In her new film Ghost in the Shell Scarlett Johansson plays the perfect soldier. She tells Susan Griffin why it was a tough role.
For his latest movie, a big screen adaptation of the Japanese manga series Ghost In The Shell, director Rupert Sanders was looking for a ‘cyberpunk queen’ to depict his lead character, Major.
He found her in Scarlett Johansson, but the actress, who has received four Golden Globe nominations, beginning with her breakthrough role in 2003’s Lost In Translation, confesses: “It was not immediately apparent I was going to be able to breathe life into this character.
“In the original animation she’s introspective, she’s kind of cold, and there’s this robotic quality to her,” adds the 32-year-old, whose character is a human who is ‘cyber-enhanced’ following a horrific crash to become the ‘world’s perfect soldier’.
“The challenge was finding this ‘in’ to a very complex inner life the character is having.”
Sanders, who helmed 2012’s Snow White And The Huntsman, credits Johansson for introducing “a childlike quality” to Major.
“It’s very important because this is a Pinocchio story in a way,” says the director. “Scarlett is very clever at allowing us little moments where we’re able to get into the character, and then she pushes us away again.”
Producer Michael Costigan agrees. “This character has to have humanity and yet also this otherness to her,” he notes. “She has to both connect with the audience and keep them at a distance. We could not think of anyone other than Scarlett who could do that.”
Johansson recalls seeing Sanders’ remarkable visuals for the first time, including the pan-Asian landscape, and attributes it to what “clinched the deal for me”.
“What he has created is not just an homage for the fans. There’s a new feeling to this film,” states the husky-voiced actress, today sporting a punk-like quiff.
And then there were the conversations she shared with the filmmaker regarding her character’s “quest for self-identity and the need to know the truth about where she came from”.
“This character comes to believe she has both a life she’s been given and a life she chooses,” explains the American star, who was nursing her daughter, Rose, now two, for the entirety of the production.
“That’s the real reason I wanted to do this film. Finding one’s true identity, the feeling of isolation that is part of the human experience, as well as the connection that we all share – these are always relevant themes.”
As is the ongoing threat of cyberterrorism, which is explored in the film when terrorists manage to ‘hack’ into people’s minds and control them.
The actress, whose own emails were hacked a few years ago, admits she fears for her daughter’s generation.
“I remember what it was like before the Internet, I was probably the last generation, so it’s a learning process for me,” admits Johansson, who recently split from her husband of two years, Romain Dauriac.
“My brother-in-law teaches technology to third-graders, and a big part of teaching new technology to young children is being a responsible citizen in your digital life,” she adds.
“We’ve lost a bit of our compassion in an effort to enhance our own experience. I think it’s really important to teach children to be compassionate citizens, even online.”
The future that’s depicted in the movie is “not the pristine future we sometimes imagine”, notes Johansson, who made her professional acting debut when she was eight in an off-Broadway play with Ethan Hawke, and as a teenager starred in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer.
“Humanity has engulfed itself, like a snake eating its tail. Cities are built upon cities, people made out of other people and computers”.
Although no stranger to action sequences, given her numerous appearances as Black Widow in the Avengers movies, Johansson spent more than a year preparing for the role and describes it as one of the most taxing of her career.
“The physicality of Major has been challenging to create,” she admits, revealing she worked with a martial arts expert and fight trainer in New York and Los Angeles. “But it wouldn’t be Ghost In The Shell without crazy fight sequences and gun play. Those scenes were exhausting and empowering at the same time. I learned to handle the weapons, complete every fight and do all the wire work with the support of the stunt team. I was really married to the idea of being able to do everything.”
A New York native, Johansson is the daughter of an architect, and recalls how her father would teach her and her siblings (she has a twin brother, as well as an older brother and sister) “to look up at buildings and go with him to different design museums”.
“I have really fond memories of watching him be really enthusiastic and passionate about his job,” she explains.
Does she hope to inspire a similar level of passion in her own daughter? “Yeah, I work on projects I feel really passionate about, and I absolutely love my job,” remarks the actress, who’s also set to star in risque comedy Rough Night this summer, will return as Black Widow in Avengers: Infinity War (due out next year), and is down to voice a character in Wes Anderson’s next animated venture, Isle Of Dogs.
“I’m very proud to be able to be a working mum,” says Johansson, “and I think it’s really important for kids to see their parents satisfied by their job and fulfilled in every way.”
Ghost In The Shell (15) Opens in cinemas today.