Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously described Daisy Buchanan, his “Great Gatsby” heroine, as having a voice that’s “full of money.”
Wes Anderson could say the same about Scarlett Johansson, his latest leading lady. The auteur has worked with enough A-list talent to fill a Met Gala — from Meryl Streep to George Clooney to Cate Blanchett — but he acknowledges that star power is somewhat of a mystery. With Johansson, who plays a luminous 1950s movie icon in his film “Asteroid City,” the director thinks he knows the secret: “Scarlett’s voice is so expressive and interesting. I would say it’s her greatest strength.”
As she’s become a bigger and bigger star, Johansson has grown more comfortable raising that voice when she feels she’s been screwed over. Case in point: She shocked the industry in July 2021 by stepping into the ring with Disney, the most powerful entity in Hollywood. The actress was quarantining in her Upper East Side apartment, days away from giving birth to Cosmo, her second child, when she filed an explosive lawsuit against the studio shortly after the release of its Marvel prequel “Black Widow.”
For the previous six months, Johansson’s team had worked behind the scenes to push the studio to make good on the millions of dollars in backend compensation she would forgo when it released “Black Widow” simultaneously on Disney+ and in theaters as the pandemic raged. The breach was clear-cut, given that her contract contained a stipulation that the “Avengers” spinoff be released exclusively in theaters. Adding insult to injury, Disney — then led by CEO Bob Chapek — bragged that “Black Widow” generated more than $60 million in Disney+ Premier Access global sales in a bid to juice its stock price.
In response to the suit, the studio took off the gloves and released a jaw-dropping statement that slammed Johansson for her “callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic” and casually revealed her tightly guarded $20 million upfront salary. By all appearances, the studio had declared war on an actress who played Russian assassin Natasha Romanoff in eight of its Marvel tentpoles, starting with 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” and is a corporate super fan to boot, the kind who spent a recent Christmas with a group of 15 friends at Disney World.
As Johansson and I sit together on an April afternoon in New York City, her megawatt smile fades as she winces at the memory of Disney’s scathing statement. “I was sad and disappointed. But mostly sad,” she says. “It was such a surreal moment because we were all isolated and just sort of emerging a little bit. I was also really heavily pregnant, too, which in a weird way was amazing timing. Suddenly, your entire attention is drawn to this miracle of life. So, I had the most wonderful distraction in the world and soon after had a beautiful baby.”
By contrast, Johansson’s agent, Bryan Lourd, was anything but distracted. “I lost my mind and said, ‘How dare you make it seem like she’s not worth this money or that she somehow hasn’t earned it?’” he recalls. “She and I were very much in lockstep about what this was. And she had the conviction to let me fight back. A lot of people wouldn’t do that. And part of the reason she did it is because she thought, in the position she’s in, she had a responsibility not just to herself but to other people who were being confronted with this change.”
Two months later, around the same time Cosmo was cracking his first smiles, Johansson and Disney settled the suit. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Johansson’s payout reportedly eclipsed $40 million. In the history of Hollywood, the stars who have successfully sued studios are few and mostly men, from Burt Lancaster to Kevin Costner to Sylvester Stallone, with Olivia de Havilland and Elizabeth Taylor being rare exceptions. (Taylor took Fox to court in 1964 for not being properly paid for “Cleopatra,” and settled for $7 million — or roughly $60 million in today’s dollars.) But Johansson became the first high-profile star to stare down a behemoth in the streaming era, and her suit continues to reverberate in Hollywood and beyond as deep-pocketed corporations use the cover of the pandemic to squeeze employees. In some ways, the battle between Johansson and the media giant offers a precursor to the writers strike now roiling the industry.
“I couldn’t even walk through a restaurant without somebody saying, ‘Good for you. Stand up for yourself,’” she says. “I could see that it had a bigger impact. I got support from strangers that have no skin in the game at all.”
Miraculously, any bad blood between Disney and Johansson has dissipated. The 38-year-old actress remains in business with the studio on the planned “Tower of Terror,” based on its popular theme park ride, with Taika Waititi attached to direct. And she still visits Disney World at least 10 times a year and geeks out when talking about the studio’s movies. The obsession stems from a two-year period when her family lived in Florida. “We had annual passes to Disney World, and I have a real passion for the Disney parks. Also, when I was growing up, it was a great time for Disney animation — ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Lion King’ with the incredible soundtrack. Like, I will be pre-buying tickets to ‘The Little Mermaid.’ I actually need to text my sister about that,” she says, propping up her image as a cheerleader for movie theaters — even if it seems ridiculous imagining Scarlett Johansson using Fandango like the rest of us.
