Once upon a weekday (or weekend, because what’s time anymore?), there was Scarlett Johansson, sipping, sipping, a margarita.
All good so far, eh?
But, alas, like most things in 2020, it just went bad from there.
A call interrupted her cocktail hour. The word: The release of Black Widow (opens in new tab), the sure-shot blockbuster starring Johansson and the magnetic Marvel newcomer Florence Pugh and directed by Cate Shortland—three power women collaborating on a power-women film, asserting their ascendance—was being delayed. It was deflating news, Johansson recalls, though not out of the blue.
Another margarita, you say? Yes, please, and thank you.
“I’d been talking to Kevin Feige”—the president of Marvel Studios—“about it, and our fellow producers, just trying to understand what the landscape was,” says Johansson, 36, with a little resignation now in that unmistakable voice but a little pragmatism too. “We’re all eager to get the movie out, but more important than anything, everybody wants the experience to feel safe, to have people be able to really feel confident about sitting in an enclosed theater.”
We’re on a conference call, because that’s what you do these days—no lunch. That or Zoom, which we did a few weeks ago. Pugh, 24, is with us on the line. Also resigned, also pragmatic. She had just flown from London back to L.A., where she lives, when she got the call.
“I think I probably had a hunch,” she says. “It seemed to me all the fun of summer, and everybody being outside and finally having some relaxed rules, caught up with everyone, obviously, because of the virus. I’m sad that people don’t get to watch it for another half year, but I wasn’t majorly upset because it’s important to look after people right now.”
What they’re saying is, the postponement of a superhero film isn’t the apocalypse. Not this abysmal year nor any other. But ain’t it the pits? Who wouldn’t want to be sitting in a darkened theater right now, loaded with a bucket of fake-buttered popcorn, big soda, sinking into a seat as heart-thumping Marvel action unfolds on the screen?
And this, of all movies—one with strong female characters, strong female actors, a strong female director. A movie that’s both fun and important.
So what happens now?
We first chatted over computer screens. Pugh, after many months grounded by COVID-19, had traveled to London and Zoomed from her office, a dimly lit room with framed art hung high on the walls and opened boxes for a Casio key-board and stand—check her YouTube (opens in new tab) for her acoustic-guitar performances as Flossie Rose—perched on a cabinet.
Johansson was a few minutes late, on account of picking up her daughter from a rained-out day camp, and joined the call from her New York home. It was evening in London, and Pugh, who wore a white T-shirt that read “Love” and several thin necklaces, had poured herself a generous glass of red wine.
When Scarlett appeared on the call, Pugh yelped, “Oh my goodness, there she is!”
Johansson, dressed in athleisure and fresh faced, smiled back. And for a few minutes, the two stars—one of whom’s $56 million salary last year reportedly made her the highest paid actress in the world—seemed no more than two good friends catching up. They teased each other about their choice of Zoom settings. Johansson chose her bedroom and was backdropped by a tufted suede headboard and wallpaper patterned with birds and leaves.
“I like to switch up. Keep people guessing. Make it look like I’ve gone somewhere,” she said. “When I’ve gone nowhere, obviously.”
As for the movie we shall not see until May 7, 2021, at the earliest, they got into it pretty quick. They beamed, talking about the film, recalling the toil and labor. Yep, the hard work. Ask them: This superhero stuff is much lights-camera-action and flashbulb premieres...until it’s not.
In one particular scene, our heroines—Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) and Yelena Belova (Pugh)—dash across a rooftop in Budapest. It’s supposed to be winter. The stunt calls for them to leap down the side of a building with a helicopter whirring overhead.
But the fact was, it was a summer day that felt as though a Marvel god had shoved Earth halfway closer to the sun.
The reality was, what was at most a few seconds of high movie action demanded hours atop that building and dressing in the antithesis of weather-appropriate gear, a leather jacket and leather boots—and in Johansson’s case, a wig and fur hat.
The corporeal truth was, both stars wore safety harnesses as uncomfortable as Victorian corsets and contended with little stunt gel pads (worn under the costume to soften falls) that kept sweat-sliding from their hips to almost their ankles.
