Is Dakota Johnson the most fearless actress in Hollywood? We spoke to the Fifty Shades star about fame, sex and building a career on her own terms.
igot you balloons!” Dakota Johnson shouts above a din of barking dogs. As the gates of her mother’s house open, the actress is half-revealed beneath a tangle of balloons, wearing jeans and boots. “Is this an appropriate outfit for meeting your landscape architect?” she asks, pulling on a red sweater.
Of course she was joking about the balloons. They’re the detritus of the 27th birthday party that her mother, Melanie Griffith, threw her a few nights before.
We snake through the hills to the mid-century home that Dakota bought last year in a clear concession to the fact that she was, is, and always will be a creature of Hollywood. It was the second house she saw, but she says she fell hard for its modernist pedigree. “I spent hours googling mid-century houses. I get obsessed.”
Now a thousand grown-up renovation decisions must be faced. Has she settled on wood or poured concrete for the master bath? The contractor asks. “High-class problems, y’all,” she says, shaking her head.
She calls for a wall of white blooms to conceal her skinny-dipping habit. “You want a hedge that’s restrained but wild,” the landscaper says. “Like me,” she quips.
And on it goes. He suggests a citrus grove. She suggests a cannabis farm. With Dakota, there is always a naughtiness mingled with surprised pleasure at her own naughtiness. Is this how she accommodates the attention garnered by her star turn opposite Jamie Dornan in the Fifty Shades franchise? Or is that amused titillation among the qualities that earned her the role of Anastasia Steele in the first place? It’s been two years since Fifty Shades changed her life and, although her bloodline is true-blue Hollywood – her dad is Don Johnson, her former stepdad is Antonio Banderas, her grandmother
is Tippi Hedren – there’s no gene for cakewalking alongside a cinematic juggernaut. She’s heard it said that she despises Fifty Shades. Not so. “I’m truly proud of it,” she says. “It’s different, and different is what I’m about.”
Later, sitting at lunch at a restaurant where the women have lacquered lips and pronounced curves, Dakota’s cool-girl looks don’t register. And yet very likely most people here have seen her naked. A lot.
“Nudity is really interesting for an actor,” she says. “There’s no makeup. There are no clothes to tell you a bit about the story. So it becomes purely about the performance. Maybe I have more of a European mindset. I don’t want to see someone wearing underwear in a sex scene. Let’s be honest about it. People are naked when they have sex.”
Despite all the on-screen exposure, she has struggled with the idea of a public life. “I’m terrible in crowds,” she says. “I have a thing with the exposure, with the experience of the past two years. I noticed myself becoming shut off to strangers, even cold. That’s not my nature. I prefer to be tender.”
Tender is Dakota’s favourite word, and her friend Dr Woo, the current status tattoo artist, recently etched it onto her forearm in fine, looping letters.
Born in Texas and raised nowhere in particular, Dakota had an unconventional childhood. Her parents were usually on location, and Dakota tagged along, nannies and tutors in tow. She can’t count the number of schools she attended or the number of friendships that slipped away. She started therapy at age three. “The whole shebang,” she explains. “All the help you can get.” She had to contend with her parents’ divorce, and their struggles with drugs and alcohol. School was a challenge and she hated studying. “I thought, ‘Why do I have to go to school on time?’” she says. “What’s the point when you’re living in Budapest for six months while your stepdad films Evita and you go to school in your hotel room? I was a disaster, and I thought there was something wrong with my brain.
“Maybe I have more of a European mindset. I don’t want to see someone wearing underwear in a sex scene. Let’s be honest about it.”
Now I realise it just works in a different way.”
Film was always the best way to engage Dakota, and celluloid obsessions were her escape: she watched Mary Poppins, Home Alone, Beetlejuice, and later all of Bernardo Bertolucci and John Cassavetes films over and over. She studied ballet until age 16 but always imagined a career in acting. “I thought, ‘This is just what my family does.’”
Dakota did some modelling while in high school, and when she graduated she moved to West Hollywood and started auditioning. A cameo in The Social Network was the break she needed.
Last year, in the long wake of the first Fifty Shades film, Dakota appeared in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, a remake of the 1969 film La Piscine. To watch her slowly peel a fig in it, as she stares at the men who stare at her, makes one feel somewhat uneasy. This kind of adolescent sexual power has been her on-screen dominion. “I’m fascinated by young women coming to terms with their sexuality,” she explains.
Luca then offered her the lead in Suspiria, a remake of a 1977 cult horror movie about a US ballet student who enrols in a German dance academy that turns out to be run by witches. Dakota spent six months retraining herself in ballet, and was involved in the project from the start.
“It feels like we’re not making this for anyone but ourselves,” she says, “which is how I’d like to feel all the time when I make films. I know that’s not going to happen, but the thing about Fifty Shades is that, even if it’s mainstream, the subject matter isn’t. That way I can do something mass but stay true to my weird interests.”
We meet again a few weeks later at the famous Glass House built by Philip Johnson. Dakota is struck in particular by the bed the architect shared with his partner of 45 years. “It’s the tiniest bed,” she says. “I love it. I mean, if you always want to cuddle, you’re in a pretty good spot.”
Last year, she broke up with model and musician Matthew Hitt. “Things happen. I think I’m a bit heartbroken all the time, even when I’m in a happy relationship. My feelings, even the good ones, get so intense that they hurt,” she says. Right now she’s on her own. Enough said. “Can we make things really juicy? Can we say I’m taking this time to explore my bisexuality?”
She describes the ‘new’ Anastasia, who allowed Christian back into her life on her own terms in Fifty Shades Darker, as a badass. “She’s hypersexual and very tough and very loving. Her character has so many different aspects that don’t normally make sense in one person. I tried to amplify them all.”
“I was a disaster. I thought there was something wrong with my brain. Now I realise it just works in a different way.”
In the process of unpuzzling this character’s complex sexual life, Dakota developed an appreciation for BDSM. “What I admire is the bravery and the honesty of people who aren’t afraid to say they need something a bit more in order to get off. The world is still so sexually oppressed. Isn’t God’s gift to humans the orgasm? Here’s a fun fact: a woman has as many nerve endings in her clitoris as a man has in his entire penis.”
The third film, Fifty Shades Freed, is due for release early next year. It was shot back-to-back with the sequel, both under the direction of James Foley.
Dakota would love to get behind the camera herself, and although she has her own production company, Silhouette Productions, she’s been too busy to get anything off the ground. For now she moves on to the set of the love story The Sound of Metal. Dakota recruited friend St Vincent to create music for the film.
“I finally feel that I’m in the right place at the right time in my life, collaborating with artists who elevate me,” she says. “A few years ago, I was waiting for someone to give me a chance. I’m a pretty sensitive person, and when I don’t feel protected, I tend to close right up. But when I feel safe, I think I can do anything.”
2015 In Dolce & Gabbana at the premiere of Jupiter Ascending.
2013 In Gucci at the LACMA Art + Film Gala. 2015 In Marc Jacobs at the Venice Film Festival. 2016 In Gucci at the Met Gala. 2017 In Gucci at the Oscars.
2015 In Chanel at the Golden Globe Awards. 2015 In Saint Laurent at the
premiere. How to Be Single
2017 In Gucci at the Gucci Cruise 2017 show.