“Having a start-up is crazy,” says Scarlett Johansson, while peering at me from behind large, gold-rimmed eyeglasses, her face scrubbed of makeup. “It’s very, very crazy.”
Hang on a second. I thought I’d signed on to Zoom to meet and interview the actress about her new beauty line, The Outset. But as our conversation goes on, it’s clear that The Black Widow star sees her latest venture as more of a disruptor than an addition to an already bustling and packed sector of the industry. She talks about the brand—which touts the label of “clean, minimalist skincare” and consists of five hero products for its first drop—in terms that feel more like Uber or Doordash than Fenty Skin or KKW. “When I first started thinking about this, there was a lot of, I wouldn’t say pressure, but it definitely came highly suggested to license my name and do it with something that preexisted, that had an infrastructure, and not start from scratch,” Johansson says. “I didn’t go that route, which I’m very happy about.”
Instead, she and her business partner Kate Foster Lengyel spent five years learning everything they could about nontoxic and fair-trade ingredients, plus doing enough field research to stack up against any MBA graduate. In advance of today’s launch, Johansson spoke with W about being a reformed face-picker, her at-home pedicure and eyebrow shaping skills, and why Colin Firth once told her she looked like a Q-Tip.
Before launching The Outset, you had meetings with a number of big beauty brands. What happened during those conversations that made you think, I’ve gotta just do this by myself?
All of the people I was meeting educated me about a subject that I was entering with fresh eyes. It was actually a very welcoming group of people—I have to say, different than what I expected and probably different than if I started a fashion line. Everyone was very inviting and shared a lot of information with me, and was clear about how challenging it was going to be to start something without any infrastructure. What I realized was I didn’t have any interest in licensing my name; if I existed within a larger corporation, it was going to be hard for me to make something that was free of the baggage of being part of a large corporation.
One of the women I met with was working in one of these larger corporations, she was a consultant. She gave me her card and she was like, Let’s have a coffee or a drink afterwards. Will you call me? When we met up, she was like, Why don’t you do this on your own? These larger houses are set in their ways, basically. They’re these big pieces of machinery that move like they’re efficient, but they’re slow to change. And you could do this on your own in this scrappy way—it would be all yours. I took her advice; I was like, I’m gonna meditate on this. I kept coming back to what she was saying, and it really inspired me to go this route.
Your skincare line is based on your own personal skincare routine. Were there any particular formulations or ingredients that you loved using on your own skin which you knew you wanted to incorporate into your line?
Creating a clean skincare line was not necessarily my intention—I actually had no intention going into it. I looked at my bathroom counter and cherry-picked all of these different products—a lot of them were noncomedogenic, dermatologically sound drugstore brands. Whatever other crazy things I was using—glycolic peels, whatever—I always came back to very fragrance-free, non-active skincare. Once I saw the ingredients lists from the other stuff, it was like, Wow, this is bad. You’re putting gasoline on your face every day, basically. Once you know, once you’ve peeked under the hood, you know you don’t want to put more of this out there. What can I do to have an effective skincare line that’s also clean? Once we found the ingredient story, all the pieces started to come together.
We definitely would get a day cream that we loved and then realize, Oh, it actually has a trace mineral oil. And it was like, dammit. Any little thing would come back and you’d need to reformulate. But that’s just part of the process.
There’s tons of discussion about celebrity beauty brand burnout. What would you say to someone who might be skeptical of buying products from yet another celebrity beauty line?
I would be like, I get it. Me too. It’s such a crowded space in general. It’s like, do you need another skincare line, period? But I think, with our brand, we’ve been so mindful every step of the way of creating products that are sustainable—we’ve eliminated 2,700 harmful ingredients and really wanted to make something transparent. We’ve been able to partner with such wonderful organizations, like Dress for Success and One Tree Planted. and we’re a 1% for the Planet company. Yes, there’s a lot of fatigue, for sure, I see it too. But if there’s a way that you can create a line that feels like it’s contributing to a positive change within the industry, if you can create something that can hopefully shift the standard—then I think there’s room for that.
You personally have spent so much time in the makeup chair. What are the best tips you’ve picked up over the course of your career?
Makeup artists are always like, Stop touching your face! “Stop touching your” face is not even a tip. It’s a warning—one that I have a terrible time with. I finally stopped touching my face in my late twenties. I had bought one of those magnifying mirrors—don’t look in those. My sister was the one who was like, Get rid of this mirror! What’s wrong with you?! I was like, but how am I gonna see into the soul of my every pore?
Whenever I go to a hotel and there’s one of those magnifying mirrors, I turn it around. I move it to the wall.
The worst is if you’re in an airplane bathroom and they have one. Everybody coming out of the airplane bathroom has the same walk of shame of like, I just picked apart my whole face. So stop touching your face, throw away your magnifying mirror! You don’t need that to apply lashes.
What’s the first thing that you do in the morning, beauty-wise?
I wash my face. I know not everybody does, but I wash my face and then moisturize. I usually use a serum and then moisturize and put on some Chapstick. And then I take my son’s A + D Ointment and slather that all over the inside of my nose and on my cuticles.
Does it work for you?
Theoretically. I’m probably just putting more petroleum inside of me. Now it just goes directly on my mucus membrane. Can’t seem to get away from it! Maybe that’ll be the next Outset product: some sort of nasal moisture, an A+D alternative.
What is your favorite form of self-care?
My favorite form of self care is probably doing my own pedicure.
Are you good at it?
I am good at it. I do the whole thing: I soak my feet in the bath—I’ll use a magnesium foot soak and then I’ll do a salt scrub, then clean and file my toes and my cuticles, moisturize, and then I paint them. I like to get a pedicure, but I also think I perfected my own pedicure over COVID. I find that satisfying.
Is there a beauty trend that you participated in when you were younger that you look back on now and you’re like, oh my God, what was I thinking?
My girlfriends tell me I over tweezed their eyebrows and they still have not grown back. I get a lot of gruff from them about that. I was doing everyone's eyebrows back then. Now I’m like, “You have a hole in your eyebrows.” My friends are like, “You made that hole in 11th grade.”
Do you think that thin, ‘90s brow will ever come back into style?
I don’t know if that trend is ever gonna return. I’m guessing not, because it was damaging for life. But the other day, my phone prompted me to look at Drew Barrymore’s ‘90s looks that were coming back. It was all these pictures of her when she had those crazy thin Jean Harlow-style eyebrows. But if I think about her now, her eyebrows grew back. How? How did they get so much better? I’m gonna ask her. And then I'm gonna use that [advice] and I’ll give it to my friends for Christmas.
Are there any particular characters from films that you’ve been in whose beauty looks really stuck with you?
I’ve had to bleach my eyebrows away for a couple of period films. Eyebrows really indicate the era, so if you take them away that helps sell a period thing. But dealing with that in real life, having to take it from work home, is not ideal. [Laughs]. It looks crazy. But it works for film.
I remember making Girl With the Pearl Earring and I had no eyebrows in it. I would just bleach them all away—and I also had a mullet at the time because I was rocking this David Bowie meets Silkwood thing. The combination of that plus no eyebrows was special. I remember Colin Firth really liked it. He was like, “You look like a Q-Tip.” My hair would be tucked away under [a wig cap], and that plus the no-eyebrows was tough. But I was 19 at the time, so I was like, whatever. My ego’s much more fragile now. I definitely couldn’t handle it.