Thursday, April 2, 2009

Scarlett fever: Johansson plays the sensual muse.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The love scene may come off as hot on the big screen but don't assume it was that way during filming.
That's the word from Scarlett Johansson. Her erotic moments with Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona raised eyebrows when the film premiered at Cannes in the spring, and she's been fielding questions about them ever since. But she insists it was no big deal. In fact she remembers the shooting of these sequences -- including one of the longest onscreen kisses ever -- as being singularly unerotic because most people on the set were thinking about lunch.
"These characters fall in love . . . and people who fall in love are intimate," she says matter-of-factly. "But when you're shooting, there's like 60 grown men eating salami sandwiches, kind of waiting for when they can get off and watch a game on TV or whatever. Nobody cares that you're doing it. It's your day at work and this is part of the story . . ."
The flaxen-haired Johansson, who comes across as both self-possessed and amused about her job, didn't even look at a newspaper while she was shooting Vicky Cristina Barcelona in Spain. It was only later that she became aware of press reports suggesting this would be Woody Allen's hottest movie. She shakes her head in disbelief.
"I mean it's Woody!" she giggles. "The idea of this being Woody Allen's steamiest film is so ridiculous to me. It's not like it's Bertolucci or something. He's so conservative with that kind of thing."
But she does have her own theory as to why these scenes work.
"There's a lot of chemistry between the characters and us as actors . . . you're really invested in them . . . and that's where the steaminess comes from, because it's not really explicit."
Vicky Christina Barcelona, which opens Aug. 15, is her third movie for the 72-year-old Allen, the others being the farcical Scoop and the noirish Match Point, which really did contain some erotic moments. Allen is fulsome in his praise for Johansson -- calling her his "muse" and contending that she's capable of bringing off any assignment.
Johansson's response is to stress Allen's achievement in creating extraordinary female characters. "That's the best thing about working with Woody other than just getting to spend every day chatting with him and bothering him and poking him -- stuff like that."Poking him?
"Sure. Why not? Got to make sure he's still awake. But he writes such fantastic female roles. He has such an appreciation and understanding for the intricacies of the female mind. I think he would say we are the superior species. He really loves women -- the way they think."
Vicky Cristina Barcelona explores the complex and often surprising directions that love and personal relations take during an eventful summer in Barcelona.
Vicky (newcomer Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are two young Americans with completely different attitudes toward love. Sensible conservative Vicky is engaged to the very respectable Doug (Chris Messina). Christina is the polar opposite -- sexually curious, romantically uninhibited, always ready to be swept off her feet.
Oscar-winning Javier Bardem plays the charismatic Spanish painter who enters their life shortly after they arrive for a holiday in Barcelona, and wastes no time in propositioning them outrageously. Before the story ends, both have fallen under his sexual spell and both have encountered the big complication in all this -- the painter's fiery, estranged wife, played by Penelope Cruz.
Johansson sees aspects of herself in Cristina.
"I think I can identify with certain aspects of her philosophy -- her sort of seize-the-day attitude and her willingness to let life kind of happen in front of her, and to just take a chance and live, live, live -- that kind of attitude. But, you know . . . we have our differences as well."
Johansson's first big break came at the age of 12 with Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer, in which she played a teenage girl traumatized by a riding accident. In more recent years, her career has moved with strength, from award-winning performances in Lost in Translation and Ghost World, to further critically acclaimed work in films like the recent The Other Boleyn Girl, The Man Who Wasn't There and Girl With a Pearl Earring.
In January she'll be entering comic book territory with Spirit.
However she feels genuine gratitude towards Allen for giving her the same kind of opportunities earlier enjoyed by people like Dianne Wiest, Diane Keaton and Judy Davis.
"For me, it's such a high compliment for him to see me in any role, or that he can imagine me doing anything . . . That's the best compliment." Yet it was mere accident that she ended up in Match Point: It happened because Kate Winslet had dropped out and a replacement was needed fast.
In the case of the new film, Johansson is intrigued by Allen's exploration of the dynamics of female friendship.
"I've never been in such a specific situation where I was on vacation and one girl was guy-crazy and I was left in the hotel . . . but I think in this particular circumstance, the two characters are at different places in their lives. They're very close friends, but perhaps they realize this is the summer that they must kind of branch out. The one character is engaged to be married and she's kind of taken a more conservative root . . . and my character is still wandering and aimless and hasn't quite figured out what she wants."
She confesses that there are times when she can still feel as aimless as Cristina.
"I mean, I'm only human. I think everyone has times when they struggle with where to go from here. I've been fortunate enough to always know what I wanted to do, what I was passionate about. But there are all kinds of questions you still have . . ."

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