The opening sequence of Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film about two spiritually adrift, jet-lagged Americans finding each other in Tokyo, features a sustained shot of Scarlett Johansson’s behind, swaddled in a pair of nearly translucent pink underwear, as she lies on a bed, gazing at a window with the curtains drawn. Johansson plays Charlotte, a recent college graduate lamenting the trajectory of her life from inside an opulent Japanese hotel; the actress was just 17 when she landed the role. Although she had already been working for almost a decade, her quiet, deliberate performance turned her into one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses, and in the 14 years since Lost in Translation was released, she has served as a muse to auteurs including Woody Allen and the Coen brothers and propped up massive commercial franchises such as Captain America and The Avengers. Her creative choices have been vast and varied, a mix of blockbusters and art-house experiments: a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her (a character she gave life to using only that dusky, twilight voice), a 17th century servant to the painter Johannes Vermeer in Girl With a Pearl Earring, the girlfriend of a porn addict in Don Jon.
Hollywood has a strange relationship to certain libidinous energies, and Johansson is compared often and aptly to Marilyn Monroe: The fact of her body seems to supersede everything else. But Johansson is bored by discussions of her physicality, and while Monroe was never quite able to fully steer her own sexuality, Johansson is remarkably self-possessed. To ask her about her good looks is to watch her grow increasingly disinterested. In the past decade, she’s also chosen roles—an unnamed, homicidal alien in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin; Black Widow, an unforgiving superspy, in the Avengers films; a drug mule who turns superhuman in Luc Besson’s Lucy—in which her sexuality is weaponized. Men underestimate her and are punished for it.
Her latest part is Major Motoko Kusanagi in a live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii’s beloved 1995 manga film. In Oshii’s version, the Major is Japanese, and when Johansson’s casting was announced, critics immediately cried whitewashing. Johansson was born in New York City, in 1984, to a Jewish mother from the Bronx and a father from Denmark, and while she is quick to acknowledge Hollywood’s grim diversity problem, she is hopeful that the film, directed by Rupert Sanders and shot in New Zealand and Hong Kong, will resolve any questions about the Major’s actual origins.
The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich first connected with Johansson in a cavernous photo studio on the west side of Manhattan. Two weeks after their initial conversation, Johansson would speak at the Women’s March on Washington, voicing her firm support for women’s reproductive rights. At one point she addressed the new president directly, saying that her daughter “may potentially not have the right to make choices for her body and her future that your daughter Ivanka has been privileged to have.” But on this blustery afternoon just days into the new year, writer and subject found an overstuffed leather couch, commandeered a plate of chocolate chip cookies and spoke about Johansson’s childhood, career and new life as a mother—she has a two-year-old daughter with French advertising executive Romain Dauriac. (They were wed in 2014, three years after the end of Johansson’s brief and high-profile marriage to Ryan Reynolds.) “She’s frank and funny and forthright—a kind of tough-talking New York girl,” Petrusich says. “She’s also deeply uninterested in bullshit. There’s a sense, speaking with her, that you need to be ready to go hard or you’ll lose her interest. It immediately made sense to me that Sofia Coppola cast her as a corrective to the bubbly blonde starlet played by Anna Faris in Lost in Translation. She’s a deep and naturally contemplative person—with a gaze that draws you in even as it commands you to keep up.”
You were born and raised in New York City. What was it like to grow up here?
New York was different then. That makes me sound like an old geezer, but the city was much more accessible. My group of friends was really diverse. We all came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and our parents did different things. Some parents were drug dealers, some were working in finance, and we all lived in the same community. While it’s still probably the greatest city in the world—I’m biased—I think it used to feel like more was possible here for more people. There’s a great leather store down in the West Village that has been there forever. I was there a couple of months ago, and the guy who has been making sandals since 1967 or whatever is fighting his landlord to stay in that space, because it was once rent stabilized and that doesn’t exist anymore. In the next couple of years it will probably turn into some corporate business. It’s sad, because that’s the heartbeat of New York. That’s what drove the city, what made things seem possible.
Almost everyone I know who grew up in New York City has this lovely quality—not just being exposed to all the different artists working around you but, inevitably, to all these different ways of being, ways of living, ways of seeing the world.
