What Scarlett Johansson Was Like Before The Fame

Scarlett Johansson's journey from indie starlet to Hollywood superstar began when she made her breakthrough role as unhappily married young woman Charlotte in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation in 2003Coppola won the best original screenplay Oscar for the Tokyo-set flick, and leading man Bill Murray was nominated in the best actor category. Johansson didn't receive any Academy recognition, but her reward was a fast track to the top. She went on to form a close working relationship with Woody Allen and has collaborated with a number of other critically acclaimed directors, but it's her work in the blockbuster genre that has put her on the global map.

Today, the first two-time winner of Esquire magazine's "Sexiest Woman Alive" title is known all over the world as Black Widow, the Marvel spy-turned-superhero whose appeared multiple times in teeny tiny flicks such as Avengers: Infinity War. A solo Black Widow is apparently in the cards at Marvel Studios, which the actress is more than keen to see happen. "It could be something very special," she told Ellen DeGeneres (via Express). "The character has a tortured past to say the least. She's had to make a lot of difficult decisions and she's got trauma."

It would be a stretch to describe Johansson's own past as tortured or traumatic, but she did go through some pretty rough times before she broke into Hollywood. Let's take a look at what her life was like before all the fame.

She grew up on the streets of New York

Johansson's father may be Danish, but she's 100 percent a Manhattan girl. The A-list actress grew up in New York City, a time in her life that she remembers fondly despite it being a lot more difficult than her life is today. 

"My most vivid memories of New York are all throughout the '90s," she told director Darren Aronofsky for Interview magazine. "That's when I was in my prime — you know, 11 or 12 years old, owning the street."

She attended P.S. 41 on 11th Street in Greenwich Village, a school that's now in a high demand catchment area but wasn't as trendy back then. "When I went there, the Village was a bit different," Johansson said. "I grew up in, like, a middle-income housing development in the West Village that's now, of course, been turned into condos." She joined what she described as the "pot-smoking, Beatles-listening" student body at the Professional Children's School at the start of eighth grade, a college prep institution designed for kids working as performers in and around New York.

While Johansson graduated, it wasn't exactly with flying colors. The Avengers actress has admitted to struggling a little academically, particularly with her SATs. "I think the way it worked when I took them was that they were out of 1,600, so maybe you'd get a 1,240 if you were a smarty-pants," she explained. "I got a 1,080, which was pretty low. But that was probably because I didn't answer half of the math questions."

Her family relied on welfare

Johansson reportedly has a net worth in the region of$165 million, but back when she was growing up, there wasn't much money to spare in her household. The family of six relied on help from the government to get by, which was hard to take for her mother, Melanie, and father, Karsten. 

"We were living on welfare; we were on food stamps," the Ghost in the Shell star told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio (via the Daily Mail). "My parents were raising four kids in a low-income household in Manhattan. So, it was a lot."

Sadly, Melanie and Karsten's relationship cracked under the pressure and they went their separate ways. Melanie headed west to California while Johansson (13 years old at the time) and her twin brother, Hunter, stayed in New York with their dad. Johansson said she has never harbored any ill will toward her mother for leaving. "My mom tried to be as much as a buffer as possible with that experience," the actress told Lipton, explaining that the marriage had been in stormy waters for years. "By the time my twin brother and I came around, I think my parents' marriage, it had a lot of strain."

Her mom was a 'film freak'

During his interview with the Lucy star, Darren Aronofsky asked Scarlett Johansson if it was really true that her mother, Melanie, was a "big film freak" like people said she was. Johansson confirmed that she was. Melanie is apparently a huge movie buff, and her passion for cinema began to rub off on her daughter at a very young age. 

"My mom showed me a lot of movies when I was a kid, all of the movies that she loved," she told Aronofsky. "She loved musicals. She loved all those Elia Kazan movies. And then her passion really lies in those political thrillers from the '70s and those [John] Cassavetes movies."

Her mother's eclectic taste in cinema was clearly a big influence on Johansson, and you can still see that today, as she seems equally as comfortable fronting a high concept indie flick (Under the Skin) as she does a silly comedy (Rough Night) or a tent pole blockbuster (Ghost in the Shell). 

