Carole Cadwalladr interviews Scarlett Johansson about her role in the low-budget sci-fi film, Under the Skin, set in Glasgow. Johansson plays an alien in the movie, which creates a unique perspective due to her Hollywood star status. Despite being known for her beauty and fame, Johansson blends in while walking down a busy shopping street in Glasgow, dressed in stonewashed jeans and a fake fur coat. The article highlights the levelling effect of seeing a major Hollywood star in an ordinary setting. In the film, Johansson is shown prowling around Glasgow’s outskirts, searching for human prey, which creates a surreal feeling of two different universes colliding. Scenes from the movie show Johansson on a bus, getting directions to Asda, and sitting in front of an electric fire in a council house.
The experience of transplanting a major Hollywood celebrity to a working-class Scotland is akin to witnessing an alien walking among us. Seeing someone recognizable from red-carpet photographs walking down an ordinary street surrounded by ordinary faces is jarring. However, when I met 29-year-old Scarlett Johansson, she was back in full Hollywood mode. She was clad in spiky heels, a silky top, and had shiny blond hair flowing around her shoulders. Surrounded by publicists and minders, she looked anything but ordinary or normal. Despite rumors of pregnancy, she appeared neither pregnant nor ordinary. I had just witnessed her speak about Jonathan Glazer, the British director of the film, in a press conference, calling him a “visionary” and a “genius.” When I met her, she expressed how easy and enjoyable the film was to talk about as it raised many questions, such as the relativity of time, rather than the typical “what do you find sexy in a guy?” or “if you had a superpower, what would it be?” questions.
Presumably, Scarlett Johansson took on the role in the film because of the unique challenge it presented. Despite having only a few lines of dialogue throughout the entire film, her character stands out as an alien who lacks emotion. The majority of the movie was shot in Scotland during winter, with Johansson standing around in wet boots and a thin coat or enticing men into a vat of black ectoplasm. Fans of Johansson have been discussing her nude scene, which has generated a lot of attention. When asked about why she chose to take on this particular role, Johansson revealed that she was intrigued by the idea of playing a character who is free of judgment and lacks any emotional connection that she could personally relate to. Initially, the film was a different story, but after meeting with the director, Jonathan, Johansson was drawn to the challenge of portraying an alien character.
At this point, the actress finds it more intriguing to be able to play a role without knowing how to do it, rather than being able to do it effortlessly. She spoke with Glazer, the director known for his work on the Guinness surfer ad and films such as Sexy Beast and Birth, for years and was involved in the creative process of the project despite the changes in the script. She had to improvise the English-accented daogue she speaks in the film. It was a brave decision to take on this project, which is not a blockbuster like Captain America, in which she wore a catsuit and earned millions, and Glazer is not a big name. The critics’ opinions vary, with some calling it a strange and sublime marvel, while others consider it to be a laughably bad alien hitchhiker movie. At the Venice film festival premiere, there was both cheering and boos.
Can you describe your experience watching the film with an audience?
“It was a really bizarre experience for me. It was the first time I had watched the completed film with a live audience, and I found myself perched on this massive mezzanine, feeling incredibly exposed. As the film came to a close and the lights came up, there was a cacophony of cheers and boos that filled the room in equal measure. I didn’t quite know how to react – I was a bit taken aback. On the other hand, Jonathan, who was with me, was ecstatic. He thought it was brilliant. We left the theater and I remember saying, ‘That was so strange,’ while Jonathan couldn’t stop talking about how amazing the sound was.”
The reviews for this movie are extremely polarized, I’ve never seen anything like it. Personally, I prefer this kind of reaction to a lukewarm response. Being hated is better than being tepid. I recall watching Eyes Wide Shut multiple times in theaters because the first time I saw it, I loathed it. It evoked such a visceral reaction that I was compelled to see it again, and eventually, I grew to love it. The emotional experience was intense, and I can’t blame a film entirely if I hate it.
One unique thing about Under the Skin is that many of the individuals who appear in it are not actors. They are ordinary people who were walking down the street when a van pulled up and offered them a ride to Tesco, followed by a crew with waivers.
When did Glazer disclose to you that there were no other actors and they would have to search for them on the streets? This revelation came later, and initially, everyone involved was unsure how it would work. They explored multiple options such as prosthetics and teeth to alter Johansson’s appearance slightly. However, it turned out to be unnecessary.
The relationship between celebrities and non-celebrities is an apt metaphor for alien life, which the film explores. The movie serves as a parable for the Hollywood star system and the power dynamics between celebrities and their audiences. Johansson’s character survives by feeding on humans, but she is also excluded from their world. The balance of power can shift in an instant, and by the end, the hunter becomes the hunted – a point that Glazer deliberately emphasizes. He had wanted to cast an unknown actor initially, but he ultimately decided to drop a Hollywood star in disguise into the real world, resulting in an incongruous setting that gave Johansson an alien-like quality.
The article discusses Scarlett Johansson’s career and recent controversies surrounding her. While her role in the film Her showcased her acting abilities without her actually appearing on screen, Johansson has often been typecast as the voluptuous siren in many of her roles. The article touches upon the allegations made against director Woody Allen by his estranged daughter Dylan Farrow and how Johansson responded to them. She believes it is irresponsible to drag actors into a situation they cannot comment on without any factual evidence. The conversation then shifts towards Johansson’s decision to become a brand ambassador for SodaStream, a company that manufactures its products in a settlement on the West Bank, leading to her stepping down from her Oxfam role. Johansson defends her decision, claiming she was aware of the factory’s location and that until a solution is found, closing the factory would leave people destitute. The article ends by pointing out the power dynamic between celebrities and ordinary people, and how controversies like these highlight this tension.