“I FELT VULNERABLE”
AS THE DAUGHTER OF MELANIE GRIFFITH AND GRANDDAUGHTER OF TIPPI HEDREN, THE OFFSCREEN DAKOTA JOHNSON IS NO SUBMISSIVE
Fifty Shades Darker actor Dakota Johnson opens up about those “difficult” sex scenes, and reveals her family’s reaction to the steamy role.
“THE FIRST TIME I CHANGED HER NAPPY, IT WAS A BIT ‘ OH HOW DO I DO THAT’ IS RIDICULOUS. WHICH IS RIDICULOUS. HAVE
Sex sells,” observes Dakota Johnson – an understatement, coming as it does from the star of phenomenal success story Fifty Shades of Grey. The 27-yearold has made her name as Anastasia Steele, a guileless student embarking on an affair with sadomasochistic billionaire Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan.
The pair return in Fifty Shades Darker, opening in cinemas this week. As sequels go, it promises to be sexier, more exciting and – yes – darker than the first film in the trilogy. Although still Christian’s “submissive”, Anastasia’s role this outing is rather different. “You see her evolve from a semi-meek, inhibited young girl to a forthright and strong woman,” Johnson tells Stellar in a trailer on the Universal Studios lot, outside LA.
Raking in $756 million worldwide, Fifty Shades was evidence, if any were needed, that there’s a huge audience for erotic cinema aimed at women. “Movies exploring female sexuality are rare. That is why I was drawn to it,” says Johnson. The actor had appeared in films The Social Network and 21 Jump Street, but it was her turn as Anastasia that vaulted her to stardom. “It’s been a total whirlwind since the film came out,” she says.
No stranger to the limelight, Johnson comes from an illustrious Tinseltown lineage. She’s the daughter of actors Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, who tied the knot twice and finally split in 1995. Antonio Banderas, who was married to Griffith for 19 years, is her stepfather, and her grandmother is Alfred Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren. So it’s no surprise that acting is second nature to her. “I spent my entire childhood on film sets and we were always watching movies,” says Johnson, who made her screen debut aged 10 alongside her mother in Crazy in Alabama, directed by Banderas.
While privileged, Johnson’s childhood had its complications. She has an older half-brother, Alexander, from her mother’s first marriage; a half-sister, Stella, 20 – Griffith and Banderas’s daughter – and four half-siblings on her father’s side. Johnson and Alexander “would travel two weeks with Mum if she was on location in, say, Budapest, and two weeks with my dad if he was filming in San Francisco. I wouldn’t change it and I don’t regret it… not that I had a choice.”
However, “I would get in all sorts of trouble,” she adds. Johnson doesn’t elaborate, but did spend time in rehab for drug abuse aged 17. Her parents were strict. “I was grounded a lot,” she recalls. “But mostly they were just supportive.”
Her peripatetic early life meant there were educational challenges. “My brother and I would travel with a tutor, so I didn’t go to school till I was 10. It was tricky,” she admits. “I never spent a full year at school; I was taken out if my parents were on location. I didn’t know how to manage my time, do homework, or even stay in a classroom all day long. I was used to going to museums and travelling around talking to people. I love learning – but I hated school.”
The actor describes Griffith as “an amazing mum, the most loving and generous woman”. She is also inspired by her grandmother, “a powerful woman. She’s the picture of grace and I spend a lot of time with her.” Johnson tells Stellar she worked with Hedren on her recent book, Tippi: A Memoir, in which the 87-year-old revealed she was subjected to sexual harassment from Hitchcock, who was obsessed with her. “She was not having any of that,” declares Johnson. “She was extremely wilful and she protected herself. Hitchcock told her he was going to ruin her career and she said, ‘Do what you have to do,’ and walked away.”
Would Johnson have the courage to do the same? “Yes,” she says. “It’s in my blood. We’re all very strong women. I was brought up that way – I am assertive if I need to be and I have an inner strength. We’re all pretty fiery women.”
