Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh Look Back on the Long Road to 'Black Widow' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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Ten years, 23 movies and one pandemic later, Black Widow is taking the lead in Marvel's Cinematic Universe. "It's about time," Scarlett Johansson told Nischelle Turner when ET visited the movie's U.K. set in August of 2019. "I guess it is about time."
Discussions about Johansson's assassin-turned-spy-turned-Avenger headlining her own movie actually began not long after she joined the MCU in 2010's Iron Man 2. After assembling with Earth's Mightiest Heroes in The Avengers, studio boss Kevin Feige hinted to her that a Black Widow movie could be in the cards, although nothing immediately came of it. "It was such a different environment and even what was going on in the zeitgeist was different," Johansson reflects. "I just think it would've been very different because of my own life experience."
It would be another six years before Black Widow began its journey to theaters in earnest. In 2018, Cate Shortland was hired to direct and hired a supporting cast including Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour. The next year, Marvel Studios released Avengers: Endgame, which saw Johansson's Natasha Romanoff fall to her death after sacrificing herself in order to stop Thanos. Yet, her story was not over.
Black Widow will not undo Natasha's ending -- the film is set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War -- but it will open her notorious red ledger and explore her more fully as a character. Pugh and Weisz play fellow Widows Yelena Belova and Melina Vostokoff as the trio of operatives must confront their past and the mysterious villain called Taskmaster. (The film was originally slated to open in 2020 before pandemic delays pushed it to summer 2021.)
During a break from filming in Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, England, Johansson and Pugh discussed why now is the time for Black Widow to finally get her movie and Johansson's "mixed reactions" to learning her character's fate in Endgame.
ET: What do you remember about getting that call the day they finally said, "OK, we're doing it. [We're making a Black Widow movie.]"?
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: The one day. I was waiting on the phone for about 10 years just waiting for Kevin Feige. Just hold music for 10 years. I have a memory -- because we were all drinking a lot of red wine, this maybe is a real memory or a red wine memory, I'm not sure, but I think Kevin Feige remembers it too -- we were celebrating the press tour of the first Avengers movie, so kind of a while ago. We were all having a good old time and Feige and I sat across from each other at a table and he broached it and we started just talking about what it could be [and] the possibility of a standalone. And that was, I don't know, eight years ago or something like that and that would have been a very different movie than the one that we're making now.
FLORENCE PUGH: Were you there from the scratch of it all? From the beginning?
JOHANSSON: Yeah. Hi. Scarlett. Nice to meet you. [Laughs]
I do believe everything happens when it's supposed to, and I think this is a really good time to have this movie with your voice and your perspective and then with this badass [Florence].
JOHANSSON: That's what's so great about it is that we really are able to explore the relationship between these two characters [Natasha and Yelena]. It would have been so different eight years ago, because I think that women were and are often pitted against each other in a very unrealistic way. We're able to really mine the complexities of a sisterly type of relationship in all the complications of love and also disappointment and all of that stuff.
And you've got Rachel [Weisz].
PUGH: Rachel and Cate [Shortland]. Let's not forget Cate! It's pretty mad.
JOHANSSON: I'm always happy to have a job, but I'm happy to say every day coming to work on this, I feel incredibly fortunate just because we have an incredible crew but we have an amazing group of women who are coming to work every day completely committed with great ideas and just committed to making this something that's real and deep and visceral.
Florence, what was it like for you to get the call saying, "Welcome to the Marvel Universe"?
PUGH: Weirdly, because everything got going straightaway in terms of training and I met all of these amazing stuntmen and stuntwomen who were desperate to get me going, I actually didn't have a moment to really think about it. We've been filming for about two months, but when it really sunk in was at Comic-Con. We walked out and that's when I was like, "OK, it's happened. It's happening. Can't go back now." I couldn't see the back wall. It was crazy.
JOHANSSON: It's impossible to explain how overwhelming that feeling is of walking out on that main stage at Comic-Con.
PUGH: That's what being a part of it is, is that. It was magnificent.
JOHANSSON: And then when you see the turnout of all the Marvel cast and all the directors and the whole lineup for the next Phase, it's pretty incredible.
PUGH: And I got a hat out of it as well!
JOHANSSON: That's why she went. She went for the free hat.
Let's talk about her like she's not here for a second. What makes Florence the one to watch out for?
JOHANSSON: I have to watch out for her all of the time, because she tries to trip me a lot.
PUGH: Into giving me hugs!
