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Scarlett Johansson.

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Scarlett Johansson on We Bought a Zoo, Her Fear of Birds, and Moving Away From ‘Ingénue’ Roles

In We Bought a Zoo, Cameron Crowe’s adaptation of the Benjamin Mee memoir, Scarlett Johansson plays a plainspoken zookeeper who helps a single dad (Matt Damon) learn the ropes of zoo ownership. The family-friendly film is a change of scenery for Johansson, who’s been busy playing seductresses, mistresses, and a Marvel superhero. We sat down with Johansson to discuss her fear of birds, her audition history with Crowe, and a desire to move away from “ingénue” roles.

You kept a distinct wide-legged stance through a lot of the movie. Was that intentional, or is it a bit of your superhero form trickling into the role?
I appreciate you noticing it because I wanted that character to be full of conviction — and in order to be full of conviction, you have to be [pause] full of conviction, or it doesn’t work. I think part of that was the physicality of the role. It was this salt of the Earth, feet on the ground, ready to just solve the problem as it comes at you [character]. There’s something a little bit “in your own skin” about it, and I think that’s just the kind of stance she adopts.

Did you have to overcome any irrational animal fears when you were shooting this movie?
I’m only scared of birds. Something about wings and beaks and the flapping. I’m terrified of them. That still hasn’t gone away. If they’d asked me to put a bird on my shoulder I would’ve done it, but it would’ve been hard. Cockroaches. I cannot stand cockroaches. That’s one thing I absolutely couldn’t do. But that’s not really an animal, is it? It’s an insect. … Actually, my uncle is terrified of birds, as well, so it runs in the family.

There were peacocks on the set.
Yeah, I was terrified of them. Like, “Ahh, don’t get too close.” They’re like, mean.

At one point, Elle Fanning asks your character if she prefers animals or humans. What about you? Any preference?
I take humans most of the time, but I have to say that occasionally sitting on the couch with the dog, you’re just like, “Man, you’re the best company. This is bliss.” Just the dog and a nice old movie and you’re good to go. But yeah, people. I take people.

You’ve auditioned for Cameron Crowe in the past. Which films did you go after?
When I was 15, I read for Almost Famous.

Which role was it?
I don’t know. It wasn’t Penny, it was one of the other — what are they called? It’ll come to me. [Editor’s note: Band-aids!] And I read for Elizabethtown. Yeah, I’ve been auditioning for a long time.

Directors seem to like casting you as “the other woman” or the seductress. Do you ever find yourself wishing you could play more wholesome love interests, like with this role?
I think that as I get older, I’m now looking at roles that move away from that kind of ingénue mold and are more based on women that are experienced and have had life before the point you find them in. That’s refreshing for me. It’s nice to be able to kind of transition into that. I feel like for me, right now, I don’t wanna take on any roles that aren’t challenging in some way. I never wanna play something I’ve done before. I wanna be able to just have everything be hard in some way. Otherwise, what’s the point?

There’ve been reports that you’re directing a movie called Summer Crossing. Is that really happening?
I hope. It’s a project I’ve been developing for five or six years. I’m writing it right now with Tristine Skyler, so we’ll see. You have a script and then you take it out and finance it. It’s a big preproduction process, but that’s where my focus is.

Do you plan to be in the movie?
No, no.

Your new sci-fi movie, Under the Skin, sounds like something you haven’t done before. I read that you’re playing an alien disguised as a hot woman — or is that simplifying it?
That’s simplifying it. I think Jonathan [Glazer, the director] would probably say it’s a movie about an “it” that becomes a “she.” It’s kind of impossible to describe. It’d be like trying to describe, like, a Mike Leigh film. It’s very abstract in a certain way.

Are there comedy elements?
No, there’s nothing funny about it at all. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. It’s physically and emotionally challenging. I’ve never done anything as difficult. I don’t think Jonathan has, either. We’re, like, exhausted. But it’s good. It’s nice to be that challenged. It feels like you’re alive.

Photo: JIMI CELESTE/patrickmcmullan.com