Over the last several years, Scarlett Johansson’s output has been impressive in its variety: The Avengers, Hitchcock, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, Don Jon, Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Under the Skin. This weekend, she stars in the Luc Besson–directed action movie Lucy as a drug mule who finds herself able to access increasingly large portions of her brain’s capacity. Vulture spoke with Johansson about playing hyperintelligent beings, avoiding her own acting tics, and her favorite sandwich.
The first question I like to ask everyone I interview is: Why this movie now?
Why this movie now? [Laughs.] That’s interesting. When I first met Luc, I was doing a Tennessee Williams play that was visceral and raw and this project seemed so abstract. It was challenging in a different way because the character is in this constant state of transition and struggles to hold onto the nuances of herself and her life that make her who she is — that make her human, in her mind. In comparison to the work that I was doing when we met, it seemed like a totally different challenge. It just fit. I didn’t even know how to do it; I just felt I could.
As the movie goes on, you unlock more and more of your brain, and your performance becomes more muted and less emotional. What is going through your mind in these scenes where you’re having to be so elevated but also so restrained?
There’s so much going on inside of her. She’s having all these profound changes and realizations and these sudden “ah-ha” moments. But you still want to watch the person and see that there’s an inner life happening there. The goal is to not make it a story about revenge and not have the performance be monotonous or robotic. It very well might be. I’m not sure that I succeeded in making it anything else. [Laughs.] I was aware every moment of what her abilities were. I had a big chart. Okay, I’m at 40 percent. This is what I’m holding on to. This is what I know now. This is what I’m capable of. Okay, now I’m at 70 percent, so this is what I’m challenged by. She’s gaining all this ability and knowledge but she’s becoming almost childlike in some ways. That’s how I saw it.
It’s interesting, watching Lucy I was reminded of Her and Under the Skin. Though in very different ways, in all three, you play a character with a great desire and capacity for learning. Would you say there’s something you’re drawn to about that?
All three of those projects — Lucy, Her, and Under the Skin — have allowed me to explore and work from a very expansive place. I don’t have the same boundaries as most dramatic work. The rules don’t necessarily apply to these characters because they’re not even human. That has allowed me to step back and really examine human behavior in a way. As I know myself better — as I get older — I don’t have to relate all of my work to my own experience, necessarily. It’s not as important to me to be able to have a total relationship with the character I’m playing. I’m more interested in why people are the way they are and how they do things — how they communicate their experience. In my mind, if I can stretch my reach that far, I can work backwards from there. And then maybe have a greater understanding of my work.
Like many actors of your stature, sometimes you show up onscreen and it’s hard not to see Scarlett Johansson at first, as opposed to the character. Do you see this as something you have to fight against?
I guess I’m unaware of it. It’s something that you see because it’s a part of this overexposure that we experience in celebrity culture and the 24-hour news feed that we’re on. Still, I guess there’s not much you can do about that. It’s there and there’s no sense in fighting against that. I’m sure one way to work against that is to understand your own habits and try to get rid of them. If you understand them, then you’ll recognize them when you’re doing them. You can catch yourself when you fall back on the things that make you comfortable. It’s a lot of work to get rid of those little tics. Yet part of those little tics are why we like specific actors individually, because they’ve got that little thing. We warm to the things that we recognize in them. But they can hinder the audience’s ability to just fall right into the story. I probably should continue to work more on that too. And I do. I’m aware of it. It’s an actor’s work to do that. But the other part of that, there’s nothing you can do. That’s just there.
Do you ever think about doing television?
I like the idea of the television. I like the long format of it. I don’t know. There could be a time that that could be something I explore. I’ve thought about it. It depends on if that was brought to me or created by me. But I like the idea of having the time to really imagine a character in a much more in-depth way. Having that freedom sounds kind of fun.
Are there kinds of roles you wish you were offered?
I don’t know. I’m open. I think of myself as an actor for hire and I think of my career as being freeform. I haven’t properly mapped it out. I like it that way. It gives me more choices. I don’t have any expectations.
Lastly, I asked Twitter for a question and I got, “What is your favorite sandwich?”
My favorite type of sandwich. Oh man, that’s difficult to answer. I live in New York, so I’m surrounded by different sandwiches all over the place. I would say my favorite type of sandwich is probably … maybe a tuna sandwich. [Laughs.] I have a simple life.