Autumn in Paris: sunshine and showers, pavements city-slick, puddles shimmering like party dresses. As if in harmony with the changeable conditions, Scarlett Johansson arrives for our interview with a face not quite like thunder – that would be far too dramatically convenient – but certainly with an overcast expression: unsmiling, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, stride purposeful, handshake brisk. Then, as soon as we start talking, her clouds part and once again the City of Light – or at least our small corner of it – is bathed in a golden glow.
We meet at Le Select, a café on Boulevard du Montparnasse. Nearly a century ago, as Scarlett of course knows, this was the crucible of a literary and artistic firestorm, where on a windswept afternoon like this you might have found Picasso, Man Ray, Cocteau and any number of American émigrés – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein – arguing, carousing, inventing modernity.
I've been waiting for our own American in Paris at an outside table, but it's chilly and exposed sitting here, so she asks if we can move inside.
Where would I like to sit? How about over there, at the back? No, that's dreary.
Plonking herself at a table for two by the Bar Américain, she shrugs off her grey coat to reveal a khaki shirt over a tight, white vest, jeans and suede boots. The sunglasses are replaced by heavy-rimmed, rectangular spectacles, worn to correct an astigmatism in her right eye.
While she studies the menu, let's take a moment to drink her in. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a casual ponytail. If she's wearing make-up, I can't see it. Her left ear has a diamond stud in the lobe and two small gold rings around the helix. And she has two tattoos I can see: a rainbow sunrise on her inner left arm and an inky charm bracelet on her right wrist. Ask politely and look very closely and you'll be able to see it says, "I Heart New York". She's pretty, for sure.
Sexy, too: lean of limb but creamy and curvy, with the kind of body that can look almost indecently bountiful on screen and in stills, but in person is compact, petite.
"I'm small," she says. "People don't notice me straight away."
Continuing our survey, the clichés pile up like a traffic accident: the voice is as smoky as advertised and so distinctive that it is a character all of its own in Spike Jonze's next film, Her; the lips, you will not be surprised to learn, are pillowy; the nose is characterful, assertive; and the wide-spaced, grey eyes, magnified slightly by the prim glasses, are intelligent and perhaps a little enigmatic; they may keep secrets.
But this is off-duty Scarlett, not bombshell Scarlett, and the effect is not dazzling or discomfiting, as it would doubtless be if she were sitting here in full red-carpet regalia. Her presence is quieter than that, unobtrusive.
Yes, yes, we know what she looks like. What's she like? Initially, I'd say smart, serious and self-possessed. At 28, she still has the fresh face of the ingénue – and she can be funny, and girlish, too – but Scarlett is worldly, well travelled, at home away from home. She appears to be almost as au fait with Paris, and this particular café, as her famous forebears, those American transplants who made Montparnasse a Mecca for clever, questing types like herself. She's familiar with the menu, chatty with the waiters – who stop by periodically to drop bien cuit aperçus – and on intimate terms with the café cat, Mickey, a portly furball of ponderous seniority who keeps interrupting our conversation at inopportune moments to remind Scarlett to make a fuss of him, which she does. (Not that I'm jealous of a cat.)
She is vague about her reasons for being in Paris; where she's staying, what's she's doing. She has, she says, a friend with an apartment nearby. It must be a good friend, I think, because she's a fountain of knowledge about the various merits of the local bars and restaurants.
Only much later do I realise the apartment must belong to her boyfriend – now fiancé – Romain Dauriac, an improbably debonair journalist turned PR. (Not that I'm jealous of a Frenchman.)
For a few moments, I wonder if this is going to be something of a trial. Scarlett is famously discreet – guarded would be another way of putting it – which is, of course, an admirable quality in a confidant, less so in an interviewee. If she won't reveal why she's in Paris, God help us when we get to the personal stuff.
But as I say, she soon warms up and in the end we sit for hours, lingering over our coffees, eating (she polishes off a salad Niçoise and then picks at the chips that arrive with my club sandwich) and talking and talking and talking. In no particular order we cover: the advisability or otherwise of trying to swat a fly while your partner sleeps; globalisation; the politics of the fashion week front row; Bob Dylan's lyrics; the "heartbreaking" beauty of her hometown, New York; the perils of eating in an uncomfortable outfit; the shrinking opportunities for middle-class families in Western economies; and the importance of good bedding, a subject on which she is almost as impassioned as, inevitably, she is on the topic of the "sickening and perverted" paparazzi. At one point, segueing between her own travails and those of Kate Middleton, Kristen Stewart and assorted other famous young women, we find ourselves discussing "nip slips", the gossip-website habit of printing photos of girls falling out of their tops.
"Those girls just don't like wearing a bra," Scarlett says. "No one complained about it in the Seventies. I was watching [Woody Allen's] Manhattan yesterday; Diane Keaton never wore a bra and she looked great and nobody gives a shit."
Mildly, I think, I observe that perhaps the Seventies was a less hysterical, less censorious decade than our own. This prompts a semi-tirade about contemporary attitudes to sex.
"It's sick! We get these mainstream slasher movies where people get anally raped and people are watching this perverted stuff and it's seen as totally normal. And kids are playing these crazy video games where their guts are splattered everywhere, blowing each other's heads off, and yet you see someone's sideboob and it makes front-page news."
She's cross. But seconds later, another break in the clouds, and she's explaining why she should have been a doctor rather than an actress.
"I think dermatological issues are interesting. And when you help someone to heal their skin it gives them a new lease on life. I mean, have you ever met someone with a horrible skin condition?"
"You mean something fungal?"
"Fungal issues are pretty obvious. It's usually an infection combined with poor hygiene."
"I see. Have you spoken to any skincare professionals about your interest in dermatology?"
"Oh, yeah, I have. Whenever I'm in the doctor's office I make sure to block out a good 45 minutes. I'm interested to know more."
"I hate to ask, but is this because you've had dermatological issues yourself?"
"I've had every problem. I always get these weird things."
"Suddenly your life seems less gilded. You're a girl who has rashes."
"Well, at least I know how to cure them!"
"You're a healer."
"No. I'm a diagnostician but uncertified."
"So, you're uncertified and you can't heal, but you can diagnose?"
"Well, you have to know what the problem is. Diagnosis always comes first."
"I have to say, this is a revelation to me, your interest in skincare."
"It comes from watching a lot of medical programmes."
"No! Real ones. Documentaries."
"See how superficial I am? You say medical programmes, I immediately think of George Clooney. Not, by the way, a real doctor. Always been disappointed by that."
"Right? Who wouldn't want to be treated by George Clooney? I know I would."
"Do you happen to know if he's interested in skin?"
"I don't know where that question is going…"
This, I hope, gives some flavour of a conversation with Scarlett: playful, with a slightly competitive edge to keep you on your toes. And, yes, I'm aware I was struggling to keep up.
When we approach stickier topics than skin rashes, areas of her life she would like to remain private – marriage, relationships – she pauses sometimes and begins to choose her words more carefully, but she never looks remotely perturbed. Instead, she is clear-eyed, frank and good fun. But the parts of our conversation she seems to enjoy the most are, without doubt, the silly, role-play bits. At one point I ask her to describe what for her would be a great night out.
"A night out where? Here?"
"No, your home turf. New York. Friday night."
"First, I would go to dinner, of course. Maybe I'd go to a show. I'd go to a show and then have dinner. Maybe I'd see a play. Go with a few friends or with my agent who's great to go to shows with."
"An intellectual play? One that demonstrates how intelligent you are?"
"Totally. Then we'll have something to talk about. And then we'll go to a nice place to eat dinner. Joe Allen is great or we could go to La Esquina and get tacos, more like a party-type scene. Go there if we're going to go meet more people. But if it's a smaller group, probably go to Joe Allen, have martini, have oysters, nice meal. You could come, if you want."
"Great. What next?"
"Right, so it's about, what, 12:30? The pressure! Where to go? Maybe we could go to like a dive bar in the East Village, pool table, jukebox, couple more drinks, hang out. But now it's about 1:30, are we going home? But we could go out-out!"
"OK! Let's go out-out! See what happens."
"That's the best part about New York." Sudden change of plan. "But sometimes it is nice to stay in on a Friday night. There's a place down the block that has the best Chinese. This one is really old-fashioned, which I love. We go there, order a Chinese feast, eat for hours, go back to the apartment, and we're going to watch a classic movie that you should have seen but haven't. Have you ever seen White Heat?"
"Is that James Cagney?"
"Yes, or John Garfield? No, right, James Cagney. It's a great movie: beautiful and weird. Let's do that: Chinese food and a classic movie."
"What's your favourite movie, Scarlett?"
"I don't have one." Pause. "Groundhog Day?"
