The Versatile Voice of Scarlett Johansson

Dreamworks skg

It would not be unfair to say that Scarlett Johansson would not have an acting career without her voice. It’s a voice that simultaneously effuses mature confidence and naïve incorruptibility. It takes you to dangerous depths of doesn’t-she-look-a-little-young curiosity. It makes you wonder if, as a youth, Scarlett’s parents took a big strip of sandpaper and ground that voice from a perfect diamond down into a rough-cut masterpiece.

It’s seduced the on-screen likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Firth, and the seemingly unseduceable Bill Murray. She uses it again in her latest film, “Match Point,” to charm the fidelity off of a married Irish tennis star. Sure, Scarlett has her other exquisite qualities (bee-stung lips, right-cheek mole, and curves that she describes as her “leading ladies”), but she pins your emotions down and half-nelsons them with the voice.

When Johansson picks up the phone for an interview with The Harvard Crimson, she returns pleasantries with gruff, no-nonsense intonation. She’s all out of sultriness at the moment, her stock no doubt still replenishing from the double seduction she enacts in “Match Point.”

Like Nola Rice, her character in the film, Johansson is a complex being. In the course of the interview, she is by turns cynical and bright-eyed, modest and—when it comes to talk of college—way too cool for school. She handles the interview like an utter professional, until she mysteriously ducks out of the conversation twice. Her explanation? “Sorry, my older brother is here and he’s driving me crazy.”



WORKING WITH WOODY

“Match Point” has been pegged by a fair share of critics as a comeback for director Woody Allen, who has floundered in recent years with tepidly received efforts (“Anything Else,” “Hollywood Ending”) destined for Blockbuster clearance racks. Its reception at 2005’s Cannes Film Festival was rapturous, and the film has garnered four Golden Globe nominations, including a Best Supporting Actress nod for Johansson and a Best Director nod for Allen.

For Johansson, the fascination with the director began at the age of ten, while most kids her age were still being weaned off of Saturday morning cartoons. The attraction of working with the iconic director stemmed from a long-standing curiosity about the man’s enigmatic directorial style.

“He’s really quite mysterious, no one really knows how he works,” says Johansson. “You hear the stories of not getting the full script, how he doesn’t really talk to the actors. But I love his movies and I was curious.”

When it comes to describing her work with the director, her praise borders on rapture. She even downplays the notoriously neurotic side of the man who built his career on the trait. “Woody has some neuroses, I don’t know if he has any more than the next man,” she says.

Johansson struggles to find words to describe their working relationship, finally settling on “very nice and playful.” But she does admit, “If I could work with him for the rest of my career, I would be very happy.”

She took another step towards achieving that goal, agreeing to star in Allen’s follow-up, “Scoop.” During the “Match Point” shoot, she approached the director and professed her desire to act with him on-screen. Allen agreed to do a comedy with her, and “Scoop” was filmed last summer.

Johansson is painfully shy about divulging details about the film, which is set for release in 2006. European trade website screendaily.com is a bit more forthcoming, describing Johansson’s role as that of a journalism student investigating a string of murders in London. Allen plays a man posing as her father.

Pushed for even one sentence about the film, Johansson does offer the tiniest of morsels: “It’s a comedy.”

“MATCH POINT” SET

“Match Point” is, on the other hand, a straight drama; not a comedy with moments of heartbreak, not a drama sprinkled with comic relief.

Faded tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) charms his way into the good graces of the wealthy Hewett family and settles into a comfortable marriage with Chloe Hewett (Emily Mortimer).

Complicating the equation is his brother in-law’s fiancée, Nola, with whom Chris first exchanges some rain-soaked afternoon delight, with subsequent forays into massage oils and standard-grade kink.

The film then evolves into a meditative psychological thriller that wears its psychoses on its sleeve. The affair inevitably turns sour over broken promises and long, drawn-out arguments where both Nola and Chris reveal their own (and maybe Allen’s) neuroses.

The motif that resonates throughout “Match Point” is the concept of luck, starting from Chris’s initial voiceover: “The man who said, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life.”

Johansson subscribes fully to Allen’s conviction in the power of luck. “We make all these decision to take a road less traveled but it’s just down to good luck,” she says. “It’s scary, and people have to admit that.”

She also professes some similarities to her damaged-goods character. “In every character I play there’s some aspect of myself,” she says. As the undervalued assistant to Vermeer in “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” she identified with her sense of longing, and for her role as Charlotte in “Lost in Translation,” it was a sense of displacement.

“In this case I was very intrigued by the desperation of my character and the kind of hysteria that comes from that,” she says.

But she draws the line at extending any further comparisons between herself and Nola. When asked if she would have reacted the same way as her character in a climactic, hysterical scene in the film, she seems slightly put out and sternly replies, “There is no Nola Rice in real life. The reaction is the reaction that was written for the character. There would never be any other reaction at least in Woody’s mind.”

HIGHER EDUCATION

The concept of luck naturally turns up in conversation and Johansson is the first to admit that, had she received a few more failed casting calls, she might be on the other end of this phone conversation.

“I feel like a damn lucky person,” she says. “I have friends who are seniors in college who are graduating this year and who still don’t know what the hell they want to do with their lives. I feel lucky to have a passion and be successful at it.”

Johansson initially did apply to New York University’s arts school in 2003, but was rejected. In retrospect, fortune may have fallen in her favor. She admits that the dorms-and-dining-halls lifestyle may not suit her, even as she’s played a college student herself in 2004’s “In Good Company” (in which her character was accepted into, yep, NYU).

“I have friends who are studying sociology and finance and constantly doing research and writing papers and going to classes,” she says. “I can’t imagine that life for me.”

She does, however, empathize with the empty wallets of the average college student, and says she actively works towards making films that are worth their tightly budgeted cash. “Young people are paying ten bucks to go see a movie, and if you’re making a college wage, which is negative 35,000 dollars, you need to spend your money wisely,” she says.

So is “Match Point” worth the ten dollars? “It’s not disposable, you’re left thinking about it for a while afterwards,” she says.

For all the luck she claims to have had thus far (and luck hardly begins to explain the critical kudos she’s received for her body of work), Johansson exposes a realistic pessimism when it comes to her future prospects.

When asked to describe where she might be in ten, twenty, forty years, she admits she has no clue. “I could be incredibly successful, or I could never work again, it’s hard to say,” she says. “It’s an industry where actors and actresses are disposable.”

Regardless of Johansson’s status as a Hollywood A-lister (both threatened and cemented this year by mega-flop “The Island” and the widely praised “Match Point”), she is, in the end, something of an ordinary twentysomething.

She’s maybe even a little introverted. To celebrate her 21st birthday, only a few days after the time of the interview, she wants to keep it modest.

“I’m just gonna have a nice little party…we’ll do a little get-together with friends,” she says. “I’m pretty low-key and I just have wanna have a good time. I don’t have to go to some night club and have a crazy night. I just want to have a crazy night in private.”

And her midnight beverage of choice?

“Jack Daniels with ginger ale, or seven and seven [Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up],” she says, laughing. “I’m old fashioned that way.”

­—Staff writer Ben B. Chung can be reached at bchung@fas.harvard.edu.