Actor Profile: Scarlett Johansson

From art house to Marvel blockbusters, how Johansson became Hollywood's highest paying actress


Scarlett Johansson is a household name and a star of the silver screen, and now she has become the highest paid actress in Hollywood – possibly earning $25million from Marvel’s upcoming movie Black Widow.

But every huge success starts out small, and in her case, really small – only nine years old to be precise, in the film North alongside a similarly baby-faced Elijah Wood. Johansson then continued to play supporting roles in a number of indie films before catching her first starring role at fourteen: The Horse Whisperer. Directed by and starring Robert Redford, the film had a remarkably small cast where Scarlett was the only child, but she managed to stand out in scenes that were compelling and often tear-jerking. This film and others like Manny and Lo and An American Rhapsody cemented her place as a well-known name in the world of art house films from a young age. Johansson turned eighteen in 2002 and went from starlet to star; a title she secured over the next year in which she starred in both Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In Sofia Copola’s hit film, Lost in Translation, Johansson played the character of Charlotte; a despondent newlywed accompanying her husband in Tokyo. In her serendipitous meeting with ageing actor Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray, she finds a kindred spirit. Both characters feel both out of place and out of sorts; Charlotte matches his mid-life crisis ennui with a powerful quarter-life crisis of her own. The two actors created a chemistry that gives the unconventional friendship life, despite the struggles Johansson faced in playing a character 6 years her senior and acting across from such a huge star.

The success of this film segued into the success of Girl with a Pearl Earring, where Johansson again portrays a friendship with a world weary, middle aged man- this time Colin Firth. The film speculates about the model behind Vermeer’s famous painting, exploring the relationship between the muse and the artist. It’s a film of long looks and lingering camera work and Johnsson and Firth deftly handle the rampant tension. Neither of these characters are revolutionary, often appearing just to fit the out of date Hollywood typecast damsel who needs a man to save them, but the subtlety of Johansson’s acting in these big roles put her on the top of many casting wish lists.

From 2003 onwards she was in high demand, starring in four films in 2004, befriending Woody Allen and starring in three of his films, and moving between rom-coms, period pieces and sci-fi. Her first big budget action adventure was The Island in 2005, but the film was not the success cast and crew had hoped for. The film cost over $120million to make, probably something to do with Michael Bay’s love of huge stunts and effects, but ultimately the biggest explosion came from the film itself, a box office bomb. Some blamed the performances of Johansson and co-star Ewan McGregor, who played sheltered clones educated only up to the level of a 15-year-old, but others have pointed toward bad publicity. Since both actors had a wealth of other successes built up, the film didn’t hinder them from starring in similar action films in the future. Films like Under the Skin, Her, Lucy and Ghost in the Shell all see Johansson again playing unusual science fiction characters, whether they’re aliens, robots or disembodied voices. They all explore the ethics of the existence of these beings, to varying degrees of success.

However, since 2010 her most successful action roles have been in the comic book world, playing the part of Black Widow, a master assassin turned spy. She first appeared in the franchise in Iron Man 2, where her role as babysitter was not groundbreaking, and the film in general was one of her least successful. Since then however, she has starred in Avengers Assemble, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War. A more complex character has been revealed throughout these films despite the fact she has always played a supporting role. The story of a smoldering, sexy women with a tortured past and equipped with an impressive set of stunts ticks all the right box office boxes, so the character has been weaved into many plots. Johansson has been given opportunities here and there to lend the character her acting skills in scenes of vulnerability, but fans have been clamoring to see her in the heroic driving seat.

At least, this appears to be happening, as Marvel has finally decided that female heroes are in demand. With the new Black Widow movie on the way in a few years’ time, it will be exciting to see what Johansson can bring from her years of experience of playing layered characters to this and other future performances.


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