Remember when Howard Stern was calling himself “the King of all Media” back in the 90s? In 2013, there’s a new celebrity multi-tasker deserving of that crown: Scarlett Johansson. Over the last decade, there are very few creative outlets left that she hasn’t at least dabbled in. There are the films, of course—the reason her fame is so deserved are movies like Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. But she hasn’t focused solely on art house flicks and Oscar bait. She’s done romantic comedy throwaways like He’s Just Not That Into You and The Nanny Diaries, kid’s fare like Home Alone 3 and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and action popcorn flicks like The Avengers, Iron Man 2, and the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
And that’s not even scratching the surface of her bursting-at-the-seams resumé. She’s been on Broadway, most recently as Maggie in a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She’s recorded two albums, 2008’s Anywhere I Lay My Head (a collection of Tom Waits covers) and 2009’s Break Up (a collaborative with Pete Yorn). She’s starred in advertising campaigns for Calvin Klein and L’Oréal, and just appeared in a new commercial for Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian fashion house, which paired her with Matthew McConaughey and was directed by Martin freakin’ Scorsese. She’s stumped for Obama in the last two elections, and acts as a Global Ambassador for Oxfam, a nonprofit relief and development group. She has strong political opinions, and the calluses on her feet to back them up.
Her dating life is a mainstay not just of gossip mags, but all global news sources. Are you aware she recently got engaged to French journalist Romain Dauriac? If you have an Internet connection, basic cable, or any contact with the outside world, you probably do. Johansson is so culturally omnipresent that she even appears in things she doesn’t want to. A character sharing her name made a cameo in the new novel The First Thing We Look At, and Johansson responded with a lawsuit. Gregoire Delacourt, the author, seemed legitimately stunned. “I had thought it more likely that she’d call and invite me for a coffee,” he said of the starlet.
We called Johansson in Paris, France, to talk about her latest film, Don Jon—written, directed and co-starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt—now playing in theaters pretty much everywhere. True to her reputation, Johansson is delightful in conversation; funny and outgoing, instantly warm and quick to laugh. She’s exactly what you want her to be, which is almost never the case. Hollywood is built on smoke and mirrors. But Johansson delivers as promised.
It seems like we’ve been chasing you around the globe.
Yeah, sorry about that.
No, no, you’ve got a hectic schedule. We can’t even imagine. In the last few weeks along, you’ve gone from Venice to Paris to New York City to Paris again. Does it sometimes feel like you’re a train hobo with more money?
I guess it does, yeah. But you know, when duty calls, you’ve got to be there. It’s crazy to publicize two films at the same time, and I wrapped Captain America 2 not that long ago, which involved a few different locations. It’s definitely been around the world in three months or something. Normally I like to stay put.
Yeah. But most of the time, home is a movie set. That’s as stable as it gets. But then the movie’s over and the press train starts to roll.
That sounds like a Tom Waits lyric.
The press train starts to roll? It does, doesn’t it? It feels like that sometimes.
When you get to a new city, how long does it take to get your sea legs? Or have you done this for so long that you barely notice the time change between New York to Paris?
New York to Paris is a pretty easy commute, I find.
Are you serious? It’s like a seven hour flight and a six hour time difference.
It’s usually an overnight plane trip, and coming into either city is pretty magical. And actually, both places are pretty similar. They’re like sister cities. For both of them, you have to walk to really appreciate them.
What about cities you’re visiting for the first time?
Oh yeah. When I’m traveling and I visit someplace I’ve never been to before, I’ll make a checklist of everything I want to see, just to get a flavor of the city.
So you’re a tourist?
With a 5am call time?
When you were shooting Under the Skin in Glasgow, you described it as “wet and terrifying.” Was it really that bad?
There were definitely scenes that felt wet and terrifying, but Glasgow itself is a really warm city. The people are very inviting and I think Scots in general have a reputation of being jolly and inclusive. I felt like I fit in there. Maybe because we shot the film during winter and every place we went was cozy. The city is built to be cozy because it’s rainy all the time there.
Scottish pubs are especially cozy.
Oh my goodness yes. Luckily, we had that early call time you were mentioning, which kept my liver functioning. You have to be careful. They take their drinking pretty seriously over there.
You seem like someone who’d love a good dive bar.
Well, I did grew up in New York.
It’s part of New York culture?
Most certainly. Growing up, before any of my friends could afford the next hot mixology bar, we were drinking at the local dive bars. It’s a great way to see local spirit and tap into what’s happening in town. In general, it’s a place to meet and be merry, not to be seen and sip overpriced cocktails.
I came across a strange quote about you, and I wonder if you could explain it to me.
Woody Allen once said you have a “zaftig humidity.” What in the world does that mean, do you think?
Wow. [Long pause.] I honestly don’t…. [Pause.] I think maybe he just wanted to use the word “zaftig.” Could that be it?
That’s a very good guess.
He probably had a high SAT score, and he was showing off.
I looked up “zaftig” and apparently it’s a Yiddish word meaning juicy.
Okay then. [Laughs.] This just keeps getting better.
How do you translate that now?
I would imagine that he meant I had a kind of steamy sort of… [Pause.] I guess he was talking about my curvaceous…. kind of steamy…. [Laughs.] I don’t know! I’m sorry.
