Early in 2012, Scarlett Johansson donned a dark wig and a cheap fake-fur jacket, and drove a white van around Glasgow after dark, trying to pick up men at random on the street. She would approach strangers who looked as if they were alone, and try to establish whether anyone would immediately miss them if they disappeared. Then she would entice them into her Transit and drive them away.
It wasn't as easy as you might think. If she was too overtly sexual in her advances, most of the men she approached shied away, frightened of this oddly emotionless girl with the English accent and predatory manner. She had to be more subtle, to somehow improvise her way from asking for directions to grilling them about where they were going and who with, to inviting them to hop in.
What her subjects didn't know was that the van was fitted with hidden cameras, and that the director Jonathan Glazer and his team were in the back, watching the action and ready to ask the men to sign release forms so the footage could be used in the film they were making, “Under the Skin”.
Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Michel Faber, the film is about an alien prowling Glasgow disguised as a human female, luring men to be harvested for their meat.
It is unusual to find a Hollywood actress willing to put herself in such a vulnerable position, but Johansson likes projects that make her uncomfortable. “It was terrifying, but empowering,” she says. “In that state of mind, I really felt like I was on a hunt.”
“Under the Skin” is a strange, demanding film, looking at our world through alien eyes and questioning what it is to be human. To capture behaviour that looks natural, much of the first half of the film was shot with hidden cameras in a shopping centre, at a nightclub and on the street, and only a few of the participants are actors.
A harrowing scene on a beach at the start establishes that this is a creature with a chilling lack of empathy, but as Johansson's character interacts with humans, and experiences acts of kindness as well as aggression, it slowly becomes more human itself, something she has to convey with minimal dialogue.
The film has polarised critics, with some hailing it as a masterpiece and others finding it too disturbing to watch. “It's funny how some people can't sit through that, but they could see Saw IV or whatever and be completely numb to it,” Johansson says. “Sometimes it's not even violence, just things that are misogynistic or ageist or whatever and they can sit through it.”