And you can be yourself here, or whatever version of yourself you want to be. That’s not possible in a lot of other places. I love the idea of raising my daughter here. She’s probably exposed to so many more things just going to the playground than almost any other toddler her age growing up in a lot of other places.
You had your daughter in 2015?
What year are we in? No, 2014—I can’t even remember. [laughs] She’s two and a half now.
Do you think motherhood has changed you?
Oh, it has changed me, yes. Just the process of being pregnant and giving birth was incredibly profound. Also surrendering to the fact that with babies, and particularly infants and toddlers, you have to let go of your expectations and of whatever instincts you have to take control of the situation. Of course, being a mother, you have to make decisions all the time that affect this person who is completely dependent on you, but you also have to surrender to the experience, and that in itself is really liberating. For me, it’s the best thing that has ever happened. Ever. Somebody once described it to me as your heart growing this other chamber, and I think that’s really profoundly true. Your capacity to love something, at least in my experience, deepens to a whole other space. I think I was afraid that life would change, and it does; it dramatically changes. But I feel in a lot of ways more myself now than I did before.
That’s a beautiful way of talking about it.
I understand the importance of my own happiness now more than I did before. Because you see how it affects somebody else, and you’re kind of like, If I’m not happy, then I can’t be in tip-top shape for this other person.
This question is asked incessantly of women and very rarely asked of working fathers, but do you feel parenthood has changed the way you approach your work?
Where I want to be working is definitely something. That’s just a practical part of it, though I’m fortunately at a place in my career, after 20-whatever years, where I can dictate that a little bit. It will probably get more challenging as she gets older, once she’s in school and her life is more established in one place. It’s a struggle for a lot of people, because we exist in this weird nomadic industry where almost everybody on a crew has a family, and it’s hard. It’s hard on relationships; it’s hard on your partner, your kids, family in general, friends.
Has that been a challenge for you?
When I was doing Ghost in the Shell, I was in New Zealand with our daughter for six months. It was so hard: The distance and the weight of the job itself were really hard on me. It was a big movie with a lot happening. I spent all day fighting people—and literally fighting with myself. I was battling with the character. I remember saying to Rupert Sanders several times, “Can one good thing happen to this character? One great moment?” The answer was no. Spoiler alert: It’s a fuckin’ dark ride for this person, or cyborg or whatever.
There was some controversy about your casting as the Major. She’s a character a lot of people presumed would be Japanese and therefore would be played by a Japanese actor. Did those conversations trickle down to you?
Totally. I think the conversation about diversity in Hollywood is an important one and one that we should be having. My character has the unique experience of being a person whose human brain has been put into what was essentially a synthetic robotic body. I guess I always thought the character was a universal one, in the sense that she has no identity, and the heart of this story is her search for an identity. I hope that whatever questions people have about my casting in this film will be answered by actually seeing the movie. It’s hard to say, because you haven’t seen the movie yet, and there’s a part of it that I don’t want to talk about because it’s the turning point of the movie, but I think it answers the question for the audience as to who I am, who I was and what my true identity is, and it has nothing to do with how my character looks or how you see me.
On a more personal level, there’s also the challenge of disappearing into another person, or disappearing into the project itself, and having to forcibly disconnect from the people around you. It’s not a burden that can be shared.
Totally, because oftentimes you don’t even really know where within you it’s coming from. I think that’s part of the beauty of the job. What I’m more and more curious about, and more confident in exploring, are all these weird spaces within ourselves, these little nooks and crannies, things that at one time seemed embarrassing to try. When you realize the freedom you feel when you unlock that, and when you’re able to get weird and take up lots of space emotionally and then pull back—if you can do that within a single performance, it’s a transformative experience.
Let’s talk about your family. Your father is Danish and your mother is from the Bronx. What kind of parents were they?
After having two kids and then trying for a third and getting two more—I have a twin brother, and we were the last—I think they surrendered whatever rule book they had been following, if any. That’s probably normal. By the time you get to your younger kids, you’re more lax, you worry over fewer things, you’re more comfortable as a parent. I think my brother and I probably benefited from that in some ways and didn’t in others. My mom had moved to California and was kind of remotely there, and my dad was consumed by the responsibility of being at home with us and all that it meant to provide for us. My parents always struggled financially, so that was a huge burden for him. By the time we were 13, my brother and I were almost raising ourselves. I was still living at home and going to school and stuff, but I was working, and New York is—I was out and about and hanging out and getting into trouble pretty early on. Not too much trouble, thankfully. I self-regulated, but I could have probably gone really far down the rabbit hole had I not always had something guiding me.