As for her mother, Melanie is still passionate about movies. "She's still an avid film consumer," Johansson said. "She sees everything, but she's a baby boomer, so the '70s is her period. I've got to say, there's nothing quite like watching Network (1976) as a 9-year-old."

She was BFFs with her grandma

Johansson was very close with her maternal grandmother, a Brooklyn-born bookkeeper and schoolteacher named Dorothy Sloan. Speaking with the Forward, Sloan revealed that she and little Scarlett were the best of friends during her childhood years. "I spent a lot of time with Scarlett when she was younger," she said. "People would ask her, 'Who's your best friend?' And she would say, 'Grandma!'" 

Sloan is clearly still important to the actress, who named her daughter (Rose Dorothy Dauriac) with now ex-husband Romain Dauriac after her.

The feeling is mutual, as Sloan can't tell you enough about just how happy she is for Johansson now that she's all grown up and conquering Hollywood. "That's my baby!" she told the Forward. "I'm so proud of her." 

Even today the doting grandma still gets surprised by Johansson's many talents, including her musical pursuits. "I heard a rendition of Scarlett Johansson singing the most sexy, the sultriest version of 'Summertime' you ever heard," she said. "I never knew she could sing!"

Puberty sent her to a dark place

Scarlett Johansson might have surprised Grandma Dorothy with her sultry rendition of "Summertime" (which she recorded for Hollywood charity album Unexpected Dreams in 2006,) but it was no fluke. The actress began working on her singing voice from a very young age, as she explained in her Interview magazine feature. "I was a big song-and-dance type of kid," she said. "You know, one of those kids with jazz hands. I liked to improvise and do weird vocal exercises. I was a major ham, if you can believe it ... And then puberty hit and I crawled into a dark, cold shell and never left."

A reviewer writing for the San Francisco Chronicle (via the Independent) correctly predicted that the changes that come during the difficult teenage years might spell trouble for Johansson after seeing her in 1996 indie drama Manny & Lo, in which she emitted a "peaceful aura," according to this critic. "If she can get through puberty with that aura undisturbed, she could become an important actress," they wrote.

That critic's predictions proved wise. Johansson did struggle to cope with puberty at first, but she managed to crawl back out of that dark place with the help of performance arts. "My brother did Little League, and I took acting and singing and tap and all that s**t," she said.

Her first rejection crushed her

Johansson started auditioning for roles at a young age (here she is going up for the role of Judy Sheppard in 1995's Jumanji, which later went to Kirsten Dunst,) but she had to go through a lot of rejection before someone would take a chance on her. To this day, Johansson still remembers the pain of being turned down by an agent for the very first time. 

"There was someone in my older brother's class who was doing some commercials and theater, so my mom took me to that kid's agent because I loved musicals," the Marvel star said. "They didn't want me, though. I was devastated. I thought it was the end of my career."

The aspiring star was so upset after leaving the office of that agent (who has presumably regretted turning Johansson away ever since) that her mother tried to convince her to let go of her dream of becoming an actress, but the idea of giving up proved even more painful. "After I was rejected by that agency, I remember standing outside in Greenwich Village with my mom — I think we were on Houston or something — and she was saying, 'Do you really want to do this? You're so devastated.' And maybe it was the rejection or whatever, but I really wanted to give it a try, and she supported that."

Her voice was too deep for Jell-O

With the backing of her mother, Johansson eventually landed an agent and began going for parts in commercials. The trouble was, she had already developed the husky voice that helped make her famous later in life. Despite securing the first job she ever went for (a KitchenAid ad), she found out pretty quickly that she didn't fit the bill when it came to commercials. 

"I finally ended up finding an agent who did want me, and I began auditioning and started to book work — films, in particular," she told Interview magazine. "I was always terrible at commercials ... At the age of 9, I sounded like a whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking fool. Wasn't going to sell Jell-O with that voice, you know?"

