Scarlett Johansson is sitting at a desk in the bedroom of her pretty, Marie Antoinette-style New York apartment, the walls covered in an eau-de-nil wallpaper awash with pale golden fronds. Her Nordic blonde hair is pulled back and parted in the middle, and she’s wearing a grey crewneck sweater and large black reading glasses that frame the contours of her angelic face. She brings to mind the 17th-century Dutch maid she portrayed in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the 2003 film adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s novel, itself inspired by Vermeer’s famous portrait, circa 1665, who the art critic Alastair Sooke once described as having a face “as luminous as the moon in the night sky.” He might as well have been talking about Johansson.

“I’m re-entering the world after four months living in 1968 Cape Canaveral space-race world,” she says of Project Artemis, her production company’s latest film, which she stars in with Woody Harrelson and Channing Tatum.

Yet we are not here to talk movies, rather the launch of her own skincare brand, The Outset, co-founded with her business partner, the California-born entrepreneur Kate Foster, who is also on our call and similarly ensconced in her New York bedroom, her dog lying on the bed behind her.

The celebrity beauty brand market feels pretty crowded these days, I say. Can there really be room for yet another shouty launch? Plus, hasn’t she always avoided the spotlight, choosing not to be on social media? Why now? Johansson, 38, regards me attentively. “I was at my wits’ end,” she says, cradling her forehead in one hand, explaining how her teenage years and most of her twenties were blighted by severe acne. She grimaces remembering the moment a makeup artist on the set of 1998’s The Horse Whisperer remarked that her skin looked like an eruption on Mount Vesuvius.

“I was always being told my skin was dirty,” she says, “that I needed to clean it more. I used to go to Macy’s and buy endless products. For years I would go through cycles of drying out my skin, getting more breakouts, not using moisturizer. It was a chronic issue I couldn’t get a handle on, and I had access to great dermatologists.”

After years of frustration, particularly with how young girls are pushed into using increasingly complex and harsh ingredients to treat problem skin, she decided to do the one thing she was told to never do: use a moisturizer. “I’d never done that before because I was so terrified of any kind of oil.” Within a week her skin was looking so much better. “I hadn’t had skin like that since I was 12. People would ask me if I’d just had a facial. I knew there was something there but I just couldn’t find a brand that had a cohesive regime.” She started thinking about creating her own skincare range, but with two important caveats: she didn’t want to license her own name or go down the white label route by using another company’s products for her brand. “I wanted to do it from scratch and I needed a producing partner.”

She grimaces remembering the moment a makeup artist on the set of 1998’s The Horse Whisperer remarked that her skin looked like an eruption on Mount Vesuvius.

Just before lockdown, a friend in the venture capital world introduced her to Foster, who had always struggled with skin irritations herself with with whom she clearly gets on well. “I remember our first meeting was in your production office,” Foster says. Johansson immediately interjects: “But our first date was at that Aura Bar restaurant.” Do they remember what they both wore? “You had red lipstick on,” Johansson says. “Yes, I did,” Foster replies, “and probably the white button-down shirt I am wearing now. I remember you had on some really awesome Gucci pants, like blue and eye-catching, and you’d obviously been there before because the waiter knew your drink.” They both laugh. Foster looks at me and says: “Scarlett likes a margarita.”

The pair bonded during Covid as mothers of young home-schooled children. (Johansson married her third husband, Colin Jost, with whom she has a two-year-old son, in 2020. She also has an eight-year-old daughter from her second marriage, to the French journalist/art curator Romain Dauriac, while Kate has a daughter and son, who are ten and seven.) “It was something to focus on other than having to explain what subtraction means,” Johansson says, rolling her eyes.

The Outset—the name reflects the skin regime you should adopt from a young age, or indeed at any age—is a simple but cohesive offering the pair tested endlessly on themselves, made up of soothing and clean ingredients that nourish rather than strip the skin’s natural barrier. The range consists of a micellar cleanser, serum, moisturizer, vitamin C eye cream, night cream, face oil, gentle exfoliator, and a blue clay mask, with prices starting from $34. The packaging is equally low-key and discreet: pale, smoky crystal bottles with pretty blue writing.

I wonder if having her own image constantly reflected back at her as an actress affected Johansson, yet she is refreshingly sanguine. “My job requires me to have an awareness, but I’m also free of the trappings of it at the same time,” she answers. “I don’t watch playbacks or look at pictures when I do shoots. I don’t want to see all the outtakes. It’s part of the reason I don’t have social media. I’m self-aware enough to know your body and face changes, but that constant self-analysis is so counterproductive. I make an effort to not be hyperfocused on my appearance now, to be gentle and kind to myself because I’ve spent so long obsessing on the quality of my skin.”

They were surprised to discover early on that 30 per cent of their customer base is male, and both of their husbands now use The Outset diligently. “Scarlett’s vision was for it to be genderless,” Foster says, adding that her husband refused to post an online review until he had properly tried the products. Johansson’s husband loves the eye cream apparently. “I’d never used one before but he does all the time. So Colin has been our eye cream tester—he applies it every day,” she says, giggling sweetly.

As they gear up for their UK launch, I ask them what they make of Kate Moss, who last year debuted her own wellness brand, Cosmoss. “She’s so cool,” Johansson says immediately. “I don’t know her personally but everything I read about her, it’s like she’s always having a great time, she’s beautiful and carefree, like she knows there’s one chance on this earth and she’s taking advantage of that, and that’s wonderful.”

Beauty routines aside, do they subscribe to the current “feed your skin” nutritional supplements fad? “In the past I went on diets of turmeric, lemon juice or active charcoal, I did so many things like that but never found that it affected my skin much,” Johansson says. “I didn’t do dairy for years, but that didn’t make a difference either. The biggest thing is not drinking alcohol because it affects my sleep so much. It’s a hard thing to adopt because I like a glass of wine at the end of the day.”

I have one last question for them: are they good girls, do they take their makeup off religiously every night? “Absolutely,” Foster says. I turn to Johansson. “Yes,” she says. “I might have had three margaritas but I will still do it, even after a premiere. And I floss!”

Vassi Chamberlain is a Writer at Large at Air Mail