And as if the day’s shoot weren’t enough of a movie-making gauntlet, their director, Shortland, strolled onto the set in a summer dress, brimmed hat, and Stan Smiths, took a gander at her stars sweating—broiling—and teased, “Oh, isn’t it just lovely out today?”
It’s a nice ha-ha of an anecdote—three women doing their jobs, two melting in the heat while one jokes—the kind of story you tell on Jimmy Fallon. (“And these little pads we have to wear under our costume kept sliding down!”) But the truth is, it’s the kind of real-life scene we still don’t see often enough.
“I don’t want to candy-coat anything,” said Johansson, mirth pressed out of her voice, her eyes pointed at her ceiling, “because it’s a challenge in a male-dominated industry to tell a woman’s story from the perspective of a female director and focus on the heart of something that is inherently female.”
There will be grand box-office expectations for Black Widow, COVID or not; let us not forget that Avengers: Endgame, the last Marvel film in which Johansson appeared, grossed $2.79 billion at the box office, making it the highest grossing film of all time—not to mention the onus to make something that inspires and empowers girls and women. And it’s quite possible that no one knows the feeling of lofty forecasts better than the star who kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“It’s really hard to be the number one of the call sheet in your own franchise,” says Robert Downey Jr. “It is a crucible. But there’s something about these characters that makes you rise to the occasion, and if there’s anybody that the rest of us have had no doubt from jump about whether or not they can easily carry the mantel on their own, outside of this conglomerate, it’s Scarlett.”
In the here and now, Johansson is deliberate and careful in choosing her roles. And those choices have yielded dynamic performances: the complicated Nicole Barber in Marriage Story. Steadfast women like Rosie in Jojo Rabbit. Even the romantic Barbara in Don Jon. The thing she’s chasing these days is the surge she feels when she gets to do something she's never done before.
She didn’t always get there. Then happened the boon of playing Catherine, a girl finding her place in the world as a woman, in a 2010 Broadway revival of the Arthur Miller play A View From the Bridge. “I was able to really get strong,” she says. “I was able to get muscles, as an actor, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to exercise. It was totally invigorating. I thought, you know, I’m never going to go back. I’m not going to go backwards. I just have to keep striving toward this feeling.” Johansson won a Tony Award for her performance.
The very next year brought Black Widow, a role that has helped make her the highest grossing actress of all time (a reported $14.4 billion) and given her the power to challenge the boundaries of what a woman can be on-screen. “I look for women who I feel I can relate to on some level, that I have empathy for. That’s a bit complicated, obviously, because you can have empathy for people in different ways, and for different reasons. But if I can empathize with a character, no matter what their moral compass is, then that’s important to me,” she says.
Pugh shares that mindset. “Similar to Scarlett, it’s always been, kind of, number-one top priority for me to find women who are totally fascinating and totally powerful in their own way,” she says. “I really want to recognize the women I play, whether it’s that I recognize my mom in her, or my gran in her, or my sister in her. I want to play complex and confusing characters.”
The keen choices Pugh has made up to this point include Cordelia, daughter to Anthony Hopkins’s King Lear, in a 2018 film adaptation and a spectacularly traumatized student in last summer’s horror hit Midsommar. Her role as the bratty youngest sister, Amy, in Little Women garnered her more attention—and an Oscar nomination.
Black Widow has the potential to transform her from acclaimed actress to global star.
I ask Johansson if she’s been outside much.
She laughs. “Do I sound like I haven’t? My boyfriend [SNL’s Colin Jost] this morning was like, ‘I think you’re losing your mind,’” she says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, yes. It’s gone, pieces of everything breaking off, for a long time now.’ I actually, very fortunately, have been able to go outside because I live in an area that has a lot of nature. I feel so grateful for that.”
When Pugh took her first flight during the pandemic, she arrived at LAX two hours early, and in her roaming she beheld walls and billboards stripped of advertisements, shops and cafés were boarded up and closed, and everyone was moving slowly, leaving wide berths. “It was a bit like the beginning of 28 Days Later, or The Walking Dead, when he was getting out of the hospital,” says Pugh. “It creeped me out.”
