Scarlett Johansson is accustomed to being leered at. Consider the ink spilled extolling her measurements (instead of her talent or wits), or the recent phone hacking/privacy invasion that laid bare the R-rated selfies intended for ex Ryan Reynolds only. That hasn’t stopped the 28-year-old from playing the objectified love interest of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porn enthusiast in the summer rom-com Don Jon’s Addiction. Or from assuming a vampy persona in Dolce & Gabbana’s ads for Desire, their latest oriental-floral eau.
“The media always over-sexualizes actresses. It’s more interesting that way,” says Johansson by phone from New York, where her stint as a brainier Maggie on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof made the Broadway show a hot ticket. “I don’t do my job so I can float by,” she adds. “I’ve always been drawn to playing complex characters who are in transition or questioning or struggling, more so than just a nice silhouette.” Although she’ll reprise the skin-tight latex for the sequels to The Avengers and Captain America, she’s also preparing to film her own character-driven directorial debut—an adaptation of Summer Crossing, Truman Capote’s novella about a ’40s-era debutante.
Such a privileged world isn’t her own personal history. Raised in a one-income household of six (dad was an architect, but still struggled at times to feed four kids), she grew up with subsidized school lunches and a sense of civic duty instilled by politically aware parents. Now, as an Oxfam ambassador, she advocates for a fair global food system. When I ask if she’s wary of controversy over her support of women’s rights, Johansson declares, “I’m not here to be diplomatic.” Case in point: Last fall, she filmed ads criticizing attempts to slash Planned Parenthood funding (“We have Republicans trying to redefine rape,” she warned in one video). “All causes worth fighting for are going to be controversial,” she says in that frank, husky voice, with no trace of the onscreen coquette.
Johansson will be embracing a different kind of girl power with the start of her Go-Go’s-inspired band, the One and Only Singles. But Auto-Tuned pop tart, she is not: Her musical efforts have ranged from performing with The Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella, to purring a cover of “Bonnie and Clyde” with Lulu Gainsbourg (son of Serge), to delivering plaintive vocals on an Oscar-nominated track (“Before My Time” in the climate-change documentary Chasing Ice). No doubt she has much more to sing—and say.