There are two kinds of challenge-seekers.
The first kind, and you probably know people like this, deliberately make their lives more difficult. They violate the “rule of too,” as in, taking on too much, too soon, too often. At work and home, they like you to think they can do it all. The rationale is that they’ll be recognized as stars or superhuman workhorses. Success, to them, is ultimately about being recognized for all they endure.
Then there’s the Scarlett Johansson method: “I’m always interested in doing something that I don’t think I can survive.”
Let’s be honest: When you see Scarlett Johansson, you don’t initially think “workhorse.” She’s stunning and has an air of calm. There’s as much serenity and smarts in her smile as there is sexuality. (Woody Allen has famously called her “sexually overwhelming” while simultaneously lamenting that she’s wittier than he is.) She answers my questions in a very casual way, yet with an undeniable intelligence. That’s the thing: She makes success look effortless. Yet, she’s the first to tell you that nothing she does in her search for fulfillment is easy.
“Being happy, at least in my experience, takes work. It doesn’t necessarily sit well when you say it like that because it seems like happiness shouldn’t require work. It should be easy. I’ve found that it’s actually quite difficult. There’s a challenge to it. It requires self-reflection and a lot of work to find out what it is that makes you happy. I’m not just talking about the fact that, oh, a perfect tuna fish sandwich makes me happy. Obviously.”
“Though it does.”
We laugh at this because, hey, who doesn’t like a good tuna fish sandwich? But here I get my first peek into why she seeks out tough challenges as a matter of course. The reason has nothing to do with an attitude of self-flagellation or attention-seeking through martyrdom. Instead she understands that it is a fact of life—and the burden of everyone in pursuit of happiness—that a perfect tuna fish sandwich doesn’t make itself. So let’s talk about the work.
Johansson has worked for more than half her life. She’s 27, so that’s a significant statement about her youthful ethic. She grew up in New York City, and as a kid in the ’90s she accumulated experience with prestigious directors the way a young girl today might collect Justin Beiber posters. Rob Reiner (North), Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer) and the Coen brothers (The Man Who Wasn't There) all cast her in films before she was old enough to drive.
That’s telling. She spent her formative years in the presence of a lot of people who don’t shy away from creative challenges, who in fact seek them out. She got to see firsthand how they execute a project, push through adversity and lead a talented team to a worthy end point. She was shown at a very young age the inherent possibility of things that seem quite impossible to everyone else. That’s a huge factor in why she embraces her “doing something I don’t think I can survive” approach, and why she doesn’t self-destruct in the process.
Johansson’s breakout role came in 2003 when soon-to-be-acclaimed director Sofia Coppola (daughter of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola) cast Johansson in Lost in Translation opposite Bill Murray.
The world suddenly knew about Scarlett Johansson.
She’s worked steadily ever since and has earned the mantle of “Woody Allen muse,” joining Diane Keaton and a handful of other great actresses the director has hired multiple times.
But Johansson has done some growing up recently, and the projects she’s done in the past three years have been different than the challenges that came before. She’s consciously sought them out—not because they would be fun or make her wealthy—but because they would push her to the edge of her physical and psychological capacities. Why? She’s learned the secret gift inherent in challenges: happiness—true, lasting happiness.
Three very different projects illustrate her philosophy.
In 2009, she joined the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, a brutally emotional play set in the 1950s about a blue-collar guy who falls for his younger niece. Johansson had never done anything like it before. To make it even more challenging, her leading man was Liev Schrieber, whom some regard as one of the greatest living stage actors. This was the big leagues, and suddenly a lot of eyes would be watching to see if she could pull it off. Performing eight shows a week over 12 weeks, Johansson jokes that she felt like she had an ulcer.
It didn’t take long for the results to come in. The reviews gushed. And co-star Schreiber, skeptical of her stage chops at first, later told Vanity Fair, “I felt like I was witnessing someone take a huge leap forward in her career as an actor. She was in over her head, but through sheer intelligence and perseverance, she made that role happen.”
She won a Tony Award for her work.
“Exhausting,” she says about the daily experience of the stage. “Emotionally draining. But the audience feeds life into you. It’s such a high to perform in front of a live audience and have their reaction in real time.”
