It’s a weekday afternoon during TIFF and actress Scarlett Johnansson walks into a bar in downtown Toronto to talk about working with actor turned director Joseph Gordon Levitt on his feature filmmaking debut Don Jon. One of the most beautiful and hardest working women in the industry at the moment, she’s in town to promote multiple films (including Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and a showcase of Spike Jonze’s upcoming Her), but her hectic schedule hasn’t dampened her energy or sense of humour.
In Levitt’s film about the titular New Jersey man and his attempts to pull himself away from his addiction to pornography, Johansson plays Barbara, the woman Jon has a deep affection for that borders on becoming his first true love. The film explores the push and pull between the two as Jon tries to keep his internet searches secret and Barbara attempts to mould him into a respectable gentleman befitting of the image she tries to uphold for herself.
Johansson talked to Dork Shelf about the differences between pornography and romantic comedy, her collaboration with Levitt for the first time, how her decision making process has evolved over the years, what it’s like watching a sexualized film in front of family and loved ones, and her own (somewhat surprising) addiction.
There’s an interesting parallel being made in the film about the distinction between how women get unrealistic expectations from romantic comedies and men get something similar from pornography. How much truth do you think there is to that?
Scarlett Johansson: I think more than anything the idea that Joe was kind of playing with here was that the way we kind of consume these products, if you will, with the intention that these are ideals that we should uphold in our actual interpersonal relationships is dangerous. Whether it’s porn or romantic comedies or these images that we’re bombarded with constantly in commercials and magazines, these impossible standards are what we’re playing with and looking at how we consume them. He was showcasing how ludicrous those things can be.
I haven’t really read any romantic comedies that I’ve really liked. Don’t get me wrong, I like the genre, but they’re difficult. There are so many clichés and I think it’s hard to find one that hasn’t been done before. I think that’s why I tend to avoid that genre, because I never want to make something that I’ve seen before.
What was your working relationship like with Joe when it came to creating your character?
SJ: Joe was really wonderful to collaborate with because I think he’s just open to the idea of working together. He wrote this film when it was a process he was very much going through alone. I was one of the first people to read it, and he was so excited with the fact that we could work together to lift the character off the page and colour her in. The confidence that he had throughout – that he had a specific vision, what he wanted it to feel like and what he wanted it to look like – led the charge and brought the cast and crew along with him. That kind of confidence is something I look for in every director that I work with. It was a privilege to see him doing this for the first time.
I read the very first draft of the script and we made some scenes for both of our characters, and I think it was good to have a bit of that female perspective in there. I think one of the things I really appreciated about the character is that she had a lot of conviction. I also think that she was guilty of something that a lot of us are guilty of, which is wanting to put your partner in the little box that you’ve made for them and that they fit so perfectly into. [sarcastically] It’s just so much easier when the person you’re with fits into this image you have for them and is a lot more like you! (laughs) I think you learn, obviously – I know I am learning and I’m sure a lot of us still are – that you can grow with our differences and compromise and kind of open one another’s minds to the other possibilities. I really related to that and I played that with as much conviction that she had and hold strong to those ideals. She’s got a lot of chutzpah.
What do you like about working with more untested directors like Joe, as opposed to working with someone like Woody Allen who has made hundreds of films in various respects over his career?
SJ: I wouldn’t say that I necessarily say I enjoy working with any kind of directors for a specific reason, especially first time directors. I mean, Woody is so prolific and he works more than I could ever imagine working. He’s a creative machine. But I also just had an interesting experience working with Jonathan Glazer on Under the Skin, and he hasn’t made a ton of movies, but he spent ten years working on this one. I could never compare working with someone like Terence Malick to someone like Scorsese. I think while the work and quantity are different, it’s impossible to compare the quality. It’s always and interesting kind of jumping off of a cliff and you never know what you are going to get, but that’s not just a first time thing. It’s like that with any collaboration.
Under the Skin is definitely a very different kind of film that you’re also here with in Toronto. How important is it for you to have a diverse kind of showcase for your work?
SJ: I don’t know if it’s necessarily important, but it’s nice that it could happen this way. I’ve just been really fortunate to have quite a productive and diverse past couple of years. It’s fun to be able to go to a screening of Under the Skin and then go into something like Don Jon. We also just did a showcase for Her while I was here, and it’s just kind of fun to know my friends and family are here with me and able to see the kind of immediate differences between them all. For me, I’m just really fortunate to be here with two films that I’m really proud of.
You talk a bit about how you are still learning about relationships a second ago. Did you learn anything about yourself playing this part?
SJ: Hmmmm. I don’t know what I necessarily learned about myself outside of how sometimes life is about taking risks, and this was a project that could be seen as a risk for all of us. Never having worked with Joe or not having written anything I had ever read with him before took a lot of faith in us knowing that our artistic conversations were on the right page. It was really a case of learning just how life is full of risks and some of them, like this, can be really worth taking.
Intuition comes into picking a project quite often, knowing if it makes sense to do something commercially or artistically, and no one really knows the proper formula for either one of those. You have to feel it, you know? Otherwise, forget it. If you don’t know why you are there or what you are doing, then why be there? You have to take risks and trust your instincts, initially. That’s vital, I think.
You started acting when you were really young. Has the decision making process for you changed or evolved at all?
SJ: I think because I have a greater understanding of my work and what I have to put into it now, it just changes the decisions I make. I think I’m able to make braver choices because I feel braver now and have had more life experience. I have a greater confidence in my ability, and I’m curious about taking on the unknown, but it’s a lot greater now.
You recently got engaged, which is awesome, but do you find it would be harder to watch a movie like this with your partner than some of the other films you might have worked on?
SJ: I don’t know. I’m not sure how that would be. I might just be blissfully unaware when I’m watching a film. I’m very rarely aware of anyone else’s experience, unless my brother was sitting next to me and it was a nude scene. I think then I would be pretty uncomfortable. (laughs) Other than that, I hope that whatever work I’m doing is seen just as the work I am doing to everyone around me and that it’s not getting confused with anything else, I guess.
This film seems to hearken back to some of the stage work you have been doing lately. What do you get out of that kind of work that you don’t normally get working in film?
SJ: It’s incredibly rewarding to work on stage with the repetition and scheduling alone. It could be a bit maddening at times, but the challenge of digging deeper into every performance every time is so satisfying and like nothing else. Having a live audience and feeling that energy and having that two way give and take and commanding a specific effect on the audience is unbelievable and just the best kind of work.
You really seem to have the Jersey accent down in Don Jon.
SJ: Yeah, well, I’m from New York, so for me Jersey is just the light at the end of the tunnel. I grew up going to Jersey all the time, so that accent was something I could just slip in and out of. I also chew a lot of gum in the movie, and I chew gum all the time and I was really waiting for the opportunity to exploit that on film. (laughs) I’m usually getting told to spit my gum out, and here I have a prop person standing around at all times with a pack of it. (laughs) I think that’s just another kind of habit that ties into the character being someone who is always consuming or looking for something to do.
Do you have any addictions?
SJ: (laughs) Buffalo Sauce. I put that on everything. Seriously.