Since her feature film debut in 1994’s North at age 9, Scarlett Johansson has played dozens of dynamic female characters, from anhedonic teens to New Jersey princesses. Basically, the only commonality between the women she’s played is how different they are from one another.
“I look for roles I know I can do, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do them,” Johannson told BuzzFeed while promoting her latest film Lucy, out in theaters on July 25. “I want to have some sort of abstract of the path of a character … but I’d rather play a part that makes me uncomfortable than play a part I know I can play because I’ve played them before. There’s nothing for me to really contribute if I don’t have a certain level of nervous excitement.”
The 29-year-old actress admits she had that feeling about tackling the unique role of Lucy — an unremarkable American forced by the mob to mule an experimental drug out of Taipei who slowly gains access to her brain’s full potential after the baggie of drugs explodes in her stomach.
But this wasn’t completely untrodden ground for Johansson, since Lucy channels elements of five of the actress’ earlier roles.
In 2007’s The Nanny Diaries, Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a 21-year-old recent college graduate who has no idea what or who she wants to be. And when Lucy begins, the eponymous leading lady is more interested in clubbing than kicking ass.
“In the beginning, she’s this girl from the Midwest who is in a transient phase of her life,” Johansson said of Lucy. “She parties too much, she is an average student, and she’s probably there to do a little bit of modeling. She’s so unremarkable, but the person she is when we first meet her is almost insignificant because, within the first 30 minutes, she wakes up in a completely different state than she was in the beginning of the film — she’s totally transformed by just gaining 15% brain capacity. She’s just in the middle of living her life when this happens and I wanted it to feel like that’s why she was half falling apart — she had a night out and a life before this, and then there’s her life after this. You have to highlight the drastic change. It’s why I thought it was so important that she have chipped nail polish and bad hair that probably needed another dye job. She had a life before she got there and that’s how we showed that.”
Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed 2003 film Lost in Translation dedicates nearly two hours to reveling in everything Tokyo has to offer. While the circumstances are less celebratory in the Taipei-set Lucy, the imagery is no less dazzling.
“I love to travel and I made sure, as I always do when I go to a major city, that there was an Anthony Bourdain special on Taipei. Turns out that it’s a culinary mecca, much to my delight,” Johansson said. “It’s a city that comes alive at night. Tokyo was really quite a unique metropolis; this mix of fantasy and a very practical way of living. It’s just so different than any other place I’ve been. Japan and Taiwan both have their own culture of cinema, but film is a universal language, so it’s interesting to see how you can be in an entirely new place and environment, but kind of be talking the same language while making a movie. There’s an unspoken sense of collaboration on a film set, so it’s a nice way to travel.”
Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, has left piles of lesser men in her wake throughout three Marvel movies: 2010’s Iron Man 2, 2012’s The Avengers, and 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As Lucy gains more and more access to her brain’s full capacity, she becomes more and more of a physical threat to the men who abducted her.
“I certainly never expected that I would be spending as much time holding a semi-automatic weapon as I have,” Johansson said with a laugh of her unlikely action hero status. “It’s not really part of my lifestyle in general, but, I do feel really fortunate — especially with the Black Widow — that I’ve been able to play one of the first female superheroines, someone who is more than just a decoration. She’s a really complex character that’s a product of her past; like Lucy, she’s sort of a reluctant superhero. I could have never anticipated 10 years ago that that would be acceptable or interesting in the genre. It was unprecedented mostly. But along with that comes a lot of hand-to-hand combat I never pictured myself doing.”
Johansson delivered an impressively unhuman performance that managed to be far from one-note in 2014’s Under the Skin as a mysterious alien singularly devoted to eliminating the men of Scotland. With Lucy, as her character begins to utilize nearly 100 percent of her brain’s capacity, the things that once made her human (like emotions) begin to fall away.
“It really was a challenge because she’s in a constant state of transition,” Johansson said. “The challenge was keeping her from being monotonous or robot-like. I had, of course, all sorts of charts that helped me keep track of what her abilities were at a given time. But, by the end, it was so abstract that it was just about trying all different kinds of things. I made choices, like the last time she felt sympathy, or suddenly having a glimpse of irony. Trying to keep the audience invested in her as a person as she loses herself was difficult. I think the result of what you see is a lot of trying different stuff out. There was a method there, but it required a lot of tries. There is some consistency to the inconsistency.”
In Spike Jonze’s 2013 Oscar-nominated Her, an unexpectedly moving tale that questions how we define love in the digital age, Johansson gave an award-worthy voice performance as Samantha, a computer operating system that falls in love with her operator, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). But as Samantha becomes consumed by the enormity of the world’s information, she transcends the relationship with her owner. And Lucy follows a similar trajectory as she gains complete access to her brain’s potential.
“The idea behind Lucy is: The greater capacity of our brain that we’re using, the more we gain an appreciation and understanding for our own insignificance,” Johansson said. “This journey is more one of connectedness than a journey of our own self — and I think that is more profound. Not that we’re becoming our better self, we’re becoming our self selves, plural. Being connected to those around us, and life around us, and our purpose is one of survival. Lucy is about the evolution of a species while, in Her, the character isn’t human, so it’s a different level of intelligence. She’s connecting on a different level. In the film she says, ‘I’m not like you,’ and what Theodore comes to realize is there’s different levels of intelligence and awareness. I think perhaps the idea that a character is part of the ethos is similar to what Lucy eventually reaches, but this totally different level of awareness — she goes beyond humanity.”