The opening sequence of Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film about two spiritually adrift, jet-lagged Americans finding each other in Tokyo, features a sustained shot of Scarlett Johansson’s behind, swaddled in a pair of nearly translucent pink underwear, as she lies on a bed, gazing at a window with the curtains drawn. Johansson plays Charlotte, a recent college graduate lamenting the trajectory of her life from inside an opulent Japanese hotel; the actress was just 17 when she landed the role. Although she had already been working for almost a decade, her quiet, deliberate performance turned her into one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses, and in the 14 years since Lost in Translation was released, she has served as a muse to auteurs including Woody Allen and the Coen brothers and propped up massive commercial franchises such as Captain America and The Avengers. Her creative choices have been vast and varied, a mix of blockbusters and art-house experiments: a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her (a character she gave life to using only that dusky, twilight voice), a 17th century servant to the painter Johannes Vermeer in Girl With a Pearl Earring, the girlfriend of a porn addict in Don Jon.
Hollywood has a strange relationship to certain libidinous energies, and Johansson is compared often and aptly to Marilyn Monroe: The fact of her body seems to supersede everything else. But Johansson is bored by discussions of her physicality, and while Monroe was never quite able to fully steer her own sexuality, Johansson is remarkably self-possessed. To ask her about her good looks is to watch her grow increasingly disinterested. In the past decade, she’s also chosen roles—an unnamed, homicidal alien in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin; Black Widow, an unforgiving superspy, in the Avengers films; a drug mule who turns superhuman in Luc Besson’s Lucy—in which her sexuality is weaponized. Men underestimate her and are punished for it.
Her latest part is Major Motoko Kusanagi in a live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii’s beloved 1995 manga film. In Oshii’s version, the Major is Japanese, and when Johansson’s casting was announced, critics immediately cried whitewashing. Johansson was born in New York City, in 1984, to a Jewish mother from the Bronx and a father from Denmark, and while she is quick to acknowledge Hollywood’s grim diversity problem, she is hopeful that the film, directed by Rupert Sanders and shot in New Zealand and Hong Kong, will resolve any questions about the Major’s actual origins.
The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich first connected with Johansson in a cavernous photo studio on the west side of Manhattan. Two weeks after their initial conversation, Johansson would speak at the Women’s March on Washington, voicing her firm support for women’s reproductive rights. At one point she addressed the new president directly, saying that her daughter “may potentially not have the right to make choices for her body and her future that your daughter Ivanka has been privileged to have.” But on this blustery afternoon just days into the new year, writer and subject found an overstuffed leather couch, commandeered a plate of chocolate chip cookies and spoke about Johansson’s childhood, career and new life as a mother—she has a two-year-old daughter with French advertising executive Romain Dauriac. (They were wed in 2014, three years after the end of Johansson’s brief and high-profile marriage to Ryan Reynolds.) “She’s frank and funny and forthright—a kind of tough-talking New York girl,” Petrusich says. “She’s also deeply uninterested in bullshit. There’s a sense, speaking with her, that you need to be ready to go hard or you’ll lose her interest. It immediately made sense to me that Sofia Coppola cast her as a corrective to the bubbly blonde starlet played by Anna Faris in Lost in Translation. She’s a deep and naturally contemplative person—with a gaze that draws you in even as it commands you to keep up.”
You were born and raised in New York City. What was it like to grow up here?
New York was different then. That makes me sound like an old geezer, but the city was much more accessible. My group of friends was really diverse. We all came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and our parents did different things. Some parents were drug dealers, some were working in finance, and we all lived in the same community. While it’s still probably the greatest city in the world—I’m biased—I think it used to feel like more was possible here for more people. There’s a great leather store down in the West Village that has been there forever. I was there a couple of months ago, and the guy who has been making sandals since 1967 or whatever is fighting his landlord to stay in that space, because it was once rent stabilized and that doesn’t exist anymore. In the next couple of years it will probably turn into some corporate business. It’s sad, because that’s the heartbeat of New York. That’s what drove the city, what made things seem possible.
Almost everyone I know who grew up in New York City has this lovely quality—not just being exposed to all the different artists working around you but, inevitably, to all these different ways of being, ways of living, ways of seeing the world.
And you can be yourself here, or whatever version of yourself you want to be. That’s not possible in a lot of other places. I love the idea of raising my daughter here. She’s probably exposed to so many more things just going to the playground than almost any other toddler her age growing up in a lot of other places.
You had your daughter in 2015?
What year are we in? No, 2014—I can’t even remember. [laughs] She’s two and a half now.
Do you think motherhood has changed you?
Oh, it has changed me, yes. Just the process of being pregnant and giving birth was incredibly profound. Also surrendering to the fact that with babies, and particularly infants and toddlers, you have to let go of your expectations and of whatever instincts you have to take control of the situation. Of course, being a mother, you have to make decisions all the time that affect this person who is completely dependent on you, but you also have to surrender to the experience, and that in itself is really liberating. For me, it’s the best thing that has ever happened. Ever. Somebody once described it to me as your heart growing this other chamber, and I think that’s really profoundly true. Your capacity to love something, at least in my experience, deepens to a whole other space. I think I was afraid that life would change, and it does; it dramatically changes. But I feel in a lot of ways more myself now than I did before.
– Studio Photoshoots > Photoshoots From 2017 > Set 002