Life & Culture

A study in Scarlett

Scarlett Johansson gets closer to her Jewish family roots as she defies the Nazis in a risk-taking new film, which premiers at the UK Jewish Film Festival


This autumn might just belong to Scarlett Johansson. After her heroic ending in Avengers: Endgame, as her character Black Widow made the ultimate sacrifice to save the world, the American actress has come full circle. 

Her two new movies look set to dominate the festival circuit, the awards conversation and our cinemas: the “anti-hate satire” Jojo Rabbit — in which she plays a single mother hiding a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany — and Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama, Marriage Story

Following her decade-long ride as Marvel’s athletic assassin Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanova, Johansson has found little time or inclination to work on such smaller-scale projects.

When she has, it’s usually been spectacular — notably Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 masterpiece Under the Skin, which cast her as a predatory female-shaped alien that trawled the backstreets of Glasgow. Or Spike Jonze’s Her, where she voiced “Samantha”, a computer operating system with feelings. 

“I think I’ve had more small films that succeeded,” she says. “That always feels like a huge accomplishment. I think it’s more effective when a small film succeeds than when a big movie fails. I don’t know why, but for some reason, it’s more profound. When a big movie fails, it’s usually not your fault.” 

Her ethos comes from taking chances. “You never know unless you take the risk. It would probably be riskier if I did a film that was really generic and it didn’t work. That would probably be worse.” 

It was in this indie arena that Johansson rose to fame in cult films Ghost World, the Coen Brothers’ barber-shop noir The Man Who Wasn’t There and, most significantly, Sofia Coppola’s May-December romance Lost in Translation

Playing a student adrift in Tokyo who falls for Bill Murray’s world-weary actor, she was dubbed “the indie ingénue and expert Lolita” by the New York Times. A Golden Globe nomination followed in 2004 — the same year she was also up for the Vermeer drama Girl with a Pearl Earring.  

“She seemed mature beyond her years,” noted Coppola. Indeed, by the time of Lost in Translation, Johansson had been working in the industry for around a decade, making her debut in the off-Broadway play Sophistry when she was just eight. 

Even before that, she was a live-wire. “When I was a really little kid, I was a singing, dancing kid,” she says. “I took all kinds of classes, tap dance and singing. I was one of those jazz-hand kids.” 

Born in New York — her father, Karsten, is a Danish-born architect, her mother, Melanie, a producer from a Jewish family in the Bronx — Johansson was raised with her twin brother, Hunter, and two other siblings, Vanessa and Adrian. 

“I always felt really good when I performed and my parents always encouraged us to do things that made us feel good,” she recalls. “But my mom never really wanted me to get into acting because she was afraid it would be very competitive and stressful — which it is!”  

She found the cattle calls of commercials auditions “overwhelming” so she decided instead to concentrate her efforts on movies. 

“It was great when I went up for a film because they didn’t ask if I had a sore throat, as every commercials’ casting director did.” 

That’s a reference to her husky voice, which became a defining asset when Johansson began to win roles.  
Beginning with the 1994 Bruce Willis comedy North, her big breakthrough came four years later with The Horse Whisperer, directed by her co-star Robert Redford.

Playing Grace, the girl who suffers a terrible horse-riding accident, Johansson admits the experience changed everything. 

“I thought: ‘Wait, I understand this as a performance in a different kind of a way,’” she says. 
Still, it seemed strange that she was billed with an “Introducing…” credit. “I was pretty p****d off about it. It was bizarre.”  

Having spent 25 years in the business, Johansson is now one of the world’s highest-paid actresses, earning $40.5 million in the 12 months following June 2017, according to Forbes magazine.

Much of this can be attributed to her willingness to reinvent herself as an action heroine — in films like The Island, Iron Man 2, her first Black Widow appearance, and Lucy — which took her away from the sultry image she’d been reluctantly saddled with since her late teens.  

Johansson laments this period of her career, believing that, aged 18, she was “super-sexualised” as the new Marilyn Monroe. 

“I never wanted to be a sex symbol,” she says. “I wanted to be a character actor. Those are the actors I often mostly admire. But I guess you get pigeonholed sometimes. I think women that are curvy can be pigeonholed in that bombshell thing. I never think of my characters that way. What can you do about it?” 

Some critics were convinced she wouldn’t survive this phase. David Thomson, the esteemed author of the Biographical Dictionary of Film, wrote in his 2010 entry for her that “serious doubts have begun to shadow her serene sensual blooming.

“Timing is everything, so the woman who looked inevitable in 2003 is now getting closer to 30.” 

Arguably, he didn’t take into account the power of the Avengers and the inexorable rise of nerd culture to boost her career. 

Not one to tow the party line, Johansson has never been afraid to get entangled in complex political and social debate. In 2014, she became a brand ambassador for SodaStream, the company behind carbonated drinks dispensers made for the home.

With its headquarters in Israel, the company operated a factory based in the occupied West Bank, in the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim — considered illegal under international law.  

While she was criticised by Oxfam, a charity with whom she’d had a long association, Johansson refused to back down, commenting that SodaStream was committed “to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights”. 