Her mother’s career skyrocketed in the ’80s, and included an Oscar nomination for Working Girl (1988), but she has been absent from screens recently. Johnson lashed out at Hollywood’s neglect last year, asking, “Why isn’t my mother in the movies? She’s an extraordinary actress,” adding that the industry is “f*cking brutal”.
“I do think it is very hard for women,” she says now. “But also, as an artist, your life evolves, and sometimes you don’t want to make movies anymore.” In her mother’s case, “I think it’s a bit of both,” she says. Any plans to act alongside Griffith? “That would be awesome. I would love to do that.”
While it’s hardly family viewing, Johnson says her loved ones supported her decision to work on Fifty Shades: “If it’s something that makes me happy, they’re into it.” None of them actually watched the first film. “It would be like if they watched me get brutally murdered. Why would they want to see that? It’s inappropriate.”
The new instalment has yet more sex scenes. “They are explicit,” says Johnson. Filming them “was uncomfortable at times. You feel vulnerable. There are times when you’re handcuffed or blindfolded, your senses are taken away and there’s a heightened anxiety, but I’m still trying to do my job. There were moments that were difficult, emotionally and physically. It’s not something you ever really get used to, but I trust Jamie,” she says of her co-star. “He’s extremely protective of me.”
Veteran filmmaker James Foley ( Who’s That Girl) was in charge of those tricky scenes after a highly publicised clash with the books’ author, E.L. James, led to Part One’s director, Sam TaylorJohnson, quitting the franchise. Switching bosses, says Johnson, “was initially scary, because I was comfortable and knew what to expect from Sam. But James has a real eye for cinema and we all worked together really well.”
The respect is mutual. Foley has high praise for his female lead, comparing her to “Jane Fonda in her prime… I think Dakota’s performance is as brilliant as Fonda’s in [1971 cult classic] Klute, in terms of psychological complexity,” he says.
Dornan and Johnson’s onscreen chemistry, says Foley, was born from an authentic camaraderie between the actors. “We shot for 103 days and I’m here to testify with a lie detector that I never saw one moment of testiness. There is an incredible sense of humour between the two of them. The sex is, yes, BDSM, and intense, but in the middle of a very intense thing, one of them is smiling or a giggle bursts through.”
One question still divides critics and observers: are the films demeaning to women? For Johnson, they deliver “a positive message, encouraging women to be bold, unafraid and confident; to love themselves and their bodies”. She sees Anastasia as a role model, not a victim; “a young woman who has insane amounts of self-respect. She is very honest about her evolution as a young girl becoming a woman, exploring her sexuality. Everything is consensual; everything’s her choice.”
Although some activists have called for fans to boycott the film, arguing it promotes violence against women, like all involved in the project, director Foley agrees the female lead is very much in control – and the distinction between fantasy and real-life is never blurred: “Ana discovers there are situations sexually where she enjoys being dominated, but it’s very clear that, outside the bedroom, that’s the last thing that’s going to happen.”
Beyond the box-office powerhouse that is Fifty Shades, Johnson, who cites Nicole Kidman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Gena Rowlands as role models, has already starred alongside such luminaries as Johnny Depp and Tilda Swinton, and has a diverse slate of upcoming projects. And with her celebrity on the rise, she’s savvy enough to keep her personal life out of the spotlight. Single after a two-year relationship with rocker Matthew Hitt, Johnson won’t discuss romance, and claims to lead “a low-profile life” in which unwanted media intrusion “actually doesn’t happen to me a lot”.
Next year she will appear in Fifty Shades Freed, the final film in the series. After that, “I don’t know where I’m heading – all I know is I want to make films,” she says, revealing that, outside of work, she dreams of having children and moving to the country. “I grew up on a ranch in Colorado, riding horses. Life is just simple there. It’s a special place to me. One day I would love to have that for myself… and for my family.” Fifty Shades Darker is in cinemas on February 9.
“THERE ARE TIMES WHEN YOU’RE HANDCUFFED OR BLINDFOLDED, AND THERE’S A HEIGHTENED ANXIETY... BUT I TRUST JAMIE”
GREY MATTER (from top) Fifty Shades stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan; with her grandmother, Tippi Hedren, and mother, Melanie Fifty Shades Darker.