In September 2012, at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, Scarlett spoke to a huge audience, in the arena and on TV, about her childhood. Her mission: to encourage young Americans to vote, and to throw her support, not for the first time, behind the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
Using her own story to illustrate the urgent need for improved government welfare, she inadvertently did the obligatory biographer's part of my job for me:
"I grew up in New York City with four siblings," she said from the podium. "My father barely made enough to get by. We moved every year and we finally settled in a housing development for lower middle-income families. We went to public schools and depended on programs for school transport and lunches, as did most of my friends."
Her relatively humble origins are, she says to me, "something I hold on to for dear life. I mean, I have friends I've made as I've got older, but the majority of my closest friends I've had since I was a kid, and like I said [at the Convention], a lot of them are still dependent [on welfare programs]. I think living in New York keeps you pretty grounded. I'm not particularly fancy."
The daughter of a Danish-born architect father and a Jewish girl from the Bronx – hence, perhaps, the striking combination of cool and exotic looks – Scarlett and her brothers and sister grew up in and around Greenwich Village, which sounds, she acknowledges, "super snobby" now, but downtown Manhattan in the early Nineties was not the giant, sugary cupcake it has become.
"In my mind I have this idea that I will some day live in a beautiful townhouse in the West Village," she says, "with a fireplace, and it will be fall, and I'll be baking pie. When you walk through the West Village in the autumn you can smell the wood burning in the fireplaces. Not many places in New York you can have that experience. Not in Manhattan, anyway. So, in my mind… But that's not going to happen."
Because it's become so gentrified?
"It's so crowded, so touristy. It's awful." Pause. "Sex and the City killed Greenwich Village." Take that, Carrie Bradshaw.
Scarlett was always a dramatic little girl, always ambitious, and she always wanted to act. "I don't know where it came from but I liked being a sensation, making a splash. I was probably one of those bratty kids."
At eight, she was on stage, off-Broadway, opposite Ethan Hawke. She made her film debut aged nine (incredibly, 2013 marks her 20th year in the business) and at 13 she was starring with Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer.
Throughout her adolescence she made an average of two films a year, "and then I would come back to New York and slip right back into school. I had friends, I had boyfriends, I went to prom." Her parents divorced when she was 13 and the family moved a lot but there was nothing, she says, unusually traumatic about her early years. She enjoyed working, enjoyed spending time with adults, had fun on movies, hanging out on set with her mum.
In 2002, at 18, she made the two films that launched her as a Hollywood leading lady: the astonishing one-two combination of Girl With A Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation. In the former, set in 17th-century Holland, she's the servant girl who catches the eye of the painter Vermeer, inspiring a masterpiece of intimate portraiture. The film is not quite that, but it does make a compelling close study of the Johansson face in repose. Vermeer, clearly, senses a roiling passion beneath her pale exterior, and so do we. More captivating still was Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's chaste romantic comedy, in which a rudderless twentysomething American, trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, has a brief, unconsummated encounter in Tokyo with a much older movie star.
Watched again, both films are restrained, quiet – she's in every scene of Pearl Earring, but has almost no dialogue – and they deliberately dampen her hot sensuality, cloaking her curves in roomy fabric. Evidently, the camera loves her, but neither film remotely suggests an unbridled voluptuary, which is how she was instantly portrayed in the press. The irony of her position then – that a girl who played two essentially celibate, reticent young women should in the process become a global sex symbol – is not lost on Scarlett.
"I think any woman who is curvy and who wears a gown to an event is suddenly super-sexualised. I mean, at the time I was 18, 19. I was young. I've always been curvy. It runs in the family. Throw on an evening frock and suddenly you have boobs and everyone is like: bombshell! Instantly it was: 'the new Marilyn Monroe'." She's quick to point out she feels no particular kinship with Marilyn, curves apart.
In the films that followed those two successes, Hollywood sometimes seemed to struggle to know what to do with a smart, sassy young woman who looked like a throwback to the sweater girls of the Fifties – Lana Turner is the oft-cited exemplar – but had a very contemporary sensibility. She has worked often with front-rank directors – Christopher Nolan, Brian De Palma, Cameron Crowe and Woody Allen three times – but not always on their most memorable films. In far too many movies, she has been the love interest, rather than the main event.
"It's frustrating," she says now, "because you get pigeonholed and it was hard for me to get out of that. I mean, in some ways I exploited it and appreciated it" – she means in her work as a model for various brands, most prominently Dolce & Gabbana – "but it was really hard for me to know what to do, which direction to go in. I was too young to play a wife or a mother, but I wasn't a teenager any more so I was stuck for a while."