JOHANSSON: I know. She's real cuddly. She's real snuggly. I mean, it's so embarrassing to talk about somebody when their right there--
PUGH: I can turn around!
JOHANSSON: Florence is such a talented actor and she's the real deal. She's an amazing scene partner and she has a fresh take on everything and just meets you right there. It's awesome. I love working with her. Love it.
These hugs and then you battle, right?
PUGH: Well, as you said earlier, that's probably one of the coolest things about our relationship is it's, like, best friends, family, women, there's so much love and so much, like, fighting and hate and anger but love and they come back together all the time. It's pretty cool to have these strong women basically fight everything together.
How are you most like Yelena in real life?
JOHANSSON: Hairstyle, mostly.
PUGH: Hairstyle, mostly. I love the two ponytails. I don't know. Does she eat a lot? i just ate in this scene. [Laughs] I don't know. I'm quite stubborn.
JOHANSSON: I'm gonna answer that question for you. I think personally, you guys are very, you're fiery. Salty.
PUGH: We have a similar sense of humor, that's probably correct.
JOHANSSON: Dry. You kind of like to needle a little.
PUGH: Mean! [Laughs] "You like to poke me all the time."
How are you most like Natasha?
JOHANSSON: Oh, gosh. I think Natasha's really good at compartmentalizing. It's both good and bad, and I think I share that quality for better or for worse.
PUGH: You also wear the exact same clothes. Every day. She wears these walking boots every day. It's really hard to get her out of them. I'm like, "Scarlett! Give me these shoes!"
JOHANSSON: I'm gonna walk a lifetime in these boots.
So, let's set up where we are in the Marvel Universe with this movie. Because it's not a prequel. It's kind of like a midquel.
JOHANSSON: Let's see, how can I Marvelize this for you? [To Florence] You'll get good at this too. You say absolutely nothing with saying so much.
PUGH: I'm just going to stand here and listen.
JOHANSSON: I'm going to get hit in the neck with some sort of tranquilizer. So, this is obviously pre–Infinity War and post-Civil War. There, I've committed to that answer.
Playing this role for as long as you have, what's the training like? Is it easier now?
JOHANSSON: No, it's way harder because I'm older now, so everything is more painful. I think I'm in pretty good shape--
PUGH: She's in great shape.
JOHANSSON: I get paid to go to the gym.
PUGH: It's so fun though. It's so fun. For me, when I started all this, it was like, "Hey, learn all of this!" Just having professionals wanting to teach you how to do martial arts or, like, kickboxing is so wicked, and then you get to do it on set with Scarlett and you're like, "What is my life!"
JOHANSSON: And you see my rickety old body and you're like, "Oh no! I don't want that!"
We all know you're a champion for women. That's who you are to your core. How proud does it make you to know you're leaving this legacy for your daughter to see?
JOHANSSON: It's hard to have a perspective on it. I probably should choose work based on what my daughter will think of it, but I don't at all. I guess that's part of the compartmentalizing thing. I choose what feels challenging to me and that I've never done before and I think that is something that I'm actually more excited to show her, is that if you know you can do something but you don't know how you're going to do it, taking that kind of risk and the reward that's possible is really worth it.
PUGH: Imagine your mom paving the way of, like, female superheroes. That's pretty cool.
JOHANSSON: She was pumped about eating Cheerios the other day because I was on the box. I was like, "Are you going to eat the Cheerios or what?" She's like, "It's Mama on the box." And I was like, 'All right. She'll eat the Cheerios. Cool."
PUGH: You know what's interesting though is growing up, she won't even know that's a major deal.
JOHANSSON: To be on a Cheerios box?
PUGH: No, for your mom to be a major superhero. Mom's always been a superhero.
JOHANSSON: Honestly, I have to say I love this character. I love her. I have a lot of empathy for her. She's kind of an unexpected sort of unassuming hero, and she makes the ultimate sacrifice.
She does. I'm very glad this movie happened, because when we last left Natasha, I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. Hold on."
PUGH: You paused it, like, "Nah, I'm not watching this."
JOHANSSON: It's funny. I've had mixed reactions of her ultimate fate in Endgame, but for me, it made so much sense that she would sacrifice herself not just for the greater good of humanity but actually for her friends, which was really at the heart of it. She's a good one.
It made sense, but I didn't like it.
JOHANSSON: I mean, I wasn't crazy to jump [over the edge]. I was like, "Ugh, all right. I guess I'll have to take the leap." Me or Renner. Me or Renner. Sophie's Choice for some people, what can I say?
Black Widow is in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 9.