A household name. Instantly recognisable. Crowned the sexiest woman alive – not once, but twice. With 25 years of acting experience under her belt though, Scarlett is far more than just a sex symbol. In fact, she’s fed up with being labelled a sex symbol.
“I’d like to think that I have more interesting defining qualities as an actor.”
With a BAFTA award win, a Tony Award and two Academy Award nominations on her resume, Scarlett Johansson’s acting chops and star power have propelled her to the top of the heap.
Top image: © Stillmoving for Disney
The highest-paid actress for 2019 at an astounding $56 million, Scarlett is undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and helping champion closing the pay gap in the process.
Scarlett’s story begins in Manhattan, New York. Born in 1984 to Karsten Olaf Johansson and Melanie Sloane, Scarlett was encouraged to pursue the performing arts from a young age. Tap, acting, and dance classes from a young age helped Scarlett sharpen her performing ability, and absorbing all things film and music through her mother who had worked as a producer, acted as her “extra-curricular” study.
It wasn’t long before Scarlett made her on-screen debut, and at 9 years old she landed the role of John Ritter’s daughter in the fantasy comedy, North. It seemed like destiny to Scarlett, “It’s weird, but I remember going onto the set of my first film and for some reason, I just knew what to do instinctively. It was like, I don’t know…fate.”
It was Scarlett’s performance in The Horse Whisperer, directed by Robert Redford, that helped capture the attention of film fans. Redford, a legend of film in his own right even referred to her as “13 going on 30” in reference to her maturity and composure on set.
Early roles across the likes of the Coen Brothers film The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World and Eight Legged Freaks helped Scarlett gain further momentum. 2003 was the year that helped propel Scarlett to stardom, with lead roles in two key films in her portfolio, romantic comedy-drama, Lost in Translation and drama, Girl with a Pearl Earring. In recognition of her performances, Scarlett was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role and Golden Globe Awards for Best Actress for both films in 2003, winning the former for Lost in Translation.
Working with renowned directors and bankable co-stars was the story for much of Scarlett’s mid to late 2000’s career. There were of course two Woody Allen films – Match Point and Scoop. The Prestige with Christopher Nolan. The Island by Michael Bay. Starring alongside Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, Natalie Portman and Penelope Cruz across the Noughties helped fuel her ascent towards Hollywood’s A-List.
Scarlett’s filmography up until 2010 was more than respectable, but it was her induction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe that proved to be the rocket fuel that helped send Scarlett’s career into another stratosphere.
Most of us know Scarlett for her role as the Black Widow, a role she took on in 2010 with her appearance in Iron Man 2. She was committed to landing the role and went as far as dying her hair red to convince director Jon Favreau that she was right for the part. Once she landed the role, she took on strength and stunt training to prepare.
“It was many, many, hours, days and months of stunt training, and strength training. But it’s fun because I had a goal. The goal was the Lycra catsuit.”
Martin Scorcese may have belittled and diminished the Superhero genre with his comments that superhero films “are not cinema” and are comparable to “theme parks” but you only need to look at the box-office results of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – $19.9 billion at the global box office. $6.2 billion across four Avengers films. And Scarlett Johansson has played an important part in that success.
When you talk about how much money films draw, the conversation about cast salary will naturally follow.
Scarlett is one of film’s highest paid actresses. In fact, she is the highest paid actress. The problem is, actresses are barely getting equal pay:
“Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but I assumed it was obvious that women in all positions struggle for equality. It’s always an uphill battle and fight”.
The world’s ten highest-paid actresses earned about $315 million from June 2018 to June 2019. That’s a lot of money for ten people. But the top ten leading men pulled in almost $600 million between them in the same time frame. That’s almost a 50 percent pay disparity. It almost seems hopeless – but that’s up 69 percent since last year, and if these actresses have their way, that disparity won’t last much longer.
Scarlett’s paycheck for Black Widow is $15 million, which finally puts her on par with Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans: they both earned the same for their roles in Avengers: Infinity War.
That kind of paycheck makes her the highest paid woman in the Marvel Universe.
She is, however, the only actress in the top ten who earned as much as any of the men. While this is a major win, and is the first step in making equal pay the norm, we still have a long way to go. It’s estimated that women in media roles earn 85 percent of what their male counterparts do – a 15 percent difference in earnings. And, worryingly, female stars tend to see their earnings drop after the age of 34, while men don’t see much of a change until after 51.