In fact, her most acclaimed work since Lost in Translation has been on stage rather than screen, in a Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. She won a Tony for her performance as Catherine, the character many thought based on Miller's second wife, Marilyn Monroe (her again). Scarlett has made good use of her time between projects, releasing two albums, starring in ad campaigns, vamping it up in music videos. She has taken a turn behind the camera, too, directing a seven-minute short, These Vagabond Shoes, a sepia-toned vignette with Kevin Bacon as a loner in a fedora who takes the subway to Coney Island for a hot dog (Avengers 2 it ain't). And she's developing a screenplay based on Truman Capote's "lost novel", Summer Crossing, first published in 2005 but set 60 years earlier in New York, about a Wasp debutante who falls for a Jewish parking lot attendant. If all goes to plan, that will be Scarlett's debut feature as a director.
More recently, on Broadway she was Maggie, the Cat – who else? – in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a part famously associated with another icon of ample, pulchritudinous femininity, Elizabeth Taylor. And perhaps still more courageously, at the beginning of this year, she was Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, the fictional account of the making of Psycho, with Anthony Hopkins as the heavyweight director.
Leigh, says Scarlett, was "an interesting woman, very sexy but also a good actor, and she never allowed her sexiness to come first." It's doubtless reductive to make comparisons between Scarlett and Janet, looks aside, but harder to resist the more you learn. The curvy sex bomb seeking out provocative material, the short-lived marriage with the handsome leading man, the liberal political leanings: indeed, the same year as Psycho was released Leigh even made an appearance at the Democratic National Conference, lending her celebrity allure – as if he needed it – to JFK's presidential campaign.
Does Scarlett identify with Leigh for these reasons?
"Now that we've spoken about it, and about this whole 'sexy' thing, I feel there is more of a connection. But originally I think I just took the role because I like her."
Perhaps Scarlett's own Psycho will be a film finally set for release early next year. Under the Skin, a sensation at the Venice Film Festival in September, is an adaptation of Michel Faber's creepy novel by the extravagantly gifted British director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). Scarlett plays a mysterious alien being who picks up lone male hitchhikers, and not because she wants to give them a lift home.
"It's a really weird story and shot in a way that's never been done before, with a camera that was specially created for it," she says. "I don't know what it will turn out like. If it works, and in my mind it works, it will give the audience a completely new perspective on daily existence." Pregnant pause while we absorb that statement. "Or it may just be a four-hour music video."
Before Under the Skin, this month she's in a romcom, Don Jon, as a sassy Joisey goil in love with a porn addict. And after Christmas we'll be able to hear her in Her, in which she's the sexy-sounding Siri-alike, the computer operating system who steals Joaquin Phoenix's heart. Which will be followed, in turn, by another comedy, Chef, opposite Robert Downey Jr. And then Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which she reprises her Avengers character, the Black Widow, who is set for yet another outing the summer after next, in the niftily titled The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Somewhere in there she's going to fit in an action movie with Morgan Freeman, called Lucy.
Her career, then, is in good health. In her personal life, Scarlett has recently emerged from a challenging few years, during which she was married and divorced from the actor Ryan Reynolds. She endured an unpleasant episode in which intimate private photos of her, intended for Reynolds but hacked from her computer, were leaked on the internet.
"It was a crazy time," she says. "I had problems in my family and publicly, in my relationship – all that stuff. Things are more manageable now." She's fortunate, she says, in that, "I have a very close family who are supportive, and great friends and I've been working on some really interesting stuff. So even when the shit hits the fan, it's usually OK."
I remark that from the outside, she seems very capable and composed.
"I cry in the shower," she says. "No, I keep it together. I am relatively composed but I can also lose my shit. I'm pretty controlled, and probably controlling, too, for better or worse. I'm working on it."
At this point we're interrupted yet again by Mickey, the café cat. Honestly, it's like there's a secret signal she gives him when we veer too close to private territory. So we move on to pets. Scarlett has two dogs: Maggie, a chihuahua, and Pancake, a dachshund-chihuahua-cross.
"Are they pampered dogs?"
"No more than anyone else's dog. I like to keep them humble."
"You make sure they keep their feet on the ground?"
"You know, one of them was literally a street rat, and now she's living the life of Riley. I thought about doing a little kids book about it. Can you imagine? This is a street dog, who knows what her life was like? And here she is flying to Paris, living this glamorous lifestyle. She's a Hollywood dog, all of a sudden."
"Sounds like a nice story."
"It's cute, right?"
Photographed by Vincent Peters. Taken from the December issue of Esquire on newsstands now. Don Jon is out now