This makes Johansson think of her first trip to the grocery store right after lockdown. “It looked like the full Armageddon had hit,” she says. “I remember just feeling really scared and unsure, like everybody, of what was happening.”
Johansson is also a producer, and she had a production office in New York with a small staff. It has remained closed, with employees continuing to work from home.
“There’s no way, really, to do my job at all,” she says. “People keep trying to encourage me to participate in alternative ways of filmmaking or production, but it’s just very hard for me to wrap my head around it because for me it’s such a community. It’s a communal effort to make stuff, and it’s challenging. I don’t know if I could do it. I’m not sure.”
With how easy these two commiserate, you’d think they have along history. In truth, their sisterhood began during rehearsals, kicked off when Pugh slogged in on three hours of sleep and weary from work travel. It was less than optimal circumstances for an intro, though it would’ve been nerve-racking in any circumstance.
Pugh was excited, nervous, and exhausted.
“You seemed very self-assured and curious and willing,” Johansson tells Pugh. “And you were very present there.”
Being present on the day they met meant doing trust exercises. Imagine them—2020 Oscar nominees both (Johansson for leading and supporting actress for Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit and Pugh for supporting actress in Little Women)—falling into each other’s arms. Imagine them taking turns leading each other blindfolded through an office obstacle course. Imagine them coaching each other through stringing a cat’s cradle.
“I think maybe the tiredness did add to my not being so self-aware and just, I suppose, allowing myself to start taking the piss out of Scarlett from day one, which was great,” says Pugh. “And then from that point onward, we kind of did it to each other. It was instant sisterly bonding.”
It’s nascent, yes, but that mutual respect, the trust exercises, the hangouts have established something genuine between these women. Take as pithy proof when, during our Zoom interview, Johansson chats off-screen with an assistant about the cooking time on a dish. “I made lasagna for my friend who just had a baby,” she says, turning back to Pugh, and explains that she left it on the counter and, unbeknownst, her assistant put in the oven.
You might want to go check that, lest you give your friend some burnt lasagna, I offer.
“I know, I was like, I’m doing this interview and thinking, Oh, it smells really good in here,” she says, flashing a smile.
“I’ve actually never made lasagna,” says Pugh, knitting her eyebrows. “It kind of terrifies me. The cheese, for some weird reason. I don’t know why. I think I’m worried that I’ll bake it, and then it will come out and all the cheese will be hard. Is it easy?”
What do you do when your big Hollywood blockbuster gets put on the shelf because of a global pandemic? You do what the rest of us do: pour a drink, get on a Zoom with your friend far away, and make lasagna.
“Yeah, it’s easy. Pretty easy. Basically, you figure out—” Johansson begins, then stops and throws up her hands. “Ah, well, I’ll tell you later.”
This article originally appears in the winter 2020 issue of Marie Claire.
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Photographer: Quentin Jones (opens in new tab) | Fashion Editor: Cher Coulter (opens in new tab) (Pugh); Molly Dickson (opens in new tab) (Johansson) | Hair: Declan Sheils at Premier Hair and Make-up for Kerastasé (opens in new tab) (Pugh); Danny DiMauro for Five Wits Texture Spray (opens in new tab) (Johansson) | Makeup: Alex Babsky at Premier Hair and Make-up for Dior Beauty (opens in new tab) (Pugh); Frankie Boyd for Dior Beauty (opens in new tab) (Johansson) | Manicure: Sabrina Gayle at The Wall Group for Dior Vernis (opens in new tab) (Pugh) | Set Design: Gillian O'Brien (opens in new tab) (Pugh); Griffin Stoddard for MHS Artists (opens in new tab) (Johansson) | Production: Lucy Watson Productions (opens in new tab) (Pugh); Disco Meisch at Liebling (opens in new tab) (Johansson)
Mitchell S Jackson is a contributing writer for Esquire. He is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award as well as the acclaimed author of the memoir Survival Math, and the award-winning novel The Residue Years.
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