Scarlett Johansson, the Hollywood star facing OpenAI

In the 2013 film His, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a loner and soon-to-be divorced, downloads a new operating system powered by artificial intelligence that its creator, Elements Software, advertises as “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you and knows you.”

It’s exactly what the despondent Twombly longs for. Sitting at his home computer, he selects a female voice for his digital assistant and is immediately greeted by a bubbly alto tinged with an irresistible rasp. “Hello, I’m here,” says Samantha, voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson. He is in love and the two soon begin a romantic relationship.

Samantha’s voice also appears to have left a deep impression on Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, an $86 billion artificial intelligence startup whose ambitions appear to be as lofty as those of the fictional Elements Software.

This week, Johansson claimed that after rejecting Altman’s offer to provide the voice for her company’s ChatGPT chatbot last September, OpenAI moved forward with a new version called Sky that featured a voice so similar to hers that it didn’t even his closest friends could tell the difference.

“When I heard the published demo, I was shocked, angry, and incredulous that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine,” Johansson wrote in a statement released Monday.

After receiving legal notices from Johansson’s team, Altman removed Sky’s voice and apologized to the actor, saying the voice should not be like hers. The shockwaves still reverberate in Hollywood and beyond.

Despite winning AI protection in last year’s strikes, actors remain fearful that digital copies of their voices and portraits will be used without their permission, depriving them of control over their careers and income. If anything, the episode will deepen his convictions that the mantra of many technology companies – “move fast and break things” – is coming to revolutionize the entertainment industry.

Johansson, the star of critically acclaimed films such as Lost in translation and Marvel blockbusters that grossed billions of dollars, he didn’t like the idea of ​​taking on OpenAI. But she knew her status could draw attention to an issue that also affects others in the industry who have less influence, say people who have worked with her.

It’s a role she’s played before. In 2021, the actress made headlines when she confronted Disney over another issue linked to a disruptive technology: streaming. She accused the most powerful company in Hollywood of breaching her contract by releasing black widow on its streaming service at the same time the film debuted in theaters, a move that would boost Disney’s stock price and the number of streaming subscribers but reduce its bonus.

Disney responded to Johansson, accusing the actor of “callous disregard” for the pandemic. After a public and bitter fight, he received a multimillion-dollar settlement.

Johansson was born and raised in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, in what she described as “a middle-income housing complex” filled with children whose parents were artists. Her father is a Danish architect and her mother is a producer.

As a child, she loved old Hollywood movies and admired actors from Judy Garland to Winona Ryder. She began acting at an early age, appearing in off-Broadway plays before landing her first film role at age 8 in Rob Reiner. North.

Her voice, which would later become an asset, was a drawback when it came to booking commercials when she was a child actress. “He looked like a whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking fool. He wasn’t going to sell Jell-O with that voice, you know?

Johansson’s big break came at age 19 when Sofia Coppola Lost in translation, which she starred in, was released. It was the beginning of a long and successful arc that has turned the 39-year-old actor into one of the highest-grossing actors in history.

Johansson is married to Saturday night live comedian Colin Jost, whom he met while hosting the late night show. She has two children: a son with Jost and a daughter from a previous marriage.

The star has expressed her frustration at being typecast for her appearance. “In a way, they were preparing me to be what is called an explosive actor. “I was playing the other woman and the object of desire and suddenly I found myself cornered in this place.”

If you felt cornered by the OpenAI situation, you now have the leverage to fight back. Flanked by her powerful agent, CAA boss Bryan Lourd, and attorney John Berlinski, she has shed light on a vexing issue in Hollywood and across the creative industries. It is unclear whether her team will take legal action. Meanwhile, the OpenAI team says it received more than 400 actor submissions and cast five voices, including the role of Sky, before Altman approached Johansson in September 2023 “to discuss her possible involvement as the sixth actress in dubbing for ChatGPT”. .

There have been similar disputes in the pre-digital era, jurists say, most notably the case brought by Bette Midler against Ford Motor Company. In that case, a Midler impersonator was hired for an advertisement after the singer turned down the job. A court ruled in Midler’s favor on the basis that her distinctive voice was protected from unauthorized use.

This cannot be the result Altman expected. The AI ​​entrepreneur made no secret of his love for the film that gave Johansson’s voice a starring role. After the debut of the new version of ChatGPT, he took to X to post a one-word message to his followers: Ella.

christopher.grimes@ft.com, anna.nicolaou@ft.com

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