Scarlett Johansson tones it down in Broadway return

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NEW YORK – In a decision that will make many a man sigh unhappily, Scarlett Johansson won’t be bringing sexy back to Broadway.


The actress with the pouty lips and gentle curves that GQ magazine once called “Babe of the Year” is determined to be a more naturalistic Maggie the Cat in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that opens Jan. 17.


That’s the same role Elizabeth Taylor embodied while virtually purring in a satin slip. And her successors – Anika Noni Rose, Ashley Judd and Kathleen Turner, among them – all played it to variously breathless, sexy degrees.


But Johansson talks about how she approached the predatory feline of Williams’ classic Southern play sounding like the way she herself would prefer to be described.


“I think her sexuality is often overplayed and over-appreciated. It’s such an unimportant part of this story,” Johansson says one recent morning during rehearsals.


“I mean, it comes with the circumstance, of course, and the settling and the words – that’s already there. There’s no need to drape yourself all over the stage and roll around in a satin sheet.”


If that puts a dent in the box office, so be it, says the four-time Golden Globe nominated star of “Lost in Translation” and “The Avengers.” Quips Johansson: “There’s always the half-price ticket line.”


The new production is led by director Rob Ashford and co-stars Benjamin Walker as Maggie’s drunken, disinterested husband, Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy and Debra Monk as Big Mama.


“It’s really a beautiful play, really a perfect play, I think,” she says, smoldering even though she wears a demure dark pantsuit and stripped top. “If the play fails, it’s our fault.”


Johansson arrives for her morning interview already tired, having woken before dawn to appear on the “Today” show. “If I have any more coffee, I’ll explode into another stratosphere,” the actress warns.


Johansson, 28, has already proved she has the acting chops for Broadway, having won a best featured actress Tony Award in 2010 in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” opposite Liev Schreiber.


It was a victory from a stage novice that silenced critics who had moaned about movie stars with dubious skills showing up in Times Square simply to sell tickets. Johansson insist she had nothing to prove.


“I’m just happy the stage door is still open and I can walk through it,” she says. “I was just happy to survive the run, really. Honestly. I expected to be lambasted. I knew that was a possibility going into it. But that’s OK.”


She has thrown herself into her new role, seeing Maggie as “a force of nature” and having “an almost divine determination.” Ashford says Johansson came into rehearsal the first day already having memorized her lines, impressing her co-stars.


“She loves the work, she loves creating the characters,” he says. “She’s an actress. She’s not a theater star or a movie star. She’s an actor first and so she’s both, therefore. She can do both, as she’s proven.”


Johansson has avoided as best she can seeing other actresses play Maggie, although she was in the audience to see Judd portray her opposite Jason Patric in 2003.


She has managed to avoid ever catching Taylor in the 1958 classic film, except for a few minutes.


It happened while she was looking up a Marlon Brando film online and YouTube recommended a clip from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”


“I clicked and watched a couple of minutes and I realized it was a terrible idea,” she says. “Not saying anything about the film, it’s just a different version of the story.”


She and Ashford are after a more naturalized take. To that end, Maggie will be trying to seduce her husband emotionally, not physically. “What we’ve set out from the beginning is to take these characters off these pedestals where they’ve been placed and try to put them back in the play,” Ashford says.


OK, then what about the poster for the show, which features a reclining Johansson, lips slightly apart, loosely wrapped in white material and looking almost post-coital? Ashley sees not sex, but ache. “I think it’s her longing,” he says.


Johansson had been looking for a way to return to Broadway since “A View From the Bridge” closed. She sifted through new scripts and classics, searching for something meaty.


“I think after doing `View,’ I realized that I didn’t want to work on anything that wasn’t challenging in some way and that brought me into a whole different world. I didn’t want to do an easy job,” she says.


“One day I was daydreaming and remembered `Cat’ and thought, `I should read that again,”’ she recalls. “It was just terrifying. It was the first thing I felt that way about in the couple of years that I’d been looking.”


The actress was raised in New York and she and her mother often made their way to Broadway, seeing “Gypsy,” “Secret Garden,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady” with Richard Chamberlain and Brian Dennehy in “Death of a Salesman,” among others. Will mom be happy her little girl is back where they shared memories? “I hope so. That’s what we all hope, anyway. That mom will be happy,” says Johansson.


Though “A View From the Bridge” was her Broadway debut, she had one other stage credit – in an off-Broadway play in 1993 called “Sophistry” with Ethan Hawke where she had only one line. (She still remembers it – “Mom, something smells, something smells.”) Of her subsequent success, Johansson laughs: “Yeah, moving on up.”


After tackling Miller and Williams, is there any stage star she’d still love to portray? Of course: Johansson points to “Sunset Boulevard.” “Someday I want to play Norma Desmond,” she says. “But everybody does.”


The actress, who is rebounding after divorce to actor Ryan Reynolds and the illegal leak of intimate naked photos, says she tries to live as normal a life as possible.


“It’s hard to keep your private life private because people are very prying and they have ideas of your romantic life or the kind of crazy lifestyle you live or whatever,” she says. “I live a relatively low-key lifestyle.”


That means that Johansson can sometimes be found in Midtown doing something quite unglamorous. Like curbing her pets. “When you’ve got two dogs, you pick up their poo,” she says, laughing.


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