Like her Broadway alter ego Maggie the Cat, Scarlett Johansson’s got guts. Filmgoers first witnessed her gusto in teen roles that squared her off with pros like Robert Redford, Bill Murray and Kristin Scott Thomas. Her adult career choices have been no less unpredictable, from her three-film indie stint as Woody Allen’s muse to her blockbuster badass work as Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow) in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, a role she’ll reprise in The Avengers 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A lifelong Broadway fan, she bravely tackled the role of Catherine in the 2010 revival of A View from the Bridge opposite powerhouse Liev Schreiber, pulling off a surprising but well-deserved Tony Award win. Now she’s back as a headliner, her seductive photo looming over the marquee of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on 47th Street. The show is a beast, requiring Johansson to dominate the first act as manipulative Maggie, and dominate she does, with confidence and genuine star power. Broadway.com caught up with the star on a recent afternoon to chat about the iconic part, her sexy leading man and late night obsession with The Golden Girls.
When we first chatted during A View from the Bridge, you said, “I hope they let me come back,” and look, it worked out!
It did! [Laughs.] Lucky for me, yeah, it all worked out. It’s great to be back. It’s very exciting to have the opportunity to bring Tennessee Williams to life every night and share that with the audience, who’ve been really enthusiastic.
I’m not usually a fan of a long night of theater, but I have no problem listening to Williams’ words for hours.
I think the play unfolds almost as three mini-plays, and the poetry of the words is such a treat to listen to and such a joy to recite every night—the layers of the phrasing, and the repetition.
So, mini-play number one, or Act One...that’s a beast for you. Have you ever talked that much on stage or on screen or in life?
I don’t have the stamina of Maggie in my actual life. I have been known to wax poetic occasionally, but yeah, that’s an extreme case! [Laughs.] After the show ends every night, I don’t want to do anything but sit at home and watch reruns of The Golden Girls.
The Golden Girls—is that your go-to?
What else is on when I get home? [Laughs.]
Maggie gets some real zingers. Are there any moments that you especially relish doing?
It’s exciting every night to sort of explode into that room, with the delicious banter that transpires before we get to the moment when the audience goes, “Wait—something’s not quite right here. This isn’t just a housewife going on and on about her relatives.” It’s fun to familiarize myself with the audience in the first 10 minutes, to see how everybody is feeling, before Maggie has the encounter with Brick where she says, “My blood is frozen from that look you just gave me.”
Who was the first Maggie you ever saw?
The only time I’ve ever seen Maggie played is with Ashley Judd [on Broadway in 2003]. I’ve never seen the film. I’ve never seen the television film. I’ve never seen anything else.
Maggie is really an icon. Did you think about that before taking on the role?
I guess I never had any idea of the role as being iconic in any particular way other than the fact that Elizabeth Taylor [played it]—I know the posters. But I don’t know the nuances of her performance, or her take on it. I never felt the pressure of that. I understand, of course, that the role is a classic, and it’s iconic in many people’s minds, and so whatever my take is on it is certainly my take on it. For better or worse, people have their own ideas of the character based on previous performances. But I never had to be burdened with that, which I think worked in my favor.
So, did you win the coin toss with Ben Walker about who had to show their butt on stage?
[Laughs] With Ben? Luckily, I don’t think Maggie ever gets down in her skivvies as written by Williams. That is really one of the brighter points of my life. I have asked Ben at times, when I was having a more difficult day, to just leave it out there for a couple more moments, just to brighten my day a little bit. I think it adds a little bit of hope in an otherwise dismal situation.
You wear the iconic slip, of course. Was there a lot of discussion as to what the slip would be like? Is it intimidating to wear something like that for so much time on stage?
No. I mean, the character is pretty raw and naked emotionally. I think any piece of clothing that you’re wearing or not wearing, at that point it’s neither here nor there because you’re so vulnerable in every other way. Clothing informs the performance in any medium, but it’s so much more about the way you hold yourself.
Did playing the Black Widow [in The Avengers] help get your body ready for the scene in the slip on Broadway?
I don’t know; I’ve never been terribly body conscious. I’m a relatively healthy person. I never was worried about it. Obviously [Cat and Hitchcock costume designer] Julie Weiss is so incredibly talented. She knows exactly where to hug, where to give—she knows my body from working together in the past together, and building all kinds of foundation garments in general. She’s so sensitive about all of that, and I think she made a beautiful garment. And it’s effortless. It should not draw attention to itself, and I don’t think it does.
Maggie obsesses about motherhood, for various reasons. Do you have dreams of having "no-neck monsters" of your own someday?
Oh god. If my no-neck monsters could be anything like the kids in the show, I’d be thrilled. They’re so cute. They’re, like, the best. They’re very enthusiastic. They keep us on our toes backstage, that’s for sure.
You won a well-deserved Tony for A View from the Bridge. Have you ever watched yourself give your acceptance speech?
After I won I watched it because I couldn’t remember anything I said [laughs]. I was in such a state of, I don’t know, disbelief. I was feeling like a million bucks, very overwhelmed and emotional and happy—so many feelings at one time.
Did winning the Tony empower you in some way? Did it motivate you?
I think it encouraged me to find Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and to know that I had a welcome invitation to come back. The most important thing is to not let that honor inform your choices, to recognize that it was for that performance, and that it doesn’t let you off the hook or put the pressure on you in any way. You just have to take it for what it represents.
You also won the Broadway.com Audience Choice Award. Anything you want to say to the fans that voted for you?
In hindsight… [laughs]. The most exciting nod I think you can get is not from the critics but from the audiences. That’s who we share our guts and glory with every night. I’ve come to realize, even more so this time around, that the fourth wall is not actually between you and the audience. They’re the barometer of truth and of timing and of nuance. It’s very touching to know that the audience is with you and they feel you, as you feel them. It’s a real gift. I think that’s the best part of the whole gig, really.
We’ve talked about you doing a musical at some point. Is it true that you auditioned to be Fantine in the Les Miz movie?
Yes, I did. I sang my little heart out.
Was it terrifying?
No, are you kidding? The jazz hands kid inside me was just over the moon! And I auditioned with laryngitis. I did everything I could to, like, not have laryngitis. And I think looking at the film now, there’s no possible way I ever could have topped that performance [by Anne Hathaway]. It was perfect and I think fateful and meant to be. But, yes, the audition itself brought back so many memories of auditioning for Les Miz for the young Cosette, and it was fun for me to revisit that.
Well, I thought that would’ve been pretty exciting, but we’ll wait for the next one.
[Laughs.] For the next Les Miz?!
You’ve done Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams on Broadway. What’s next, Eugene O’Neill?
I just want to play Norma Desmond.
In the Sunset Boulevard musical?
In any capacity. My dream role.
So, I saw online you got a tattoo in Paris that reads “Lucky you.” Do you feel like you’re lucky? Why’d you want to get that message?
I always liked the idea of luck. I like the sentiment of lucky charms, even the Victorian idea of charms and keepsakes and things like that.
But do you feel lucky?
Sometimes more than others, but yes. Yes, I feel very lucky. When you travel and have a greater perspective on what others are experiencing, when you have a broader view of the world and life, it makes you feel extremely lucky.
We’re out of time, but thank you, and keep coming back to Broadway, all right?
[Laughs] If you’ll have me, I’ll be here. I promise. It’s the best job, really. The best job ever.
See Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.