Scarlett Johansson doesn’t like making pat statements about herself. She tends to pepper her insights with swear words, self-deprecation or a short, raspy laugh. But, during a recent interview, there was one truth that she acknowledged simply:
She did a lot of growing up in the three years between her Broadway debut, at the age of 25 in A View From the Bridge, and her return this month as Maggie in another American classic, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
She went through a divorce from the actor Ryan Reynolds, the man she had lovingly called “my Canadian” only months earlier while accepting the 2010 Tony Award for featured actress in View From the Bridge. She also ended professional ties with her mother, Melanie Sloan, who had been her manager since Johansson’s early days.
Working with a new team in Hollywood, Johansson cut back on the sexy ingenue roles that had made her a star in Lost in Translation and Woody Allen films like Match Point. Instead, she opted for frank, flintier characters, women more like herself: the steely Natasha Romanoff in the recent movie The Avengers, and a no-nonsense zookeeper in the 2011 family film, We Bought a Zoo.
As the pleasures of her 20s gave way to more considered choices, so too has her fierce hunger for movie stardom mellowed, a little, in favour of pursuing deeper challenges as an actress. And with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she has chosen a beauty: the stubbornly pragmatic Maggie, a role played by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jessica Lange, Kathleen Turner, Ashley Judd and Anika Noni Rose.
“I felt extreme vulnerability over the last few years, and no longer wanted to keep rushing into movie jobs or a play just to escape how I was feeling,” Johansson said in one of the production’s rehearsal rooms, as she gently caressed a blue-ink tattoo of a charm bracelet on her right wrist. “Once I wanted to work again, I wanted to start playing adults — tough women who knew what it took to survive.”
Maggie, of course, can still be seen as another Johansson sexpot. The character spends much of the first act clothed only in a slip, striving to win back the love of her husband, Brick, and secure their inheritance from Big Daddy, who is dying. But Johansson said she saw far more. The character has so many emotional notes to land in Act I alone that Johansson recalled “experiencing heart palpitations” when she read the play last year.
“After my first time on Broadway I decided I wanted to keep doing projects that I didn’t know how to do,” she said. “I’m finally at a place in my life where I feel comfortable not anticipating the result. I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Not a hint of celebrity or arrogance attends Johansson, according to director Rob Ashford and her cast mates. If anything, they say, she is the most plain-spoken and openly self-critical of the bunch.
Johansson’s earlier character on Broadway was far more buttoned-up — the virginal teenager, Catherine, in Arthur Miller’s View From the Bridge, who was unaware of her sexuality and its effect on men. Gregory Mosher, the director of that play, particularly recalled Johansson’s work ethic — “come early, stay late, trust your colleagues, never give up on trying to find a way to do a moment more simply or truthfully” — while Johansson mostly remembers being hard on her own performance and constantly exhausted.
“I never thought I would do another play after View,” she said. “I was just so tired. I thought I was just going to become an organic farmer.”
It wasn’t Cat but another Williams masterwork that piqued her interest in returning to the theatre — The Glass Menagerie, and the character of the withdrawn, crippled Laura Wingfield. As stars are wont to do, Johansson organised a private reading to see if she was a good fit for Laura, a role she had pursued earlier — but did not get — for a 2007 production in London.
“I’ve spent most of my life being rejected, but that has only made me more ambitious and competitive,” Johansson said, nodding her head toward the table of school supplies and books used by the youngsters in the cast. “But with some roles I have to learn for myself that it’s not right.”
So it was with Laura in Menagerie. After the reading, Johansson said, she felt that the character “didn’t resonate with me,” though she wasn’t exactly sure why.
When Johansson read Cat, however, Maggie’s mix of resourcefulness and insecurity struck personal chords immediately. “To bare yourself — to be naked in front of someone and show your belly, and be willing to face the hard truth of pain and rejection — is who I am and is who Maggie is,” said Johansson, who saw Judd in the role on Broadway but has never seen the 1958 Taylor film.
Exploring every layer of Maggie is not only about doing justice to the character, Johansson said, but also a way of expressing gratitude for having a great adult role at this point in her career.
“I feel like I’ve been transitioning from young woman into womanhood for a very long time,” she said. “Now, as I approach 30, with the last few years behind me, I feel like growing pains are behind me.” Then she laughed and muttered a profanity. “It’s just nice to feel happy.”