Scarlett Johansson had blood dripping out of her nose and her face was smeared in grime.
The only thing to belie her beaten-down look was the blue mug she’s carrying – and her beaming smile.
The blood wasn’t real, the grime wasn’t real.
That was movie make-up and Johansson was at the tail end of a months-long filming schedule for Black Widow that’s taken the cast and crew all over Europe, from Budapest to Norway, before settling down at Pinewood Studios, an hour west outside of central London.
Huddled in a corner of a cavernous film stage, Johansson is an old pro at this game. She locked in eye contact when she spoke to you and, without missing a beat, lowered her voice when the bell rings to signal that live filming was happening behind her.
It was September 2019 and Johansson has been playing super assassin Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow since the character’s debut in Iron Man 2 in 2010.
It’s rare for an actor to have played one character with regularity for near on a decade on film and she admitted to having “mixed feelings” about moving on.
“I am in some ways ready [to say goodbye] and then in other ways, I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s hard to say goodbye to anything but it’s sort of my job to let go of it at some point and move on.”
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The time to move on feels about right. As one of the six original Avengers that came together in Marvel’s 2012 blockbuster, Johansson has been at this the longest only after Robert Downey Jr.
Downey Jr has already hung up his iron boots while Chris Evans also bowed out after Avengers: Endgame. But those two did so after headlining three each of their own movies in addition to the Avengers get-togethers while Johansson’s overdue stand-alone movie is only being released this week.
It’s bittersweet in many ways because it’s as if fans who have been agitating for a Black Widow movie for more than a decade is only now getting to the character better – and after her character’s on-screen death in Endgame.
Natasha is a character that’s been underserved by the films by virtue of their large ensembles and fast-paced plots, and an assassin’s tendency to not overshare parts of themselves.
But the one person Natasha hasn’t been elusive to is Johansson.
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“I know a lot about this character because she’s in me,” she confessed. “But I haven’t really had the opportunity to access all the parts of her but Cate Shortland, our director, that’s what she loves. She loves the inside of this character, the guts of this character.
“She’s very curious to pull it all out and examine it and dissect her so I’ve been able to make a lot of discoveries about her. And her different strengths and her different flaws, the parts of herself Natasha thinks is ugly, to really bring those to the surface. Our work is how we deal with that stuff, so it’s been therapeutic.
“It’s a really interesting way to work. I can’t imagine that many actors have this opportunity to do that with a character they’ve played for 10 years and grown with them.”
Fast-forward almost two years and Shortland is back home in Sydney, where she’s locked down and doing Black Widow press over Zoom. The film has been delayed for 15 months since its original release date, but Shortland sees it as something that can bring people back together – “life’s been tough, enjoy a bit of fun”.
Its themes have unintentionally resonated. Among the action, thrills and deep-rooted character exploration, Black Widow is also a family reunion drama of sorts, one that brings Natasha back with her Yelena (Florence Pugh), Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour), Russian spies who posed as a fake family in the US when she was a child.
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For Shortland, the character is the “sum of her parts”, and it works on a textual and metatextual level, to think about Natasha on screen and her place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the real world as a character that even Johansson recently said was hypersexualised in her first appearance.
Shortland said: “She was created as this kind of femme fatale, but she was coming through massive trauma. She was put with a spy family, so she had to pretend to be a daughter and a sister, so she’s incredibly complex and contradictory and she’s full of secrets.
“The joy of working with Scarlett on this film is that we got to unpack a lot of that. What we wanted was to make something kind of transcendent so that what happens in Endgame makes sense, that we see a character that’s fully acknowledged all the different parts of her within this film.”
Similarly, it must be acknowledged that Johansson is playing many different roles on Black Widow. As an executive producer, she was reportedly instrumental in choosing Shortland from a list of contenders to direct, most of whom were women.
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Shortland said while she can’t speak to what a male director – or even another female director – couldn’t have brought to the project that she could, her own and Johansson’s lived experiences as women were something they could connect on and channel into the movie.
“I was able to talk to Scarlett about what has happened to me in my life and stuff she had in her life about lack of control, not having a voice, moments of frustration and shame about being a woman,” Shortland said.
“And how do we transcend that? Often, we transcend it with humour. That’s what I wanted to bring into the film was [Natasha] is not a victim, she’s a survivor.”
Johansson said there was something “innately female” about the film even though she stressed that the movie was made for everyone and not one particular segment of the audience.
In the production office at Pinewood back in 2019, Pearson revealed Johansson was the one who called him and offered him the job. She spoke with him for an hour, getting to the heart of the character and what she and Shortland wanted the movie to do in terms of opening Natasha’s story.
“Scarlett has been unbelievable to work with,” Pearson said. “She’s really exceeded all expectations. She’s really smart with the script, she expects a lot and it’s a little nerve-racking when you’re having her run through the scenes and be like, ‘this doesn’t work’ and you’re like, ‘oh sh*t’.
“And then you think ‘it could be better’ and we talk about it and we’re able to make it better.”
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Johansson started the project without a specific story in mind, only the idea of what the tone should be.
“What we wanted to achieve was something that felt very grounded and visceral, sort of transformative for this character, a chance to tell a story about self-acceptance, forgiveness and self-forgiveness,” Johansson explained.
“You know, I probably had a smaller idea of the scale of this and [Marvel Studios boss] Kevin [Feige] had a much bigger idea of the scale of it.
“So those two things combined is what it is. I think it’s a very – hopefully, we’ll see because we’re in the middle of it – grounded story but in the Marvel theatre. That’s our goal.”
The other goal was to give fans closure. After a more than a decade and one harrowing death scene, Natasha, Johansson, and Marvel fans deserve it.
Black Widow is in cinemas from July 8 and on Disney+ Premier Access ($34.99) on July 9
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The writer travelled to London as a guest as Disney