The highest box office grossing actress of last year and Millennial beauty icon, on playing the cybernetic action hero Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, and what it taught her about 21st-century humanity
by Matt Scanlon
It was tempting, in considering how we would approach updating readers on Scarlett Johansson’s new film, to simply skip her biographical introduction entirely, so baked into the culture is her cinematic CV and how she has branded a form of new-century stardom that combines challenging roles, intellectualism, and beauty.
So we’ll be brief.
Born in Manhattan in 1984 to Karsten Johansson, an architect originally from Copenhagen, and producer Melanie Sloan, Scarlett, along with her twin brother, Hunter, attended PS 41 elementary school in Greenwich Village, and began drama education by attending the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. Her mom began taking her to advertising tryouts, but the young Johansson found rejection so difficult to take that Sloan elected to keep auditions isolated to film roles, and fortune struck early; she made her big-screen debut at nine years old in the comedy North (1994). Some minor roles followed in the next three years, but a breakthrough came in the form of her performance as Grace, a traumatized girl whose parents enlist the talents of a horse trainer (Robert Redford) to heal both their daughter and her wounded steed, in 1998’s The Horse Whisperer, for which she received a Most Promising Actress award nomination from the Chicago Film Critics Association.
The next few years brought parts in Ghost World, An American Rhapsody (both 2001), and Eight Legged Freaks (2002), but the film that locked the then 17-year-old into permanent A-list status was the Sofia Coppola-directed Lost in Translation (2003), in which Johansson plays a young bride already growing weary of her marriage, who befriends an aging actor (Bill Murray) during their stay in a Tokyo hotel.
There have been no fewer than 32 starring turns since, in films such as The Black Dahlia (2006), Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), The Avengers (2012), Under Her Skin (2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and last year’s Captain America: Civil War. As of the end of 2016, Johansson’s films have grossed $4.5 billion, and she was last year’s highest grossing actress. She has yet to be nominated for an Oscar, but took the Best Actress in a Leading Role nod for Lost In Translation at the British Academy Film Awards.
Married to actor Ryan Reynolds from 2008 to 2011, she married Romain Dauriac in 2014 (with whom she has a daughter, Rose Dorothy Dauriac), but filed for divorce in early March.
This year brings the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a human brain inside a synthetic body, in Ghost in the Shell, directed by Rupert Sanders, written by Jamie Moss and Ehren Kruger, and based on a Japanese manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow. (Developed in Japan in the late 19th century, manga are comics created in Japan or by other artists in the Japanese language).
Major is tasked with a special operations role leading the elite task force Section 9, which is devoted to stopping dangerous criminals and extremists. The film co-stars Takeshi Kitano, Juliette
Binoche, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, and Kaori Momoi.
Shirow’s cyberpunk crime saga was first published in 1989, and took to the big screen in a 1995 science-fiction anime film, then in the anime TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and most recently in the series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society, which first aired in 2006. The latter two projects were directed by Kenji Kamiyama.
“The Major is responsible for tracking down a murderous cyber terrorist. That’s the projection story of the film, but it has a lot more than that,” said director Rupert Sanders at a special Tokyo screening event. “Like a good film noir, you also have a detective story that drives you forward. It’s also a journey of self-discovery [for The Major], and to us, this new world is so amazing. Cinematically, it will be a fresh take on futurism that people haven’t seen before.”
“When I met with Rupert, we started to talk about the journey of The Major…how the character was going to be driving the story,” said Johansson at the same screening. “And I started to imagine that this was a character who was living the unique experience of somebody who has an idea of who she thinks she was, who she is now, and then there’s the person she feels she is—this sort of gnawing, crawling feeling in her…ghost. There’s really three sides—the ego, the superego, and the id—and that was pretty enticing for me.”
The Major’s synthetic body has considerable strength and durability, and she is practiced in a variety of martial arts. Asked what physical preparation was required for the role, Johansson replied: “Of course I did a lot of training, just because I wanted to be able to have the physical presence of somebody who seemed very capable. Luckily, I had a lot of fight experience and weapons training with all those [Avengers] movies, so it comes in handy…I’d acquired a kind of physical vocabulary with things like room clearing…being as efficient with a weapon as possible.”
In response to a question inquiring about what acting challenges were involved in filtering a core of human emotions through a microprocessor, the 32-year-old star paused for a moment.
“I had such a soft spot for The Major,” she said. “This film, for me…even though it’s set in this explosive world that’s just extraordinary and visually stunning and action-packed, is really a coming-of-age story. It’s about the loss of innocence and rebirth that you can have from that,” adding later that the role required expressing “feelings of shame at times, a wanting to and eagerness to please, and also the feelings of a petulant child.”
“Of course, I did a lot of training [for Ghost in the Shell], because I wanted to be able to have the presence of somebody who seemed very capable. Luckily, I had a lot of fight experience and weapons training with all the [Avengers] movies, so it comes in handy…I’d acquired a kind of physical vocabulary.”
Parallels between the cybernetic nature of The Major and our current social media globalism weren’t lost on Sanders, who, in explaining the ongoing relevance of the original late-’80s material, offered: “The first film was so ahead of its time and really some of those ideas are catching up to us today. When we are consumed with technology to the degree that we are, where does humanity sit in that new order? We trust so much to our devices; we tell people where we are, what we buy, where we shop, who we talk to, and so there’s a ghost of information and technology out there. One of the points of the film, and the manga and the anime, was about trusting in technology. The thing that I tried to transmit is that there’s hope in tech; it’s not an evil thing. If we parent it right, it will be part of us as humans, and we won’t be rendered obsolete.”
“I feel I grew a lot when I made the film,” Johansson said, “…learned a lot about my limitations and capabilities, and I think when you play a character that is some step removed from human—who doesn’t have the nuance and the tools…those little things that make us human—it’s a challenging experience because there’s so much going on inside, but what’s going on inside is impossible to reflect completely on the outside. The experience is difficult to describe precisely, but I’m very proud of the work we did.”
Look for Johansson later this year in the dramedy Rock That Body, co-starring Kate McKinnon and Zoë Kravitz, and in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, in which she reprises the role of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, alongside a massive ensemble cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, and Elizabeth Olsen.