What do you think that was? Work?
Yeah. I had a good work ethic. I had my own sense of self-preservation, and I made it to graduation and got my own place when I was 18.
What about dating at that age—anything you know now that you wish you’d known in your early 20s?
I never dated anyone, so I’m a bad person to ask for advice. I did go on one blind date, and when I arrived, my date had already taken a shot of tequila in his eye. I didn’t even know that was possible. What a turnoff. I would never want to be in my early 20s again, though I did a lot of fun stuff. I wish I knew that everything changes and that nothing is forever—except death. It probably would’ve freed up a lot of space in my brain.
What did your father do for a living?
My dad was an architect.
And your mom?
My mom started managing me when I was about eight or nine. She was kind of overseeing things prior to that, but she really started managing me when I was around that age—or maybe a little bit older, like 12. She did that until I stopped working with her when I was in my early 20s. My mom is very ambitious, and she’s also good at multitasking. She has a lot of life force, my mom. I definitely inherited that from her. My dad is more—I don’t know, I think my dad in a lot of ways is kind of a dreamer. He’s such a creative person, but at times I think he can almost be self-limiting. Whereas my mom, I think, always saw a bigger picture, and I probably got that from her.
How was he self-limiting?
I think he didn’t have as much confidence. He had a complicated relationship with his father. Even though he could dream big, he never had the confidence to push the boundaries. And my mom, when I was growing up, always told me—told all of us, actually—that if we wanted something we had to go and get it for ourselves and that nobody would do it for us. That really stuck with me. Though I think I’m a little bit more forgiving than that. I probably work better in a team than she does, and I really appreciate the collaborative spirit. I think part of that is from working on productions for such a long time and seeing how one hand holds the other and how important it is to have a healthy morale within a group of people in a professional setting. I’m ambitious, I guess. If I see something in the distance and I want it, I’ll sprint toward it.
I would think there might be something advantageous about coming into your own as an artist relatively early, because there’s a self-confidence or self-possession we all have as children that just gets chipped away the longer you exist in the world.
Yeah, I think that’s interesting. You go to high school and then you go to college and then you’re about to graduate and you go, “Well, I don’t want to do this.” And then you’re interning somewhere, and it’s not something you really want to do. You don’t really have any work experience; you haven’t had this kind of time in the field. And then you go back to graduate school for something else, because you realize that you need a master’s degree to do whatever it is you decided you want to do, and then, you know, people get married and have kids, and life just takes a different path. I think when you work from a young age, you have time to hone—craft is such a crappy word, but it’s true. You hone a craft and things get pared away. You cut the fat away earlier on, and you’re more focused on what is within that’s actually driving you.
It’s such a gift to know what you want.
It’s true. Otherwise, you get suffocated by the possibilities. I think that’s what happens. Everything is possible, especially in this country. We’re so spoiled that way—sometimes too much is possible, and that’s why people panic. They don’t want to fail at anything, so they just stop. They stop reaching.
That’s a very American idea, the fear of failure. We prize success above all else. There’s no power in admitting fault or failure or uncertainty.
It’s something Barack Obama has—humility. It’s such a lovely quality. There are a lot of things about him that will be missed, but humility is such an important part of being successful at what you do.
A leader cannot be successful if they’re not able to be vulnerable, curious, compassionate, to have humility.
And being able to learn.
I actually think it will become very apparent that a leader cannot be successful if they don’t have that—if they’re not able to be vulnerable, curious, compassionate, to have that kind of humility. I don’t think you can lead in any field without having those qualities. That’s what makes a leader, I think: the ability to learn from mistakes and to have compassion for your fellow man.
You campaigned for Barack Obama twice and supported Hillary Clinton in the recent election. How have you been coping with recent events?
