January 24, 2005 12:00 PM

Two months before shooting their comedy In Good Company, Scarlett Johansson met Topher Grace, who would play her lover in the film, at a New Year’s Eve party. The 20-year-old actress promised to call him the next day for brunch. Yeah, right. “I was thinking, she just got two Golden Globe nominations, there was no way I will hear from her,” says Grace. “Sure enough, I got a call at noon.” She continued to charm her costar on the set. “You’d never know she had that meteoric rise,” says Grace. “She takes the work very seriously, but not herself.”

Johansson may not be taking her It Girl rep to heart, but she is intent on proving that her breakout roles in 2003’s Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring were no fluke. So why not a second one-two punch? In Company, she’s a college student romancing Grace—who’s her father’s new boss (Dad is Dennis Quaid). In A Love Song for Bobby Long, she bonds with an alcoholic ex-professor (John Travolta) living in her late mom’s home. Johansson, who grew up in New York City and now lives in L.A., says that making movies “is all I ever wanted. I don’t plan on retiring until I die.”

That news should warm the hearts of Golden Globe voters, who last month gave the actress her third nomination in two years, for Bobby Long, which was coproduced by her manager mom, Melanie. (Her parents are divorced; dad Karsten is a general contractor.) Finding a dress should be no problem for Johansson, who has quickly become a favorite of such designers as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Roland Mouret and Zac Posen. “I am very liberal in what I wear and really like clothing,” she says, “so it is a lot of fun for me.” Adds her stylist Annabel Tollman: “There are plenty of girls that do sexy, but only Scarlett gives old Liz Taylor and Marilyn-ness.”

In addition to working a red carpet, the actress knows how to liven up a set. She sang show tunes with Travolta (“She knows the words to everything,” says Bobby Long director Shainee Gabel. “One day was Oklahoma!, one day was Carousel“) and recited Romeo and Juliet speeches to the Good Company cast and crew from a window perch. “What surprised me,” says director Paul Weitz, “was how funny, smart and verbally nimble she was.”

She is less than amused by the paparazzi’s fascination with her love life. “Who could possibly care about that?” she asked PEOPLE last year. She has denied rumors of a fling with Benicio Del Toro and a relationship with New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. While she remains mum about on-again, off-again boyfriend Jared Leto, a source close to the couple says they are still together.

Not that she has much time for romance. She shot Match Point, a comedy with Woody Allen last year, and has already lined up likely blockbusters for this summer (The Island, with Ewan McGregor) and 2006 (Tom Cruise‘s Mission: Impossible 3). “I never know what to expect next, and I’m learning as I go,” says Johansson. “It feels surreal, but I’m enjoying it.”

Jason Lynch. Chris Gardner, Carrie Bell and Oliver Jones in Los Angeles

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