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' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The show went into previews Dec. 18, with the opening set for Jan. 17 at the Richard Rogers Theatre.
She went through a divorce from 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.
Working with a new team in Hollywood, Ms. Johansson cut back on the sexy ingenue 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" and a no-nonsense zookeeper in the 2011 family film "We Bought a Zoo."
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 Elizabeth Taylor, Jessica Lange, Kathleen Turner and -- in just the past 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 Ms. 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.
"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."
That much was obvious during a recent rehearsal of the first act of "Cat," as Ms. Johansson practiced new stage directions on the raked set -- dominated by Maggie and Brick's cast-iron bed -- and played with her line readings.
At first she stormed about like a force of nature as Maggie, ruthlessly describing her greedy in-laws Mae and Gooper and their "no-neck monster" children, and then grew quiet and lingered in some pauses at the risk of slowing down the play. All the while there was a caginess to Ms. Johansson's physical performance and tone, as her eyes watched -- yes, catlike -- every movement of the sullenly alcoholic Brick (played by Benjamin Walker).
Directed by Rob Ashford
Huddling afterward with the director, Rob Ashford, Ms. Johansson was a bit hard on herself for not having mastered her every second onstage. When Mr. Ashford, a Point Park University graduate, suggested that she add some pauses to see if Maggie is getting Brick's attention, Ms. Johansson's face brightened, and she replied with assurance.
"Yes, yes, I need to meditate on it, but yes," she said. "The pauses will warm up."
Still, she wanted to prove to herself that she could master a major role from the American canon, after nursing herself through the divorce by playing "a person dedicated to animals and not herself" in "We Bought a Zoo," and starting to date again.
Ms. Johansson's earlier character on Broadway was far more buttoned-up -- the virginal teenager, Catherine, in Arthur Miller's "View From the Bridge," who was unaware of her sexuality and its effect on men. Gregory Mosher, the director, particularly recalled Ms. Johansson's work ethic -- "come early, stay late, trust your colleagues, never give up on trying to find a way to do a moment more simply or truthfully" -- while Ms. Johansson mostly remembers being hard on her own performance and constantly exhausted.
"I never thought I would do another play after 'View,' " she said. "I was just so tired. I thought I was just going to become an organic farmer."
It wasn't "Cat" but another Williams masterwork that piqued her interest in returning to the theater -- "The Glass Menagerie," and the character of the withdrawn, crippled Laura Wingfield. As stars are wont to do, Ms. Johansson organized a private reading to see if she was a good fit for Laura, a role she had pursued earlier -- but did not get -- for a 2007 production in London starring Ms. Lange as the domineering mother, Amanda.
"I've spent most of my life being rejected, but that has only made me more ambitious and competitive," Ms. Johansson said, nodding her head toward the table of school supplies and books used by the youngsters in the cast. "But with some roles I have to learn for myself that it's not right."
So it was with Laura in "Menagerie." After the reading, Ms. Johansson said, she felt that the character "didn't resonate with me," though she wasn't exactly sure why. But Mr. Walker, who is playing Brick to her Maggie on Broadway -- and who read as Laura's brother Tom in the "Menagerie" reading -- said that Ms. Johansson "miscast" herself as Laura.
"It was just hard to believe her as Laura because she is so very self-possessed, confident, attractive -- anything but awkward," Mr. Walker said. "Even so, at the reading, her talent made you forget the Scarlett Johansson brand that the movie industry has imposed on her."
When Ms. Johansson read "Cat," however, Maggie's mix of resourcefulness and insecurity struck personal chords immediately.
"To bare yourself -- to be naked in front of someone and show your belly, and be willing to face the hard truth of pain and rejection -- is who I am and is who Maggie is," said Ms. Johansson, who saw Ms. Judd in the role on Broadway but has never seen the 1958 Taylor film.