CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF star Scarlett Johansson featured in The New York Times

Photo by Hedi Slimane

The Kitten Makes Way for the Cat

By Patrick Healy

Published December 19, 2012

Scarlett Johansson doesn’t like making pat statements about herself. She tends to pepper her insights with swear words, self-deprecation or a short, raspy laugh. But during a 90-minute interview recently there was one truth that she acknowledged simply: She did a lot of growing up in the three years between her Broadway debut, at the age of 25 in “A View From the Bridge,” and her return this month as Maggie in another American classic, Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

She went through a divorce from the actor Ryan Reynolds, the man she had lovingly called “my Canadian” only months earlier while accepting the 2010 Tony Award for featured actress in “View From the Bridge.” She also ended professional ties with her mother, Melanie Sloan, who had been her manager since Ms. Johansson’s early days auditioning in her hometown, Manhattan.

As she made the transition from Ms. Sloan’s management to working with a new team in Hollywood, Ms. Johansson cut back on the sexy ingénue roles that had made her a star in “Lost in Translation” and Woody Allen films like “Match Point.” Instead she opted for frank, flintier characters, women more like herself: the steely Natasha Romanoff in the recent movie “The Avengers” (a franchise that also provides a nice salary) and a no-nonsense zookeeper in the 2011 family film “We Bought a Zoo” (where she traded lip gloss and sex appeal for veterinary lingo and a perm).

As the pleasures of her 20s (“my martini-swilling, nacho-eating lifestyle”) gave way to more considered choices, like a new apartment in Paris, so too has her fierce hunger for movie stardom mellowed, a little, in favor of pursuing deeper challenges as an actress. And with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” she has chosen a beauty: the stubbornly pragmatic Maggie, a role played by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jessica Lange, Kathleen Turner and — in just the last nine years on Broadway — Ashley Judd and Anika Noni Rose.

“I felt extreme vulnerability over the last few years, more than I ever had, and no longer wanted to keep rushing into movie jobs or a play just to escape how I was feeling,” Ms. Johansson said in one of the production’s rehearsal rooms, as she gently caressed a blue-ink tattoo of a charm bracelet on her right wrist. “Once I wanted to work again, I wanted to start playing adults — tough women who knew what it took to survive.”

Maggie, of course, can still be seen as another Johansson sexpot. The character spends much of the first act clothed only in a slip, striving to win back the love of her husband, Brick, and secure their inheritance from Big Daddy, who is dying. But Ms. Johansson said she saw far more. The character has so many emotional notes to land in Act I alone that Ms. Johansson recalled “experiencing heart palpitations” when she read the play last year.

“After my first time on Broadway I decided I wanted to keep doing projects that I didn’t know how to do,” she said. “I’m finally at a place in my life where I feel comfortable not anticipating the result. I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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