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Scarlett Johansson on playing 'unscripted' scavenging alien

By Emma Jones
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

image copyrightfilm promo

She's played a superhero in The Avengers and an audio-only computer program in Spike Jonze's Her, and now Scarlett Johansson is a human-scavenging alien in independent British drama Under the Skin.

It's proving to be one of the most divisive films of recent times, with some critics calling it "astonishing" and others "laughable".

The movie, made by London-born director Jonathan Glazer, has been the subject of discussion since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2013, as much for its on-screen nudity as its art-house direction.

Loosely based on author Michael Faber's novel and set on the streets of Glasgow, 29-year-old Johansson plays an alien seducing random humans to harvest their bodies.

media captionScarlett Johansson on becoming an alien

It's 48-year-old Glazer's third film in a decade - he also made Sexy Beast, starring Ray Winstone, and 2004's Birth, with Nicole Kidman. He is most famous for directing a set of well-known Guinness commercials, including Surfer, where white horses emerge from the sea alongside surfers. The ad was voted the best advert of all time in a poll in 2002.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionScarlett Johansson and Jonathan Glazer attended the premiere of the film at the Venice Film Festival

Johansson declares herself to be "a great admirer of his work. I've loved the music videos he did as well, with Massive Attack and Blur. It's the reason I wanted to do the film in the first place.

"Jonathan and I started the conversation about Under the Skin a few years ago actually, because it's taken a long time for the movie to come to fruition. The script changed so much in that time, it originally had two characters in it, and then was pared down to one.

"It's also the first film I've done where the script was more of a blueprint or a guideline for the project than for anything else. We only discovered the performance and intention of the movie after the first two weeks of shooting, so it took some time to find itself."

Barely recognisable from her usual self, wearing a dark wig, red lipstick and a fake fur coat, the actress wanders round the streets of Glasgow or else drives a van and stops to talk to real-life bystanders in the city.

'Not a movie star experience'

These events in the film were unscripted and filmed secretly. One scene where Johansson stumbles and falls over in a busy shopping street, and is helped to her feet by members of the public - only for her to walk off, robot-like, without thanks - actually happened and has been kept in, according to the director.

Most of her "victims", who are chatted up by Johansson, and enticed to come and sit in her Transit van, aren't actors, but Jonathan Glazer says "they were talked through what extremes they would have to go to if they agreed to take part in the film once they understood what we were doing.

"The few actors we did have were ones who wanted to experiment and challenge themselves."

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image captionThe actress says she loved her time filming in Scotland, despite the cold

Johansson, also a star of films like Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and The Girl With The Pearl Earring, admits that "it wasn't a movie star experience" but despite the lack of dialogue and the considerable amount of nudity, there was very little she refused to do for the film.

"The only thing was when I was driving this van around Glasgow looking for my 'victims', I would have Jonathan and the crew in the back of it, filming in this bizarre candid camera situation, and Jonathan would talk to me through an earpiece, giving me instructions.

"Occasionally he would say, 'this guy looks good, stop and talk to him'. I would be like, 'No, are you kidding me? No I won't because if he gets into the van I think you'll find we have a reverse predatory situation on our hands. Or I'd say, 'are you crazy? That man is drunk!' And I'd keep driving.

"Overall though, I totally trusted Jonathan with myself and this trust between director and actor is vital. If you lose that, no one is going to have a good time. And this is such an intimate film, I am so vulnerable in this and it's so deeply personal that we had to go into this as partners."

Freedom filming

Glazer adds that the actress "had to be as brave as the character, but Scarlett got it. The other thing was, she immediately loved Glasgow and was far better than me at understanding a broad Scottish accent. She would be having entire dialogues with people when I didn't understand a word."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFilming took place in Glen Coe - Johansson's character picks up hitchhikers on the A9 road in the Scottish Highlands

Johansson adds that despite her fame, she went virtually unrecognised in the Scottish city and found "freedom" on the streets, which she says, she came to love in the few weeks she spent there in the winter of 2012.

"Perhaps it's because I grew up in New York, and it's based on the Glasgow grid-system as well, but I had no problem shooting in Glasgow in the cold," she says.

"It's a sister city to New York. It has the same gritty feel. And the most charming thing about it is the people, they are so warm and welcoming.

"I didn't try their speciality - it's the fried Mars bars, isn't that what they're called? But I did eat vegetarian haggis, although I'm not sure what the point of it is. And what's that orange soda they love - Irn-Bru? That's an acquired taste. You have to be brave with that drink."

The same phrase could be applied to Under the Skin, which was booed during its first showing at the Venice Film Festival - although the same thing happened to Glazer's previous film Birth.

While both The Telegraph and The Guardian critics gave the film a five star review, The Independent declared "Scarlett Johansson can't save the laughably bad alien hitchhiker movie". The Hollywood Reporter added that "it fails to impress".

After a decade developing the film, before getting funding from the British Film Institute and Film Four, Glazer declares himself "fine" with the polarised reaction to the movie. "I would much prefer something strong, whatever it is. It's what I want. You'll either probably love it or hate it."

Under the Skin is out in the UK now.

Related Topics

  • Film

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  • Scarlett Johansson: 'I'm not a nudist by nature'