No, no, you’re making an amazing effort.
Maybe he was just describing his feelings of claustrophobia?
About… you, or life in general?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.
I’m starting to think that maybe he said it just so a journalist would ask you about it someday, and you’d have to decode a ridiculous, probably meaningless quote.
Yeah, he likes that. He likes challenging me in that way. It makes him continue to feel smarter than me and that is something we always struggle with.
You haven’t done a film with Woody since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Do you still keep in touch?
Of course. Yes.
Does he still call you to come over and check out his suspicious skin moles?
No. [Laughs.] Not these days. We’re friends. We have a wonderful friendship and I feel very fortunate. I can trust him to keep all my secrets safe. He has a deep understanding about them, and he’s very discreet.
Well, he’s been in the limelight for almost half a century. He probably knows a few things about being famous and having your private life under constant scrutiny.
He’s much better at it than I am. He’s got a much more, I don’t know, relaxed nature about fame. I mean, not that we’ve ever talked about it.
That would be weird?
It would. You don’t really get together with a friend and say, “It sure is something us both being famous and all, huh?” We talk about films but not about fame.
When you get to a certain echelon of celebrity, is Googling yourself even remotely tempting?
I learned the hard way that it is probably better to be blissfully unaware. But I have Googled myself before. The curiosity got the better of me, but I don’t think it’s ever been something I felt good about afterwards. It wasn’t like I started trolling the Internet and suddenly had all this self-esteem.
The Internet rarely promotes self-esteem.
You never find exactly what you’re looking for. So I try to avoid it whenever possible. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet, no.
What are you looking for?
You said you never find exactly what you’re looking for. What are you looking for?
Mostly it’s just to see what I wore to an event, if it photographed well, or how the makeup looked or something like that. I never see that stuff otherwise.
You don’t look at the magazines?
I don’t really buy lots of fashion magazines. And I definitely don’t buy gossip magazines. If not for the Internet, I’d never see any of these photos. I spend a lot of time working with really talented hair and makeup artists and putting it all together, and I think everyone wants to see what they look like.
Your latest movie, Don Jon, has a sex scene in which you and co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt are entirely clothed. Which seems odd for a sex scene.
Is it? I didn’t know it was confusing.
Well, most times when people have sex, there’s some nudity involved.
I don’t think of it as a particularly confusing scene. The scene has a purpose. It’s kind of vital to the story. It’s about how these characters see what we want to see in each another, and not what’s right out in front of them.
So it’s not like you were uncomfortable doing nudity.
Not at all. Did you see Under the Skin?
I was about to say. That was full-frontal.
If I was uncomfortable with nudity, I never could’ve done that film.
Is nudity a big factor when you’re deciding to do a movie?
Absolutely. If it feels uncomfortable, it means there is something not right about it. Or it’s gratuitous and unnecessary and doesn’t fit into the story. My job as an actress is to ask myself if what I’m doing feels natural and if it’s consistent with the motivations and behaviors of my character.
You’re not thinking whether screen shots of you in the buff are going to end up in all the wrong places?
I can’t go there. I can’t be aware of it because my job requires me to be unaware of those things. I have to be unaware of myself, if that makes any sense. I have to be aware of myself but unaware of myself on a personal level.
It’s a twisted maze of logic, but I think I understand what you mean.
It gets complicated.
You’ve said that doing a sex scene is like choreographing a stunt. It’s that mapped out? You never improvise it?
Well, there’s some improvisation, obviously. But especially with a film like Don Jon, it’s not just about two people who happen to have sex. We’re telling a story about two very specific characters, and the way we move our bodies is as important as how we deliver our dialogue. It isn’t just rolling around on the bed. You have a point to get across. So you do have to choreograph it, yeah.
You haven’t put out a new record since 2009. When are getting more music from you?
I’d love to do another record, but it takes a lot of time and of course you have to be inspired. I have ideas and stuff. I formed a girl’s band about a year ago.
A girl’s band. A band with only girls in it.
Please tell us this is a real thing.
Oh yeah, we recorded a bunch of singles. But I’ve just been slammed with work, we just haven’t been able to finish them.
You wrote these songs?
Some of them. I write music sometimes. In my trailer, when nothing else is happening. I wish I could do that full time. I would love to have that gift. But I don’t. So for me, it has to be more of a collaborative process. Because I’m not a song writer. I can write lyrics, I understand melody, but it’s something that I would have to dedicate myself to and I don’t have the time.
Does this all-girl band have a name?
The One And Only Singles. Or maybe just the Singles.
Okay, that’s kinda amazing. What’s the genre? What kind of music do you make? R&B, jazz, hip-hop, heavy metal?
I would say it’s super-pop.
Super-pop? Which is what? Pop made by crime fighters?
No, it’s like unabashed pop. The idea was to write super pop dance music written and performed by girls. Like Grimes. Do you know about Grimes?
Something like that. I love Grimes. And I love the Bangles. And I love the Go-Gos. I wanted it to be like those bands. Ultra pop, but also a little ironic. A little in on the joke.
So pop music that’s smart enough to be self aware?
Yeah. I like that idea. Pop that knows itself.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the October/November 2013 issue of Malibu Magazine.)