‘The character itself is not really what drew me in,” Scarlett Johansson confesses of her latest role. The starlet plays an otherworldly creature sent to Earth to possess young men’s souls in “Under the Skin,” Jonathan Glazer’s existentially dystopic new film. It was the opportunity to work with Glazer, who hasn’t made a film since 2004’s “Birth,” that was the main draw. • Loosely based on Michel Faber’s sci-fi novel of the same name, the script went through many changes from when Johansson first read it. “The themes of the film weren’t as epic as I think they feel now,” she recalls of the initial story, which paired a male counterpart with her character and had them immersing themselves in a small town’s culture as they carry out their dark assignment. Once the setting was changed to Glasgow, Scotland, and focused on her character’s emerging identity, the emotional arc of her creature became clearer.
“It took me several weeks of shooting to figure out what I was playing. I think it was impossible to get a handle on that character without having like three weeks of footage under our belt. Just to know, what has she experienced? What’s her reaction?” Johansson says inquisitively from a couch in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. She is dressed in a black pantsuit with a multicolored blouse, possesses a casual and piercing beauty and seems far older than her 29 years would otherwise suggest.
“I think the idea of self, especially as I get older — I think I’m not afraid to ask myself questions about my true self,” she says. “I think when you get older you start to get curious about yourself in a different way, not just how can I get what I want?” — she laughs before continuing — “But more of the existential questions of what do I like? Why does this bother me? What don’t I like about myself that I’m afraid to admit? Or, where are my strengths and weaknesses, and why does it make me uncomfortable to acknowledge them?”
These questions, she discovered, were quite similar to the ones her creature begins to ask herself as she witnesses a range of human experiences. On her journey, she watches, emotionless, as family drowns in the ocean. Later, she feels pity for one of her victims and lets him go. Finally, she experiences, if not love, a tenderness that gives her a clearer view of earthlings. Johansson often uses the word “meditative” to describe the experience of playing this creature. “Staying in a sort of meditative state of keeping a really clear and present mind, that challenge was really intriguing, but it wasn’t until I was in production that I realized that would be a possibility.”
Emptying herself so that she sees each experience fresh, without any memory reference, was a challenge she relished and one necessary for realizing Glazer’s vision. “I really connected with the idea of looking at the world through alien eyes,” Glazer says. “That was the spark.”
During filming, improvisation was key. In a film in which dialogue is not the most essential element, Johansson and Glazer found inspiration outside the script. “Two weeks before we were wrapping production in Scotland, Jonathan came in with dark circles under his eyes, as usual, and said, ‘I thought of this great idea where you could drive around and pick up actual people,’ ” Johansson says. She was horrified by the idea at the time. It didn’t seem safe and she hated the idea of not being in control, though she later discovered it was liberating to surrender herself to the film. “I guess that’s how life works,” she says with a sly smile.
The transformation was a very gradual process. “I spent two weeks convincing everyone on the production that this was a terrible idea,” Johannson says. “It’s unsafe. Who knows what could happen? The first [assistant director] was on my side. The producer said, ‘I don’t know what Jonathan is thinking!’ Then I get a knock on my door. ‘Are you ready to get in the van?’ ” She reluctantly went along, driving the van wearing a cheap wig and fur coat with Glazer and the crew stuffed in the back. He began suggesting people for her to pull up to. One she noticed was talking to himself; another had a knife. She began looking for people who wouldn’t pose a threat and didn’t look like they were going home to their families. “That looks like a lonely drifter. There’s a possibility. Then I realized I know how to do this better than Jonathan does, and I can just let him witness it happening.” The creature within her started to emerge.
The more she drove, the more confident she became though she was uncomfortable with the hidden camera aspect. “They always make me anxious. I don’t like knowing what might happen or if someone’s going to be embarrassed.” That fear, which Glazer shared, acted as the driving force for authenticity. Johansson wasn’t recognized on the streets of Glasgow, but she has also pulled off incognito moments in her home city of New York.
“One thing I’ve realized from being recognizable, for lack of a better word . . . it’s only when you start to be sneaky or self-aware that people recognize you,” she says. “I remember this Christmas going to Macy’s and going ornament shopping. No problem. The place was packed and the busier they are, nobody notices. People don’t look at each other normally,” she says with just the slightest melancholic intonation before confessing that she loves to people watch.
The conversation turns to how technology has a tendency to isolate the individual while giving off the illusion of human connection. “It’s rare to have real interactions with people.” That tension between humanity and technology, along with her desire to work with director Spike Jonze, made it impossible to say no to the title role in “Her,” the film in which she voiced Samantha, the self-aware operating system.
“We started having the conversations about really raw emotional realties and relationships — ourselves and how we affect one another. This character’s ability to be so self-reflected, and yet her sense of self comes from such a different place than ours. Her sense of self is a result of her relationship and what she observes in other people.”
This sense of self fascinates Johansson, who announced in March that she is expecting her first child. She admits she is more inclined these days to pick up “The Jungle Book” over the philosophy books that captivated her in her earlier adult years. “I don’t know if it’s about trying to return to something I never experienced or something nostalgic that I remember. I don’t know. Maybe that’s part of discovering your identity. Returning to the things you loved as a child.”
As for playing otherworldly characters, the process for Johansson is the same. “I don’t think there’s a different way to prepare for them,” she says. “Once that crack becomes a fissure and then a crevasse — that first thrill of the identity [the creature’s] discovering [in ‘Under the Skin’], looking at it now, is very similar to the thrill Samantha has in ‘Her.’ There’s a similar hunger there to experience, and that is something that can be applied across the board no matter what species you’re playing.”
Under the Skin Opens in area theaters April 11. Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language. 107 minutes.
Kompanek is a freelance writer.