Marvel Heroine Scarlett Johansson Will See You In Court

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Last weekend, Saturday Night Live star Colin Jost was forced to take a public potshot at his wife during his season finale joke swap segment with co-anchor Michael Che.

“ChatGPT has released a new voice assistant feature inspired by Scarlett Johansson’s AI character in Her,” Jost said on “Weekend Update,” “which I’ve never bothered to watch, because without that body, what’s the point of listening?”

The punchline, which got a huge response from the studio audence, left Jost laughing uncomfortably with his head in his hands. One person who apparently didn’t find it funny? Scarlett Johansson.

This week, the actress drew a line in the sand. She released a statement threatening legal action against OpenAI, an artificial intelligence research organization that recently came under fire for debuting a ChatGPT assistant with a voice remarkably similar to Johansson’s—specifically, to the one the actress leans on in the Spike Jonze modern classic Her (Johansson plays a disembodied, husky-voiced AI love interest).

“We’ve heard questions about how we chose the voices in ChatGPT, especially Sky,” OpenAI said on Monday. “We are working to pause the use of Sky while we address them.”

But this was hardly enough to deter Johansson, who said that eight months ago, she declined an offer from OpenAI founder Sam Altman to lend her voice to one of his products. “He told me that he felt that by my voicing the system, I could bridge the gap between tech companies and creatives and help consumers to feel comfortable with the seismic shift concerning humans and AI,” Johansson said, in a statement shared with The Daily Beast. “He said he felt that my voice would be comforting to people.”

Johansson added in her statement that OpenAI’s eventual decision to take Sky out of commission came as a direct result of her pressuring the company legally.

The actress was “forced to hire legal counsel, who wrote two letters to Mr. Altman and OpenAI, setting out what they had done and asking them to detail the exact process by which they created the ‘Sky’ voice,” she said.

This is far from the only instance in which Johansson has flexed her considerable connections and coffers—she was the highest paid actress in the world in 2018 and 2019—to notably bite the hands that have fed her.

In his latest episode of The Town podcast, Hollywood expert Matt Belloni argued that Johansson has “got to be on the list of top five most litigious celebrities,” taking a more active role in “policing her image” than many of her peers.

Before OpenAI, Johansson took on the even more powerful (for now) Disney corporation. In 2021, she filed a lawsuit against one of her biggest employers in which she alleged a breach of contract: Disney, she said, had sacrificed the long term box office potential of her solo spinoff Marvel movie Black Widow in order to launch its Disney+ platform. Johansson meant serious business, and wanted $50 million from the studio (the eventual settlement was reported to be north of $40 million).

According to Johansson, she had been promised an exclusive theatrical release when she signed her deal, but Disney didn’t take kindly to her legal maneuvering.

“The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” was how a Disney spokesperson characterized Johansson’s efforts at the time (they ended up settling).

But the fact that Johansson attempted to sue her studio at all places her among rare company in Hollywood history.

Elizabeth Taylor sued 20th Century Fox in 1964, alleging that the studio failed to compensate her properly for the behemoth Cleopatra (Fox sued Taylor right back for $50 million in retaliation, alleging that Taylor and co-star Richard Burton depreciated the commercial value of the movie by conducting themselves in a “scandalous” manner—in other words, by having an affair).

Other stars who have sued studios in similar fashion include Sylvester Stallone, who filed a massive fraud lawsuit against Warner Brothers in 2017, alleging that the studio had concealed profits from his 1993 film Demolition Man. He settled the suit for an undisclosed sum in 2019.

Gerard Butler accused Nu Image and Millennium Media of under-reporting the profits made from his 2013 film Olympus Has Fallen, filing his suit shortly after Johansson’s legal fight went public in 2021. He too settled for an unknown amount two years later.

But Johansson in particular has framed her Disney battle as something of a folk heroine’s undertaking—a savvy move that has helped burnish her image as a powerful force for good in Hollywood, when it could be argued that she is mostly looking out for herself.

“I couldn’t even walk through a restaurant without somebody saying, ‘Good for you. Stand up for yourself,’” she told Variety last year. “I could see that it had a bigger impact. I got support from strangers that have no skin in the game at all.”

She even went out of her way to make nice with Disney in that same interview, revealing that she still visits Disney World in Orlando 10 times per year, has a “real passion for the Disney parks,” and would be “pre-buying tickets” for the live-action Little Mermaid film.

Somehow, after her latest showdown with OpenAI, it seems unlikely she shares similar passion for the type of sexy chatbot she first voiced more than a decade ago.

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