Scarlett Johansson Is a Happy Woman Who Can’t Stop Playing Sad Women

Early on in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, we see Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, a woman in her midthirties who’s fond of oatmeal-colored cardigans and whose Instagram bio might read “mother, wife, actress, in that order,” seated on a sofa inside her divorce attorney’s office. Soon, she’ll dive into her story, a six-minute-long monologue that’s equal parts raw and precise: the story of someone who hasn’t been truly heard in months, maybe years (and a scene that will likely resurface during awards-show broadcasts). But first, Nicole is just a woman on a couch—looking ᴅᴇᴀᴅ-tired in a wrinkly ʙuттon-down shirt and DIY haircut—waiting. When her lawyer (Laura Dern) finally breezes in, impeccably coiffed but apologizing for looking “schleppy,” Nicole glances down at her shirt and sighs. It’s a small moment, but one that made this exhausted mom, wife, and journalist feel seen.

Johansson also felt an almost eerie sense of connection when Baumbach handed her the monologue over lunch in the fall of 2017.“It was the first piece Noah gave me, and it felt familiar somehow, but not because of what I’d been experiencing then,” says the actress, 34, who at the time was embroiled in her own separation, from French curator Romain Dauriac. “But maybe because of how I grew up, and the dynamic between my parents—or maybe because I’ve known women who’ve dedicated themselves to their partner’s vision and then come out of this decade-long relationship feeling almost like a ghost.” She adds that she, too, has been in that place, and that the truth in Nicole’s story was what excited her. “I didn’t hesitate at all, because I knew that I’d have the opportunity to say those words,” she says. “Noah gave me that monologue, and I was like, ‘Well, sнιт, come on.’ Am I going to be like, ‘Nah, I’m good—let some other actor have that’? No way.”

Johansson is relaying this anecdote from London, where’s she’s in the homestretch of filming next May’s Black Widow, which she stars in and executive produced. A little over a week before, Forbes named her the highest-paid actress for the second year in a row, with her 2019 earnings hitting the $56 million mark. She’s just returned from Venice, where Marriage Story premiered to glowing reviews. By the time this story hits stands, audiences will have also seen her in Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waiтιтi’s heartbreaking Holocaust satire that delivers the emotional heft of Life Is Beautiful with a spoonful of Moonrise Kingdom whimsy. When you lay it all out, it’s clear that Johansson is at the top of her game.

“Everything ebbs and flows, and sometimes you’re riding a wave, and then the wave subsides, and then you’re waiting for another wave.”
“I am in a good creative period,” she admits, while also acknowledging that “everything ebbs and flows, and sometimes you’re riding a wave, and then the wave subsides, and then you’re waiting for another wave.” Considering her career trajectory so far—with memorable roles in films like Lost in Translation and Match Point (for which she earned Golden Globe nominations), plus a Tony-winning performance in Broadway’s A View From the Bridge—it can be hard to spot the ebbs, though there have been some.

After being called out for possibly appropriative roles in Ghost in the Shell and Rub & Tug (she exited the latter amid the controversy; the project is now in limbo), Johansson told a reporter that “as an actor,” she should be able to play “any person, or any tree, or any animal.” (She later clarified the statement, saying that in an ideal world art should be immune to political correctness.) Two days after we talk, she’s in the news again for defending Match Point director Woody Allen, who’s been accused of molesting his adopted daughter (an accusation he’s repeatedly denied). To her credit, Johansson’s critics will find zilch to take issue with in her current films, both of which feel drawn from the most authentic wells of personal history.

“It’s funny, because I had never played a mother before.”
In 2017, during an episode of Finding Your Roots, Johansson learned that her mom’s uncle and two teenage cousins perished in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Jojo Rabbit’s Waiтιтi based Johansson’s role on his own Jewish mother, as well as “all of the best solo mothers I’ve known,” he says. In the film, her character serves as a beacon of kindness and hope in a world that’s falling apart. “I wanted to show a woman who, despite all of this lunacy that was happening, was able to concentrate on giving her son a chance at being a child,” Waiтιтi says. Johansson, who shares a five-year-old daughter named Rose with ex-husband Dauriac, is actually “a very fun goofball,” he adds.

“It’s funny, because I had never played a mother before,” Johansson says, “and now suddenly I have two films back to back where I have children who are, like, eight or nine years old. Actors get to wherever they need to go whether or not they’ve lived it, but [these roles] had a deeper resonance with me because of my own personal experience.”

Four years before Scarlett Johansson was born in New York City to Danish architect Karsten Olaf Johansson and producer Melanie Sloan, the film Kramer vs. Kramer, starring Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman as an estranged couple in a bitter custody dispute, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Several years before that, Ingmar Bergman’s miniseries-turned-film Scenes From a Marriage was blamed for a historic rise in divorces in Europe. By the time she was a teenager, Johansson’s own parents would split. What Marriage Story, a contemporary take on the insтιтution, makes clear is that the trapped feeling Streep portrayed in Kramer still exists, even in a supposedly progressive relationship.

“Laura [Dern’s character] gives a great speech about this facade of equality,” Johansson says, “where the mother is the Virgin Mary, and God’s up there and didn’t even do the ҒUCҜing. It gives you second thoughts as to what true gender equality looks like, and whether it’s possible.”

Baumbach hadn’t known Johansson was going through a divorce when he invited her to lunch that fateful day, but writing the character with her in mind gave him the confidence to try things he might not have otherwise. “On paper, a seven-page monologue in a script might seem daunting,” he says. “But I felt excited about it, thinking that it was her.” To be promoting a film about divorce while celebrating new love also seems a bit daunting, but Johansson, whose engagement to Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost was announced back in May, is up to the task.

“My ability to compartmentalize comes in handy when it’s time for things like that,” she says with a laugh. “I’m certainly, obviously, very happy and fulfilled in my personal life, but I’m also a sum of many parts, and able to access different parts of my story and how I got here. It’s all valuable.”

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