Lately, Johansson is lending her voice to the splashy Cannes rollout of “Asteroid City.” The period film will make its world premiere at the festival, where her homage to the screen legends of yesteryear (think Bette Davis, she says) will surely be the toast of the Croisette. If some Disney PR whiz sought to paint Johansson as a money-hoarding Scrooge, the reality is quite different. She happily earned a paltry $4,131 a week for two months of work on the Focus Features film that shot in Spain. This visit to Cannes will mark only her second since her critically acclaimed role in Woody Allen’s 2005 noir drama “Match Point.”
Since signing with CAA’s Lourd right before negotiating her contract for “Iron Man 2” — she landed the Black Widow role only after Emily Blunt dropped out — Johansson has become Hollywood’s highest-grossing star, male or female. (Her films have earned $14.52 billion worldwide and counting.) And though the Marvel work launched her into the box office stratosphere, she can single-handedly carry a film with no recognizable IP, as she did with 2014’s sci-fi action pic “Lucy,” which nabbed $459 million worldwide. As a result, the native New Yorker now regularly pulls down $20 million for major studio fare like the upcoming Apple comedy “Project Artemis,” opposite Channing Tatum. But it’s her work with auteurs, from Christopher Nolan to the Coen brothers, and her Oscar nominations — for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” — that has catapulted Johansson to most-in-demand status. And it’s her willingness to challenge the status quo, career risks be damned, that has made her an endless fascination with the public.
“One of the things I love about her is that she’s very evolved and strong and never had those kinds of doubts or negotiations with herself about who she is,” Lourd says. “It’s not to say she was born certain or anything like that. She’s a total work in progress. But she’s very, very sure about her value, both personally and professionally.”
On this dreary afternoon, Johansson has just finished a photo shoot and, with the help of some makeup remover, has quickly morphed from movie star glamour to practical chic, wearing brown corduroys and a short-sleeved cashmere sweater. In person, she appears quite relaxed — even breezy. But there are certain things she can’t let go of: She bends down to pick up a perfectly good pint of strawberries that someone has left on the floor of her dressing room, and says, “They don’t belong there.” She sets the fruit down on the counter in front of her. Then she pulls a rust-colored baseball hat over her blond hair, sinks into an uncomfortable director’s chair, her feet in scuffed white Nikes dangling, and begins her origin story.
Born into a bohemian Manhattan family three minutes before her twin brother, Hunter, Johansson spent her early years with her parents and two other siblings in various cramped Greenwich Village apartments that couldn’t contain her. (She also has an older half-brother and a much younger adopted sister.) “I needed a lot of attention. Yeah, ‘Look at me. What about look at me now,’” she says of her initial interest in performing. “I think that was a big driving force. I was kind of a ham and I just loved imaginary things. I loved singing and dancing. My mom showed me all the Golden Age movies and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. She would take us to see Broadway plays when she could afford it. We’d line up in the half-price ticket line and then go see a show.”
Success arrived early. At the age of 9, she appeared opposite Ethan Hawke in the 1993 Off Broadway play “Sophistry.” (“I remember having a total huge crush on Ethan at the time because he was like everything in that era,” she remembers.) Lourd recalls sitting in the 90-seat theater with a loud air conditioning unit that producer Jason Blum turned on and off in between scenes and being struck by the tween actress’ presence. “I was smitten,” he says, though he didn’t begin working with her for another 15 years. That same year, she landed a small role in Rob Reiner’s “North,” where she recollects little else but “a crush on Elijah Wood.” Four years later, she broke hearts as an injured teen in Robert Redford’s “The Horse Whisperer.” By 17, she was on location in Tokyo, sharing the screen with Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”
Though it has been rumored that she had a miserable time on Coppola’s set, Johansson pushes back on that characterization. “It wasn’t miserable. It was challenging because I was very young and away from my high school boyfriend. I was sort of isolated in that environment, and it was just hard work,” she says. “Looking back on it, the whole thing felt like jet lag.”
It may have been a tough shoot, but the film became a critical darling, earning Johansson a best actress BAFTA and a Golden Globe nomination and propelling her to “It” girl status. But there was a downside. She says the film groomed her to be a bombshell. “It was hard to get out of that pigeonhole,” she says. “And I did films like ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ and movies that kind of continued that narrative. I couldn’t make any headway.”