Johansson's appearance was often exactly what casting directors were looking for, but as soon she opened her mouth the magic was lost. "I could never book commercials because my voice was too deep," she told W magazine. "I was this blonde, you know, kind of small enthusiastic kid, and then I'd open up my mouth and people would go, 'Oh, do you have a cold?' I was terrible at selling things. I was really bad at improvising." 

Over the course of her career, Johansson developed a fear of improvising that she still struggles with today. "I don't know why I am afraid of it," she said at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival (via Vulture). "I think it's because I don't like not knowing what's going to happen. It's a control thing."

She lied to get her first big role

Scarlett Johansson made her film debut in the 1994 comedy North as actor John Ritter's on-screen daughter. Her next on-screen dad was Sean Connery in 1995's Just Cause, a poorly received legal thriller in which the former 007 star portrayed a Harvard law professor. In 1996, she played the co-lead role of Manny in indie comedy Manny & Lo, and in 1997, she popped up in Home Alone 3, one of the Home Alone sequels that nobody asked for. Her first big opportunity to really impress Tinseltown came the following year in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer, but she had to lie to get her part.

When Redford asked the 13-year-old actress if she'd been on a horse before, she said yes, counting the plastic one she had as a child. "I had no horse training whatsoever," she told Entertainment Tonight during the shoot. "I didn't know what I was doing. I was very unsure of myself [but] I'm a lot more confident now. After taking many lessons and working with the wranglers, I became obsessed with it. So it's a new thing for me, I'm very excited. First couple of weeks I was in pain of course, but other than that I never really had any doubts, and I haven't fallen off yet!"

The movie was shot on location in Montana, and Johansson clearly fell in love with the vast beauty of the state, as she married now ex-husband Romain Dauriac in Big Sky country.

She had a major crush on Jared Leto

French journalist Romain Dauriac broke his silence over his 2017 separation from Johansson in a statement that suggested he was "tired" of living in her shadow. According to reports, he got sick of babysitting their daughter on film sets, but the actress believes it's important for Rose to see her work. "[To] have her come to the workplace and show her I'm an independent woman making it happen is very important for me," she said on British daytime TV show Lorraine (via the Daily Mail).

Of course, this wasn't Johansson's first divorce. Her marriage to Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds also only lasted a couple of years, coming to an end in 2011 (if you want to know the real reason they divorced, here's why). She's also been romantically involved with Josh Hartnett and Sean Penn (despite the latter being twice her age,) but her first Hollywood crush was Jared Leto. During her press tour for The Horse Whisperer, Johansson was asked if she had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio like every other 13-year-old girl at the time, but she revealed that she was way more into Leto after seeing him opposite Claire Danes in My So-Called Life.

In 2004 she reportedly hooked up with Leto (the pair was spotted together a number of times) but just like the several relationships that followed it, it wasn't meant to be. 

Let's hope Johansson has better luck with her current boyfriend (or possibly fiancé?) Colin Jost.

She was a politically active child

Some celebrities become socially and politically active after finding fame and fortune, but Scarlett Johansson has been "aware" in that sense since way before she ever walked a red carpet. When she spoke at the 2017 amfAR New York Gala, she told attendees that her mother made sure that she and her siblings were switched on to what was happening in the world around them, and that she has always been grateful for that. So grateful, that she brought her mom as her date to the event.

"I really couldn't think of anybody else that I'd rather [have] with me here tonight," Johansson said (via Entertainment Tonight). "[She's] been incredibly inspiring for me in many, many ways, but certainly as a young girl. She never shielded us from what was going on in the zeitgeist in culture. She always made us aware, you know, socially aware. She always encouraged us to be politically and socially active."

Fame put Johansson in a position to do good on a larger scale, and she's certainly trying to do her part — she's been involved with as many as 29 different charities and foundations in one way or another. As far as political activism goes, she made a mark for her impassioned speeches at the Women's March, which she attended as a guest in 2017 and 2018. She also made headlines at the 2018 march after calling out fellow Hollywood star James Franco over his alleged sexual misconduct in the workplace.