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Coppola had first noticed Johansson in Manny & Lo, and compared her to a young Lauren Bacall; Coppola based the film's story on the relationship between Humphrey Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946).
Johansson shown at the premiere of Girl with a Pearl Earring at Toronto International Film Festival in 2003.
She enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, and began auditioning for commercials, but soon lost interest: "I didn't want to promote Wonder Bread." Around this time, she began studying at Professional Children's School (PCS), a private educational institution for aspiring child actors in Manhattan.
In Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is based on the novel of same name by Tracy Chevalier, Johansson played Griet, a young 17th-century servant in the household of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (played by English actor Colin Firth).Her breakthrough came playing a cynical outcast in Terry Zwigoff's black comedy Ghost World (2001), an adaptation of Daniel Clowes' graphic novel of same name.Johansson was credited with "sensitivity and talent [that] belie her age" by an Austin Chronicle critic, and won a Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.Her father, Karsten Olaf Johansson, is an architect originally from Copenhagen, Denmark, and her paternal grandfather, Ejner Johansson, was an art historian, screenwriter and film director, whose own father was Swedish.At age seven, she was devastated when a talent agent signed one of her brothers instead of her, but she later decided to become an actress anyway.
Born and raised in Manhattan, New York City, she aspired to be an actress from a young age, and first appeared on stage in an Off-Broadway play as a child.