You know, it’s funny. I had dinner with Woody Allen right after the election, so it was in November. We were both like, “Okay, the election. That’s our topic before we get deep into what the meaning of life is.” And I said, “Please don’t tell me you’re one of those people who was like, ‘I told you so.’ Please don’t tell me that.” And he was like, “Honestly, I was shocked. I would have thought that he would not have won one state.” And I thought, Okay, well, if Woody felt that way, it makes me feel better about being as ignorant as I was, because I literally—I mean, it was a complete and utter shock. I had a very strange experience voting. I took my kid with me, and I was like, “Kid, we got a female president, which is pretty exciting. And it’s Hillary Clinton; that’s also cool, and we’re good.” Then I got on a plane to Hong Kong, which is a 16-hour flight. I had two glasses of wine and passed out. I woke up 10 hours later, and the stewardess was like, “Excuse me, Miss, would you like to know the election results?” I looked at her and said, “Well, I know it’s—okay, what? Give me the news. Let me have it. What is it? I think I know it’s Clinton.” And she was like, “No, it’s actually Trump.” I thought, This is a Twilight Zone episode.
You thought she was kidding.
I mean, I’m shuttling through the air at 30,000 feet. The whole cabin is dark, my brother is passed out, and I tap him on the shoulder—he was a field organizer for Obama; he’s very political—and I say, “Hunter, wake up, wake up!” He was like, “What?” I said, “Trump won.” He was like, “Oh, stop it.” God, he got so drunk when we landed in Hong Kong. This morning I was listening to NPR, and I have these moments when it still hits me, the weight of it.
Tell me about your experience at the Women’s March on Washington.
As you know, I’m not one to overshare, but I felt very driven to say what I had to say. It was both a grounding experience and an out-of-body one. Paradoxical, I guess. I always took Planned Parenthood for granted growing up. That’s how it should be, right? We are talking about normalizing what is by definition a normal thing: the accessibility of women’s health care. Everyone with a vagina needs it. Why are we still having these conversations so many years after we, as women, were supposedly “liberated”? I’m over it.
Are there things you do to manage feelings of hopelessness or fear?
Well, one thing—you just can’t be complacent. I think it’s hard because people have been inactive for such a long time, and we don’t have a draft. Not that I’m advocating for that, but if there were some kind of mandatory service, I think it would be a completely different political climate. People would be much more proactive—not just opinionated but proactive. It’s hard to mobilize people when they don’t feel—I mean, look at this past election: Nobody voted. There was a record low turnout. I blame the media for a lot of that too. Early polling results and that stuff should just be banned. I think people just got complacent. They were like, “Who cares?”
That leads me to a tangent about music. You’re a singer as well as an actor, and you’ve made two records. In 2008 you released Anywhere I Lay My Head, a collection of covers of Tom Waits songs. As we’re speaking of America writ large, it occurs to me that Waits is one of our best representative voices—on his records he becomes a vital, exciting and endearing embodiment of this place. Tell me about your relationship to his work.
He’s a true poet. And he’s an artist in that most delicious way, where his self-expression gives us a place to be reflective. Rhino came to me to do an album. I mean, who has that opportunity? It was amazing. I was overwhelmed. I thought, Maybe I’ll do classics, maybe I’ll do Cole Porter songs. Then I was like, I really want to do that duet Tom Waits does with Bette Midler called “I Never Talk to Strangers.” And then I thought, Maybe I’ll just reimagine Tom Waits songs and see where that leads me. I tried doing it with various producers, and it just was not working. That’s when I got, very fatefully, to Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio. He had this Tinkerbell-cough-syrup idea for the album, and so we just ran with it. Meeting Dave was life-changing because he became a really important figure in my life and a dear, dear friend. And going to Louisiana to record was an absolutely epic experience. I was falling in love with my first husband at the time. It was just a very romantic and really liberating time. It was great.
That sounds incredible.
It was wonderful.
Another interesting thing about Waits’s work is that so much of it is about his particular, singular performance of those songs. But because of that, I feel there’s a lot of meat left on the bone, in a way, for a different singer to come in and totally reimagine them.
Yeah, it’s true. It’s funny because if you try to re-create the song as Waits did it, you realize he actually has a very classical approach. I’m not talking about the really experimental stuff that he does, but the instrumental parts of his songs can be very sentimental. It’s his voice that gives them such depth.
