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Scarlett Johansson talks nude scenes and alien seduction in 'Under the Skin'

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson
A24

In the sci-fi drama "Under the Skin" (directed by Jonathan Glazer, who co-wrote the screenplay), Scarlett Johansson plays a mysterious alien disguised as a human who drives around Scotland and picks up random men. The movie is based on the book "Under the Skin" by Michel Faber. In the book, the female alien is named Isserley, but in the movie, she is named Laura, and almost all of the characters do not have names.

Scarlett Johansson at a New York City press conference for "Under the Skin"
Carla Hay

Another unusual aspect of the film is that most of the cast members are not professional actors but are men who had no idea that they were being filmed at the time as Johansson (in disguise as her "Under the Skin" character) picked them up randomly on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland. Here is what Johansson said at a New York City press conference for "Under the Skin." (Journalists who attended the press conference were told that personal questions were not allowed, so don't expect to see Johansson in this interview talk about her love life or being pregnant with her first child who is due to be born in late 2014.)

In “Under the Skin,” your character seems to fall for the one guy who is chivalrous to her in the story. Do you think that kind of chivalry is lacking in society today?

I think what my character responded to more than that character’s chivalry is his kindness, actually. Or rather in at that point in her transition, she was able to accept help. I don’t know if she looked at him and necessarily found him to be incredibly dreamy. I don’t think that is in any way relevant to her experience.

If you’re asking, “Is chivalry lost?” No, not in my experience. I don’t any other way, I guess. It would be different if you ask someone of a different generation. It’s not like way back when, when people were more chivalrous. But I’ve experienced chivalry occasionally.

[SPOILER ALERT]

What scene in “Under the Skin” was more emotionally difficult for you: the scene where your character leaves a child crying by the water, or the scene where your character gets attacked in the woods?

Of course, when we shot that scene with the child, my character at that point, any sort of guilt or any empathy or sympathy that she would have for that child crying, those emotions are totally irrelevant to her … So in that moment, I think that scene at that point, we shot later. It was halfway through the production. And at that point, I realized that if I was in that character, in the phase before the character cracks start to form, and they turn into kind of a fissure … and she’s sort of coming out of this shell, or being born or whatever, before that happens, she’s still a part of something else, where she starts to individualize.

It was really important to wash myself of any of those kinds of human emotions, whether it was empathy or fear (other than primal fear) or self-doubt or humility or all those things. I had to be free and liberated of them and be in a meditative or present state of focus, because that’s what the role required. And in that scene, obviously the child was safe [in real life] but I had no emotion. I was free of that, I guess.

Later on, when the character is running through the woods, that’s pure fear. And it was terrifying because of the conditions we were shooting in but also the other person playing in that [scene] was not an actor, so I didn’t know really if the same kind of rules applied to two actors didn’t really apply between us. I didn’t feel safe at all. That was much more challenging, I think — not challenging but terrifying.

[END OF SPOILER ALERT]

Did filming “Under the Skin” in Scotland help you relate to the “outsider looking in” quality of your alien character?

I think that Jonathan [Glazer] probably chose that because everything he does, there’s so much thought that goes in. I think he very specifically set the film there because it sort of allowed us to anywhere. Obviously, Glasgow is a very happening place. It’s a big city with a university and culture and all kinds of stuff going on, but in some ways, especially coming from the States, it feels far away.

I think that’s partly because of the way Scotland looks itself. It’s so raw and is immensely beautiful — breathtakingly so. It’s almost otherworldly to have this very happening city, this rugged city in the middle of that. It feels very much like another place and also not a place where you would expect this kind of production would be going on. It allowed us to remain anonymous, more so than shooting in London or another city like that. It felt like a big city, but it could have been an “anywhere” city. And I think that attracted him — that he could have this biblical beauty in the forest and this unbelievable scenic view that you see in the film.

How long did it take you to master the choreography in the seduction scenes?

Surprisingly, it didn’t take any choreography. There was no soundtrack, of course. I never actually even thought of the character’s walk. It was just something that happened very naturally, like, “This is how you wave a shiny object in front of something, and they go for it. There’s kind of a rhythm to that, like “Don’t you want this?”

It’s sort of that pace, that sort of lulling, almost like you would lull a baby, like, “Shh! Shh!” It’s that kind of pace. And it’s very primal. And I think it’s just something that happened that way. Luckily, growing up in New York and wearing heels in the city, I can manage it without too much risk of failure, I guess.

“Under the Skin” is arguably the most physically revealing role of your career so far. The nudity you had in the film wasn’t necessarily sexual. What made you decide that this was the right role to do or the right point in your career to go nude in a movie?

I think in some ways, you have to look at the nudity, and you assume it’s going to be a screen shot for someone. You have to weigh the value of the risk that you’re taking. “Is this gratuitous? Is this a vanity project? Or is it an important part of this character’s journey about self-discovery? What’s the gain?”

Of course, the last thing Jonathan wanted to do was take the audience out of the story and have this nudie alien shot or whatever. It was not his intention at all.

Certainly, going into it, we talked about it. He was like, “I do not want that. If it’s a means of storytelling is suddenly overshadowed by the ‘freak factor’ of it, for lack of a better term, then I’m not going to put it in.”

And so, just knowing that the door was kind of open, that it would be there if it was right made me much more comfortable, because I’m not provocative in person. It’s not like I live to be photographed in the buff or anything like that.

