Actors relish chance to work with filmmaking icon
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NEW YORK -- She's more petite and delicate looking in person, and her hair is a bashful brown instead of its customary blond. But there's no mistaking the voice.
Audio highlights from an interview with Ian McShane, one of the stars of "Scoop.""
Related review: 'Scoop'
It belongs to Scarlett Johansson, only 21 and already the face of L'Oreal and a veteran of two dozen movies. She's worked with directors such as Brian De Palma, Woody Allen (twice), Paul Weitz, Michael Bay, Sofia Coppola, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Robert Redford.
It's Allen, however, who shared the cover of New York magazine's summer issue. He was clad in wintry wool and corduroy while Johansson was posed on the sand like a 1940s pin-up girl, in a demure, vintage-style swimsuit, her hair brunette for next year's "The Nanny Diaries."
She is the nanny in an adaptation of the novel, loosely based on the experiences of two former New York nannies. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are the wealthy neglectful parents of nanny's young charge, played by 7-year-old Nicholas Art.
Asked what she learned by working with children, she's momentarily stumped. "I learned you can, hmm, I already knew you could get a kid's attention by offering him a cookie. I have to think about that."
Allen already had Johansson's attention from "Match Point," a film he wrote and directed but didn't appear in.
Long an admirer of Allen as director, writer, comedian and actor, Johansson says, "I thought it would be so nice to act with him, and he said, 'OK, well, I'll think of something,' and he thought of 'Scoop.' I don't know that it's close to who I am as a person, the character I'm playing, but it's definitely sort of reflective of the kind of banter that Woody and I have."
The repartee Allen and Johansson had behind the scenes in "Match Point" moves before the camera in "Scoop." Her character even pretends to be his daughter for much of the comedy, set in Britain.
She plays Sondra Pransky, a college journalism student visiting from the States, and Allen is Sid Waterman, a cheesy magician. They're caught in a murder mystery along with Ian McShane, as a dogged but dead reporter, and Hugh Jackman, an aristocrat who may or may not be a killer.
Critics have raved that the combination of shooting in London and new muse Johansson have rejuvenated Allen, 70.
She compares working with Allen a second time to going back to summer camp. "It's like you haven't seen this person for a year and you go back and everything's kind of the same as it was before."
Just like summer camp, there was a lake in "Scoop," but it was murky, green and blooming with algae, due to unseasonably warm weather. "Any kind of time you have to be fully clothed and soaking wet is gross," says the actress, who ended up in the lake.
A native New Yorker, Johansson found a kindred spirit in her Tony-winning Aussie co-star. "Hugh and I used to sing a lot together on the set, which I was so surprised, I didn't think he would know all those songs."
Johansson started acting at 7. "I was one of those singing, dancing kids, one of those Broadway-audition-for-'Annie' kind of kids and believe it or not, I loved that stuff and do. ... I know the lyrics to every Rodgers and Hammerstein musical every written. I love 'Oklahoma,' I love 'Carousel.' "
On this weekend, Allen is in London and Jackman in Australia doing endless hours of satellite interviews for "Scoop." That leaves Johansson and McShane to face the press at the Waldorf Towers on Park Avenue.
Wearing a purple tank top and a summery dress with black flat sandals, Johansson is fine as long as the talk doesn't turn too personal, while McShane is a gregarious charmer, imitating onetime co-star Richard Burton, talking about the profane fans of his HBO series "Deadwood" and how Allen had never heard of him until casting director Juliet Taylor mentioned his name.
Johansson fields questions about beauty tips -- "My mom always told me to wash my face before I went to bed, and it's served me well" -- and staying in shape. "I eat well and I walk a lot. I'm 21, so luckily I've got youth on my side, but I do yoga sometimes. I think living in the city, you get a lot of exercise."
A gossipy item about Johansson and boyfriend Josh Hartnett had appeared in that day's New York Daily News, but she will talk about him only as another co-star of "The Black Dahlia," opening the Venice Film Festival in Italy on Aug. 30.