You and Dave got in a car and drove together from California to Louisiana.
Yeah, it was crazy, because we didn’t know each other at all, and we figured we would get to know each other on this road trip. I think I drove.
That’s so high-stakes!
I remember picking him up in Silver Lake or whatever, and he had seven cigarettes in each hand, a cup of black coffee and a bunch of weird instruments I had never heard of, and we just loaded up the trunk and here we go. We drove into the desert and smoked a bunch of pot and got weird. We just sat on the hood of the car and stared into the sunset.
You mentioned Waits being one of our great poets. Were you pleased when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature?
Yeah, that was cool. I love that he didn’t show up too. That’s very Dylanesque. Dylan is someone you can revisit at different times in your life and his songs mean something different to you at each stage. He’s a wonderful artist and poet and a mysterious magician.
You starred in one of his music videos.
My friend Bennett Miller was asked to direct a video for him. I was going to do it with Dylan, and then he didn’t want to be in the video, so we just kind of did our own thing. About two years later, I went to see Dylan for the first time. I saw him backstage, and he said something to me like “Oh yeah, thanks for the video you did.” I expected when we did the video that he would come at us, that I would hear from him—no, not at all. He just kind of remembered it on the fly, like, Oh yeah, you did that video for me. It was my pleasure, Mr. Dylan. My friend told me this hysterical story about how a friend of theirs, a music producer, was like, “I’m bringing a friend to dinner,” and it was Dylan, which is crazy. Dylan was wearing a hoodie, and he had pulled the string so only his eyes and nose were showing. And he sat through the entire dinner like that. He kept having to pull his hoodie down so he could shove forkfuls of food into his mouth.
God bless him. Your second record, Break Up, was a collaboration with Pete Yorn, who has said that he was inspired by Serge Gainsbourg’s recordings with Brigitte Bardot. Is the duet format something that appeals to you?
Yeah, duets are great. When I was a kid I listened to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin with various singers, the Andrews Sisters. I think I particularly like to hear a male and a female voice together. Pete was like, “Hey, want to make an album?” I think he was in a dark place, or a transitional place in his life, and he had a dream that we made an album together, so he texted me when he came out of his fever dream, and that’s how we decided to make it.
The record does have a dreamy quality—there’s an ache to it. Do you remember your dreams?
I do, yeah.
Any recurring anxiety dreams?
I only have anxiety dreams! I once told my mother that and she cried. I have a lot of dreams about houses—beautiful, ancient houses filled with gardens and hanging vines that I at one time had the opportunity to live in but sold. Whatever. I’m sure the heating bills would have been outrageous.
I think part of getting older is reckoning with that idea that there’s so much we don’t know and might never know about ourselves. Dreams are the most immediate way to glimpse those weird, vast expanses of your subconscious that you can’t otherwise access.
It’s true. Of course, because you have all these barriers that shut you down from—I mean, I think it’s probably a survival thing that you go about your day and remember glimpses of dreams that you’ve had. I think examining your dreams can really help you to be more present in your waking life, because then you know better what’s going on with you.
Every once in a while someone will do you a great service by saying something revelatory to you, about you—and of course you’re like, “Fuck you, you don’t know me.” Then you go home and think about it and you’re like, Oh my God, they’re exactly right.
I was listening to this TED Talk about relationships, and the person who was giving the talk was saying that in moments when you’re starting a new relationship and your friends and family say, “No, this is a red flag. This person is not for you”—why do we ignore those people who know us so well in the moments that we don’t? And then we distance ourselves from them because we’re embarrassed or whatever. It’s interesting how sometimes all you need is your good friend to tell you that you’re not acting like yourself. Or that they see something in front of you that is not beneficial for you or true to who you actually are. I don’t know. It’s so easy to just go, “No, I don’t want to hear that.”
Well, love is so deeply intoxicating at first. You’re just out of your mind.
No one can tell you anything.
And the part of your brain that functions then is a dysfunctional part—it’s not the rational side of your brain. It’s the addictive part of your brain that fires up when you have those first feelings of love, and it’s so good.
I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person. I might be skewered for that, but I think it’s work.
You’ve said that you aren’t sure humans are designed to be monogamous.
