Brow Beat

Scarlett Johansson Says She “Should Be Able to Play Any Person, or Any Tree, or Any Animal”

Scarlett Johansson, smiling.
Scarlett Johansson at the world premiere of Avengers: Endgame. Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

Scarlett Johansson, who faced backlash for playing an Asian character in Paramount’s live-action Ghost in the Shell remake, then faced so much backlash after being cast as a trans character in the upcoming Tex Gill biopic Rub & Tug that she withdrew from the role, has further thoughts about what kinds of parts people should cast her in. In an interview with As If magazine, the actress complained about political correctness in art, and opined that “As an actor, I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.”

Johansson’s comments were picked up by the Daily Mail and have already caused enough of an uproar that the actress has released a statement saying the article was “edited for click bait and is widely taken out of context.” There is missing context: the interview is not a standard profile. Instead, As If paired Johansson with contemporary painter David Salle, and the two collaborated on a photoshoot of the actress featuring his work; Johansson and Salle then talked about the project. One part of the context Johansson is probably referring to is the shoot itself, during which Salle asked Johansson to “play with the idea of living within a tree,” according to photographer Tatijana Shoan, which is why the idea of being cast as a tree was readily at hand. But unless the interview has been shuffled beyond recognition, her statement seems a little misleading. Johansson writes that “The question I was answering in my conversation with the contemporary artist, David Salle, was about the confrontation between political correctness and art,” as though Salle raised the topic. But as published, that section of the interview shows Salle trying to get Johansson to talk about the mechanics of her craft, while she steers the conversation right into political correctness in casting. Johansson had been asked about her acting role models and brought up the Method actors of the 1950s, describing them like this:

With actors like James Dean, Natalie Wood and Marlon Brando they exhibited a kind of liberation, a kind of unapologetic showcase of emotions. You even see it in the writing of the time with playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. They would write these wonderfully dirty, complicated and ugly scenes for actors and audiences to experience. It was a time of real guts.

“It was a time of real guts” seems like the moment where the wheels jumped the track. Here’s the full exchange about casting that followed, which sure makes it seem like Johansson was the one steering the conversation:

Do you think that mode or that generation is still important today?

You know, acting goes through trends.

Are we seeing an acting trend today?

Hmm… We live in such a weird time that is sort of identity-less in a lot of ways. I don’t know if there’s a trend in performance, but there’s certainly trends in casting right now. Today there’s a lot of emphasis and conversation about what acting is and who we want to see represent ourselves on screen. The question now is, what is acting anyway?

Right. Who gets to play what roles…

You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.

Yes. Must you only represent yourself, your gender, your ethnicity, or can you, in fact, play beyond these categories?

There are a lot of social lines being drawn now, and a lot of political correctness is being reflected in art.

Does that bore you? Annoy you? Buck you up? Cheer you on? I know it’s complicated, there’s probably not one answer.

You know, I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions. What do you think about it, David? You’re literally creating art all the time.

“Identity-less,” incidentally, is how Johansson described her character in Ghost in the Shell. By all means, read the entire interview, but if there’s missing context, it’s not obvious what it could be. Johansson clarified the point she was trying to make in her statement:

I personally feel that, in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness. That was the point I was making, albeit didn’t come across that way. I recognize that in reality, there is a widespread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cis gendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities I have been privileged to. I continue to support, and always have, diversity in any industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included.

The upshot is we’re in for another round of unconvincing defenses of problematic casting, although in this case, the fact that Johansson is not actually playing a tree or a person of a different gender or ethnicity in a specific upcoming movie should keep the news cycle relatively short. That’s good, because when Johansson’s next movie, Jojo Rabbit, comes out in October, we’re going to want to have a slightly different conversation about casting. Here’s her co-star, screenwriter, and director, Taika Waititi discussing his role in the movie, an adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, and his general theory of casting, which is not quite as color-blind as Johansson’s:

It turns out racially insensitive casting can be used for good as well as evil, as long as you’re trying to be disrespectful.