Scarlett Johansson charms Siskel Film Center crowd at gala

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Scarlett Johansson with her Renaissance Award at the Gene Siskel Film Center gala Thursday night. | Kevin Tanaka/Sun-Times Media

As Scarlett Johansson walked the red carpet Thursday night at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the actress remembered the only time she made a film here.

“I actually did work in Chicago when I was 11 years old and I made ‘Home Alone 3,’ which I hope has been left out of the [tribute] video they will show tonight, as they recap my career so far,” that John Hughes sequel being among the acclaimed director’s least memorable works.

“That said, I remember very much being a kid here — in the winter,” said the four-time Golden Globe nominee. “Just remember it being so brutally cold.”

Johansson has played such a wide variety of roles — from “Lost in Translation” to “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” to the trio of movies she made with Woody Allen and her two movies with the Coen brothers. Yet, Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, obviously is one role that resonates with Johansson, given she’s revisited it in the two “Avengers” films, “Iron Man 2” and “Captain America: Civil War.”

“I think the appeal of Natasha is that there are so many layers to her character that I can peel back each time. I think that’s the most exciting thing about her. She’s so multi-faceted. I also love the challenge of bringing a character like her to life that has such a strong fan base. I would never have thought it would have the kind of legs that it does.”

As for this week’s expansion of the membership of the Motion Picture Academy — adding more women and minorities to the Oscar-granting organization’s roster, Johansson said, “It’s awesome to have a diverse group of people in an organization like that. You need to have different points of view and different perspectives.

“Of course, it’s also the studios who ultimately will make the movies, but I think when the audiences speak loudly and tell the studios what they want to watch, there’s an ear there. The audiences will drive the direction of what is green-lit and put on the fast track. I truly believe that to be true, especially now in the time of social media. The voices cannot be ignored. So I tell people to keep asking, and to keep asking for diversity in Hollywood.”

Johansson, who is only 31, said she was “somewhat shocked” when she was informed she was the recipient of the film center’s annual career achievement award. “I felt it was a bit premature, because I consider myself at something like the mid-point of my career. Yet, I think back and realize I have been working for many years, starting when I was around 8 years old when I got started professionally. So, I think it’s kind of exciting to take a breather and look back and see how far I’ve come — or not,” she added with a laugh.

Indeed, the actress already has 54 film and television roles to her credit — to say nothing of her starring appearances on the stage. Considering the quality of much of that work, it’s no surprise the film center — and the organization’s key players, including the evening’s co-chairs Marlene Iglitzen and Ellen Kollar, board chair Ellen Sandor and the center’s executive director Jean de St. Aubin — selected Johansson for the 2016 honor.

After chatting with members of the press on the red carpet, Johansson entered the Ritz’s ballroom, where she was interviewed by Sun-Times movie columnist Richard Roeper, in between clips showcasing highlights of her films. Their conversation included her memories of working with Woody Allen, who she admitted provided “work that I love, but more importantly I found a friend for life.”

When Roeper noted that being an actor is “the closest thing we have to time travel,” Johansson agreed, but also pointed out that while she’s played characters in the 15th and 16th centuries, the 1940s and the early 1950s, “the one thing I’ve learned is that people are people, no matter the time frame. Certainly, I had to be aware of the scope of women’s lives in those different eras, but there are so many factors of human nature that span all the centuries.”

Johansson’s love of music — she has even recorded an album of Tom Waits covers — makes her think that “one day I might even make a movie musical, as difficult as that would be.”

Yet, one thing she will “definitely do is to direct. That’s something I’ve wanted to do since I watched Robert Redford on ‘The Horse Whisperer.’ I looked over at him and thought, ‘I want that job!’ ” The actress said she’s had a project in the works where she would go behind the camera, “for a long, long time. But it will happen.”

At the end of the Q&A with Roeper, he asked Johansson the classic question that was Gene Siskel’s signature: “Tell me what you know for sure.”

After pausing a moment, Johansson sagely said, “I know everything changes, Richard. I know that for sure.”

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