Scarlett Johansson's seductive Under the Skin

By Helen Barlow

Why is Scarlett Johansson cruising the streets of Scotland for men? Helen Barlow reports

Johansson is in disguise, with a British accent and raven hair in Under the Skin.
Johansson is in disguise, with a British accent and raven hair in Under the Skin.

Of late, a heavily pregnant Scarlett Johansson has happily traded in her sex symbol image. But it's certainly to the fore in the movie she completed before becoming an expectant mother, the left-field sci-fi horror Under the Skin.

Johansson plays an alien sent down to seduce Scottish blokes who can't believe their luck when she offers them a lift in her van.

It's a film with little plot, little dialogue and a ton of atmosphere, thanks to Mica Levi's eerie electronic music and Johansson's ethereal performance. British director Jonathan Glazer, who made his name on award-winning music videos for the likes of Nick Cave, Radiohead and Blur, has long gone out on a limb in his movies -- whether it be with his wry take on violence in Sexy Beast (2000) or eliciting a subtle performance from Nicole Kidman in his austere psychological horror film, Birth (2004).

With Under the Skin, a very loose adaptation of Michael Faber's 2000 novel, Glazer was captivated with the idea of looking at the world through an alien's eyes and the intuition that grows in her character throughout her journey.

"She experiences an awakening," Glazer explains. "There was a sense of that in the book and that's very much the thing that drew me to it. But from the time I started working with [co-screenwriter] Walter Campbell, we removed ourselves from the book and focused on the central pillars: the release of one of her prisoners and how that tapped into her consciousness. That's really all that remains of the novel now, and then it became a much more abstract undertaking."

Under the Skin (not to be confused with Carine Adler's fine 1997 study of British working class suburban angst) was never going to receive wide distribution.

It's a long way from the Avengers for Johansson, who bravely placed herself in Glazer's assured hands.

"It's not a science-fiction film; it's a film that asks existential questions. Making it and watching it feels like an experience. I don't think it fits into the thriller or horror genres just as it doesn't have any specific morality. It doesn't seem to fit within the confines of all those labels we place on films.

"I didn't have any preconceived idea for the role or how to prepare for it," Johansson explains. "All the pieces were coming together day by day, moment by moment, in Jonathan's mind as his vision of the story as a whole was taking shape.

"Any ideas that I had of how to go about playing this character were completely irrelevant and it took us a couple weeks to find our footing. In a way, it was about abandoning any judgment as she has no intention, no evil at all. Everything she does is for a purpose and she's only turned on, so to speak, when she needs to be and then returns to a state of being or observing."

Cruising the streets of Scotland in a white van, Glazer shot the film almost entirely with hidden cameras and non-actors, who didn't know they were being filmed, even if the following scenes were then planned.

"The world into which she is being assimilated needed to be real and without the world knowing that it was being filmed," Glazer notes. Johansson's appearance helped with the anonymity as she speaks with an English accent and sports tight jeans, raven hair and thick eyeliner.

"We didn't want her to feel like an alien or to have strange alien movements like you would see in a Tim Burton movie or something," notes Johansson. The first crack in the framework comes when the character has a fall and is caught off guard.

"We did that on the street with the public and had six or seven takes during the day and had amazingly different reactions," Johansson continues. "Some people would stop and look at you and continue to walk, while others would come rushing to take pictures with their phones and not help you. Then there were unbelievable acts of human kindness where people were genuinely concerned. So the dichotomy was fascinating. I think it's a huge part of the experience of watching this film."

"The emotional journey of the character required an unusual language and I suppose it's experimental for that reason. It's not experimental for its own sake."

Probably the most difficult scene for her to film is when Johansson's character recruits a man with a deformed face, the neurofibromatosis sufferer Adam Pearson, who she ultimately sets free.

"This scene was scripted, of course, but Adam's not an actor, he's more an advocate. It was hard for him to let his guard down, the ideas he has about himself, the ideas others have about him," says Glazer.

"He was protecting his vulnerabilities so trying to find the key to unlock that was difficult. But like a lot of the scenes, once the door was pushed open, it swung open and everything fell into place."

Who and what: Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's experimental alien seduction film, Under the Skin
When: Saturday, July 19 and Wednesday, July 23

- TimeOut

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