Though she continued to hustle, she felt lost. “I got turned down for two roles — the first was ‘Iron Man 2’ and then the other one was Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity,’” she continues. “I had wanted that role so much. It was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. I felt really frustrated and hopeless. Like, ‘Am I doing the right job?’ The work I was being offered felt deeply unfulfilling. I think I was offered every Marilyn Monroe script ever. I was like, ‘Is this the end of the road creatively?’”
Then fate intervened. Suddenly Blunt dropped out of “Iron Man 2” because of a contractual obligation with Fox and was forced to shoot the quickly forgotten “Gulliver’s Travels.” That opened the door for Johansson to tackle the fast-healing superhuman with Mensa-level intelligence who played an increasingly important role in an ever-expanding Marvel universe. Her appearance in that initial movie was relatively brief. “That movie wasn’t going to move the needle forward in terms of how my character was written, but there was potential for what it could be — a potential for growth in subsequent films,” she says.
Shortly after shooting “Iron Man 2,” she began rehearsals for what would be her Tony-winning turn in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.” “I had such a growth spurt doing that play, creatively and artistically,” she says.
From there, Johansson made a series of bold film choices, like playing a nearly silent alien force in “Under the Skin” and serving as a precursor to ChatGPT opposite Joaquin Phoenix in “Her.” “Suddenly it was like, ‘I still love this job.’ And it reignited my passion for the work. I felt less anxious.”
As she plows through her career arc, I ask her how she avoided the pitfalls of being a child actor, considering how many promising kids burn out before adulthood. She offers a quick explanation. “You need your parents to set boundaries and hold you accountable and keep you away from, like, weird people,” she says as though the answer is obvious. “I was really fortunate that I had that.” As she continues, she becomes momentarily befuddled. “It’s not just free rein to go wherever the wind blows. Is that the right saying, ‘Which way the wind blows’? ‘The way the wind blows’? I don’t know.”
Three days later, when I reconnect with Johansson, she admits that my question sparked “an existential angst” and had been eating at her over the weekend. “Actually, I was thinking after we talked, and talking to Colin about it, why some people go that other way,” she says, referencing her husband, “Saturday Night Live” player Colin Jost. “I guess I could have just as easily gone the other direction.”
When Johansson was growing up, her mother insisted that her film work take place over the summer so she wouldn’t miss classes. That structure was important, but it didn’t mean that her life was free from chaos. Her parents got divorced when she was 13, and her mother moved to California, leaving her to live primarily with her dad in New York.
“I was thinking about how my career was really important to me as a teenager,” she says. “It was something I loved to do, and I was able to do. I was auditioning and booking jobs. I put a lot of hard work into my career. I wasn’t going to mess this up — especially because I came from a lot of instability financially. I had to be a grown-up from very early on, and I was in a very grown-up situation early. My reaction was, ‘How do I stay in control of this aspect of my life?’”
Chris Evans, who has appeared in eight films with Johansson, including six Marvel blockbusters, remembers that maturity during their first meeting on the set of Brian Robbins’ “The Perfect Score” when she was 17. “I was shocked I was older than her,” he says. “Not because of how she looked but because of how she had this poise, this wisdom. Everyone always says Scarlett is wise beyond her years. And she has been since she was in her teens.”
Therein lies the duality of Scarlett Johansson: She may come off as casual, but that front soon dissolves, revealing obsessive tendencies. “I will work out dialogue for years, and I’ll text a director and say, ‘I figured it out! I figured out how to do that scene,’” she says. “The director is like, ‘Could have used that then.’” Clearly, she doesn’t let things go.
Hollywood has historically paid men more than women, and that never sat well with Johansson, who successfully pushed to earn as much as her male fellow Avengers. “That has always been such an important point for my mom. It was like, ‘You should be making the same amount of money for similar screen time or effort. You have value,’” she recalls. “It was a given in our household that there be fairness.”
But through it all, Johansson has been able to separate the personal from the professional. She sued Disney to hold power accountable, and even though that fight got ugly, she’s not bitter about it. “I think it’s because I could separate the creatives at Disney from their business affairs department,” she says. “I’ve had such great working relationships with so many creatives there and continue to. I believe in the magic of Disney. I’m able to still appreciate that and not let the callousness of that interaction sully my relationship and history with them, because they’re two separate things.”
On the day of our second interview, the specter of a writers strike hovers. Everyone is in the dark about whether or not it will actually happen. “It’s 2:30 on Monday and no one knows anything,” she says hours before a strike becomes a fait accompli. “It’s very disturbing. There’s no information at all. I keep Googling ‘writers strike 2023,’ but there’s just nothing.”
