Scarlett Johansson: Challenging Hollywood’s Boundaries

With the film industry lagging in terms of diversity, what’s the impact on actors, and all those who help to create our imaginary worlds? By Patti Sonntag

The movie business is changing. Women have become increasingly visible as directors (Kathryn Bigelow, Lisa Cholodenko, Ava DuVernay) and successful producers (Reese Witherspoon’s production company Pacific Standard scored huge hits with “Gone Girl” and “Wild”; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar in 2016 for the documentary short “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”). Yet many actresses are still paid less than their male peers, and the Academy Awards of 2016 were widely criticized for the lack of nonwhite nominees.

Only a few A-list actresses have been celebrated for their ability to throw punches or show menace on the screen, but that’s beginning to change as well. Scarlett Johansson, 32, received critical acclaim for her role as an alien on the hunt in “Under the Skin,” and will appear in 2017 as a crime-fighting policewoman in “Ghost in the Shell.” Her superstar turn as the Black Widow in “The Avengers” series has helped to make her the highest-grossing actress of all time, pulling in over $3.3 billion for movie studios, according to Box Office Mojo. Still, as of this fall, she was the only woman in the top 20 on Mojo’s list.

In an interview, Johansson discusses how women’s roles in real life are changing their roles in film. The conversation has been edited and abridged.

© Mary Ellen Matthews/Corbis Outline

Q: The world has watched you grow up on screen — you started so early. Over the course of that time, the roles available to women in real life have changed a lot. Is the process of filmmaking starting to reflect that?

A: We see more female directors, more women in various departments on set. If you looked around a film set even 10 years ago, it was basically a bunch of dudes; maybe in the wardrobe department or in the hair and makeup department there would be women. Now you see more female camera assistants, cinematographers, grips.

In the job that I’m on now, “Rock That Body,” there are a number of women working as crew members, as opposed to many other productions that I’ve
been on.

Q: Is this changing the experience of acting for you?

A: It’s nice to have a diverse group of people so that it doesn’t become so one-note — to have a female energy on set, to have different types of people and different vibes, and a more balanced creative environment.

Q: At this point in your career, what draws you to a role?

A: I’ve always had the same principle for choosing roles, which is to try and make movies that I would pay to see. As I get older that’s meant different things.

Patricia Arquette’s speech about pay equity for women at the 2015 Academy Awards opened an ongoing discussion about how little female actors receive for their work in comparison to their male counterparts.
© Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times

I’ve never been a superhero-comic fan exactly. I did “Iron Man 2” because I loved what [director Jon] Favreau did with “Iron Man.” It spoke to me as someone who was not a fan of that genre, and I saw a future in building a character with Marvel.

The idea of doing a franchise was exciting — being able to play a character over many installments, the challenge of playing a character who had a built-in fan base, and trying to put my stamp on that character.

Q: Some of the roles that you choose are very different, like in “Under the Skin” — your predatory alien uses the men’s sexuality against them, but she’s not particularly flirtatious. Is it important to you to try these things?

A:  I look for projects with filmmakers who want to make things that give the audience a fresh experience.

Q: It sounds like you like a challenge.

A: I’ve always been very competitive, and a part of that is pushing your boundaries — taking a risk, and being able to live with the loss that comes with taking a risk.

Q: In your work as the Black Widow in “The Avengers,” we see your ability to convey vulnerability despite the character’s strength.

A: Admitting that you’re vulnerable is a very powerful thing. There’s something to be said for a character having a quiet strength about them.

So many contradictory things make up a multidimensional personality. Breathing life into a character means celebrating and recognizing the fullness of them — that you can be a lot of things at one time, that it doesn’t have to be black or white.

Q: With more women on set, do you think you have more flexibility to explore all the dimensions of the character?

© Zade Rosenthal/Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures

A: Maybe the audience is more open to these richer character storylines than they were before, so there’s more of an opportunity to bring that to the screen. They want to see things that reflect the experiences that they’re having. As a culture we may be becoming more accepting of differences and of the full spectrum that life gives us.

When you see films from 50 years ago, the characters reflected what people wanted to project to the world, which was very black and white and guarded, or idealistic or whatever. It’s not that way anymore. The films that have a better audience reaction now are the ones where the characters are flawed. And I think that’s why [“Avengers” writer and director] Joss Whedon has been so successful in that realm, because he loves the flaws, he celebrates them. He likes to pick apart their weaknesses.

Q: What experiences would you like to create for your daughter on screen?

A: My daughter is still young. Right now I think we both share the dream that I will someday be a Disney princess, but it’s probably not going to happen. I’ve been asking for that job for the past 20 years, and nobody has booked me.

Scarlett Johansson: Challenging Hollywood’s Boundaries
Patti Sonntag
© 2016 The New York Times
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate