Wes Anderson is a famously exacting filmmaker when it comes to getting his ultra-specific aesthetic vision on-screen. But Scarlett Johansson tells Yahoo Entertainment that the director was more than a little tongue-tied when the time came to stage her brief nude scene in Anderson's latest production, Asteroid City.
"Wes is probably the worst person to talk to about anything like that," the actress says, laughing. "He's so uncomfortable around that topic."
Johansson indicates that she didn't feel any discomfort about filming one of her rare nude scenes — aside from trying to get specific instructions from the director behind the camera, of course. "I'll leave it up to your imagination [how that went]," she jokes. "There was a lot of throat clearing and [Wes] sort of hiding his face."
Watch our interview with Scarlett Johansson and Jason Schwartzman on YouTube
Because this is a Wes Anderson joint, Johansson's revealing moment isn't there to be gratuitous; instead, it's part of Asteroid City's larger meta-commentary on role-playing and artistic collaboration. The movie unfolds in two nested realities: One is the colorful desert landscape of Asteroid City, a recreation of a play that was never staged, while the second is a black and white recreation of ’50s-era New York, where a troupe of actors — modeled after the legendary Actors Studio — help the playwright realize his vision.
Johansson has the double role of one of the troupe members in New York sequences, and movie star Midge Campbell in the world of Asteroid City. She and her daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards) are among the many families flocking to the titular desert town for the Junior Stargazer convention, celebrating the best and brightest of the next generation of space experts. It's there that they meet ex-war photographer and recent widower, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and romantic feelings flourish between the two unattached adults, as well as between their younger offspring. As their relationship develops, Midge casually mentions to Augie that she has a nude scene in her performance repertoire... and then just as casually shows him.
Because the Asteroid City portions of Asteroid City are, ultimately, a fantasy interpretation of ’50s Americana, Anderson fills those frames with allusions to era-specific pop culture, from Chuck Jones's classic Road Runner shorts to The Day the Earth Stood Still. And Midge herself seems like an homage to Judy Garland circa 1954's A Star is Born — certainly in terms of her hairstyle. Asked about the Garland connection, Johansson indicates that she drew on a different Golden Age of Hollywood celebrity... one who asked for the moon, not the stars.
"I'm a big Judy Garland fan, but I don't know that Midge has the same fragility," Johansson explains. "I thought of her as kind of a Bette Davis type of actor. She's mid-career, she's very in herself ... she's self-aware in the way you want a movie star to be ... She's earned this place, she's confident in that, and that felt like a Bette Davis kind of a type of person."
Schwartzman's Augie, meanwhile, cuts more of an Eli Wallach figure between the thick beard and the desert landscapes. And the actor confirms that one Wallach film — 1961's The Misfits, which also starred Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe — was very much top of mind for both himself and the director. "The Misfits was a movie that Wes referenced," Schwartzman says. "He gave me [a book] about the making of the movie .... and it's really interesting to see how many things have changed in this industry and how many things have not ... And I love Eli Wallach in that movie — he's wild."
Schwartzman has been a regular player in Anderson's company of actors since 1998's Rushmore, but Asteroid City marks a first in his quarter century collaboration with the director: it's the first time he's ever played a dad. "I was excited to do that," he says, noting that the actor playing his on-screen soon is the same age he was when he made Rushmore. "But I really didn't think about it too much — I really was just trying to keep my kids in line!"
As Asteroid City unfolds, the walls between the two realities occasionally break down, with characters from the black and white world bleeding into the colorful cinematic confection and vice versa. And there's a striking moment that plays out in both realms — the arrival of an alien (played by Jeff Goldblum) whose appearance inspires an intense moment of community among the whole cast. Those twin encounters provide an intense moment of catharsis for the actors and the audience, one that's similar to the kind of "ecstatic truth" that celebrated filmmaker, Werner Herzog, talks about.
That's a feeling that Johansson says she's only experienced a few times before Asteroid City. "When Liev Schreiber and I did A View From the Bridge on Broadway together, there were some nights that were fiery," she recalls. "You truly hate each other! Not personally, but it gets to where you're so lost in it that you have these profound, visceral moments with another person that leave you full of energy. It's so exciting."
For his part, Schwartzman calls those scenes a "double-meta experience" that transported him outside of his own body and brain. "I couldn't help but go, 'This is remarkable,'" he says. "Saying these lines and watching everyone react to the alien made you feel like that's what they would look like if they were seeing something they've never seen before. I get to be part of that moment."
"I wore [the alien suit] home," Schwartzman jokes. "Walked out with it on in plain sight ... It's 8,000 sizes too big!"
Asteroid City is playing in theaters now