Let’s say you’re an alien, and you’ve come down to Earth in order to harvest the flesh of our planet’s population for sustenance. (Just go with us here for a second.) If you wanted to entice men to come back to your abode and lure them into a thick puddle of tar-like black goo in order to consume them, would you take on the appearance of a spindly, tentacled monstrosity? Or would you make yourself look like a movie star who’s the current face of Dolce & Gabbana and considered one of the sexiest actresses alive?
The extraterrestrial at the center of Under the Skin, in theaters April 4th, wisely chooses option no. 2, and it’s a smart move. Driving along Glasgow’s streets and randomly stopping to chat up male passerbys, this pretty predator — played by Scarlett Johansson — doesn’t have to do much to attract victims. (Director Jonathan Glazer filmed these encounters with real Glaswegians, totally on the sly; last year’s meme of Johansson in a black wig falling down on the street was actually a snippet from one of these guerilla shoots.) Then a funny thing happens to the otherworldly beauty: Her exposure to humanity infects her with a sense of empathy. She starts to feel what they feel. Suddenly, slurping up their lifeforce seems much less appealing.
Glazer (Sexy Beast) had been trying to adapt Michel Faber’s existential cult novel for years before finally cracking the code on how to film it, turning this tale of the woman who fell to Earth into the sort of visually sumptuous, vintage cerebral sci-fi associated with Stanley Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg. But it’s his collaborator that keeps the film from becoming an exercise in chilly formalism: Asked to play an alien slowly awakening her inner human being, Johansson goes from blank slate to sexbomb to a thinking, feeling, emotionally expressive homo sapien over the course of the movie. Never mind the Marvelverse character she reprises in the Captain America sequel that, coinicidentally, hits a gajillion theaters the same day as Skin; this character is the real black widow, one that eventually gets rid of her predatory instincts and pays the price. It’s also, hands down, arguably the most impressive and nuanced performance the 29-year-old actress has ever given.
When Rolling Stone met up with the star one Saturday afternoon at a midtown hotel, she was bustling around her room, looking radiant after scarfing down a plate of fries (she’d confirm with the press later that day that she’s pregnant with her first child) and cracking jokes with the gaggle of people around her. (When her assistant’s phone lets out a loud bird-like screech, Johansson asks “So have you met my pet pterodactyl yet?”) She then settled in to talk about why she stalked Glazer to do this project, how unnerving those man-on-the-street improvisations were and why she actually feels at home on smaller indie projects.
How did this script first come across your radar? I don’t know your agent, but I don’t imagine a script in which someone is a naked alien riding around a van in Scotland is something every agent is pushing to their clients.
Probably not. [Laughs] The early version of the script that I read was pretty straightforward, actually…much, much more straightforward than the script we eventually shot. At that time, it was more a two-hander about this alien couple who are trying to blend into the populace of a small town; the locals become suspicious and the aliens need to figure out how to avoid being detected. I believe Brad Pitt was attached to play the guy at that point.
This doesn’t sound like Michel Faber’s book at all.
It wasn’t anything like the more ambient thing we ended up doing, that’s for sure. It was very different, and much more contained. I met with Jonathan at that point because I knew he was looking for someone to play the female part, and because I was desperate to do something with him…this would have been around 2008 or so. And within a minute of meeting him, I thought to myself, All right, so this is never going to happen. [Laughs] He was almost trying to convince himself to make the movie, which I realize now was him not wanting to make that script. There was something about the story that got to him — but it wasn’t two aliens trying to pass for human in a small town. I could tell that he was trying to find where he fit into it.
When I started asking him about casting, he kept saying he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do: “Maybe I’ll go with a model, maybe I’ll cast a total unknown. Maybe I’ll get somebody famous and make them wear a prosthetic.” [Laughs] It turned into this very long therapy session about his doubts regarding the movie. But I was happy to be a sounding board, because I was a huge fan. It was fascinating just to talk to him.
Were you keeping up on his progress as worked through what he wanted to do?
Over the next few years, I’d sort of check in with him to see how things were going; it wasn’t until right before we ended up shooting it that he sort of turned around and saw me standing there. It was that classic junior prom moment: He saw the girl at the punch bowl and was like, “Oh, gosh, you…the wallflower who’s been in my class this whole time and I barely realized it. Come be in my movie!”
I highly doubt that was how it happened.
Seriously, it went from me being this barometer for ideas that he would work with and discard to, very suddenly, “This is the final script, Scarlett, would you be interested in doing this?” It just took two to three years of me stalking him for me to get the part.
Jonathan compared the sort of discussions you both had about the story to being in a two-person book club, and that you’d both be fixating on the same things and discussing them endlessly.
He said that? Really?
He did. “Well, we seemed to be on the same page, so it made sense to do it together.”
Interesting. It’s funny what people will say when they have some perspective on things and you’re not in the room. [Laughs] It took us a solid three weeks of working on it before we sort of hit upon a way to do it that both of us liked. I’d compare it to two animals circling each other, sniffing each other out. There was a lot of “Are we good here, or…” on my part.
You mean in terms of your performance?
Yeah, but really, it was in terms of the whole tone of the film! Both Jonathan and I were very much like “What is this? What do we have here? Who am I playing? What am I playing?”
So how did you both get past this?
