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Scarlett Johansson: How She Went From Indie Ingénue to Box Office Leading Actress

Long before her meteoric rise to fame as badass Russian Spy Natasha Romanoff in the big-budget Marvel franchise The Avengers and solo-prequel Black WidowScarlett Johansson impressed audiences with critically acclaimed performances in her earlier indie roles. Johansson was born in New York City in 1984 to her mother Melanie Sloan, a producer, and her father Olaf Johansson, an architect. Her paternal grandfather Ejner Johansson was also a screenwriter and film director. According to New York Magazine, as a child, Johansson would practice her craft by staring into the mirror until she made herself cry, stating “I wanted to be Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis.” Her mother helped her pursue her aspirations and began taking her on auditions at the age of seven. A year later, she was starring opposite Ethan Hawke in an off-Broadway production of Sophistry.

Johansson would eventually enroll in Professional Children’s School, a private performing arts school for aspiring child actors. It was here that she pursued her passion for musical theater. Johansson’s film debut would come in 1994 opposite Elijah Wood in North, and just two years later she landed a leading role in the first of many independent films in the dramedy Manny & Lo. It was in the 1998 drama The Horse Whisperer, however, that Johansson proved herself as a young actress with her critically acclaimed performance of young amputee Grace MacLean. Here’s how Scarlett Johansson went from indie ingénue to box office leading actress.

Johansson’s Early Career

United Artists

Johansson began her film career as a child actress at the age of ten, starring opposite Elijah Wood in North. Two years later, she would star in her first leading role in the independent character drama Manny & Lo, a tale of two runaway sisters who kidnap a clerk at a baby supply store when they learn of the eldest girl’s pregnancy. Johansson’s performance was well-received by critics and earned her a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Female. After a few minor roles in films such as Fall and Home Alone 3, Johansson played young amputee Grace MacLean in The Horse Whisperer, co-starring Hollywood icon Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas, for which she earned a Chicago Film Critics Association nomination for Most Promising Actress.

In 2001, at the age of 17, Johansson starred in her breakthrough role as Rebecca an eccentric outcast in Ghost World, an adaptation of a Daniel Clowes graphic novel. The film has gained a cult following since its original release and won Johansson a Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress. Upon graduating from Professional Children’s School at the age of 18, Johansson applied for NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts — however, she was rejected. The star recently opened up to Elle Magazine about the near-constant rejection she has faced throughout her career. The unexpected speed bump did not deter her career path, but rather fine-tuned her focus.

Critical Indie Darling

Lost In Translation
Focus Features

In the early 2000s, Johansson began her transition from teen roles to adult roles and took on a range of different projects such as Lost in TranslationGirl with a Pearl Earring, and A Love Song for Bobby Long, all of which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. Johansson’s performance as the dispirited young wife Charlotte, in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, earned her high praise amongst critics. In 2005, the budding starlet played Nola Rice in the Woody Allen-directed Match Point, a psychological drama about a tennis pro who marries for wealth and risks everything when he cheats on his wife — her performance in Match Point was nominated for yet another Golden Globe Award. Johansson would reunite with the famed auteur in 2006, opposite Hugh Jackman, in Scoop, and again in 2008 in Vicky Christina Barcelona, which would become one of Allen’s most profitable films. In addition to her work with Allen, Johansson also took on some interesting roles in Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and also played Silken Floss in Frank Miller’s The Spirit, to name a few. Despite her successful career, proven acting prowess, and critical recognition, Johansson was not yet satisfied. Of course, she was about to land a role that would change her life.

Box Office Leading Lady

Black Widow dies in MCU
Walt Disney Studios

Always feeling a kinship to the character, Johansson auditioned for Black Widow in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2. The determined actress went so far as to dye her hair red and undergo intense stunt and strength training in preparation for her audition. The film was a box office success and the first in a long line of collaborations with Marvel. She reprised her role as Black Widow in the MCU films The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and finally the prequel Black Widow. The latter was voted Best Hero at the MTV Movie Awards. Despite her character arc seemingly coming to an end, and a polarizing lawsuit against Disney, there may be more Marvel films in her future.

Throughout her collaborations with Marvel, Johansson earned her reputation as a badass superhero. Along with her success as Black Widow, the actress also starred opposite Adam Driver in Marriage Story wherein she played a woman embattled in bitter divorce proceedings with her husband. Her performance in the latter garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. In 2018 and 2019, Johansson was the highest-paid actress in the world and was later named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2021. Despite her massive success, the actress shows no signs of slowing down and has several upcoming projects including a Little Shop of Horrors remake and the highly anticipated Wes Anderson film Asteroid City


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