What's an indie ''It'' girl to do for a follow-up?
If you're Scarlett Johansson, you go Hollywood with a vengeance.
After delivering acclaimed performances in edgy, low-budget wonders like Ghost World, The Man Who Wasn't There, Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring, the actress decided to make an unexpected move. She signed up for a starring role in the $130 million sci-fi action film The Island.
Directed by the relentlessly commercial Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon and The Rock), the movie follows the adventures of two clones (Johansson, Ewan McGregor) who make a race for freedom after discovering who and what they are.
Set in 2019, the premise springs from the notion that, in the future, rich people will keep doubles of themselves for spare parts. As with all of Bay's films, the emphasis is on chase scenes, fiery crashes and big explosions.
Did the Queen of the Indies feel out of place dodging bullets and leaping from tall buildings?
''No, not all,'' says Johansson. ''I love genre films, if they're good. If they do the trick, you're taken away from your life for a couple of hours.
''When I heard that Michael was attached to The Island, that was very interesting to me because he does the action genre so well. It was a very easy decision for me to make.''
Bay, for his part, has long been a fan of the actress.
''Scarlett has a huge career in front of her,'' he pronounces. ''Both men and women love her. She's got that great raspy voice, which allows her to play much older than she is. But she can be a pain in the neck too.''
Asked to elaborate, Bay points to the day he was going to shoot the film's love scenes between Johansson and McGregor. In the morning, the actress summoned
the director to her trailer before agreeing to come to the set.
''I expected her to tell me that she wasn't going to show any skin,'' says Bay. ''But the first thing she says to me was, 'Michael, I'm not wearing that cheap-ass bra! I'm going naked.' I said, 'Scarlett, this is a PG-13 movie. You can't do that.' But that shows you who she is. She's so feisty. And she always does the opposite of what you expect her to do.''
Johansson's feistiness doesn't extend to her dealings with the press.
For a recent interview in New York, the actress insists on having Bay by her side. She doesn't dodge any questions, exactly, but the director is clearly in attendance as a walking, talking security blanket.
If there's one thing that surprised Johansson about working with Bay, it was the degree of physicality that he required of her.
''When you're reading a script and it says you slide down a drain pipe, you don't ever think that that's actually going to happen,'' she says, laughing. ''But then it's 7:30 in the morning and Mr. Michael Bay is going, 'So you just slide down this drain pipe. And then we'll do it again from another angle and then again from another angle.'''
When production wrapped, no one could question Johansson's dedication to The Island. She had the black eye and ''the permanently blue knee'' to prove it.
''I almost lost an eye. That was fun,'' she says about a sequence shot atop a flying motorcycle.
''You just kind of go through it in agony.''
Another tricky sequence required Johansson to hang from wires off a giant logo dangling off the side of a building. McGregor was in the scene too, trying to hoist her back up.
''Ewan was so freaked out that I was going to fall that my knuckles were bleeding from his fingernails,'' she recalls. ''I was, like, 'Why are you still holding me? I'm attached to this harness.' He said, 'I can't let go. It's my human instinct. You're going to fall.' It was very funny and sweet.''
In between all of the explosions and chase scenes, The Island ponders the theme of how far science should go to extend lives. The film could easily be read as a cautionary tale about stem-cell research.
Johansson doesn't feel comfortable commenting on the film's message, whatever it is.
''I don't believe that movies should deliver messages,'' she notes. ''But I do think that when you leave the theater, you'll question, 'How far would I go to test fate? Would I buy a clone to save my own life?' But, really, I just hope that people have a great time when they watch it. It's a trip.''
Johansson admits that as she was making the movie, she asked herself some of those tricky questions.
''I'd have a clone because I'd want her to go to press events for me. That way I could sleep in and get my eggs benedict and that kind of thing.''
Johansson would never send in the clones while she was making a movie. The actress has always been in love with the process of acting. And with the exception of her film debut Rob Reiner's stinker North she's had a great track record picking projects.
At age 10, she played one of the leading roles in the underrated indie charmer, Manny and Lo, and then scored a key role in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer and opposite Sean Connery in Just Cause. Next came turns with Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who Wasn't There) and Bill Murray (Lost in Translation).
Still to come this year from Johansson are three more high-profile films: the Woody Allen flick Match Point, the ensemble drama The Good Woman with Helen Hunt and Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia, co-starring Josh Hartnett.
''It's all sort of very surprising,'' she says about her flourishing career. ''I never had any expectations of this. I only hoped when I was younger that I'd be able to be a working actor forever.''
With a full schedule of films in her future, Johansson must be content with the path her life and career are taking. Asked if she feels satisfied, she wrinkles her nose and makes a face.
''I don't know if I'm satisfied,'' she says. ''I hope to always be searching for ultimate satisfaction until the day that I die. Otherwise, gosh, how boring. I mean, it's good to feel satisfied, but I never want to stop looking or stop being curious about things. I never want to be too comfortable.
''I'm saying that now, of course, as a 20-year-old girl. Ask me in another 35 years and I'll probably have another answer.''Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun