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Scarlett Johansson’s evolution: From indie starlet to a-- kicking hero in 'Ghost in the Shell'

By Liz Braun, Postmedia Network

(Handout)

(Handout)

Brains and beauty have always been a given with Scarlett Johansson.

But brawn?

That one was a surprise.

Johansson, 32, started acting in childhood. Anyone who saw her way back when as the wise little sister in Manny & Lo or the brave adolescent of The Horse Whisperer had great expectations for the actress — just not necessarily expectations involving death-defying stunts, spectacular fight scenes or explosive sci-fi asskickery.

Johansson has found a whole second chapter in her career playing the action-oriented femme fatale: a superheroine, an avenging angel, even a fantastic alien flesh eater.

She takes on bad guys and betrayal yet again this week with Ghost in the Shell, starring as the iconic Major, a part-cyborg crime fighter blasting her way through a futuristic landscape riddled with villains.

The movie, directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), co-stars Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, and Michael Pitt. If you’re thinking Black Widow in a white rubber suit, think again — Sanders said recently that he and Johansson were determined to make Ghost in the Shell stand out. "We wanted to exist beyond the Marvel universe, beyond the DC universe,” he told Den of Geek.

“We wanted to be the rogue, I guess.”

No doubt, but it still seems like an odd career trajectory for Johansson, an actor who first won recognition playing a geeky teenager on the cusp of adult life in Ghost World.

It’s a big leap from Ghost World to Ghost in the Shell.

Just how does one evolve from indie drama star to leading action queen?

Johansson has offered a few clues along the way. She has often talked about how competitive and determined she was as a child actor. Raised in New York by an architect father and producer mother, Johansson has four siblings, one of whom is her twin brother Hunter.

(Some would say that having a twin brother is the greatest predictor of Johansson’s success as an action star. Between prenatal testosterone transfer theory and the psychological benefit of going through life knowing somebody always has your back, having a twin can be considered a kind of superpower.)

Johansson showed an early interest in performance. Her theatre debut came at age eight and her film debut at nine. She may have first won recognition in such indie movies as Ghost World, Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring, but Johansson was also turning up in films for the Coen Brothers (2001’s The Man Who Wasn't There) and Woody Allen (2005’s Match Point, 2006’s Scoop, 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as well as negotiating the world o’ blockbusters. She appeared in bigger movies, such as The Prestige and The Other Boleyn Girl, and was cloned and ready for battle in Michael Bay’s The Island.

Playing Black Widow in Iron Man 2 made her an action star in 2010.

Prior to the release of that movie, Johansson made it clear that she intended to jump in with both feet. She told MTV news, “I’m the kind of audience member where you see any genre film like this, and you suspend your disbelief and go with the characters and then, suddenly, you see this whole fight sequence, and it's the back of somebody's head. It's like, 'Oh, that's kind of lame.' I wanted to be able to have Jon [Favreau, the director] use as much of my face as possible and really learn these sequences backwards and forwards."

Even as The Avengers and Lucy confirmed her action status, Johansson continued working on smaller scale movies — Hitchcock, Her, Under the Skin, Don Jon, Hail, Caesar!

A mother of one, Johansson is recording artist, a Tony Award winning theatre actress and the only woman ever chosen twice as Esquire Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Woman Alive’. She's been on all the movie star 'lists' for beauty and physical appeal, and recently appeared on a rather more important list when Forbes named her the top-grossing actor of 2016. Once again playing both the indie and the blockbuster sides of the street in films such as Hail, Caesar! and Captain America: Civil War, she was part of a $1.2 billion box office bonanza.

Johansson concedes that being an action queen is a bit surreal.

"I never thought I'd have that specific tool in my belt or spend that many hours handling semi-automatic weapons. Certainly, growing up and working in independent film I didn't expect to spend so much time on wire work as I have.”

As for Ghost in the Shell, Johansson told Marie Claire recently that she is well aware how rare it is to have a franchise driven by a female protagonist.

“Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that, the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”

Those shoulders look entirely capable.

Twitter: @LizBraunSun

LBraun@postmedia.com