NEW YORK — In ads promoting the new Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, leading lady Scarlett Johansson is pictured reclining, her half-closed eyes and pouty lips a study in languorous carnality.
If you’ve been staring back, thinking less-than-pure thoughts, be forewarned: Sex is not the first thing on this actress’ mind — or, as she sees it, on her character’s.
Few roles are as identified with lust as Cat’s Maggie, a vital Southern belle frustrated by her alcoholic husband’s seeming immunity to her charms. But as Johansson, 28, discusses the play at a restaurant near the Richard Rodgers Theatre — where Cat is in previews for a Jan. 17 opening — she insists that Maggie “has been oversexualized” in the past.
“I think it’s best to ignore (Maggie)’s sexuality, because it’s already there in the play,” she says. “I mean, she’s in the Mississippi Delta, with all this humidity, and she’s young and wearing a slip.”
For Johansson, Maggie’s defining quality is rather “her determination. She has this drive in her, this life force, that is at times almost biblical. I don’t think about Maggie as coming from her loins. I think of her as coming from her gut.”
The new Cat marks Johansson’s first return to the stage since her Broadway debut in a 2010 revival of another mid-20th century American classic, Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. Her portrayal of an orphaned teenager who becomes her uncle’s obsession earned Johansson wide critical acclaim, as well as a Tony Award.
“It was always my dream to be onstage,” she says. “As a kid, I auditioned for theater. I was out there pounding the pavement.” Back in 1993, she landed a role in an off-Broadway production, Sophistry, starring Ethan Hawke — “I had, like, one line” — but films soon beckoned.
After Bridge‘s success, though, Johansson immediately started considering another stage outing. “I looked at some new plays and some classics, and then once while daydreaming,I remembered Cat, and I re-read it, and was petrified.”
Director Rob Ashford “also was circling the play, so we met to talk about it. We both had the same feeling about it, that it seemed very modern. Other Williams plays I’d either done readings of or just read felt a little haunted or cobwebby; but this one felt fresh, timeless. It’s really a play about family, about expectation and disappointment, truth and mendacity. Those are issues and themes we can all relate to.”
Predictably, Johansson doesn’t elaborate with any personal details. Though the famously private star has been linked with several men since divorcing Ryan Reynolds last year, her relationship status “isn’t terribly important,” she demurs. “I mean, it is for me, but it isn’t for anybody else. It’s natural that people are curious, and they’ll have their own ideas about who you’re dating whether you’re dating them or not. I used to be much more concerned about setting the story straight. Now I don’t care as much.”
To hear her tell it, Johansson is too absorbed with her current gig to enjoy much of a social life these days. “The past couple of weeks, people keep saying to me, ‘What’s going on? You seem preoccupied.’ I’m at the point where I’m dreaming the lines. I’ll wake up with those words in my head. It’s so strange when that happens, though any actor will tell you that it does.”
She’s not even thinking that far ahead career-wise, Johansson insists. Future film endeavors include another Captain America movie, “so I’ll be bringing back the Black Widow. Then I don’t know what I’ll do. It’ll be something excruciating, I’m sure.”
Johansson wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s nice to have work that’s hard. Why would you, as an actor, want to do anything easy? That’s boring.”