following is the e-mail I received from Ms. Johansson further explaining her thoughts on the controversial issue of the Facebook campaign a few minutes following our interview (unedited):
"Please pass this on to Pat regarding his Facebook campaign question to bring theater back to Broadway:
I thought more about your question and would like to add that the actors we've seen this season that we recognize from film - Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Liev Shreiber and Catherine Zeta Jones, etc. - have not only made a huge impact on ticket sales but have given tour de force performances and all started their careers as stage actors, dedicating themselves to making an impression in the theater. This goes to show that actors are actors, whatever the outlet, and with perseverance and drive, can cross the boundaries of the medium. In VIEW, I had the privilege of working opposite Morgan Spector, a relatively unknown actor who gave a luminous, educated performance as 'Rodolpho'. Greg Mosher could've had his pick of recognizable film actors who would've jumped at the opportunity to fill the part, but he saw something worth pursuing in Morgan and our production was the better for it."
Photo Credit: Walter McBride