'I don't believe movies should deliver messages," says Scarlett Johansson (search). "After you've paid 10 bucks to see it — 15 bucks with popcorn — you just want to be entertained."
In other words, she's Michael Bay's (search) dream actress.
But she changes it up this summer with a leading role in "The Island" (search), opening Friday: It's a big-budget explosion fest helmed by Bay, Hollywood's king of summertime action flicks.
In the futuristic film, Johansson plays Jordan Two Delta, a resident of a tightly sanitized facility in the mid-21st century where occupants enter a lottery to go to "The Island," purportedly the last uncontaminated place on Earth.
With the help of her friend Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor (search)), Jordan discovers that she's living a lie, that they are both clones of wealthy people in the outside world — and that they must make a death-defying escape or they'll be harvested for their body parts.
It's a little strange to see an indie "It" girl running for her life against a background of pyrotechnics. And stranger still that she had just finished filming a Woody Allen film, "Match Point," before arriving on Bay's set — and jumped straight into another untitled Allen pic after "The Island" wrapped.
Johansson also is slated to star in two more films by acclaimed directors next year: Brian De Palma's "Black Dahlia" and Barry Levinson's "A View from the Bridge."
Allen, Levinson, De Palma ... Bay? One of these names is not like the others.
In spite of her artsy leanings, Johansson confesses to a soft spot for movies where lots of things blow up.
"I love genre films. But if you're going to do an action film, it better be the right one," says the actress, who at one point was also attached to "Mission: Impossible III," but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts (and, it has been rumored, a falling out with Tom Cruise when he attempted to convert her to Scientology).
"[Michael] does it so well. So it was an easy decision for me," she says. "I said, 'sign me up!'"
The uncategorizable Johansson is carving out a wide-ranging career most actresses can only dream of — let alone those barely out of their teens.
"I never had any expectations," says Johansson. "I just hoped I would always be a working actor. I don't think you can foresee something like this."
But friends of the actress say they knew she'd hit it big. "It doesn't surprise me," says Steve Buscemi, who has a role in "The Island" and starred with Johansson in "Ghost World."
"I've been a fan of her work since 'Manny and Lo' [in 1996]," he says. "I'm very happy for her. I just hope she doesn't burn herself out. But she seems like she's picking good material."
Johansson's shift to a big-budget actioner came with a new challenge, however: Running. Playing a clone fleeing for her life wasn't quite as easy as it sounded — especially working against a blue-screen fake background, surrounded by apathetic crew members.
"It's exhausting — especially when you're trying to escape to save your own life, and you can hear the grip chewing a sandwich," Johansson recalls.
McGregor, coming off of the special-effects heavy "Revenge of the Sith," wasn't too keen to spend another movie in front of a backdrop either.
"The first question he asked was, 'Are you gonna do a lot of blue screen?'" says Bay. "I said, 'No, actually, I like to shoot a lot of stuff live.' "
True to his word, the excitable director had both stars performing a good deal of their own stunts — at their peril.
"I almost lost an eye," says Johansson, cataloging her on-set injuries. "I had a permanently blue knee. That was fun. We had to crawl on the sidewalk, and I was like, 'ow!' But we had to keep crawling, because there was so much else going on in the background."
In one scene, McGregor and Johansson find themselves hanging precariously from a giant letter "R" in a company logo, which begins to peel off the skyscraper it's attached to.
Although they were attached to safety wires over the 35-foot drop, Johansson says McGregor's protective instincts made him hang onto her tightly anyway.
"Ewan was so freaked I was going to fall!" she laughs. "My knuckles were bleeding from his fingernails."
It's a far cry from the minimal physical demands of her previous roles: chatting in hotel lounges with Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation;" posing for portraits in "Girl With a Pearl Earring;" even horseback riding in "The Horse Whisperer," the 1998 movie that first made Johansson a recognizable name.
But it's pretty much what one would expect from the guy who brought you "Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor."
"The joke was, I would come to the set and say, 'OK, today you're going to be running, running, running — kiss — run, run, run. And then, run,'" says Bay.
And run she does. Johansson's lithe, white-bodysuited figure is a prominent feature in the film — and fans should be glad the script went through a series of rewrites to get her that way.
In the first draft, Johansson's character was pregnant — "very woe-is-me," says Bay dismissively.
"I was also asthmatic," adds Johansson. "I was a real drag."
The actress, who's known for speaking freely (her public mention of an elevator tryst with Benicio Del Toro springs to mind), seems a good match for Bay, who's frequently referred to as "brash" by even ardent supporters like Buscemi.
"He'll say himself, he's not always the most tactful person," says the actor, who also appeared in "Armageddon."
"He cares so much, it can be abrasive."
But Johansson has nothing but praise for the director many have accused of lowering Hollywood's already arguably low artistic standards.
"He can be so loud and rude, and there'll be all these explosions," she allows, "but then he'll come up to you afterwards and say, 'That was so cute, what you did.' "
What Johansson needs now, she says, is a vacation. "The problem is, once I start to relax for a while I get anxious and have to do something," she sighs. "But I'm definitely going to take a rest after this [movie]."
When speculating about where she might go, the actress still seems to have Bay on the brain.
"I'd have to go to some faraway island," she says, "and silently torture myself about why I'm not working!"
Scarlett Johansson Fast Facts
First role: Off-Broadway play "Sophistry" with Ethan Hawke (1992)
First film: "North" (1994)
Breakout film: "The Horse Whisperer" (1998)
Next project: Untitled Woody Allen project, 2006
Higher education: Was rejected from NYU's Tisch School for the Arts in 2003
Romantically linked with: Benicio Del Toro, Jared Leto, Patrick Wilson, Heath Ledger, Derek Jeter, Josh Hartnett
Personal revelation: "I have an obsessive character. I manicure my nails at three in the morning because nobody else can do it the right way. Maybe that's the secret to my success."