Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh form 'Black Widow' sisterhood, plan lasagna cooking videos

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

Sisters can’t escape unwanted hand-me-downs, not even in a Marvel superhero movie. At least Florence Pugh scored an iconic one.

The globetrotting spy thriller “Black Widow” (in theaters and on Disney+ via Premier Access now) finally gives Scarlett Johansson’s longtime Avenger her first solo film and also unleashes Natasha Romanoff’s younger secret agent “sibling” Yelena Belova into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the estranged spies reunite – in a raucous fight that destroys the decor of a Budapest, Hungary, apartment – Yelena spends much of the film giving Natasha a hard time about her signature landing pose, the same one that captured pop culture’s attention in 2010’s “Iron Man 2.”

At the time, Johansson, 36, loved the idea of something feminine and “kind of spidery” to match all the super-dudes’ poses. “I had no idea we would be creating something that would have such a legacy, obviously. I was just hoping that I would still have a job,” she recalls.

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"Black Widow" launches Florence Pugh (left) into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and gives Scarlett Johansson her first solo adventure.

“It's such an image singed into all of our brains. (But) I, just like any younger sister, like to tease where it's easy to tease,” adds Pugh, 25. The ongoing joke then became part of "Black Widow" and screenwriter Eric Pearson had the idea that Yelena should do the move, too.

Pugh had immediate regrets: “I was laughing at myself thinking I've spent so much of this film prodding and being like, “Hah!” and then I had to have a whole lesson on how to do it properly. It's hard! You've got to get it all right otherwise it doesn't look perfect.”

The two Oscar-nominated actresses formed a sisterly bond making “Black Widow” that was about much more than cool fighting stances. With her longtime character’s fate sealed in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” Johansson passes the electroshock baton to Pugh as a heroic persona going forward in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Pugh will next appear in the Disney+ TV show “Hawkeye,” premiering later this year.) The movie also embraces womanhood like no other Marvel project before it, from tackling multigenerational trauma and oppression to simply giving heroines conversations with each other.

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Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, left) reconnects with her "little sister" Yelena (Florence Pugh) in "Black Widow."

Sadly, the latter is something that Johansson hasn’t experienced much playing in the MCU sandbox. As an actress, she had “small beats of stuff” with Brie Larson and “spent a lot of time in a dusty ditch” with Danai Gurira in the last two “Avengers” films. Before that, Elizabeth Olsen joining her on 2015's “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was “super-refreshing,” Johansson says, noting that in making 2012's first “Avengers” movie, she and Cobie Smulders “clung to each other a lot.”

Teaming with Yelena to take on on the covert Russian organization that experimented on and brainwashed them as girls gives Natasha her first meaningful on-screen relationship with another woman. An earlier draft of “Black Widow” (set after 2016's "Captain America: Civil War") featured Natasha and Yelena as adversaries, but “it just felt so stale and not like how women are with one another,” says Johansson, who’s also an executive producer on the film. “There's so much more to explore when you have two women who are lifting themselves up out of a situation and supporting one another and have a complicated emotional past and love for one another. It's just way more interesting for everybody.”

Team ScarFlo grew close literally and figuratively during production. “They were glued together the whole film: They were on a motorbike or they're fighting or they're in these really small spaces together,” says director Cate Shortland, who found Pugh “actually quite shy” until the star's first Budapest throwdown with Johansson when “she really started just coming alive.”

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The tight quarters gave way to many discussions, mostly about food. “One of Florence's great qualities is she could basically talk to a houseplant. She has something to say on any subject,” Johansson says.

“And the topics would so easily jump from really serious things to then like, oh, how is your gazpacho?” Pugh adds. “All whilst hanging from a height strapped together on harnesses. It was quite hilarious actually if you zoom out.” (For the record, Johansson “would love” to guest on one of Pugh’s Instagram cooking videos, and the younger actress is quite down. “Maybe you could teach me how to do your lasagna,” she figures. “We said it now. It's going to have to happen.”)

Johansson was just a little younger than Pugh when she first starred opposite Robert Downey Jr. and made her Marvel debut 11 years ago – she’s now in her mid-30s and has a 6½-year old daughter, Rose. “It's a long time in some ways,” she says. “I continuously love my job somehow more and more." 

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For her, acting is “returning to almost like a child place where everything is instinctive and you try to constantly remove any expectation you have, from the other person or from yourself."

Pugh was 14 when Johansson started playing Black Widow in "Iron Man 2" and recalls first seeing the star onscreen when she was 7 watching "My Brother the Pig." Pugh calls being in a Marvel project with her “a definite pinch-me moment” in the young actress’ already impressive career (including "Little Women," which garnered Pugh a supporting actress Oscar nomination, and "Midsommar"). 

“I am fully aware of what she means in this universe and to be even considered to play her youngest sister in this film was already a crazy notion,” Pugh says. “Then you actually step onto her film and you have to learn everything and just gaze at her all day. It was an easy gig to do that on.

“Genuinely, my joy came from just how wonderful she was in bringing me along with her.”