Four-fifty on a Thursday afternoon, deep in a shadowy bar at a hotel called the Nomad, downtown Manhattan, and Scarlett Johansson actually wants to write. I give her a little hotel pad, maybe four-by-six, which she grabs in her small, ringless fingers. She takes my pen eagerly.
“What do you want me to write?” she says. She will write what I tell her, she says.
I don’t know. “Don’t you have a little passage memorized?” I ask. “A little Shakespeare, maybe? ‘Oh, for a muse of fire,’ something like that?”
She clicks her tongue. “I think it should be neutral,” she says, shaking her head. “Shouldn’t involve any acting. I’m afraid I’ll emphasize the Oh or something.” As she thinks, she purses her lips, looks down, casting a little furtive charm. This one. She came in here — and this place is hung with velvet curtains and underlit by 40-watt bulbs; it’s seriously dark — with her sunglasses on, walked six feet in front of me, at her publicist’s side, in her gray cotton tracksuit, half pointing at tables that might work for her. All movie star up in here. And I didn’t look at her ass. I don’t know that she wanted me to. Probably not. Surely not. In any case, I didn’t.
She bites the inside of her cheek when she thinks. There is an extremely large platter of cut vegetables on the table. “Crudités.” I say it out loud, a word no one used ten years ago.
“My God,” she says when it arrives. “So many vegetables.”
Her voice is a raspy frequency in the air. Legitimately as pertinent and defining a component of her physical makeup as her lips, her cheekbones, her legs. When you’re with her, you feel that voice. This bar is loud with cocktail hour, but the matter of her voice, the fact of it, hangs in the air even so — always a little sandy, somehow broken down, as if she’d been singing all day. Whether she breathes right or projects well I do not know, but her voice cuts the murmuring clatter of forks against small plates, ice spun in highballs. You can hear it no matter what.
“I wish I could write a parable,” she says. “Or maybe just an adage. I could write that one where I never know what the hell it means. Well, I guess if I thought about it — I mean, I have thought about it, of course, and figured it out. But it eludes me the first time I hear it. Every time. It’s not logical. At first, I mean.”
“Like ‘A stitch in time saves nine?’ I never get that one.”
“Exactly,” she says. “But it’s about birds. ‘A bird in the bush.’ Or…”
So these are the words she writes: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Twice. Once in cursive. Once printed. Then she slides the pad to me and says, “Now you do it.” And so I take the pen. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, after all.
“Come on,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “But you’re making me nervous.”
I write it once. “Now print it,” she says. And, of course, I screw that up. So my printed line reads A BIRD IN THE HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE BIRD.
Scarlett Johansson clucks into the air. “That’s gotta be bad for the bird,” she says. Me, I want to start it all over again. “No, no, it’s fine,” she reassures me. “Just give it to them that way.” She bites a thin hook of sweet orange pepper. “See what the words tell you.”
We’re creating a handwriting sample. Scarlett offers hers for me to take to a graphologist for an analysis of character. You could say she was eager, a movie star all the way, uncowered and free. When she’s like this, willing — wanting even — to give in to harebrained plots, you really feel like you’re talking to a bombshell, because bombshells are fun. To her, it sounds like fun to have a stranger deconstruct her penmanship in the sidebar of a magazine article. It’s part of a search for truth, after all. Not exactly bungee jumping, but Scarlett is brave like that. She’s not one of those who pine for the privacy lost to celebrity, nor does she tell teary stories of some paparazzo who stalked her in the doorway of a cupcake shop. Scarlett just plain operates in the world, which can make her seem a little chilly at first, even sour.
She’s only twenty-eight. She’s been at it long enough to have done most of it before. Critical success, commercial success, action movie, its sequel and re-sequel. Lost in Translation to Vicky Cristina Barcelona to the various iterations of the Avengers. She’s now been the Sexiest Woman Alive twice — well earned, too. But what do they say about impressions?
The first of her: She seems not to care, to be bored, aloof. But that’s as if drawn only from looking at pictures and not reading the text. Truth is, Scarlett is a politically astute, card-playing, magic-loving smart-ass, fairly generous in her time and attentions, a woman who will share her sandwich, a woman who likes horsing around in a bar on a muggy afternoon, a platter of hand-cut vegetables at the ready.
This year, Scarlett says, has been the busiest of her life. One movie released, two more coming out in the next five months, and two more in production. She finished a full run of a Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in March. In the movie she has out right now, Don Jon, she plays the hot, manipulative girlfriend of a porn addict. She makes a hootchie girl elegant, offering ascendant beauty in every scene. Hers is an unstressed beauty, which may be why her look is so mutable, more slender than buxom and fleshy. Her next movie is Under the Skin, a horror film in which she plays a flesh-tearing supernatural wandering across Scotland.
In this bar today, she does not look like that horny Catholic in Don Jon for a dozen reasons you already know: She’s wiped out from the photo shoot, wearing no makeup, different shoes, different bra, and so on.
“I’m exhausted and this is my last day in the world,” she says, sunglasses off now. “This is the last day, and this is the last piece of work. Then I’m taking a month-long vacation. But I’m not going anywhere, which just makes it more of a staycation. There’s luxury in being near home. When you spend a lot of time, like I do, just standing around and waiting, or being moved from place to place, every minute gets consumed by something someone else has set up for you. And it’s not like I’m always in a beautiful place wearing something gorgeous. I’ve stood around bogs wearing half a million dollars’ worth of jewelry, up to my knees in the rot, thinking how much more or less the place smelled like a sewer than it did the day before. And that is not what you’d call a problem exactly; it just wears you out. What I want to do right now is sleep late, read the paper. I’ve come to see that there’s something pretty great about having two hours to read.”
Why accept the title Sexiest Woman Alive if everything is so busy just now?
Here, she shrugs. “I’m the only woman to win it twice, right?” she says.
She is correct.
“You know, I gotta hustle. I’m a twenty-eight-year-old woman in the movie business, right?” she says. “Pretty soon the roles you’re offered all become mothers. Then they just sort of stop. I have to hedge against that with work—theater, producing, this thing with Esquire.”
Then, as if she hears herself, she looks straight at me and says: “Sounds pretty bloodless, I guess.”
She’ll spend her vacation on the beach in the Hamptons, in a house she rents with friends. “It’s a contemporary house, with a modern Swedish slant.” For whatever reason—my own prejudices, a tone I mistakenly pick up on in her voice, beach houses I have known—I assume she’s saying, the way people do when they rent, that the furniture sucks but it’s fine because the water’s right outside.
And here I say, too casually, “Swedish? Like what, like Ikea and that shit?”
She smiles wryly and speaks softly, unruffled and clear. “No,” she says. “Not like Ikea.”
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