She worked with some of the greatest talents in the world on some of the greatest material every single night, and in the process had to become one of those great talents just to pull it off.
The Avengers was a very different kind of challenge.
“All you had to do was look at our second assistant director to know it was a giant production,” Johansson says, “because he was tearing his eyeballs out.”
Amid the chaos, hundreds of people spending countless hours and dollars setting up complex action shots were depending on Johansson to not just hit her marks, but to deliver the right performance, sometimes reacting to imaginary events that would be added in post-production via digital effects. If she missed even a little bit, it all had to be set up again. No pressure, right?
“I have to say—doing the stunt work—it’s not the day you’re shooting that’s most difficult. It’s all the hours you spend learning it. Once you’re shooting it, it’s definitely exhausting because of the repetition, but you’ve already gone through the most painful part of the process, which is learning the choreography of the fights,” she says. “Especially because you have a tight timeframe to learn everything. If you’re lagging or there are things you’re unsure of, you just beat it into the ground until you get it.” She chuckles. “You have no choice.”
Jumping into a mega-budget Hollywood tentpole film was no whimsical decision. The role of Black Widow originated in Iron Man 2 , and Johansson chased it. Director Jon Favreau lost his original choice, Emily Blunt, to scheduling conflicts. Johansson dyed her hair red for her meeting with Favreau, knowing that if she got the role, she would be attached for the duration. And that meant hardcore stunt work not just for that film, but for The Avengers and any future Marvel project that included the character. Not something you take on thinking, This could be fun, but rather, This could kill me.
Favreau, for his part, was impressed. “All the fighting and wire work is her own,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “She worked really hard, and it shows on the screen.”
Johansson finished up a third challenge a little over a week before our interview. It’s a smaller project that not many people have heard of, a film from director Jonathan Glazer called Under the Skin that has an alien element. How to describe it?
Here’s what Johansson told Interview magazine: “I’m playing a character called Laura, who is an it that becomes a she…. That’s what the story’s about—it’s about that transformation. It basically has no written dialogue [and] it feels really fresh. It might be an impossible project…. [laughs] We’ll see.”
When I ask her about it, she offers a more succinct description: “The hardest job I’ve ever had in my entire career. And rewarding.”
What made it so tough? “It forced me to confront everything that could make me self-conscious or embarrassed,” she says. “That can be excruciating.” Obviously, she knew it would be tough going in. But what is that like when you’re in the middle of it, wondering if you’re going to “survive” the experience? She laughs and answers, “Just suck it up and go.”
There is one thing Johansson says these three recent projects have in common aside from deep satisfaction: “They require a long winter’s nap.”
Meanwhile, drama can tear your real life apart.
Johansson doesn’t talk about her romantic life, but enough has been documented: a tryst with Benicio del Toro in the Chateau Marmont elevator in West Hollywood (denied by both of them), a two-year marriage to Ryan Reynolds, a divorce, a subsequent relationship with Sean Penn and the hacking of her phone that led to a pair of self-shot nude photos going viral. As she declared to Vanity Fair, “There is no such thing as an aura of mystery anymore.”
Even in that brief list, it’s easy to forget that it all happened to a young woman in her early to mid-20s, the time when we’re searching for what exactly will bring us that lasting happiness. Johansson’s going through the same things and learning the same lessons as everyone else her age, just on a bigger stage. And like a lot of people, she’s discovered that building an amazing career is one big key to facing all those real-life challenges.
“Playing somebody miserable can bring you joy,” she says. “That’s a freedom, I think. Freedom to not have to excuse your somberness. It gives you an excuse to explore the darkest parts of yourself. As actors, by nature I think we have a sort of narcissism in that way; we like to get to the nitty-gritty of our truest, darkest selves, rip it apart and explore it and expose it and all that stuff. I think that’s fun and a challenge and makes you feel alive.” Then she pauses. “But I don’t know if anything compares to real-life happiness.” And, like many of us, she’s still working at it.
So what makes Scarlett Johansson different from all those people who deliberately make their hard lives even harder?
“Self-reflection,” she says. Johansson embraces the difficulty, but only does so after she’s thought good and long about what the challenge will bring to her. As a result, “I’ve never done a project where I wasn’t sure it would make me secretly happy.”
