Scarlett Johansson looks pained. It's not the Arabian heat of Manhattan on this summer afternoon or the juddering techno Muzak in the midtown sake hole where we've met. It's not the pressure of having three films cued up back-to-back (one, the Vermeer-as-stud flick Girl With a Pearl Earring, is already billing itself as an Oscar contender). No, what's bothering Johansson is hearing her own voice on tape.

"I sound like an old man," she says plaintively. Actually, she sounds like a pint of Guinness being gently decanted over a 100-proof hangover. And it's kind of a nice effect. Even when she talks with tuna sashimi sliding down her chin. Even when she does a Cher impersonation that'd make the Chelsea boys proud.

"It sets me apart," Johansson says of her throaty drawl. "I just hope it's not my trademark. Like Julia Roberts' teeth."

The 18-year-old behind the rasp is as sarcastic as her coffee-pouring drone in Ghost World and as disarming as her randy Lolita in The Man Who Wasn't There. She has this calm confidence that you don't expect from someone so young," says Sofia Coppola. "And she has this sort of smart-ass quality to her."

Until this month's Lost in Translation came along, with Coppola direction, Johansson's career had been mostly one of stepping in when other starlets stepped out: She got the chance to rescue The Horse Whisperer when Natalie Portman bailed. Ghost World came her way only after Leelee Sobieski sniffed at it and walked on by. And she did the whole taut-bodice-in-a-shaft-of-light thing after Kate Hudson decided against Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Lost in Translation just may put an end to Johansson's days as a rebound choice for jilted directors; Coppola wrote it with her mind. (Of course, she also wrote it with Kirsten Dunst in mind, but that's Hollywood for you.) Playing a newlywed having a quarter-life crisis in Tokyo, she's sipping vodka tonics at her hotel bar when she meets a fellow insomniac Bill Murray, a fading actor prostituting himself in a whiskey ad. ("Everyone from Mel Gibson to Jessica Alba promotes toilet paper and hair products in Japan," Johansson says.)


The trailer for Lost in Translation.


Since the two are in nearly every frame together (boiling beef in a shabu-shabu restaurant, belting out gaijin karaoke, and so on), the film lives or dies on chemistry. Luckily it lives, but not because the 27-day shoot gave the co-stars a lot of bonding time. "It wasn't like, 'Come on, Bill! Let's go out and get wasted!'" Johansson says. "We just jumped in." But bonding wasn't a problem. "Bill is gorgeous, and such a charmer," she says. "Seriously. I mean, I don't watch him and think, Wow, what a hunk. But he is so sexy."