The editors of Us Weekly have really fallen down on their jobs: For several weeks in 2011, Scarlett Johansson drove around Glasgow trying to have sex with random dudes, and nobody reported a thing! Admittedly, her sexual reconnaissance was all in the service of a new movie, Under the Skin, where Johansson dons a dark wig, a fur coat, and some hooker-red lipstick to play an alien who uses her considerable wiles to lure human prey, but here’s the part that’s even more unbelievable than that logline: The Scottish men whom Johansson picks up in the movie were real people who had no idea they were being filmed, or that the sexually curious creature opposite them was one of the world’s most famous actresses.
“It was really terrifying, actually,” Johansson said last night after the film’s Toronto Film Festival premiere. “There’s that feeling of knowing something that nobody else does — or only a select few — and not being able to control the situation at all. The challenge was letting go of those fears to, as we say, ‘drive it like ya own it.’ Because otherwise, it didn’t work. It had to be done with total commitment.”
In between mysterious shots of a stunning alien world between worlds, then, most of the film’s first two reels play like highly accomplished mumblecore, as Johansson drives around Glasgow in a van, improvising and teasing a conversation out of the men whom her character plans to slay. “The van that Scarlett drives, she’s really driving,” said director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). “She’s got my voice in an earwig and I’m in the back of the car with the director of photography and the first assistant director and the sound man.”
“I couldn’t hear anything he said to me, by the way,” recalled Johansson.
“Thank God for that,” Glazer murmured.
Johansson said it took a while for her to fully shed her inhibitions in the pickup scenes. “I have a theory that Jonathan did as many takes as possible until I was too exhausted to think about it,” she said. “We knew where we needed to go, but we didn’t always know how to get there, and that just took a lot of tries. And through that process of repetition, I think sometimes I would be too exhausted to have any other thought but, How the fuck can I get what I need? I wanna go home! And it was in that moment that Jonathan would go, ‘Great, we got it.’”
The non-actors were eventually told that they were part of an elaborate (though skeleton-crewed) production, and some of them even got to consummate their flirtations with Johansson … in the weirdest way possible, of course. Whenever Johansson’s alien seems close to sealing the deal with one of her victims, the film cuts to that mysterious, dark space between worlds, where both Johansson and her suitor shrug off their clothes, the man typically so besotted by Johansson’s naked form that he hardly realizes the floor beneath him has become liquid, a sexual smile still playing on his face as he sinks and drowns. The nude scenes presented their own challenges, said Johansson.
“I’m not a nudist by trade, contrary to popular belief,” Johansson deadpanned. “The idea of recognizing all these judgments that I place on myself and letting go of them was sort of a therapy. Just knowing that Jonathan wasn’t judging me physically at all and wasn’t looking for any kind of physical flaw — that he was looking for something in the performance — gave me the courage to do that. If I didn’t feel judged by anybody else, I was only judging myself, so I just needed to let go of it.”
The result is a true art film, and though the promise of Johnsson’s nude scenes may lure in unwitting moviegoers, they’ll soon find that much like its central character, Under the Skin has some nasty surprises lurking beneath its beautiful surface. For her part, Johansson wouldn’t have had it any other way. “The fact that there were all these unknowns was something I thought would be a real adventure,” Johansson said, sharing a look with her director. “We just kind of put the trust in each other and jumped off the cliff together, holding hands.”