Originally created 12/15/03

Johansson brings old-soul grace to teen roles



TORONTO -- Let's compare husky-voiced actresses Lauren Bacall and Scarlett Johansson.

Bacall became an instant movie star with her first film, "To Have and Have Not," a role she landed opposite future husband Humphrey Bogart when she was 19.

Just turned 19 herself, Johansson's a veteran by comparison, with more than a dozen films behind her, among them this fall's art-house hit "Lost in Translation" and the new 17th century drama "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

Bacall burst full-blown on Hollywood as a sexy dame whose deep, rich voice enhanced her sultriness.

Johansson has grown up on screen, from child roles in "Manny & Lo" and Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer" to wise-beyond-her-years teen characters in "Ghost World" and the Coen brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There." From her early days as a kid on commercial auditions, Johansson's throaty voice led casting directors to ask, "What's the matter, honey? Sore throat?"

"It was just a nightmare," Johansson told The Associated Press in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Lost in Translation" and "Girl With a Pearl Earring" played.

"I don't know if my voice was ever really a drawback, and later, when I was just going out for film auditions, all the casting directors, they used to say, 'You've got a great voice, Scarlett.' And I'd be like, (switching to her froggiest, phlegmiest voice), 'Thank you."'

Johansson's distinctive voice complements her singular features, a Mona Lisa smirk and wry eyes that convey an old-soul wisdom.

"There is a unique quality and look about her," said "Lost in Translation" writer-director Sofia Coppola. "She has a calmness. She's not performing all the time, and she just always has a sort of wise look in her eyes that you wouldn't normally see in a teenager."

Her film resume is a class act consisting mostly of meaty drama and quirky comedy, with none of the usual lowbrow romances that are a rite of passage in Hollywood for most teen actors.

"I purposely avoid doing the movies about, you know, cheerleaders who become prom queens, who help dying children in Rwanda and marry the prom king," Johansson said. "That stuff's not interesting to me. There's nothing in that.

"I'm not, like, supporting a drug habit, so there's no reason for me to sell my soul in that way. I just want to do things that are interesting, things that are exciting."

"Lost in Translation" pairs Johansson with Bill Murray in a friendship bordering on romance between a young wife and a washed-up movie star shooting a commercial in Tokyo, two lonely Americans who find a connection in a foreign land.

In "Girl With a Pearl Earring," Johansson plays a maid in the household of Dutch painter Vermeer (Colin Firth) who becomes an object of romantic longing for the artist and the subject of one of his most famous works.

Johansson's quiet self-assurance has allowed her to hold her own against much older male co-stars. After working with Johansson on "The Horse Whisperer," Redford called her "13 going on 30."

At 15, she mightily impressed Billy Bob Thornton, whose taciturn barber in the Coens' "The Man Who Wasn't There" had a fixation for Johansson's character.

"I was shocked that she was so intelligent and wry at that age. It was like being with a woman. It wasn't like I was working with a kid at all," Thornton said. "The Coen brothers and I, we were all afraid of her, afraid of how together she was for her age."

Johansson's credits mostly are smaller character studies, though she did co-star in 2002's campy giant-spider romp "Eight Legged Freaks."

Up next for Johansson is another project with more commercial prospects, "The Perfect Score," a caper due out in January about teenagers plotting to steal answers to the SATs. She also has shot the drama "A Love Song for Bobby Long," starring opposite John Travolta as a woman who inherits her mother's run-down New Orleans home and arrives to find a couple of oddball men living there.

Johansson grew up in New York City, she and her twin brother the youngest of four children. ("He's actually the youngest," Johansson said. "I beat him by three minutes, the three most important minutes of my entire life.")

Early in grade school, Johansson already was figuring on becoming an actress.

"I always liked to perform. I guess the same way kids like to play instruments. I like to be a big ham," Johansson said. "And somebody had said we were like the cute little Johansson family, and my mom should take us to a commercial agency."

So the family went off to an audition, where the casting directors were only interested in her older brother, sending 7-year-old Scarlett into fits.

Johansson continued auditioning for commercials but took rejection so hard her mother began limiting her to film tryouts. She was cast in 1994's "North" and has worked steadily in film since, her precocious self-possession allowing her to snare mature roles when many actresses her age wallowed in raunchy teen-hijinks flicks.

"I've always been very sensitive to people around me. The interaction between people," Johansson said. "I can tell very much when I first meet people whether or not I will get along with them. I can tell things about people when I meet them, if they've been terribly hurt or if they're awfully passive-aggressive.

"I'm very accepting also of people and their quirks. That doesn't mean I allow people room to be (jerks), but I have an understanding of that. Maybe that's why I've been able to sort of take on a lot of older male actors."