Scarlett Johansson's new 'View'

Theater neophyte Scarlett Johansson makes her Broadway debut as the teen Catherine in Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge." (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Scarlett Johansson started acting early -- although she's just 25 years old, her performing career already spans 16 years -- and knows the usual drill. "I'm really used to a camera following me," she says.

Yet for all of her movie work -- "Lost in Translation," "Match Point," "Girl With a Pearl Earring," "Ghost World," to name a handful of her prominent roles -- Johansson has never acted for something far less forgiving than 35mm film: a live theater audience.

Many actors have peppered their performing credits with the occasional theater gig; a summer stock show here, maybe a regional musical there. But Johansson started film acting, fell in love with it -- "It's all I know," she says -- and never left. By her recollection, the last play she performed in was an elementary school production of "Oliver!"

Her subsequent stage role is a little bit bigger: Catherine, the center of a tragic, sexualized battle in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge." Says the actress in her backstage dressing room a few days before the show opened Jan. 24 to largely positive reviews: "It felt like it was a good time for me."

Rather than shrug off the transition with the "acting is acting" line, Johansson says the move has been alternately thrilling and terrifying, challenging and rewarding, and -- at times -- has made her appreciate that for all of her accomplishments, she is still growing as an actor.

It was a point driven home as the play was in previews, when Johansson found herself acting alone -- even though she was sharing the stage at the time.

Through weeks of rehearsals for Miller's play about improper feelings in an Italian immigrant home, Johansson was playing opposite Santino Fontana as Rodolpho. It's one of the most critical pairings in Miller's 1955 play, as Rodolpho is the man who sweeps the 17-year-old Catherine off her feet and out of the grasp of her inappropriately protective uncle, Eddie, played by Liev Schreiber.

But several days before the play's premiere at the Cort Theatre, Schreiber threw Fontana a little too roughly in a preview performance, and the actor, who suffered a whiplash concussion, had to leave the show.

Johansson suddenly was playing opposite Fontana's understudy (Morgan Spector), and although the new actor had little in common with his predecessor, Johansson says she didn't change her performance accordingly: She was acting by herself, inside a bubble and not with the person right next to her.

"I felt terrible about that performance. I fell back on all of these habits," Johansson says a few days before the show's opening, in which several critics praised her performance. "I was not being truthful."

She believes the experience with the understudy was "a fantastic thing" in that it ultimately made her a better stage actress (Spector in due course was named as the show's permanent Rodolpho). Yet it was only one of the many teachable moments Johansson experienced as the play came together.

Launching pad

With 2003's "Lost in Translation," Johansson emerged as a complicated, charismatic actress caught between the innocence of adolescence and the maturity of womanly independence.

She was only 18 when writer-director Sofia Coppola's Oscar-winning movie about an oddly platonic relationship between a young woman (Johansson) and a middle-age man ( Bill Murray) was released. "It's wonderful to see her naturalness, empathy for character and skill allow her to hold her own with someone as experienced and idiosyncratic as Murray," Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote at the time.

Johansson's career was transformed by the part. Outside of the Michael Bay misfire "The Island," she largely steered away from big-budget movies (although she'll be in this summer's sequel " Iron Man 2"), choosing instead to work with distinctive filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan ("The Prestige"), Woody Allen (" Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "Match Point") and Paul Weitz ("In Good Company").

Johansson, who grew up watching Broadway musicals, previously had wanted to adapt "A View From the Bridge" for the screen, after seeing an earlier revival with Anthony LaPaglia as Eddie. Johansson pictured LaPaglia playing the same part and herself as Catherine. Like so many movie ideas, this one didn't go anywhere.

Not that long ago, she was approached by director Gregory Mosher, was looking for an actress as vulnerable as she was tough. "I needed to find someone to convincingly play a 17-year-old but who also had the presence to go toe-to-toe with Liev Schreiber and not get blown off the stage," the Tony-winning director and producer said.

Johansson, who recently married "The Proposal" star Ryan Reynolds, was intrigued but believed she wasn't young enough to play Catherine anymore.

"When the project came back to me, it was so bizarre -- it was like a ghost from the past," she says. "I never wanted to do it on stage. But I also felt I was too old."