Well, with every gain there’s a loss, right? So that’s a loss. You have to choose a path. I think the idea of marriage is very romantic; it’s a beautiful idea, and the practice of it can be a very beautiful thing. I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person. I might be skewered for that, but I think it’s work. It’s a lot of work. And the fact that it is such work for so many people—for everyone—the fact of that proves that it is not a natural thing. It’s something I have a lot of respect for and have participated in, but I think it definitely goes against some instinct to look beyond.
And of course many marriages don’t work out.
I think marriage initially involves a lot of people who have nothing to do with your relationship, because it’s a legally binding contract, and that has a weight to it. Being married is different than not being married, and anybody who tells you that it’s the same is lying. It changes things. I have friends who were together for 10 years and then decided to get married, and I’ll ask them on their wedding day or right after if it’s different, and it always is. It is. It’s a beautiful responsibility, but it’s a responsibility.
You were married for the second time in 2014. Did you wake up the next morning and feel different?
Yeah, definitely. It felt different. I had a really young baby at the time, so that also—our family dynamic was just different. I don’t know. Whatever that is, the thing you can’t fully put words to, it changed.
And it felt different from your prior marriage too?
Yeah, of course. I had a baby, and also my husband was coming from another country and becoming a citizen of this country. It was a huge transition for both of us, and certainly for him—moving here, committing to the States. But I think my husband has embraced America, and New York in particular, in this really endearing way. He was making meatballs the other night, actually. I wasn’t home. I was away, and he sent me a picture. He was like, “I’m a real New Yorker, and I love The Sopranos!” I was just, “You go, babe.”
Are you based in New York now, or are you still moving back and forth between here and Paris?
We still mix it up. My job takes me all over the place, so I don’t even know where I live, but I guess now we’re kind of committed to living here because with our daughter we have to commit to someplace. She’ll be in school in a hot minute. The time passes like crazy.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t acting?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I probably would have gone into some kind of medical profession. I’d be rooting around in somebody else! I’m interested in people.
They’re such different disciplines, but they both rely on a kind of intuition.
I could have been a dermatologist. I would have actually loved being a dermatologist. That’s a dream job. All my friends are like, “What is this weird thing on me?” And I’m like, “Let me see it!” But I don’t think I could do seven years of schooling.
I’m also not sure that Hollywood would let you go so easily.
Oh, I don’t know. There’s always someone else to fill the void.
I read recently that you were the highest-grossing actor of 2016.
I make a lot of movies that have a huge built-in audience, and that drives a lot of it. But it’s been a very productive few years.
Surveying your body of work, there’s an interesting mix of independent, idiosyncratic films and then these intensely commercial franchise movies. Do you try to keep those things in balance?
I always hoped to have that balance, and I’ve finally achieved it. I loved what Jon Favreau did with Iron Man, how he worked with actors like Robert Downey, who I’ve loved for such a long time. I’m not normally a comic book fan. I liked the Tim Burton Batman movies, but it’s not my genre. Yet Favreau seemed to find this balance that you’re talking about—an independent creative spirit with the budget of something so ambitious. It was unprecedented. It was a new way of telling that story. And it obviously rang true, because then DC and studios like Warner Bros. started doing it too. Look at the Suicide Squad cast—we’ve seen Will Smith in these blockbusters, but casting somebody like Jared Leto as the Joker? It’s a really welcome trend, I think.
Do you read reviews of your films or interviews with you in magazines?
Yeah, I do. I do read reviews and interviews. I don’t search high and low for reviews, but The New York Times, the trades—I’m curious about that stuff. It’s helpful, and I like to participate in the process that way. I will always have my own opinion about something that I’m doing, not necessarily of my own performance but of the film in general. And it’s probably similar to whatever your response was at the time! Good or bad. I’m like, “Yup, I didn’t expect it to suck either.” There have been very few times when I did something I loved and nobody else liked it. Most of the time I’m like, “Yeah….”
Filmmaking is so collaborative. There are so many moving parts, and you’re often just one of them. I imagine it must be heartbreaking when you see something you’ve made——
And it didn’t turn out how you wanted.
And who knows whose fault it was?
