Why Everyone Is So Thirsty for Scarlett Johansson’s Voice

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

In the 2013 Oscar-winning movie Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely Los Angeles man who falls hopelessly in love with Samantha, an AI-powered virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson. “You seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer,” he tells her in their first conversation.

Flash forward to 2024 and that scenario is closer to reality than ever—uncomfortably so for Johansson, who this week accused the artificial intelligence company OpenAI of creating a virtual assistant voice that sounds “eerily similar” to her own. In a statement Monday, the Hollywood star revealed that the disturbing realization came after she had repeatedly declined offers from OpenAI CEO Sam Altman to license her voice for the company’s latest chatbot, “Sky.”

The tech tycoon has denied any connection between Sky’s voice and Johansson’s. But the question remains: Why was Altman so gung-ho about using the Marvel actor’s voice in particular, instead of simply taking no for an answer the first time she rejected his offer and hiring some other Hollywood star? Cassandra Kulukundis, a casting director on Her, thinks she has the answer.

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“We needed it to be sexy and Scarlett has a voice that you can’t teach,” Kulukundis told The Daily Beast, adding that the men she was working with at the time “always leaned toward” wanting a “sexy” voice in that role.

“Demi Moore showed up with a voice like that back in the ’80s and everyone went wild. But it just wasn’t the time. Now is the time of women. And Scarlett can be the strongest, most commanding woman on the face of the planet because women want to sound like her and look like her,” she said. “Fawcett had the hair everybody wanted. Betty Grable had the legs everybody wanted back in her day. Scarlett has the voice, and the voice also comes from a talent that seems approachable, but also at the same time seems unattainable. And that is what everybody’s fantasy is.”

The veteran Hollywood casting agent and producer, who has worked in a long list of productions that include Licorice Pizza and There Will Be Blood, likened Johansson’s voice-acting role in the movie to a “romance novel for men.”

“The voice is incredible because she’s smart and she’s playful and she’s shy, but then she’s sexy. It is a male wet fantasy—and let’s face it, women also like that. They just want to be that person,” she said. “And if I were… one of these AI people or whatever, I would 100 percent want Scarlett on my phone.”

Johansson, however, has other plans.

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference,” she said in her statement this week. “As a result of their actions, I 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.”

In her statement, Johansson said that Altman tried to persuade her into the deal by offering it up as an opportunity to “bridge the gap between tech companies and creatives and help consumers to feel comfortable with the seismic shift concerning humans and Al,” the Hollywood star said in a statement on Monday.

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For Hollywood vocal coach Adreana Gonzalez, the appeal of using Johansson’s voice to “bridge the gap” comes down to the actor’s “special, unique sound that's just a little different from a normal human being's voice.”

“Normally our voices, the vocal folds themselves—vibrate perfectly up against each other and are nice and smooth,” Gonzalez, who has worked with the likes of actor Will Ferrell and singer James Tormé, told The Daily Beast.

“But for someone like Scarlett Johansson or George Clooney, those types of people, they have a little bit of that rasp,” she said. “And I think a lot of people are looking for uniqueness and just something that’s a little bit special and different, especially when you’re talking about voices and you’re only hearing the voice… it’s so important to have a very unique sound in what you’re delivering.”

While OpenAI has maintained that they did not create an “imitation” of Johansson’s voice, the company has since released a statement that includes an apology to the actress: “We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson. Out of respect for Ms. Johansson, we have paused using Sky’s voice in our products.

“We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better,” Altman told NPR.

It’s unclear whether Johansson intends to accept the apology, but a single word from Altman might have dimmed that prospect.

“Mr. Altman even insinuated that the similarity was intentional, by tweeting a single word: ‘her,’” Johansson said in her statement, adding that she believes it was “a reference to the film in which I voiced a chat system Samantha, who forms an intimate relationship with a human.”

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