Does this mean that 35-year-old Scarlett is past her prime, financially? Perhaps. It might be hard to top what she’s earned for Black Widow. Especially what comes with the enormity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But she’s a household name and a well-respected actress, and it’s difficult to imagine her dropping out of the top ten highest paid actresses in the next few years.
Even so, it’s an issue that needs addressing. But Scarlett’s not certain that she’s the best person to do it, even though she’s all for equal pay. She worries that her status makes it difficult for her to speak out against pay inequality.
“I think every woman has [been underpaid], but unless I’m addressing it as a larger problem, for me to talk about my own personal experience with it feels a little obnoxious,” she said. “It’s part of a larger conversation about feminism in general.”
That’s understandable – how can she complain about being the best-paid actress in the world? It would almost seem greedy to ask for more. But perhaps, in a way, that makes her exactly the right person. Until the people at the top are standing up for equal pay, the rest of us barely stand a chance.
Scarlett is slowly making waves advancing equal pay, more progressive female-led films, and fighting discrimination.
“When I was working in my early 20s, I sort of got typecast. I was very hyper-sexualised,” Scarlett says, in a round table discussion with Jennifer Lopez, Renée Zellweger, Lupita Nyong’o, Laura Dern and Awkwafina.
“It was another time. It wasn’t a part of my own narrative, it was kind of crafted for me.”
She was so disillusioned that she considered pursuing a different career in the industry.
“It was really difficult for me to try to figure out how to get out of being an ingénue or the other woman.”
But the new Black Widow movie is helping her take steps in that direction. She’s executive producing, providing input on script, director and casting decisions. Scarlett was only interested in a stand alone film about Black Widow’s origin if it meant delving deeper and expanding on Black Widow’s character. “I don’t want to do the same thing I’ve done before,” she points out.
She wants to focus on the woman herself, not on the tight outfit, the cool gadgets, or the fight scenes:
“This character’s strength lies in her vulnerability. She has emotional intelligence that allows her to survive without any real superpowers. She’s someone who is a problem-solver. She’s a pragmatic person. I think a lot of those qualities are inherently female.”
Johansson also shares that there’s a lot comfort in executive producing the film:
“It’s liberating in a way. I feel like I’m in control of the destiny of this film, which gives me a lot of peace of mind.”
Scarlett is arguably one of the most influential actresses out there, and she’s one of many wanting female-fronted superhero movies to play to women’s specific strengths and experiences.
But she wants it to be normal, not something to write home about. “I hope this film continues pushing that boundary, so that we can actually have more female superheroes who are inherently female and aren’t just Batman in heels,” she says. She’s looking forward to the future of female superheroes — who she hopes follow her example.
While Scarlett has become well-known for her badassery in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that doesn’t mean her acting ability has diminished. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – her dexterity and ability as a performer has only improved.
2019 was perhaps Scarlett’s best year to date. She reprised her role as Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame – the highest grossing film of all-time, by the way.
Action movies? Check.
She then starred in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit as Rosie, a single mother in Nazi Germany who is hiding a Jewish girl in her home.
While not known for playing comedic roles, Taika Waititi reveals this to be one of her untapped skills, “She’s so funny; I was always amazed people had not really tapped into that,” Waititi says. “If you get to know her, it feels really obvious that she should be doing more comedy.”
Finally, Scarlett returned to her roots in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, alongside Adam Driver – a top-class actor in his own right. Universally lauded by critics, Marriage Story follows the unfolding events of a married couple undergoing a divorce.
Scarlett would receive her first two Academy Award nominations, for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for her performances in Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit, respectively, becoming only the eleventh performer to be nominated for two Oscars in the same year. Couple that with starring in the highest grossing film of all time and it is undeniable – Scarlett Johansson is a bonafide superstar.
So what lies ahead? There is, of course the Black Widow origin story, in cinemas April 30, and she has agreed to star in and executive-produce the period series The Custom of the Country. Scarlett has conquered the screen and now, she’s beginning to cast her eye towards roles behind the camera:
“Before, I was more focused on my acting career,” she says. “Now, I’d happily take the time to develop something to direct. I’ve actively looked for a long time and just haven’t found the right fit.”
She’s already executive producing. It seems now that directing is not a matter of if, but when.
It’s rather fitting.
We need more female heroes behind the camera to champion equality. Scarlett Johansson, quite possibly Hollywood’s biggest star, is a hero fit for that mission.