We Bought a Zoo - Scarlett Johansson
We Bought a Zoo - Head Zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

At 12-years-old, Scarlett Johansson attained worldwide recognition for her performance as Grace Maclean, a teen traumatized by a riding accident in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. Since that movie she has never looked back, appearing is such films as Lost in Translation, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Prestige and The Other Boleyn Girl.

A four-time Golden Globe nominee and BAFTA winner, she was seen in the box office megahit Iron Man 2 as the Black Widow, a role she’ll reprise in The Avengers, which opens next May.

In her new movie, Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, she portrays Kelly Foster, the no-nonsense head zookeeper at Rosemoor Animal Park, which has been bought by Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a single father who has just lost his wife, who hopes that living at the zoo will bring a cohesiveness to his family.

At the press day for the movie in New York, Scarlett Johansson spoke of her love for animals, and not eating a sandwich when a lion was on the set!

What was it about the movie or the role that attracted you?

We Bought a Zoo - Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Elizabeth Jones
Head Zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

One of the main attractions for me in playing this role was actually the fact that it was playing a woman who had her own life that didn’t depend on anybody else.

She’s a forward moving and motivated woman whose passion has nothing to do with where she’s going to find her next date, or who her next romantic interest is.

The fact that the romance in this film is a product of the story I think is a really beautiful thing.

There’s a different kind of a romance that happens in the movie which has nothing to do with just two people finding one another, and even though that’s a by-product it was attractive to me that that wasn’t the motivating force for the characters.

Kelly is a very practical person, good-natured, and loves animals. She’s very much a person who gets things done and gets them done well and leaves no loose ends. This zoo and these animals are her whole life.

Aline Brosh McKenna’s and Cameron Crowe’s script has this incredible dialogue I could wrap my head around. I also thought the story was very unusual because there’s something old-fashioned about it.

It’s a film about family, about finding your passion and believing in yourself. It’s very real and gritty. It makes it reminiscent of the classic films of the 1970s.

What’s Kelly’s relationship with Benjamin and his family?

She thinks of them as yet another in a long line of owners who probably saw the zoo as their little project, threw some money at it, and then disappeared.

However, Kelly begins to see Benjamin take control of different projects and he seems to be totally dedicated and keeps sticking around.Through his apparent dedication she starts to believe in this guy and thinks, ‘Maybe this could be different.’

Are you an animal lover and was that an incentive to do the movie?

We Bought a Zoo - Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Elizabeth Jones
Head Zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Right before I met Cameron I went to Tippi Hedren’s big cat rescue [compound, called Shambala Preserve]. It was an amazing experience and it just so happened to coincide with meeting Cameron, and we talked about that.

One of the guys who had worked there was a caretaker for two elephants for many years and had written a book, his journals and photographs, and I remember I sent Cameron that stuff. I have a dog and I grew up with cats. I love animals.

What was it like working with the animals on this?

It’s hard to work with animals, of course, because they’re not on the same routine. You never know what to expect, they’re unpredictable. But I think that we all had a respect for the animals that were working on the film. It wasn’t like everybody stood around eating their Subway sandwiches when the lion was coming out of the cage.

There was a kind of community of people that had such high respect for the animals being there. It was this kind of relaxed environment. I think it’s captured in the film and it just seemed like everybody that we were working with were all animals lovers.

This is a movie that talks a lot about letting in the light. This is a very difficult time in America. How important do you think movies can be giving audiences hope?

I think historically films are always an opportunity for people to escape into two hours of someone else’s life, someone else’s adventure. It doesn’t always have to be gloom and doom to reflect mirrors of truth, and I think there’s a lot of love in this film. But it’s complex.

These are real people that are dealing with grief, they’re dealing with finding their own identity, their struggling to make human connections, juggling them and figuring out who they are.

There are a lot of complex themes within this story, I don’t think it necessarily has to be a big old fun crazy animal movie, or something that’s dark and twisted, for people to emote and relate.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.