Black Dahlia Interview : Scarlett Johansson

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

The Black DahliaFour-time Golden Globe nominee and BAFTA winner Scarlett Johansson has proven to be one of Hollywood’s most talented, versatile, and sexy young actresses. The strawberry blonde natural beauty received rave reviews and a Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival for her starring role opposite Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation,” the critically acclaimed second film by director Sofia Coppola.

Johansson portrayed the title character in "Girl with a Pearl Earring” opposite Colin Firth; garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Woody Allen’s "Match Point,” and can currently be seen in his new film "Scoop” with Hugh Jackman. Johansson also just finished shooting the lead role in "The Nanny Diaries,” based on the highly successful book of the same name.

In her latest project, Brian De Palma’s "The Black Dahlia,” Johansson plays homicide detective Lee Blanchard’s (Aaron Eckhart) live-in lover, Kay Lake, a beautiful young woman with a world-weary look in her eye and a secret past. She’s also a sexy dish that Lee’s partner, Bucky (Josh Hartnett), covets. Johansson, who dyed her hair platinum for the part, seems perfectly suited to the role. She has a glamorous look that pulls you right back in time. Like an old soul, she evokes another era visually through sheer physicality.

Scarlet Johansson recently sat down with Movies Online to discuss what it was like to star in "The Black Dahlia.” Here’s what she had to tell us about her experiences and the challenge of making the film:

Question: Did you really delve into this character with Brian?

Scarlett Johansson: Of course we talked about the character in regards to different scenes and that kind of thing, but Brian [De Palma] has a real respect for the time and space that an actor needs to prepare for something. He was never overly personal about where I was getting my inspiration from or anything like that and always very supportive if I felt that I needed something more. We could be wrapping up the whole set, and I would say, 'Brian, I think that I need to do that take again.' He'd be like, 'Alright, boys, bring everything back in.' He was really good about that, but we never went too much into depth about the character, no.
Q: How did you get into this character?

SJ: Luckily I had what a lot of actors don’t have which is the source, having the book. I mean, you read a script and you interpret the character’s emotions through their actions and their words, but I had the perspective of Bucky’s character looking in on Kay. So I really used that as the beginning source to find the character.
Q: Where did you shoot this film?

SJ: We filmed it in L.A. and we filmed it in Bulgaria as well.
Q: What did you shoot in Bulgaria?

SJ: We shot most all of the interiors there. Dante Ferretti had built the sets and he actually built the Chinatown set there. He had built the apartment there that they find. He built the interior of the house there and the boxing ring and the police station. A lot of it was just there.
Q: Did you have any preconceived notions about Brian De Palma before going into this project and how did you get involved with it? Also, did you have a theory as to what really happened to Elizabeth Short?
SJ: Well, when I had become involved with the project, and I was originally excited just hearing that Brian had a film that he was directing with two female roles. I've always wanted to work with him and have been a huge fan of his. I met with Brian. I had read the script and was very attracted to the character of Kay. So, I met with him and I tried to convince him that I could play this character that I'm completely physically wrong for and he bought it. So that was good. I never have any preconceived notion of people because I find that they always prove you wrong or are surprising. I expected a certain kind of darkness about him, a certain kind of roughness about him I guess, and I was surprised to find out that he's a very funny guy. He's very funny. One thing that didn't surprise me about Brian is that he's really cut and dry. He's never going to beat you around the block regarding anything and he's never wishy-washy about anything, which is such a relief. As far as my own theory, I had read "The Black Dahlia” and that seemed like a plausible story. I don't know though. I mean, that seemed to be - I felt that was interesting and was definitely a candidate for the truth, but who really knows.
Q: What do you think that men, and women for that matter, want from forbidden fruit?

SJ: I don't know. I guess it's that classic thing of you always want what you don't have, but I mean, at the same time the relationship between Lee and Kay is so complex. As Bucky says, 'Whether she saved him or he saved her, who knows.' I'm paraphrasing that, but you don't really know if they ever had a real physical relationship. If they did, it's not happening anymore and it's almost like a relationship that elderly people would have in that it's a real codependent relationship and a real true love for one another almost like a brother and a sister in a way. So when she meets Bucky and she realizes that she has this sort of passionate interest for him, I believe that it's kind of easier for Lee to give her up to that because he sees that there is a sort of true love there or the possibility of a real healthy relationship with someone. But as I said, I don't know about that forbidden fruit thing. It's always bad to get that unattainable thing or whatever.
Q: Can you talk about the look of Kay, and what input you had into that, and also what do you think the difference is between love and lust and when do you think you have to compromise that?