There was a scene where I stop at a gas station to fill up my car — it’s a very brief scene, actually — and after we did it, he yelled “Cut, cut, cut! I need you to stop. I need you to not do anything. Just don’t do anything.” I was confused: What does “don’t do anything” mean, exactly?!? Neither of could quite place where, exactly, this character was in this story and what she’d gone through, so we were both working without a map. “Has she started to feel emotions yet or not?”
“Has she lured two guys to her house where they drown in black goo, or three guys?”
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly! It took three weeks of kind of stumbling around in the dark for us to figure out okay, so this is how this needs to work. This is where the crack in her armor starts, and here’s where it becomes a fissure, and here’s where everything falls apart. We needed to have that initial footage under our belt before we could move on. But I was terrified for a while there.
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Had you shot the on-the-street encounters at that point?
No, those we some of the last things we shot. I don’t think I could have done those scenes had we not established some basic parameters on where she’d been and where she was going. By that point, I was liberated.
What do you mean by “liberated”?
I mean I had the self-confidence to go into a situation where I had no idea what was going on or what would happen. There was crew with me, obviously, but was at the mercy of chance. I hate being out of control. I. Hate. It. And by the time we did those scenes, I’d realized, No, you can totally control this. I could drive it like I owned it at that point. [Laughs]
You had been “alienated.”
I had been submerged in that character enough to go where I needed to go. It was a lot like doing a play: By the time you get to the fourth or fifth month of a long run, you are trying everything at that point and you’re not afraid to fail. You know the character so well that you start going way out on a limb, because you know where the boundaries are. Although with Under the Skin, the boundaries were pretty far out by the time we got to those scenes. [Laughs]
But you’re still going into those scenes with no idea what’s going to happen, right?
On one hand, you’re just dealing with people on the street. On the other hand, you’re in a black wig driving around talking to random folks who have no idea that you’re filming a movie. Jonathan had told me that he had this idea where we just drive around and hey, you pick up people, sounds good, right? And it’s like, actually, Jonathan, that sounds fucking terrible. I hate you! [Laughs] I kept waiting for the producer or the first A.D. to talk him out of it, and then on the day it’s supposed to start, everyone is going, “Well…you can do it, right?”
It’s too late to back out at that point…
So I literally have half the crew in the back of this van that I’m driving down a street in Glasgow, and I have this earpiece in where Jonathan is saying “Pick up that guy, pick him up!” And I’m going no, I’m not going to pick him up, he’s clearly smoking crack on the corner! [Laughs] I mean, he’s directing me to every hardcore ruffian he sees. I have to decide in the moment whether I’m going to pull over and engage somebody or not while cameras are rolling. You asking yourself, is this person going to be a threat? Is this person going to engage you? Will we be able to get a usable scene out of this, or will they recognize me?
Did anyone recognize you?
There was one interaction I had very early on where this guy was sort of chatting me up and he finally stops…I can tell he’s sizing me up. Then he goes, “Are you a movie star?” My throat closes up, my heart stops beating and I try to keep cool, asking him “Uh, no, why would you say that?” And he replies [in thick Scottish brogue] “Because you’re fucking gorgeous!” He still had no idea who I was! After that, I was like, okay, I can do this. I can pull this off. When I saw Jonathan, he was beaming.
It’s hard to believe no one recognized you.
You can’t underestimate the power of a good wig.
This had to have been a big leap of faith for both of you: You’re literally and figuratively exposed in this film…
True on both counts.
…And Jonathan has a film that rests on the shoulders of one performance, basically.
You have to a serious amount of trust, yeah. I remember being on the phone with Jonathan before we started shooting and were like, okay, so…we have to rely on each other now. It felt like two kids deciding to get married: You’re nervous, you’re excited, you’re running on adrenaline. When I was filming this, all I saw was the edge of the cliff coming right at me, you know? It wasn’t until I saw the finished product that I thought, Holy shit, he made something fucking brilliant out of this!
Do you think you could have done this part five years ago?
I mean, I’m an actor, so I have a huge ego…so of course I could have done it then! Do you doubt my talent?! [Laughs] It would have been very different. I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t have taken the risks I took here five years ago, so maybe not.
After this movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, someone asked you why you, a movie star who does blockbuster superhero movies, was starring in this small indie movie that feels so outside of the mainstream…
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…But when you look at everything you’ve done since, say, Lost in Translation, it feels like Under the Skin feels like a typical thing you’d do, and something like The Avengers is the outlier. Would you say that’s correct?
It’s funny, because it’s nice that people think I’ve always been at the level where I’m the star of these blockbuster hits…they always know you from the financial successes rather than the creative successes that you felt showcased your best work but no one saw, right? I’m a big believer in the notion that people remember your last big thing you did, and that’s it. I’m sure Cate Blanchett is known by a large number of folks as the person who won for Blue Jasmine, and they seem to have forgotten that she did roles before that as well. [in Cate Blanchett accent] “You remember that I’ve played a queen, right? Twice!” [Laughs] It doesn’t surprise me that someone would say that about me, and I’m sure my agents would love hearing that!
But yeah, I agree with you: This doesn’t feel like it’s outside of what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years. It certainly pushed me outside of my comfort zone, in terms of the acting, but this production felt like home to me. I grew up doing intimate, small-scale projects; I genuinely love doing the Marvel movies, but these kind of scrappy movies are what I know best. Being on a blockbuster set where everything is so huge…you walk out and it’s like “Wow, they have free food here? During the day and everything?!?” [Laughs] That still feels weird to me. Much more so than playing a naked alien in a weird sci-fi movie with a small budget.