“Under the Skin” finally arrived in theaters this past weekend and, happily for moviegoers, A24 Films were rewarded for their gutsy acquisition of Jonathan Glazer's transcendent film. “Skin” grossed $140,000, or $35,000 per screen in just four theaters, in New York and Los Angeles. It's the second-highest limited per-screen of the year after “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and quite impressive considering A24 did it almost completely via old-fashioned publicity and word of mouth.
More art film than thriller, “Skin” was my #2 movie of 2013. It haunted me for weeks on end after I saw its world premiere at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival and it forced me to switch my criteria for my end of year top 10 list (viewing year vs. release year). It also features the most impressive and transformative performance of Scarlett Johansson's career.
Johannson got a lot more attention for playing the Black Widow once again in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but cinephiles will remember her role in “Skin” for years after the Marvel blockbuster is long forgotten. Up until now you could argue there were three roles she was best known for: the bored young wife in “Lost in Translation,” the somewhat unhinged mistress in “Match Point” and, most recently, the voice of Samantha in Spike Jonze's “Her.” We can add the alien hunter masquerading as a beautiful seductress in Glazer's film to that list.
[Quick interlude: I spoke to Johansson a little over a week following the film's debut at Telluride, during the Toronto Film Festival. At the time I believed it to be a bad interview. Johansson seemed unsteady talking about the film. It was almost as if she hadn't gotten her mind around the finished product, which she'd only just recently seen. Considering how bold and artistic Glazer's film is compared to even Johansson's other indie work, it made sense in context. I had planned to just pull a quote or two if I could to include in a piece based off a chat I'd had with Glazer last week. Instead, looking over the transcript, I realized her answers were much more interesting than how she, um, delivered them.]
Glazer says the idea of casting Johansson was dictated by the semi-improvisational methodology they came up with to make the movie. The production used a lot of guerrilla filmmaking and hidden cameras to bring a sense of realism to the alien's hunt. Johansson was made up to look seductive with a hairstyle that made her somewhat unrecognizable from the thousands of red carpet photos taken of her over the years, but not drastically. For many of the shots Johansson drove a huge van around Glasgow, Scotland (more on that from her POV later) attempting to pick up young men who are suitable candidates for the alien's mission.
“A lot of people that she meets early on or she's looking at, and in fact one of them happily gets in the van, they didn't know they were being filmed,” Glazer reveals. “We told them that they were being filmed after we filmed them. So there was a genuine hunt. It was a real engagement. It was a real hunt. We're just filming her making the selections.”
The storyline has Johansson walking all over the city and neighboring countryside. While some smart onlookers figured out what was going on, the use of those hidden cameras kept things very quiet. Glazer says very few people recognized the “Avengers” star driving around their fair city “seemingly” by herself.
“We got away with it because people weren't really expecting to see her, so it wouldn't have occurred to them that she'd be driving around looking like that,” he says. “She wasn't looking familiar in a way that people would recognize her, so the van is a big distraction and the fact we're shooting Glasgow and all, you know, very few times that anybody would feel that there's something up. The nightclub sequence, that's all shot with hidden cameras. There's no extras. That's a real nightclub on a Friday night. The shopping center, that's a real shopping center on a Saturday afternoon. This is all just real life that we're covertly filming her walking through this.”
Many of Glazer's peers are no doubt in disbelief that he was able to get away with it for so many shooting locations in this age of global celebrity with a star like Johansson. And yet, six months earlier Johnasson confirmed it. Speaking of Johansson and that earlier conversation…
HitFix: What did Jonathan say to you that prepared you for the journey of this film? Because it's not a traditional shoot, I imagine, in any sense of the word.
Scarlett Johansson: I don't think either one of us were prepared for what we would encounter. And I think that was really to our benefit because we were both kind of thrust into many circumstances that we didn't know exactly what to expect. And, you know, one of the things that was most valuable to me, that I took away from it and that I kind of continue to work on as an actor and something that I think continues to excite me, is this idea of the challenge of not anticipating anything and not having any expectations. I think that can be a very liberating [experience]. It's just a lot of work to get there.
How was the actual production? Did he give you five pages of script and say, “These are the scenes where she is gonna be out in the car and we're gonna drive around filming you?”
It wasn't very structured. I mean, after like a couple of weeks I think both of us realized that the story, the core of the film, was starting to take shape and become more clear. But just day to day shooting? I mean it was like any other film in the sense that we had a sort of format and then the scenes just kind of were born out of that. But I knew day to day what we were trying to accomplish. It wasn't that abstract but it's not like we sat there with a storyboard or anything like that.
This is all the becoming quickly urban legend for those of us who have seen the film already, but one of the things we've heard is that you guys went out and drove around Scotland and you played the character trying to get these guys to come into the van and they weren't really actors and they hadn't been vetted beforehand.
There are a couple of guys like that. Yeah, there are a couple of moments like that that are in the film, yeah. Mostly in the beginning when you kind of see the character. I mean some people actually did get into the van and made me drive them home and had a full on conversation with them. And then our producer would go running after them with a form to sign afterwards.
