'Gravity's' Alfonso Cuarón almost cast Scarlett Johansson in 'A Little Princess'

Posted by · 11:44 pm · November 6th, 2013

Alfonso Cuarón returned to Los Angeles this week as “Gravity” completes another awards season orbit. The critically acclaimed phenomenon is battling “12 Years a Slave” for this year’s frontrunner status (not that either of them want it) and Warner Bros. took some time Tuesday night to celebrate the $428 million-plus global box office hit.

Cuarón held court with his co-writer and son Jonas and producer David Heyman as a select group of LA journalists tried to vie for his attention (translation: one major critic for a Hollywood trade had to be pulled away from him so anyone else could even have the chance to say hello). Eventually, this pundit was able to grab a few minutes with the director, but our conversation barely touched on “Gravity.” Instead, it was another film we’re both passionate about: “Under the Skin.”

Flashback almost two months ago and we’re discussing “Gravity” during the film’s press junket in LA. Having not been able to speak with Cuarón while we were both in Telluride I quickly asked him if he’d been able to see any other films while attending the Colorado festival. He said he’d seen Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” which he loved. Having written one of the first positive reviews of the picture (the same screening Cuarón was at), we quickly shared our hopes that it would find a distributor in the U.S. (This was before A24 Films came on board to pick it up.)

Present day, I bring up that moment in the hopes that Cuarón might remember our short conversation in the midst of likely 100-plus interviews in the weeks since. He didn’t, obviously, but his eyes lit up at the prospect of discussing Jonathan Glazer’s almost indescribable motion picture. In fact, he recalled how last month he ran into Glazer during the 2013 London Film Festival and told him how much he loved “Skin.” Glazer gave him a warm thank you, but Cuarón laughed realizing the British filmmaker probably just thought he was being nice. Cuarón said he’d thought of “Skin” the night before while reading a novel (the title escapes me) as it had conjured up a key scene on a dark, cold beach in the film. Having no knowledge of any relationship Cuarón might have had with “Skin” star Scarlett Johansson, I asked him if he was surprised (like many critics were) that the “Lost in Translation” star had this sort of performance in her.

And that’s when the surprise came. Cuarón said he always knew Johansson had this in her. In fact, he’d been a fan since he first cast her in “A Little Princess” when she was just 8-years-old.

“What,” you say?  “Johansson wasn’t in ‘Princess.'” True, but Cuarón says he wanted to cast her (we’ll assume for the role of Sara Crewe, played by Liesel Matthews), but she was just too young. He later wanted to cast her for a role in another film, but she was too old. But there was always something about her. He also laughed recalling that Joel Coen told him no actor had intimidated him like Johansson (on “The Man Who Wasn’t There” when she was only 16) and no less than Robert Redford said the same thing about working with her on “The Horse Whisperer.”

(And here you’ve always wondered what filmmakers talk about when they run into each other.)

Cuarón said he did speak to Johansson as well as a number of other actresses about the leading role in “Gravity,” but eventually decided he just wanted someone older for the part. In hindsight, it looks like he did OK with a career turn by Sandra Bullock. That being said, don’t be surprised if the two eventually find a way to collaborate down the road.

Soon, Cuarón, his son and Heyman were gone, off to the airport for a quick flight to San Francisco for a special Q&A with the folks of Industrial Light & Magic. Then back to Los Angeles Thursday night for another Q&A with Ms. Bullock in attendance.

The awards season world still turns and “Gravity’s” orbit is still ascending.

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