Of course, it really actually made me aware when I was doing it all the kinds of judgment and all of these things you would place on ourselves, like how self-conscious you can be about the way you look and your own vanity. Again, I had to be liberated of that. And it was really challenging, but it was interesting.

I was like, “Wow, I’m really self-conscious about this” or “I’m holding on the idea that I should look like that.” We all have it. I guess as a woman, we have it more.

What was the most interesting reaction that you got from the unsuspecting men who didn’t know that they were being filmed? Part of being an actor is being an observer of human behavior. What was the most important thing that you learned from watching your non-actor co-stars who weren’t acting in their scenes?

I never knew when people actually got their release forms, what their reactions were,because by that time, I was long gone. It was really important that we stay on the move in those situations. Oftentimes, if we shot something and we needed to use the same location, we would have a good 40 minutes of clearance to try to not alert the entire area as to what was going on exactly.

And when we were in places like a mall or a nightclub, we’d have 20 minutes of … free time. We can play and explore. Instantly, I knew right away, “We have to get out of here.” I’d just give the “code red” signal. I never had any problem being recognized.

One time, I was trying to pick up this guy. He didn’t actually get into my van, but he did chat me up for a while. And I was trying to figure out, “Who is this person? And does anybody love him? Will they miss you?”

And kind of halfway through the conversation, he looked at me, and he was like, “Are you an actor?” My blood ran cold. I was terrified. I said, “No, why would you ask that?” And he said, “Because you’re f*cking gorgeous!” And I was like, “Oh, man! All right, I can do this!”

It was funny. Jonathan couldn’t use because it was too good. He said, “That was incredible!” It was pretty amazing, the reactions.

But one thing that surprised me about humanity, whatever I could observe, is that people like to share their lives. This is going to sound totally crazy, but I was talking to Debbie Harry. We interviewed each other. It was a fun thing.

If you can imagine, she has superfans from forever. She said, “Nobody ever asks me about myself when I meet fans. People just want to share. They just want to tell you about themselves. For me, it’s great, I just get to sit back and observe my fans and get to know them.”

People just love to make an impact or just share their story. I found that to be so true, but because I was trying to share anything about myself, it’s amazing when you take that neutral stance what people will offer to you — all kinds of information. Even if I didn’t pick up people from the side of road, I knew who they were married to, what kind of relationship they were in, whether they came from work, where they were going, what they were doing that weekend, how many kids they had, how much they hated their job — all kinds of things. I was asking where the freeway was. It’s amazing if you take a back seat, how much people will offer up. I think there’s a real beauty in that.

In the movie, “Her,” you voiced the character of a human-like computer operating system named Samantha, which struggled to understand what it meant to be human. Did you find any connection between that role and the role you had in “Under the Skin”?

Not necessarily when I was playing them. Of course, there’s been some time in between. And the opportunity to play Samantha in “Her” was kind of an unexpected gift. I was in the middle of working. I was totally swamped with work and got this opportunity to collaborate with [“Her” writer/director] Spike [Jonze] on that in post-production.

But I didn’t even have time to be able to draw any comparison between the two. Of course, these characters share an appetite for self-discovery. Of course, it happens later on in this film. There’s this drive to experience everything.

Of course, with Samantha in “Her,” it’s with much more gusto, obviously. She’s interested in the “why” more than Laura in “Under the Skin.” Laura is like a little babe. She’s a little ember before she’s extinguished. Her ending is so abrupt.

With Samantha, it’s almost like she’s existing in some other dimension. She’s relating to things that are out of our reach as humans. She progresses so quickly. But the common theme with both characters is they both have this thirst to experience the richness of life, the variety, but it’s only now that I could see that, I guess.

What was it like to see “Under the Skin” for the first time?

I don’t really watch [my movies]. I’m not big on watching video playback and all that. I always find it to be not helpful. Maybe I should watch it more. I really had no idea. I didn’t see any images of myself, still photographs or anything, so I didn’t know what it would look like at all.

Anyway, even if I did watch the playback, it couldn’t possibly reflect what was going on in Jonathan’s mind and the witchcraft he brewed up in the post-production process. He’s so cerebral, and he’s such a visionary. And the script, it wasn’t like you were reading some deliciously in-depth narrative that was perfectly explained. It was just the skeleton of something, the script.

I didn’t even know what it was going to be. I didn’t know what he could possibly carve out of it. I knew what the arc of the character was as I experienced it, but would he be able to find that in the 8 million hours of coverage that we shot? Eight cameras going at the same time for 12-minute takes, 10 hours of that. I can’t believe that what he accomplished, what he carved out of it. It was a miracle in itself.

Whether you respond to the movie favorably or not, it’s incredible what he put together, the narrative that he found. It’s an amazing piece of work. Of course, when I saw it, I was terrified, partly because of the nudity. I didn’t know how that was going to be used. I didn’t know how naked my performance would be, figuratively.

I felt like the whole time I was watching it, I was moving forward. The momentum was so, I felt crazy when it ended. It ended so abruptly. I was thrust into the daylight outside of the theater. It was the weirdest experience.

I had no time to resolve anything in myself before it was over. It’s paced-out, but the way it accelerates took me by surprise, I guess, so I was happy to have the audience experience it and separate myself from all those other things. The terror I had going in quickly faded when I became immersed in the visual. I was really happy for Jonathan. I was really proud of him and happy for him.

For more info: "Under the Skin" website