Did any of them make it in the movie?
Yeah. A lot of the beginning of those encounters are real time.
When you were driving around, did they recognize you? Did that make you all think it might not work?
No, never, actually. We were pretty lucky. I think it's taken out of context. There would be absolutely no way you would ever expect that to have happened to you, that you would actually get picked up by me, I think. And also, it's very much something that you kind of drive it like you own it. I had to abandon any of my judgment, preconceived idea of paranoia, fear, and really be super present. And so it felt very much like an organic kind of encounter. It didn't feel like a “Candid Camera” moment or anything like that. I needed these different men to come with me and I needed to be able to get as much information out of them as I could, find out if they were suitable candidates for what I needed them for, and really someone with no ties or someone who was a real kind of loaner or wander and get them to come with me.
Well, this sounds silly, but you're really good at driving on the right side, on the British side of the road, by the way. I don't think I could ever do it.
Thank you. [Laughs]
Did you have to practice before hand?
Yes, I did. I had to learn for sure how to drive that thing. It was a beast. And also what the audience doesn't realize is the whole back of my lorry, as they call it, I don't know if they call it that here, but that huge white van was full of our whole crew. Plus, I was trailing like a big hitch in the back that was our generator. So the combination of the wrong side of the road, the size, the insurance that I had to sign my life over, practically, and the fact that I had like a trailer hitch in the back was no easy feat.
Does it go without saying this is the biggest adventure you've ever taken as an actor?
It's certainly one of them, that's for sure. I mean it's definitely up there. I had just come off of doing this five-month run or whatever on Broadway for the first time. And that was a huge, challenging adventure for me. Even going on to doing “Avengers” and not knowing what to expect at all was another big challenge for me. So, I mean, it definitely was unprecedented for sure.
Did you enjoy the process? Was it something you sort of had to like “get through?“
No, I mean I loved going to work every day, and part of that was just being able to collaborate with Jonathan and really feeling like he believed in me, made me feel wonderful to go to work everyday. It was such a reassurance and just knowing that he had faith in me to carry this, you know, to pull this off made me feel like I was appreciated every day at work.
If you read the synopsis of the book, which I haven't actually read, the character is very clearly an alien and she's coming to Earth working for this company that's taking people and, you know, turning their meat into whatever so they can eat them. But, going into the movie cold, I wasn't sure who she actually was and what she was actually doing. Was that something that you and Jonathan talked about beforehand? Did he want there to be that ambiguity to her?
Yeah, in the beginning she has a very specific purpose and she's not really an individual. I mean she doesn't have a specific identity. She's kind of a part of something larger, whatever that is. And also she's not a person, you know, she's almost like another species. Her intention isn't, you know, that she's evil. She…
She doesn't see it that way.
Yeah, she doesn't see anything in any particular way. I mean it's almost like you can't really place her in that context. The hunt is not something that she's gaining any specific — there's no personal gain there. It's a case of survival of a greater kind of being or unit. I don't know, I think the journey for me was really the character kind of having this moment, these moments, these small moments of discovery that lead to like a much greater transformation, I think.
One of those moments is when she's with the gentleman who has elephantiasis. That was a real person, correct?
Yes, that's an actual person.
Had he ever acted before?
His name's Adam. He works in production and, you know, he's been an advocate for various different organizations. He advocates for people with physical disability in the workplace. He's done a little bit of like kind of on camera stuff a little bit. But no, he's not an actor at all.
That particular scene is so touching in the film. Especially knowing where your character is taking him and what she plans on doing with him. It's the longest conversation your character has with anyone and it's the hardest to get him to come in more than anyone else. Was that scene any different than any others for you or do you see that as one of the moments where the character realizes maybe there's some human part that she's trying to reach for?
I mean it was definitely one of the more difficult encounters. One of the more difficult scenes to get the meat of because Adam, I think he just… Like many of the other men that we were shooting with, the idea of this kind of seduction? They understood that. There's sort of this shorthand between men and women that's just the hunt in every day life at any bar or any nightclub or any coffee shop or whatever. You can feel that kind of chemistry. And with Adam he's more reserved obviously because he is different and he wasn't kind of expecting this sort of seduction. We weren't really speaking with that same vocabulary. And then of course at the end of the day what became very apparent was that, you know, men and women are actually men and women no matter what they look like and so it always ends up being a physical kind of connection. And after we made that kind of physical connection it was like, you know, just man kind of, “Wow, that's cool, that feels good, I want to do more of that,” kind of thing. It's very animal and it was interesting when it became clear that that's how it was. That's the key that unlocked the scene.
Before we end I'm just curious, when you saw the film for the first time what was your instant reaction? What did you feel?
I felt claustrophobic. I remember I saw with my assistant and the two of us were just like glued to our seats, our fingers clenched in the seat just like flop sweat. “Oh my God.” We were kind of thrust out of the theater just like, “Wow.” Really, still, it took a while to shake it I think.
“Under the Skin” is now playing in Los Angeles and New York. It expands further into limited release on Friday.