SJ: Well, I mean, as far as the physical appearance of the character, I really wanted her to look nothing like Hilary's [Swank] character or the Dahlia. So we thought that we would dress her in cream and beige and things that were soft because Hilary's character is so kind of hard and really a glam vixen. The difference between love and lust? I don't know. Hopefully, you can find a relationship where [you] don't have to compromise that ever, but certainly I think that in this relationship that Kay has with Bucky she has both.
Q: You seemed so comfortable in this period as a sort of femme fatale. Did you do a lot of research on the time period or watch a lot of film noir films?

SJ: I never thought that actually the character was a femme fatale and she didn't go out there to ruin someone's relationship or steal the man or anything like that. She's not trying to seduce him into this dark kind of relationship or torrid affair or anything. She likes him and she falls for him, but of course I have a pretty good film history for someone my age too. I've seen a lot of those noir films. It's fun to watch them too. Films like "The Maltese Falcon” or "Third Man.” But I always liked film noir, but some of those films are too kind of cops and robbers for me. I like the more melodramatic Bette Davis films of that period, and stuff like that. But there wasn't anyone that I really based the character off of. I wasn't trying to copy someone's performance or something like that, but it was interesting to see that. And well, of course as a modern actor we have this movement that sort of started in the '70's of realism and the gritty kind of natural - whatever you can bring to the table, that kind of technique. So it was interesting to pair that with the dialogue. The dialogue is so stylized and impossible [Laughs] and impossibly unrealistic. It was interesting and it was a challenge to try and keep the integrity of that with ease and the realness of it while also saying things like, 'How could you, Dwight? How could you?' I mean, you never say those things. It was so dated, that kind of dialogue. It was a challenge to make that not such a film type dialogue.
Q: Could you identify with the struggle of the actress in this film, and also, did doing this film make you sentimental for an L.A. that doesn’t seem the same as it once was?

SJ: I think that that - I have a lot of friends who are very talented actors and musicians who struggle. You have a one and a million chance here and all you have to do is come to L.A. and everyone is trying to get involved in the industry somehow. Any time that you are involved in a field that's revolving around vanity of some sort with a high rate of failure it can breed a desperation in people that doesn't always have a happy ending. I think that kind of ambition with no end can really make for a lot of nastiness. And of course, luckily, I mean for myself I've been constantly surprised at my luck. It's really unbelievable especially being surrounded by a lot of artists who struggle and watching them struggle. I feel very, very lucky. As far as L.A. at that time, I feel very sentimental about it. I read a lot about the industry at that time and watching several documentaries about Hollywood at that time. It's so very different now than it was then. I think that there is a certain sort of decency and class that's somehow been eliminated over time. I don't know. I think that it makes you sentimental when you read different autobiographies of actors at that time and how exciting it was that actors came together and they talked about the method and they talked about the work that they were doing, and just the amount of available and incredible actors at that time. It just doesn't seem to be the same now. That's not to say that I don't like L.A. I do. It's very nice here, of course. The weather is lovely and all of that stuff, but I think that people… Look, even being in this hotel that's such a beautiful hotel, it's just rare to find these gems that have been preserved. It seems like people are always bulldozing over beautiful storefronts and restaurants and houses and things like that to make way for whatever is popular now, things that are bigger and better and more modern and all of that stuff. I don't know. I think that's also true of New York, too. So I don't know. It's sad I think.
Q: Was one of the things that drew you to this the whole look of your character and the time period, and also, what sort of sense did you get about Bulgaria while shooting there?

SJ: Well, of course for me getting to play a woman during that period and the makeup and the hair and the costumes and the cars and the sets was all very glamorous and fun and I've always kind of had an affinity for that period. I got to wear a lot of beautiful vintage pieces and they built a beautiful wardrobe for me. So that was a lot of fun. As far as Bulgaria goes, it's funny because Bulgaria, or Sofia anyway is a city that at one time was a real jewel of Eastern Europe, but it has been trampled on so much throughout every war. It's been bombed. It's been taken over. It's been given up. I mean, it's really been just harassed and of course, seeing remnants of the communist regime there, it's interesting the kind of buildings that they have there. It's like you're almost in a time warp or a kind of broken city somehow. What's interesting also about it is that the youth there, they have a lot of very promising sort of creative outlets there. There is music and dance and art. There are a lot of young people there who are very enthusiastic about life, and some of them are wanting to join the EU. Others are very much against it. There is a real kind of passion there right now and so in some ways it feels very sort of forward thinking and then in other ways it's like being in a time warp. There are a lot of strange things like if you go to the markets there, there is all this Nazi paraphernalia that you can buy. It's really interesting. It's very strange, very strange.
Q: Did you relate to the actress in a way that maybe a producer has asked you to do something that you didn’t want to do?