I know whose fault it was! Of course, oh my God. Other times I’ve made movies that were really successful and I had no idea why. There are some nice surprises. For instance, when we made Lost in Translation, nobody could really see what Sofia Coppola’s vision would be. We were making it in this weird fever of jet lag, in this new environment, and we shot it in 27 days. Lance Acord, our director of photography, may have been one of the only ones who could see what we were capturing. When I read the script, I didn’t know. I was just kind of doing my thing with Bill Murray, just experiencing what the character was experiencing. And then it came out and it resonated with so many people. I never could have predicted that.
You were just 17 when you were cast in that movie. What’s your experience of watching it now?
I haven’t seen it in so long. I would probably think, Oh my God, I’m so young.
Your character, Charlotte, is 25 in the film and searching.
I had been working for almost a decade at that time. I was in a much older circle of friends and colleagues. That sort of yearning for purpose—I had maybe a greater understanding of what that felt like than other high school seniors.
Robert Redford, who directed you in The Horse Whisperer, described you as “13 going on 30.” Have you always been an old soul?
I don’t know. Like I said, I was taking care of myself from when I was pretty young. In a lot of ways I had to be responsible for myself.
Anthony Lane, who is a very esteemed film critic, wrote a profile of you that readers thought was so fawning it spawned several negative response pieces. I’m not suggesting this is the case with Lane, who I think is an intelligent and thoughtful writer, but there’s certainly a history of male magazine reporters approaching beautiful young starlets in ways that feel limiting, if not absurd.
Women do it too, though. I’ve also experienced that with female journalists. I think they project. They have this strange way of comparing themselves to this idea of you. I’ll read articles written by women about other women in which they say, “That perfect blowout reminded me of the fact that I hadn’t showered in four days,” or whatever. It’s not only hollow, it’s uninteresting. Maybe it’s just more of a failure in approach—instead of getting to the heart of someone, what drives them creatively, you just scratch the surface. I also find interviews a lot of the time to be very boring. Not this interview; this interview is not boring, but you’re also lovely to talk to. When interviewers are self-deprecating, it becomes this weird—I don’t know, it can be exhausting at times.
People do sometimes write about you as if you’ve just drifted down in a beam of light.
I have a lot of experiences where I’m like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” I’m still surprised by my job.
It must be hard to bear the weight of those projections.
I think it’s actually ridiculous. It’s absurd. Also, I have a lot of experiences where I’m like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” I’m still surprised by my job and the places it carries me. But my day-to-day life is a regular routine.
Not to sound dystopian or paranoid, but it increasingly feels as though in the future privacy will be our currency. We’re all being rather cavalier about it right now—I’m being tracked all the time by this thing in my pocket, I’m giving all my information to corporations, and it’s fine.
I couldn’t agree with you more, having experienced that.
You had your e-mail hacked in 2011.
Yeah, that was crazy. It made me realize how vulnerable anyone is to that. The person who hacked my e-mail did the same thing to 50 other people in the public eye and also to his ex-girlfriends—it could happen to anybody. And of course we’re so cavalier about that. People are like, “Oh, who cares about me.” But you’re just as vulnerable.
I think almost anyone’s e-mail would betray some bad behavior.
Well, it’s just your personal life. Even if it’s letters you wrote to your best friend, your sister, whatever, it’s your personal stuff. It’s like a journal. It’s pretty crazy.
You’ve stayed off social media.
I just never got on that bandwagon. I don’t even call people back. I don’t even check my voice mail. It’s not in my nature. I get it; it’s a great tool for a lot of companies, a lot of causes. I don’t know. I haven’t missed it in my life at all.
Why open that door?
I don’t have space for it in my life. If I had any kind of social media account, I would have to rely on somebody else to run it, and that seems like a ridiculous extra thing I don’t need or want. I already read too much news on my phone. A couple of days ago my phone died, and I didn’t have a phone for 20 hours, and it was wonderful. I was so thrilled. It may have been the first time in my life I wasn’t panicked to not have my phone. I was just like, “This is great!” I had my kid with me. I was like, “I don’t need anything. I got my kid, I’m good.”
I suspect you were perhaps at the very tail end of the last generation of actresses who came of age professionally somewhat free of the scrutiny under which young women are held now.
