Hollywood Flashback: In 1998, Scarlett Johansson Was 'Horse Whisperer's' Tomboy Teen

Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest
Redford and Johansson in 'Horse Whisperer.'

The 'Ghost in the Shell' actress, who landed her breakout role at 13, "brought a heartache to the part that seemed to come from experience beyond her years," says co-writer Richard LaGravanese.

The word "whisperer" is slapped on to obstreperous subjects — dogs, ghosts, U.S. presidents, what have you — to denote someone skilled at reining them in. The trope began with The Horse Whisperer, a 1998 weepy directed by and starring Robert Redford. He plays Tom Booker, a Montana wrangler/Zen master who helps a tomboy named Grace (Scarlett Johansson, then 13) and her horse, Pilgrim, overcome the trauma of a riding accident that left her leg partially amputated.

Based on the 1995 best-seller by Nicholas Evans, the movie was the first to feature Redford on both sides of the camera. It was also Johansson's first starring role in a studio picture. (She had earned a Spirit award nomination for the 1996 indie Manny & Lo.)

The shoot was not without its controversies: While trainer Buck Brannaman, who inspired the title character, served as a technical consultant, the final cut contained several horse-training no-nos, including Redford wearing a large ring — a sure way to lose a finger. The film drew high marks from THR, which called it a "vital, subtle story" and singled out its trio of leads — Kristin Scott Thomas rounds things out as Grace's workaholic mom — as its strongest asset. "Johansson is winning," the review noted. "She gains our sympathies as a young girl whose future has been horribly changed." Richard LaGravanese, who co-wrote the screenplay (he also adapted 1995's The Bridges of Madison County), says Johansson "brought a heartache to the part that seemed to come from experience beyond her years."

The $80 million movie was a hit for Touchstone, earning $187 million globally ($280 million today). Johansson's films have earned $3.6 billion, making her the highest-grossing actress of all time. She next headlines Ghost in the Shell, based on the Japanese manga property, out March 31. 

This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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