In the new film “Lucy,” Scarlett Johansson plays the title character in the action-thriller (opening Friday) — a unremarkable young woman studying in Taiwan whose life is changed forever after she is kidnapped by a vicious drug smuggling ring.
Lucy is forced to be an unwilling “mule” — with a packet of a powerful, new, dangerous substance surgically inserted into her belly.
When the chemical is accidentally leaked into Lucy’s system it should have killed her almost immediately. Instead it leads to unleashing her brain capacity to unimaginable levels — from the 10 percent utilized by normal humans to an ever-increasing percentage, veering dangerously close to 100 percent.
Johansson phoned recently to talk about the film.
Q: Before we get into “Lucy,” I have to say this is a bit of a fantasy — talking to you on the phone, — not seeing you, but just hearing your voice — it’s like having a personal version of “Her” [in which Johansson was the voice of an operating system with whom Joaquin Phoenix fell in love.]
A: I’m acutely aware that when I talk on the phone now, that’s what most people think. I now often feel like a character in my own life! [Laughs]
Q: Turning to “Lucy,” while you’ve clearly played action roles before, this seemed quite different. How was it different for you?
A: When I first met with Luc [Besson, the film’s writer and director] there was no real script to read. English for Luc is a second language, so there wasn’t a lot of huge visual descriptions. It was the core of the work he was showing me, which was pretty basic and raw. Accompanying that was this massive mood book and different visual images — sort of like a flip-book into the way his brain works! That’s the vocabulary he uses, a very visual one.
I knew going in that my character was a pretty unremarkable person and not that fascinating. What’s extraordinary is this journey she goes on that is one of a constant state of transition and the challenge of playing that — being in that state — was what kind of drew me into this project and stand out for me.
Q: Getting into this project, did you learn a lot about the brain and how it works?
A: I’m sure that my high school biology teacher would have liked to imagine that, but I really spent my time and my focus on playing this character. She becomes increasingly less human, becoming one with the ethos — so my challenge was to deal with her as her emotional vocabulary weakens. The big challenge was not to not lose the light inside her, and allow her to become too robotic.
So rather than trying to understand the complexity of the process she was going through, I was trying to hold on to those little almost chlldlike things that she can connect with.
Q: This was the first time you worked with Luc Besson and the first time you worked with Morgan Freeman. How was that?
A: It’s kind of amazing, because we both have been doing all this for so long! You would have thought we would have worked together before this. At that point in this film, though, my character is so disconnected, it was a bit disappointing for me. I felt like it would have been more fun to have had some scenes where we really could have delved into much more interpersonal dialogue and interaction.
Here I was working with this incredibly accomplished actor who I’ve admired for so long and I’m totally disconnected. That was too bad. While we were working together, ironically we really weren’t working together in the usual way.
Q: I know there’s a lot of movie magic, but it looked like there’s a lot of physicality in this film for you as well too. True?
A: I didn’t really know going into it what the film was going to require, because the fight scenes I’m involved in are about my character — who is not a professionally-trained fighter or athlete. So, I’m really kind of someone being thrown around and abused by others. When you first see her, she has no skill set along those lines — everything is primal, in the way she reacts and is totally instinctual.She’s not a particularly graceful character. There’s a surge in her and I wanted that to be there all the time. Anything was possible. She’s almost like that lioness that’s about to pounce.
Q: This was the first time you were in Taipei. How did you like working there?
A: I absolutely loved Taipei. It’s such an amazing place. Before I went there, I didn’t know anything about what it would look like. I had no preconceived notion about it at all. So before I went there I looked at an Anthony Bourdain show about Taipei. I really got to know from that the nighttime is when the city really comes alive. That turned out to be true. People get off work and they socialize and they eat at night markets and eat street food. It’s a fun city at night.
Q: There is an irony for you, I would think that in the film your character of Lucy has this CPH4 chemical growing inside her — something that naturally does happen to pregnant women — and now you have that happening to you as well, since you’re expecting.
A: Who knows how these things happen. I was going, ‘What is this CPH4?’ This hormonal thing is so hard for me to get my head around! It is funny, indeed. How in the film there’s this life force that I’m ingesting — and then it happens to me naturally in real life. Ironic indeed.