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Young heart and old soul

Special to The Times

All the stars have their day at the Toronto Film Festival, when their faces are plastered all over the local papers. This year there was Nicole Kidman Day.

And then Omar Sharif Day. And then Scarlett Johansson Day. For Johansson, a headline inevitably blared SCARLETT FEVER! Underneath was a picture of a blond bombshell.

Johansson, who is nowhere near the household name Kidman or Sharif is -- yet -- finds herself in their company not only because of the demands of the festival press but because of the work she’s been doing lately, first in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and now in Peter Webber’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (opening Dec. 12). She’s an 18-year-old overnight sensation who’s been doing this for 11 years.

“I’ve always been part of the film industry,” Johansson says of all the attention. “It’s been a huge chunk of my life. I’ve always maintained when it comes down to it [that it’s about] my passion for film and the process of making films and the ability to manipulate my own emotion. It’s a weird job.”

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In other words, it’s about the work. That may be, but she’s being groomed to look like a star. On this September day she’s wearing a diaphanous dress that nearly matches her hair. She’s stretched out on a couch in a Toronto hotel room with a pillow clasped strategically across her legs. At one point she sweeps into the hotel courtyard below as if she’s in color and everyone else there, including Sharif, is in black and white.

So far this glamorous image has been confined to the press. On-screen, she’s been described as an ingenue, an “expert Lolita,” though this doesn’t do justice to her range or the complexity of her roles. In “Lost in Translation,” Johansson plays a young married woman adrift in Tokyo while her photographer husband is off shooting glitzy clients. She eventually attracts the attention of a similarly unmoored middle-aged movie star (played by Bill Murray) and develops a friendship that is close to a romance but short of an affair.

In “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Johansson plays a servant in the household of 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth, who, like Murray, is a lot older than she is) who is the subject of one of his most famous paintings. Her understanding of his work, not to mention her appearance, inspires him, both romantically and artistically, though the art wins out. Meanwhile, she has to deal with the jealousy of Vermeer’s wife and the attentions of his chief benefactor.

“Maybe there’s a theme here,” director Webber says of these relationships. “Scarlett is quite mature for her age. Maybe the directors who are looking to cast these kinds of stories respond to that. It can be a difficult territory -- older man, younger woman -- apart from the cliches. It could be cheesy if you don’t get it right. There’s something about Scarlett that enables you to get over that hurdle. Maybe it has something to do with her essence. There are other girls who I auditioned who I think you would have been uncomfortable with. It’s really important with my film that you don’t. I just think it’s because she’s a great actress.”

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Johansson quickly dismisses the older man-younger girl connection in these films, preferring instead to focus on how the characters are different and alike.

“I think both characters are very observant,” she says. “My character in ‘Lost’ is able to express herself and can say things like ‘I’m really going to miss you.’ In ‘Girl,’ that’s never possible. She wouldn’t say it anyway.

“There are similarities, especially because there’s little dialogue in both pieces. In ‘Lost,’ you feel like the characters are going to be OK, that the love that they’ve had for one another is what got them through that terrible depression. In ‘Girl,’ their love has helped my character grow and survive. There’s a piece of me in both.”

Although if you had to choose pieces, surely they would belong to her headstrong character in “Girl.” In fact, Webber says that the film is as much a portrait of Johansson as it is of the character she plays.

“I think she’s a very emotional person, is very intuitive, has a great creative sense, is very smart, has a way of looking at the world,” Webber says. “All of that stuff is the stuff that Vermeer sees.”

Other filmmakers have seen -- and used -- these qualities over the years.

Johansson made her film debut in “North” (1994) but first came to the attention of audiences in the low-budget “Manny & Lo” (1996). She made her leap to big-studio filmmaking as a traumatized teen in Robert Redford’s “The Horse Whisperer” (1998) and then co-starred as an alienated adolescent in Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” (2000), a disaffected Hungarian emigre in Eve Gardos’ “American Rhapsody” (2001) and a Lolita type in the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001).

Among the constants in these films, including her two most recent ones, is Johansson’s insistence on doing more with less -- that is, without dialogue.

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“I’d much rather not say lines,” she says. “I have a problem with characters saying things like ‘I feel sad’.... I think a look comes across much better on film.”

“When you do a close-up of Scarlett, you know the audience is getting full value for their money,” Webber says. “She’s one of those actresses you can read her eyes. She leaks emotion.”

An ‘old’ teenager

Another constant is her maturity -- although occasionally her inner teenager does burst out, as when she says to a reporter she’s been playing phone tag with, “You didn’t have your cellphone on, you dork!” And she insists that despite the time she’s spent on film sets with adults, she’s had the normal adolescent experience of homework, a boyfriend, parties, high school graduation. Her mother helps her vet scripts.

And yet, as Zwigoff says, “When I met her, OK, she’s 15, but she could easily pass for 30. She’s a very attractive girl, but she’s sort of a weirdo. I like that about her.”

Coppola says she was concerned that Johansson was too young to play a twentysomething in “Lost” -- a knockoff of Coppola herself -- until she met her.

In fact, the age Johansson plays in that film shocked Webber when he saw it. (The issue for him in “Girl” was not her age but whether she could play a period piece. He saw more than 80 actresses, and she was one of the few who he thought could shed her 21st century mannerisms.) Firth says part of the mature image she projects is attributable to her voice, which is startlingly husky, suggestive of a thousand late nights. He says it makes her sound as if she’s lived -- which is not, he notes, the same thing as if she’s jaded.

This maturity also translates to Johansson’s relationships with her older co-stars in real life, with the exception of Murray, whom she says was a bit remote. Firth, she says, has “got a part of my heart. He’s a great guy and good friend. He never weirded me out.” Of John Travolta, whom she just worked with on “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” she says: “I love that man like a family member. He’s so adorable. He’s so funny and not funny. I used to miss him over the weekend [during the shoot]. It was weird. I would tell him that, and he would get overly emotional and cry.”

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To hear Firth describe it, she treated him as an equal -- that is, she teased him mercilessly.

“She reminded me that she had been in the film business as long as I had,” Firth says, laughing, adding that they were as talkative off-screen as they were taciturn on. “She’s one of the best actresses I’ve ever worked with.” Which may be why she’s working with other good actors. She’s been cast to star with Helen Hunt in “A Good Woman,” filming in Italy. When she’s not shooting, she divides her time between her native New York and L.A., where she bought a home and a car. She’d like to direct someday. Right now, she’d like a breather from the roles and the press.

“I’m toasted,” Johansson says, still clinging to that pillow. “I need a vacation. I want to go to Jamaica and sit in the sun. I don’t want to be a haggard old woman.”


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