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The Role Scarlett Johansson Regrets Ever Accepting

Scarlett Johansson is no stranger to controversy, and she doesn't deny it. In fact, the actress told The Gentlewoman that she's "made a career out of it." And what a career! Johansson has been acting since the age of 7 when she started auditioning for commercials and made her film debut at nine with the 1994 movie "North." With almost three decades in the industry and plenty of awards and nominations — including two Oscar nominations in 2020 — controversy has clearly not hindered her success.

Pushing the boundaries of acceptability is perhaps the defining feature of truly exciting art, and this idea seems to drive Johansson's career choices — sometimes earning the actress a big payoff. For example, in "Her," Johansson voiced the computer operating system that Joaquin Phoenix's character, Theodore, falls in love with. The 2013 film confronted our increasingly isolated and technology-dependent lives, and it received critical acclaim for its insights. The skill of Johansson's voice acting was crucial to the film's success, and the unconventional role earned her several awards (via IMDb).

But boundary-pushing is not inherently good, as limits can be stretched in all sorts of directions, and Johansson made a series of missteps surrounding another role of hers.

Rub & Tug vies for the cutting edge, repeats familiar mistakes

On July 2, 2018, Deadline broke the news that Scarlett Johansson would play Dante "Tex" Gill — a Pittsburgh trans man who, in the 1970s and '80s, ran massage parlors that served to cover up a lucrative sex work operation (via Them) — in the film "Rub & Tug," which was to be directed by Rupert Sanders. The announcement was met with swift backlash from trans actors, to which Johansson's representative responded in a statement to Bustle, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment," in reference to past cis actors who have played trans characters.

Needless to say, this statement doused the fire with gasoline, and just 11 days after the Deadline exclusive dropped, Johansson decided it was time to do some damage control. In an exclusive statement to Out Magazine, the actress backpedaled on her previous statement, saying, "In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project ... While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante's story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film." 

Johansson's exit from "Rub & Tug" halted the film's production, leaving its future uncertain, per The Wrap. But bowing out was probably the right thing to do, as pushing forward would have likely put her performance at the top of her list of failures. She learned her lesson and corrected her mistake, and nobody ever spoke of the incident again — just kidding.

Scarlett Johansson won't stop revisiting the issue

One year later in a July 2019 interview with As If Magazine's David Salle, Johansson found herself on the topic of political correctness, and the "Rub & Tug" debacle seemed to make an unnamed appearance in her comments (via the Daily Mail). She acknowledged that the "trend" of political correctness "needs to happen for various social reasons." However, she added that "there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions." 

Believing that political correctness is a "trend" that, though important, restricts art, Johansson's implicit reference to "Rub & Tug" may have been questionable. "You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job," she said. Playing a ficus or sea turtle is on par with playing Dante "Tex" Gill? Big yikes.

She still wasn't done, however. Two years later, Johansson was featured in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of The Gentlewoman, where she touched on the influence she has as an actor, saying "I don't think actors have obligations to have a public role in society ... some people want to, but the idea that you're obligated to because you're in the public eye is unfair. You didn't choose to be a politician, you're an actor."

Rub & Tug was born out of another controversy

Making the whole "Rub & Tug" scandal even more noteworthy are the events that led to its inception. The project was to follow the 2017 movie "Ghost in the Shell" — also starring Scarlett Johansson and directed by Rupert Sanders. The manga-inspired film was accused of whitewashing, as it cast Johansson as the lead character of a distinctly Japanese story. 

After the casting was announced in 2015, Screen Crush reported that they had inside sources that confirmed Paramount and Dreamworks had commissioned visual effects testing to alter Johansson's appearance so that it would "appear more Asian." Although the production team did not use this technology, whitewashing allegations remained, and the movie did not receive much critical acclaim, per Variety. Perhaps Johansson and Sanders should have taken "Ghost in the Shell" as an omen and passed on "Rub & Tug."

The movie "Rub & Tug" was never made, but viewers will still get the chance to watch the story of Dante "Tex" Gill and his massage parlors unfold — albeit as a TV series — as reported by Entertainment Weekly in the summer of 2020. Details are scant, but it is confirmed that Our Lady J, a trans writer who worked on "Pose" and "Transparent," will write the series, and Gill will definitely be played by a trans actor. Hopefully this "Rub & Tug" makes it through production, as there's (finally) no reason it shouldn't.