Directed by De Palma, the thriller is based on the James Ellroy novel about the 1947 murder of a Hollywood starlet (portrayed by Mia Kirshner). Johansson plays a platinum blonde and ex-prostitute named Kay Lake, while Hartnett is a former pugilist turned cop. The cast also includes Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank.
"I like keeping my private life private, and I think that, actor, not an actor, it's nice to not have everybody know your business.
"And certainly in this society that we live in today, people seem to want to focus more on things that are very sort of superfluous and unimportant in their own lives instead of actually focusing on what's really going on in the world. I mean, it's much easier to find out who's dating who than to get any real story on what's going on in Iraq, Africa, Haiti, all over the world."
That doesn't stop someone from tip-toeing toward Hartnett by asking about the pair doing future publicity for the De Palma thriller. "I'm very excited about promoting 'The Black Dahlia.' I feel very confident about that film."
Will the pair stroll the red carpet together? "Josh, Hilary and Aaron are all my co-stars, and I would be happy to be with them on the red carpet. ... I've never been a gossipy person, I've never been involved in other people's lives, and I would rather they're not involved in mine, if I don't know them."
McShane and his wife, however, have become friends and admirers of Johansson.
"She hasn't tried to go out with 'my name above the title' in some crappy films," McShane says. "She's been very smart about the projects she's chosen, working with other people, keeping a low profile," building a career and staying down to earth. "She's gorgeous and smart, so it's great. I think that's what he likes about her, Woody."
When Jackman got a call about an Allen movie, he was warned not to be offended if his meeting with the director lasted only two minutes. It took about three, which was longer than McShane's.
McShane, whose portrayal of wily, ruthless saloon owner Al Swearengen on "Deadwood" earned him an Emmy nomination in 2005, was on his way back to England when asked about stopping in to see Allen, then editing "Match Point" in Manhattan.
"I went in, I think it was 30 seconds less than Hugh saw him for. He said, 'Hi, would you turn around?' so I turned around and he obviously liked the back of me as well 'cause the next day, he comes up with a script and a very self-deprecating note saying you may not want to do this, but I think you'd be great for Joe Strombel."
McShane wanted to do it and modeled Strombel on a "dear old friend," a hard-drinking, hard-charging reporter, although British journalist Christopher Hitchens also crossed his mind and now and then, especially when it came to Strombel's look.
McShane is a particular fan of early Woody Allen ("Take the Money and Run," "Everything You Always Wanted to Know ..." and "Love and Death") and sees "Scoop" as the comedic response to "Match Point."
" 'Match Point' I thought was his tipping his hat to Hitchcock, that formalized, English murder mystery." Then Allen came back "the next year by doing this comedy about death and murder and having a ghost and all the silly stuff about going on the boat, the River Styx with a 9-foot guy with a big scythe over your head."
McShane, whose long list of credits include Judas Iscariot, Benjamin Disraeli and Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights," is 63, old enough to know that talent alone doesn't guarantee longevity.
"Cream does not rise to the top in our business all the time, it really doesn't," McShane says. He worked with actors after studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts who were talented but disappeared, sidetracked or unable to persevere or handle rejection.
He's persevered and says, "It's very nice to be appreciated, for something as good as 'Deadwood.' Really gratifying."
The end of the HBO series, which will be wrapped up with a pair of two-hour movies, has opened the door for more film work. In October, he will be seen in "We Are Marshall" and next year will bring the release of "Shrek the Third," a psychological thriller called "Case 39" with Renee Zellweger and a comedy with Andy Samberg called "Hot Rod."
His Captain Hook for the third "Shrek" is an homage to Robert Newton's Long John Silver in "Treasure Island," and he does the hearty aargh to prove it.
"[Jeffrey] Katzenberg loved it, apparently, so he's asked me to do this new one, 'Kung Fu Panda' with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman. I play the evil snow leopard."
First Published July 28, 2006 12:00 am