The factory, she has said, was “a model for some sort of movement forward in a seemingly impossible situation”.

Despite her willingness to engage with her Jewish heritage, Johansson’s upbringing was more skewed towards her father’s side.

She says: “We celebrated a lot of Danish culture growing up. We’d have a Danish Christmas. My mother is Jewish but we celebrated the holiday, more as a celebration of Danish culture than anything else. We always went to the Seamen’s Church and all kinds of festivals in the spring.” 

Culturally, she’s been drawn to Jewish filmmakers — not least acting three times for Woody Allen in Match Point, Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (after their first collaboration, she revealed she’d “walk over hot coals” to work with him).

Though, as the author Noah Berlatsky wrote in his essay, The Jewish Aryan Contradictions of Scarlett Johansson: “[She is] a Jewish woman whose Jewishness is most notable onscreen in its conspicuous absence.” 

True or not, Johansson has become increasingly close to her Jewish origins. When she appeared on the American TV show Finding Your Roots, she discovered that some of her relatives had died in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.

“It makes me feel more deeply connected to that side of myself, that side of my family,” she said, shedding tears, as she learned that the brother of her maternal great-grandfather, and his two daughters, had been killed in Poland in the notorious ghetto.  

It makes her connection to the upcoming Jojo Rabbit all the more intriguing. Set during World War II, the story follows a young German boy, Jojo “Rabbit” Betzler, who discovers that his mother, Rosie — played by Johansson — is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

Written and directed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who also plays a Hitler figure in Jojo’s imagination, it’s the sort of risk-taking affair that feels perfectly tailored for Johansson.   

Footage reveals larger-than-life lampooning that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mel Brooks movie. Waititi, whose roots are Jewish and Maori, is known for bringing a comedic approach to difficult subjects, and calls Jojo Rabbit an “anti-hate” satire.

Politically active by nature, Johansson has always been encouraged to speak out. “I grew up in a politically verbal family,” she says.

“We were having that dialogue in the house a lot. I went with my mum to different mayoral rallies and I went with her to vote. We used to watch the debates growing up. My brother Hunter ended up working in local politics, so it’s always something I’ve been aware of. When I turned 18, I registered to vote.” 

Even one as astute as Johansson, however, has found it difficult to navigate the bear-trap that is political correctness.

Recently, she was embroiled in controversy when she accepted the lead role in Rub & Tug, a true story about Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who operated a prostitution ring in Pittsburgh in the 1970s.

Predictably, social-media users weighed in, with several trans actors criticising Johansson for taking a role they felt should be earmarked for a transgender star. She eventually backed out.

Ironically, it would have reunited her with director Rupert Sanders, who cast Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, a live-action take on the original Japanese anime film, which also received flak for effectively white-washing the character. 

After Rub & Tug, Johansson stated in As If magazine: “As an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job” — controversial comments she later claimed were “edited for clickbait”.   

Largely, though, Johnasson has been wise enough to stay out of the limelight when she’s not promoting a movie. She’s been married and divorced twice — first to actor Ryan Reynolds, a marriage that lasted little over two years, and then to French journalist and art consultant Romain Dauriac. 

“I like to go to art openings with him and talk about art and emerging artists with him,” she told Parade magazine, before they separated in 2017 after less than three years of being married.  

Currently engaged to Saturday Night Live co-head writer Colin Jost, who proposed in May, Johansson is largely tight-lipped on her personal life and particularly protective of five-year-old Rose Dorothy, her daughter with Dauriac, who is rarely seen out in public with her. 

Motherhood, two marriages and a third on the way by the age of 34 — Johansson has been through more than most manage in a lifetime. “I think,” she says, “I have a pretty broad perspective on things.” 

No wonder she was attracted to working with Noah Baumbach for his upcoming film, in which Johansson and Adam Driver are going through a bitter divorce. Echoing Baumbach’s earlier film, The Squid and the Whale — which dealt with parental separation from the child’s viewpoint — this is up there with his best. A first Oscar nod for Johansson maybe? It would be the least she deserved. 

For the moment, Johansson has been filming Black Widow — a prequel to the Avengers movies that will surely be a swansong to the character. 

“I think you’ll learn about what Natasha is afraid of, and I think you’ll learn about what parts of herself she’s afraid of,” she explained at ComicCon in San Diego recently. 

“You really see her in a pretty broken-down place, and she kinda has to build herself back up and pull all the pieces together in this film.” 

Yet it’s where Johansson goes next that most intrigues. Director? She’s already made a short, These Vagabond Shoes, with Kevin Bacon. Theatre? She’s already won a Tony on Broadway for her role in A View From The Bridge. Music? She’s been collaborating with Pete Yorn, recently on the EP Apart

“I want to eventually be Norma Desmond — that is my goal,” she has jokingly said on more than one occasion, a wry reference to the reclusive actress in the classic Billy Wilder movie, Sunset Boulevard
Ms Johansson? We’re ready for your close-up.

Jojo Rabbit opens in the UK on January 3, 2020. It will also be the closing night gala at this year's UK Jewish Film Festival.

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