Among the writers affected is Jost, Johansson’s husband of nearly three years and the father of Cosmo (she was married previously to Ryan Reynolds and then French businessman Romain Dauriac, who is the father of her 8-year-old daughter, Rose). Despite Jost being in the line of fire, she’s the household member feeling most anxious. “My husband’s the least tense person,” she says. “He’s very pragmatic. They’re going about business as usual at ‘SNL’ because they may have to prepare a show for Saturday or not. If there is a strike, then that’ll be the season for him.”
Even if Johansson doesn’t draw the obvious connection between the strike and her own battle with Disney, the fundamentals are similar — publicly traded entertainment giants continue to value profit margins over people. As a bystander, she’s supporting the writers.
“It doesn’t seem unreasonable, what they’re asking for,” she says. “It’d be great to see both sides come to terms without having to have this humongous, potentially devastating impact for people financially and otherwise. I just don’t know why this can’t be figured out. It’s been looming for so many months and even years. How did it get to this point?”
Johansson says she has a deep appreciation for writers, and talked for hours with Anderson after he sent her the “Asteroid City” script. She applied the same rigorous analysis to her character, Midge Campbell — a role Anderson says he wrote for Johansson — as she does to herself.
“I was curious: Who is this person? How did she get here, to be so successful at that time? She’s this star of stage and screen — what drove her there?” she asks. Johansson had to answer these questions while working with Anderson’s notoriously exacting dialogue. “I like the sort of constraints of Wes’ precision. I think in some ways, it’s more liberating.”
In January, Johansson was shooting “Project Artemis” in Atlanta when she woke up to the news that her “Avengers” co-star Jeremy Renner was nearly killed in a snowplow accident in Tahoe while digging out his nephew’s car.
“I was very upset,” she remembers. Renner broke more than 30 bones and suffered blunt chest trauma and orthopedic injuries when he was run over by the 7-ton snowcat. But as the first few days post-injury unfolded, his prognosis improved. “On the Avengers text chain, we’re like, ‘OK, you beat us all. That’s it. You won,’” she says. (The text thread includes the original six Avengers — Johansson, Evans, Renner, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo.) “That’s like real superhero stuff. It’s unbelievable.”
A few weeks ago, Johansson and Evans flew to Los Angeles together to visit Renner, who was on the long road to recovery. Evans recounts the vibe as the three gathered. “No tears at all. A lot of laughs and smiles and hugs,” he says. “Leave it to Jeremy to take something this potentially tragic and turn it into something so inspiring.”
For Johansson, the reunion was more emotional. “I was honestly so fucking happy to see him. I didn’t know if I was ever going to see him again. To not only see him again but to see him thriving and in such an amazing space, mentally,” Johansson says. “He’s a very spiritual person in general and a very soulful person. And you can see that in his work. It comes through. He has such a depth to him. And I just was so happy to see that he is full of life and light, and he’s also hilarious. We laughed a lot.”
While some of the Avengers may have reassembled in that rehabilitation room, Johansson confirms that her eight-film arc as Black Widow has come to an end, a reality she describes as “bittersweet.”
“Yeah, I am sad, of course,” she says. “I absolutely loved every filming experience I had, working 10 years with Marvel and with that amazing cast, and I love the character Natasha. I have a lot of empathy for her, and it was amazing to build that character over such a long period of time.”
She pauses, then continues, “I also feel really good about her story coming to a close. I think she has a lot of dignity in her legacy.”
As does Scarlett Johansson.
Styling Direction: Alex Badia; Fashion Market Editor: Emily Mercer; Senior Accessories Editor: Thomas Waller; Fashion Assistant: Kimberly Infante; Makeup: Frankie Boyd/Streeters; Hair: Jimmy Paul/Susan Price NYC; Set Production: Shawn Patrick Anderson; Location: untitled NYC; Look 1 (red look, cover): Bodysuit, fluid skirt-pant and heels: Alaïa; Earrings: David Yurman High Jewelry; Look 2 (Gloves): Dress: Prada; Shoes: Christian Louboutin; Earrings: Jade Ruzzo; Look 3 (Gold dress): Top and skirt: Paco Rabanne; Dress: Wolford; Look 4 (black look): Corset and skirt: Schiaparelli. Earrings: Mindi Mond NY. Ring: David Yurman High Jewelry. Jinsin fan hat: East Village Hats”