That’s a bold statement. How does she back it up? She asks the actor’s most basic question when approaching a new character: “What’s my motivation?” Johansson has figured out that, despite the inherent suffering, it’s the journey that brings her joy. “There’s pain involved in trying to make something great, whether that’s emotional pain or physical pain. Like in these superhero movies, it definitely hurts. It’s a lifestyle that’s not that fun. But the challenge is what makes me happy, not the end result. The challenge of, ‘How far can I push myself?’ Like doing the play—‘I don’t think I’m going to survive this.’ Or doing The Avengers—‘I’m gonna die halfway through this job.’ Being able to do something that feels impossible makes me feel incredibly happy.”
She’s aware the stakes are high: professional failure and personal humiliation on a worldwide stage. So far, many of her challenges have delivered excellent results, which bring a worthwhile reward.
“I feel like I have some breathing room,” she says. “A lot of times actors feel the need to continuously work, and that work begets work—that idea that we’re part of an industry that is unforgiving, that a career is constantly slipping away, that success is a slippery fish. So we have a tendency to work nonstop when we can. Now I feel comfortable and confident in this part of my career where I can sit back and gain perspective.”
For her, of course, that means finding new challenges. One is adapting a Truman Capote novella, Summer Crossing, into a film. She’s writing the screenplay and will direct. And yes, most actors say, “What I really want to do is direct,” but Johansson has always aspired to it.
“When I was 12, I remember being on the set of The Horse Whisperer and watching Bob Redford work with the actors and then the cinematographer and the costume department. To watch his vision for that film take place right in front of me—I knew I wanted that job. For me, the attraction is that your dream and vision become a reality with an incredibly talented group of people, hand-picked, everyone working together hopefully in this harmonious way to bring a vision to life and using their creative minds to enrich that vision. That’s a beautiful process. It’s a goal of mine.”
The Capote novella is the story of a young Jewish girl coming of age in 1948 New York City—not unlike how Scarlett grew up, except the era—who falls in love for the first time. “I think your first love is in many ways your truest love, this unbelievably profound feeling, wanting to give everything to this person and not having the means to express how you feel. It’s an impossible love. When I read it, I thought, Oh, this is a movie, and I want to make it.”
That’s always the setup, isn’t it? For all of us. Something sounds great on paper. This challenge will push me, will make me happy. But how do we know if we’re staring at the perfect project or a waiting disaster?
“You just don’t know,” she says. Then she offers an apt comparison: “[Making a decision like this] is different than being at the gym. At the gym you know that you’ll work out, endorphins will kick in and you’ll look better if you do it consistently. You know the end result at the gym. But creating something, there are no guarantees.”
Despite the risks, Johansson continues to challenge herself, and she’s not the only one who benefits from the results.
ScarJo on Simple Joys
Ask Scarlett Johansson what makes her happy, and she’ll give you a list.
It’s fun to listen to because wistfulness creeps into her voice as she pulls from a pleasure catalog in her brain. By the time she finishes, however, an interesting formula for happiness emerges that anyone can apply to their lives.
“I love food,” she begins. “I love just going to a restaurant that I know will serve me a delicious meal. That makes me happy. I like to go hear live music in the city…. Making a batch of kettle corn and sitting on the couch in front of an old movie makes me happy…. Going to the gym doesn’t always make me happy [she laughs] but it always makes me feel better. Not happy going in, but happy coming out…. Taking a walk in New York City on a beautiful day makes me happy…. Letting the day sort of happen to me makes me happy.”
She immediately segues, however, into the false gods of happiness, the things she’s done, thinking that they will change not just her mood, but her situation: “I’ve gone on trips that I thought would make me happy, and they turned out to be disasters. It usually happens at a time when you’re feeling really lost and you try to do something about it. Like you get a haircut [again she laughs]. Even if you like it, after a few days… same old hair, same old mood.
“For me, the trap is I try to escape somewhere thinking that everything will be fine once I’m there. Then you’re sitting there on vacation completely miserable. With a new haircut. Everyone has their own version of that.”
If you analyze the difference between the things that truly make her happy and the stuff that hasn’t worked, voilà, you see the formula: Smiles come from the simple joys in life (food, live music, a walk in the city), versus failed attempts to escape yourself. The trick is to pause, hit refresh and move on.