The spirit of Scarlett Johansson

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      Scarlett Johansson is no damsel in distress in real life, so her strong role in The Spirit suits her just fine

      New York City—She could have ended up being “Scarlett the Starlet”, a wannabe actor who took “the girlfriend” roles in big-budget movies and then faded quickly-a new-millennium version of Penelope Ann Miller or Nancy Travis. (Who? Well, exactly.) Instead, Scarlett Johansson spurned blockbusters for indies. It was a good choice. She turned 24 only a month ago, but she’s already made more critically acclaimed movies than most actors make in a lifetime, and appears to be able to move seamlessly from drama to comedy. She has managed to build a fan base that has helped her to become one of the most famous actors in the world, despite never having won an Oscar nomination, or having starred in a TV series or in a movie that earned over $60 million at the box office.

      Frank Miller, who directed her in her latest movie, The Spirit, which opens on Christmas Day, says he thinks Johansson has the comic skills of an icon. “I realized that I would be working with one of the great comedic talents of our time. It was like working with the young Lucille Ball.”

      Miller liked her so much that he rewrote the script to give her a bigger part. In the film, she plays Silken Floss, the brainy sidekick of a mad doctor (Samuel L. Jackson) who is out to kill the creature he created, a superhero crime fighter called the Spirit. The film is based on a series of comic books by Will Eisner, but Johansson admits that she never read them.

      “I am not a comic-book fan,” she says in a New York City hotel room. “That world always seemed kind of exclusive to me. What brought me to this project was Frank, because I loved Sin City and I loved 300. But when I got the script, there didn’t seem to be a part for me. The Silken Floss character was kind of underwritten. I still wanted to meet Frank, and we had a wonderful three-hour lunch meeting and talked about New York and just laughed and had a great time. I said, ”˜I’m sad there is nothing for me to do,’ and he said ”˜I’ll think of something,’ and he decided to expand the character, and that was it for me. I thought that being part of his vision would be fun for me.”

      The film is filled with solid roles for women. In addition to Silken Floss, there’s Eva Mendes as a good girl turned bad who is out to find bigger and better diamonds, Sarah Paulson as the Spirit’s doctor, and Stana Katic as the smartest officer in the police force. “Frank has done something unusual here in that there is not a single woman in this movie who is a damsel in distress and who isn’t a strong woman,” says Paulson.

      The vision that Miller brings is a blend of comic books and old film-noir. As a result, everything is a little over the top. That suited Johansson, who started making movies when she was nine. She says that a life in movies has turned her into a “film nerd”. “I love that golden age of Hollywood, the mid ’40s. And there are so many film-noir movies that I have enjoyed, like The Third Man and White Heat and Maltese Falcon. I could list them all, but I feel that the noir qualities of this film are really stylistic choices that are more of an ode to the film-noir style.”

      Johansson made her film debut in 1994 in the film North. Three years later, she won a Young Star award for playing Kristin Scott Thomas’ daughter in The Horse Whisperer. She was the “other girl” in the indie hit Ghost World, playing opposite Thora Birch, who was the headliner thanks to her work in American Beauty. Two years later, she had eclipsed Birch and almost every other young actress with her performance in the successful Lost in Translation, which cost just $4 million to make and made over 10 times that at the box office.

      She made her first, and perhaps only, mistake a year later. Director Michael Bay, believing that the 19-year-old was now a star, cast her in The Island, which also starred Ewan McGregor. The film cost over $125 million and made less than Lost in Translation. Johansson told the Straight at the time that if the film didn’t work out she would likely never do another big movie. “I’d never found a script that was good enough,” she said, “because you know that if you’re going to do an action film or a science-fiction film you have to do the right one. It’s not like you can do tons of them.”

      She has been true to her word. She also got lucky. Woody Allen, who had been looking for a new muse for several years, hired her to star in Match Point prior to the release of The Island. While it wasn’t a big hit, Allen was happy with her performance—happy enough, in fact, that he kept bringing her back. Her third Allen film, this year’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was the first critically lauded Allen film in more than a decade. Last August he told the Straight that he had originally cast Kate Winslet for Match Point, and had concerns about turning to Johansson when his plan went awry.

      Winslet, according to Allen, “said she had spent no time with her child, and could I forgive her if she left the cast. I thought that since Scarlett was 19, she was probably too young for the part, but I also knew she was a great actress. I didn’t know if she was what I had written, but after I hired her, I became totally captivated by her and thought she could do anything. She was not only beautiful, but she was bright and amusing and charming and gifted. I am very happy to work with her whenever there is a part that fits her. I will always call her and see if she’s available, as I did with [Diane] Keaton and Mia [Farrow], who was another wonderful actress who never let me down.”

      Johansson has managed to avoid the kind of notoriety that contemporaries like Lindsay Lohan and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have attracted. Although the paparazzi have been interested in Johansson, and did get photos of her with boyfriends like Josh Hartnett and Jared Leto, she has kept a low profile socially. The only surprise in her personal life came early last year, when she and Vancouver native Ryan Reynolds got married at B.C.’s Clayoquot Wilderness Resort.

      She appears to be taking marriage seriously. Although she’s averaged almost three movies a year since 2003, she has just two planned over the next two years (He’s Just Not That Into You is slated for release in February, and Amazon is due out in 2010.) This appears to contradict the career schedule that she laid out for the Straight just four years ago. “ I think you get to a point in your life where you have a family and you are comfortable,” she said then. “But I never want to be too comfortable. I’m saying that now as a 20-year-old girl, but ask me in 35 years and I’ll probably say that all I want is to be comfortable.”