SJ: I've been lucky. I mean, of course every actor has had a casting that has gone awry and you leave and you go, 'Oh my God, that was the absolute worst.' Luckily I've never been approached in that way because when I was auditioning, mostly, I was so young. I was like 12 and 13. So  luckily I never had anything like that to deal with, but I do love to audition still. I find it to be incredibly challenging and I'm always up for a challenge in that way, but no casting couch stories for me. No.
Q: Do you still have to audition?

SJ: Occasionally yeah. It's rare, but it does happen and I like it. I always like cold readings and all of that stuff. I think that it keeps you on your toes. I mean, after all I'm an actor for hire and so I will never turn down the opportunity to audition for something.
Q: Never?

SJ: No, not if it's something that I feel that I want. If I want a role and they say, 'Well, we're only auditioning people.' I will say, 'All right. I'm going to get this part.' That's the mentality that you have to have. It's like, 'All right, fine. Test me. I got it.' Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It's still fun to do that.
Q: Did you audition for this?
SJ: No. This project I didn't audition for actually.
Q: There’s a lot of Bucky’s and Kay’s relationship that’s left out of the film that’s in the book. Was that ever shot and left out of the film?

SJ: No, it never was. It was never filmed. It was never in the script. I mean, the book is so - there is so much information in it that I felt Brian just had to get rid of some of the stuff. There are so many stories going on that he felt he had to narrow some of it. I mean, also, the marriage and all of that stuff, it's great to read that, but I think that in the film it would be too much of a side story. After all this isn't a film about this relationship. That's an aspect of it, of course, but I think that to get too involved in that would've been a mistake. People would've said, 'What the hell? Is this a movie about a relationship? Is it about a murder? Is it about this man's fight for justice?' Already there is so much going on so that was never a part of the screenplay.
Q: While we’re talking about books, can you talk about "The Nancy Diaries?” That book has so many fans, and I want to know how you feel it came to the screen, and also just getting to be a part of that?

SJ: I mean, it's a great read and it's a fun book. It was wonderful to shoot in New York of course, being a New Yorker. The directors were also New Yorkers, [Shari Springer] Berman and [Robert] Pulcini who are just fantastic New York filmmakers and documentarians. It was all New York based crew and it was wonderful to shoot there. I think that it's going to be great. I loved "American Splendor.” They of course wrote the script and they're wonderful writers. They're a husband and wife team and it was amazing to work with them and I think that it's going to be great. So we'll see. Hopefully. We had to compromise a little bit for the cinematic ending and so forth, but it's true to the book and the authors I think were just thrilled.
Q: Being a New Yorker and having the anniversary of 9/11 coming up, how would you commemorate it?

SJ: I don't know. I think that it's important - I don't know. That's a hard question to answer because I was in New York on that day and I have a lot of memories from that time. I mean, I think that we'll all be thinking about it and there'll be all the footage on TV. Does it need to be commemorated personally? It would be nice to see some sort of thing happening there. We've got this big gaping hole in the middle of the city, and it's like, 'Lets break the ground already.' That would be a nice gift for the friends and family of everyone who was lost there. For me that would be ideal, to have something really done there.
Q: What are your memories of that day?

SJ: Just shock. I turned on the TV and I lived 15 blocks away. It was just very confusing I think the very moment it happened. I think that everyone was kind of confused. I think that all of the steps that people go through when they grieve, just not being able to understand what's going on and then being angry about it and upset about it and then finally accepting it. I think that everyone went through that.
Q: Did you have to evacuate your apartment?

SJ: No, no, no. I was far enough away that I didn't have to.

Q: Thank you for your time this afternoon.

Following "The Black Dahlia,” Johansson will be seen next in "The Prestige,” directed by Christopher Nolan, opposite Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, which is scheduled to be released later this Fall. I invite you to read my review of the film and my interviews with director Brian De Palma, actor Josh Hartnett, and novelist James Ellroy/screenwriter Josh Friedman.

"The Black Dahlia” opens in theaters on September 15th. I invite you to read my review of the film and my interviews with director Brian De Palma, actor Josh Hartnett, novelist James Ellroy, and screenwriter Josh Friedman.


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