Yes, I was. You see some young actors performing, and you can tell that they’re aware of how they’re supposed to be, how the public sees them and what kind of persona they’re supposed to convey. And that is unfortunate.
Tell me a little about your process as you prepare for a new role.
I start by trying to find some physicality to the character that I can hold and return to. Whether that’s a self-consciousness, like a person who is worried about aging, or maybe it’s somebody who, like the Major, has no sense of her own. She knows her physical body, but she has no care or awareness of her self.
That’s also true of the women you play in Under the Skin and Her. Each of those characters is essentially just a disembodied consciousness.
With Her I actually had a hyper-awareness of myself because I was stuck in a black box. It’s just my voice, and so you become hyperaware of certain habits. Doing the sex scene with Joaquin was an exercise in letting go.
Was it embarrassing?
I think he was really uncomfortable at first. He was so agitated, and it was really interesting to see him. It was probably easier for me because I had been in a black box for such a long time that I was like, “Bring it. I’m warmed up. Come on, let’s get weird.” In a black box you get this sense that nobody can see you, so you can be whomever you want. You can be yourself. But it was interesting to see how he reacted to it. He came around, though, and we did it—literally, we did it. But the physicality is where I start, just being aware of how this story, these lines, what does it feel like in me, what does it feel like in my body, and then why am I having this physical instinct to be close with somebody or apart from them or self-conscious about this thing or that. In the case of Under the Skin, how can I be completely free of any of these and just be purely instinctive and animal? Or in Ghost in the Shell, I don’t have any of these physical tics, these things that make us human. I’m devoid of those things, so what does that leave me with? What does this body feel like that’s not my own? There was a separation between her mind and her body, so she had to think and then act on it. These kinds of things get me started. And then of course there’s research. Even when I was playing Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, you just think about how she stands, and what it says about her strength, this fiery, driven person. The physicality is where it starts, and then it grows from there.
For me, one of the reasons you and Bill Murray are so satisfying to watch in Lost in Translation is because you share a subtle approach to the material. I think the word that gets used is underreactive. You don’t seem afraid of silence or a blank stare.
I think it’s really important for me to take time. The audience will stay with you. They’ll ride the wave with you. That’s the best part about doing live theater—having the reaction, the feedback from the audience, because it’s so informative. It’s just absolute magic when the audience and you are riding the same wave.
You starred in the Broadway revivals of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, both such rich and complicated plays. Growing up in New York, was being on Broadway an early dream of yours?
That was my absolute dream. That’s what drove me to acting. I wanted to do theater and be on Broadway. I wanted desperately to be in theater when I was eight. I wanted to be in musical theater, which I would never do now, ever. If I had to sing and dance in front of people, I would absolutely melt, fail miserably. But you have so many chances to get it right. You can get really weird, and you know that this is the only audience that will see it.
You’ve played so many characters who start out one way—unfeeling, unknowing—and grow into something or someone else via their interactions with others or their observations of the world. I’m sure you’re seeing some version of this unfold for your daughter now too—a broadening. Do you think we’re all constantly changing into new iterations of ourselves?
I don’t know. It might be interesting to play somebody who stays stuck. I don’t know if it would be interesting to watch. Maybe it is. There’s something really powerful about somebody who can’t change themselves or doesn’t want to change themselves. If you watch something like Barry Lyndon or think of a character like Dorian Gray, there’s something really amazing about those characters. To watch the demise of somebody who doesn’t want to or is incapable of changing. I’d like to get there, because it probably would help me understand a lot of people in my life. Maybe that will be the next thing for me. But up until this point, I think I’ve been trying to wrap my head around metamorphosis. Maybe now I’ve gotten to a stage where I can finally play that person who cannot change.
It seems there’s a lot of possibility there for an actor.
It’s so delicious, because I’m innately somebody who’s curious about myself and trying to figure it out. My therapist would say, “Well, you make the same mistakes, so don’t make them anymore.” I don’t want to make them anymore! But in life we make the same mistakes again and again, and——
And then one day you don’t?
And then you don’t. That’s the hope. But it’s so interesting when a person keeps making the same mistake or is unwilling to change.
I believe I know some of those people intimately.
Oh, I thought I dated all of them! Were there any left for you?