Scarlett Johansson Pushes Her Limits With 4 Non-Human Roles

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Scarlett Johansson’s career started out with well-received performances in indie classics like Lost in Translation and Ghost World, but the actress’ most recent roles, both in blockbusters and higher-brow work, seem to show a star fixated on characters that are in some way superhuman. Whether it’s superheroes, aliens, operating systems, or folks addled by drugs that allow access to higher brain power than the general population, Johansson seems fascinated by finding the human within the other. Perhaps this is because Johansson is an actress who at the age of 29 seems to have accomplished almost everything, from diverse roles in critically acclaimed indie movies, to becoming one of Woody Allen’s latest muses, to making Hollywood blockbusters, to being repeatedly named ‘the sexiest woman alive,’ and now she needs to push her boundaries even further — outside of the human species.

Speaking about her latest movies in a gushing New Yorker profile that dedicated much of its word count to her looks, Johannson said of her several most recent roles, “There’s an existential feel to each project — a near-distant, futuristic feel.” Here’s a look at the four performances in four very different movies that all find Johansson exploring the existential question of what it means to be human by playing characters that are not.

Under the Skin

The artsy science fiction horror movie from Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin, opened on April 4. The movie sees Johansson in one of her most challenging and unique roles to date, playing an alien who comes to Earth and takes the form of a beautiful women in order to prey on men. Johansson’s character is more powerful than the weak humans she lures back to her apartment to consume, but gradually she comes to notice and then feel human compassion through occupying a human form. Johansson took two huge risks in her performance; appearing fully nude for the first time and doing scenes that were shot guerrilla style using real people who were being secretly filmed by the crew. It’s Johansson herself driving that scary rape van around the streets of Glasgow and actually picking up guys who don’t seem to recognize her, partially because of the wig and probably a little out of disbelief that one of the world’s most famous actresses would just pick them up off the street.

An article from The Daily Beast said that the movie is the perfect metaphor for movie-going as an activity, and of Johansson herself, “I’m not sure Under the Skin would have held together at all without Johansson, whose fraught relationship with stardom perfectly fuels the engine of this role. From Ghost World to Lost in Translation, you acquired the sense that she never seemed quite natural in her skin, as if that husky voice shouldn’t come out of those pouty lips, or that she wandered into the wrong movie set, too pretty for the usual anthropological study of manners.” Under the Skin has been described as unsettling, Kubrick-esque, and completely unique.


Lucy looks like a big-budget action movie with a fairly unoriginal premise; what if human beings could access their full brain capacity, rather than the tiny fraction that we operate on? It was done before in Limitless, but this time the character is a beautiful woman who is forced to work as a drug mule for the mob after being attacked in Taipei, Taiwan, where much of the film was shot. Lucy is attacked, knocked out, and the drugs are implanted in her abdomen for transport, but the unknown substances begin leaking when she’s involved in a violent altercation. The substance allows her to access more of her brain’s capacity than the average human, which gives her the power to learn huge amounts of information almost instantaneously and the ability to move objects with her mind. Morgan Freeman co-stars as a professor whose research focuses on the human brain.

This role, like Johansson’s portrayal of Marvel hero Black Widow (we’re getting there), is outside the usual high-brow fare for the actress. Even with all the stardom, she seems like an indie actress or director’s muse more than an action star, though with these two roles she seems to be consciously trying to tear down that notion about herself.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

It was surprising, to say the least, when Johansson was announced as the super-spy superhero Black Widow in the second Iron Man installment. She’s since played the character in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, taking on the role as the lead female in the Marvel crew and providing the majority of the sex appeal for the entire franchise. Marvel fans will argue that Black Widow is technically human and relies on skills and talents she learned during her time as a Russian spy to help the Avengers, but the role of the sexy, kickass comic book heroine is far from anything resembling a real human and distant from most of Johansson’s previous work.

Johansson lends an authenticity to the role by performing as much of her own stunt work as possible and by forcing the character that is every nerdy adolescent boy’s cartoon fantasy to have a normal life, making Natasha Romanoff as present as her super alter ego to find the human within the cartoon. “In this film, we really get to see Natasha as a person who gets up, gets ready for work in the morning, and has a life outside just her job,” Johansson said of the latest Avengers installment to The Daily Journal. “She’s a woman and she has her own reality outside of the suit.” Johansson is set to reprise her role as Natasha Romanoff in two more Marvel films.


In Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning quirky exploration of technology and what it means to be human among it, Johansson stars but never physically appears in the film. Instead her recognizable husky voice comes out of Joaquin Phoenix’s smartphone, organizes his schedule, reads him his emails, and eventually inspires him fall in love with her. The New Yorker profile even manages to focus on the sexiness of this body-less role, but what’s amazing about it is how Johansson managed to convey all the sexual tension, excitement of getting to know someone, lightheartedness of being in love, and the agony of breaking up — with just her voice. Reviews lauding Phoenix for carrying the film are right to praise his performance, but wrong to say that he did it alone. Johansson’s voice as the operating system Samantha does as much to carry the film as Phoenix’s nerdy and depressed Theodore.

Like her character in the upcoming Lucy, Johansson’s Samantha discovers that she’s not limited by the human mind or body and uses that mind to expand her knowledge past what Theodore or any other human being can understand. Samantha chooses to transcend rather than remain bound by earthly limitations. Johansson herself seems as eager to press those limits set by her looks and her career to date as she matures as an actress — and has chosen a bizarre variety of non-human roles in order to do so.

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