It is a gauzy late afternoon, and New Yorkers have already begun their exodus for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, making the leafy, unrushed West Village feel more than ever like an elaborate film set. This puzzle of cobbled streets and brownstones is the latest in a long line of places Dakota Johnson has called home. Born in Austin, the actress was raised just about everywhere else, mostly in the vicinity of back lots, sound stages and catering trucks. “I feel like I grew up in the circus,” she says, sipping iced tea in a corner bistro filled with framed butterflies and carved birds. “I know planes, trains and automobiles. And really talented, weird people.” The actress moved to Manhattan following the explosion on this year’s Valentine’s Day of the $570 million box-office phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the infamous love story of handcuffs, whips and non-disclosure agreements penned by EL James. Prior to Fifty Shades, there’d been a few scene-stealing glimpses of her – most notably in David Fincher’s The Social Network as Justin Timberlake’s one-night stand, far more memorable than it should have been, not just for her Stanford underwear but her perfect comic timing.
When she beat the competition to play billionaire Christian Grey’s klutzy, lip-biting, Thomas Hardy-loving obsession however, the 25-year-old was catapulted to the queasy heights of fame that her parents, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson – not to mention her grandmother, Hitchcock’s muse Tippi Hedren – know all too well. If she was previously watching the family drama from the sidelines, she’s at its tumultuous centre now: third generation Hollywood royalty.
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This year, she’s sat through countless talk shows, press junkets and bad bondage jokes, winningly spoofed it all on Saturday Night Live, and emerged the other side a bona fide star. The Fifty Shades of Grey™ franchise chugs on; in Barnes & Noble, EL James’s new novel Grey blankets the shelves; there are lines of fine jewellery, lingerie, wine and, of course, sex toys (nipple clamps and less printable accoutrements). But for now, until the next installment begins filming in 2016, Johnson is on a break from Miss Anastasia Steele. She chose to relax, following weeks of sadomasochism, by taking off on tour with The Black Keys (her best friend is married to the drummer). The actress was somewhere near Nîmes in France when she heard Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino wanted to meet her, urgently. The auteur behind sweeping, Visconti-esque melodrama I Am Love was shooting his new feature – and Margot Robbie had just dropped out. “I was not in the mental space to have a business meeting. I was a little reluctant to go,” Johnson remembers. But days later, she flew to Pantelleria, a tiny island of emerald grottoes and volcanic rock 100km southwest of Sicily, where the cast – Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes and Matthias Schoenaerts – were waiting for her.
Beloved of Aldous Huxley and Truman Capote, Pantelleria can be battered so fiercely by the Mediterranean sirocco the planes are tied down overnight to stop them nudging down the runway. “That island is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been. It has such a weird energy,” she says. “I had a panic attack at the table read, and said, ‘I’m so sorry for wasting your time, but I’m not capable of doing this.’” If the actress wasn’t convinced of her abilities, the others were. “They said, ‘Go back to New York, sort yourself out, and come back and make this movie.’” A Bigger Splash takes its title from Hockney’s Pop Art masterpiece, whose pastel Californian idyll, cerulean sky and glittering aquamarine pool belies something ominous beneath its surface. Guadagnino’s sumptuous film unfolds in the haze of high summer, with Swinton as a rockstar (part Chrissie Hynde, part Patti Smith, but mostly her own brilliant creation) on holiday with her troubled younger boyfriend (Schoenaerts). When her former lover (Fiennes, playing the bull in the china shop with relish) arrives unannounced with his teenage daughter (Johnson), a torrent of jealousy and sexual tension is unleashed, building to a devastating climax as the sirocco whistles around them.
A remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 sun-drenched drama La Piscine, the original dripped St Tropez glamour, starring celebrity couple du jour Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, and a coltish Jane Birkin as the ingénue daughter, wandering poolside in checked mini-dresses and white bikini. Guadagnino plunges his characters into darker and more complex waters – on this jagged, inhospitable little island, the sun, sea and unbroken blue sky feel heavy with doom. Johnson, in Birkin’s former role, is decidedly less innocent. She plays it laconic and dangerous, with flashes of teenage vulnerability, coolly manipulating the shimmering threads between each character from what she thinks is a safe distance – until something happens she can’t take back. “I wanted to make her almost a complete sociopath,” Johnson says. “She meddles in people’s lives because she thinks it’s fun.”
Switching from brunette to blonde, her blue eyes shaded by round Lolita sunglasses, she added pieces from her wardrobe to build the character of Penelope: a see-through white lace top, leather jacket and cut-off denim shorts. (“Those were actually my mom’s, a long time ago,” she says.) It’s an intoxicating, and toxic mix; Bambi on the outside, anaconda underneath. As well as Nabokov’s Lolita, she steeped herself in Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, with its teenage protagonist Cécile, the jaded, over-indulged child of a playboy father. (The novel was a gift from Swinton a few days before the shoot.) “I wanted to use my body and my body language to make her the darkest person she could be, as well as making her desirable. It’s such an interesting thing, when young women are hyper-aware of their sexuality,” Johnson says. “That’s something that struck home with me. I feel like those women really provoke other women, too. If I see young girls flaunting their bodies around, I’m annoyed if I don’t think they know what they’re doing.” If Anastasia Steele was the submissive object of Grey’s desire, Penelope uses her sex appeal like a weapon. “It was so much fun to create a character that makes people really uncomfortable,” she says. “My agent just saw it and she’s like, ‘I can’t really talk to you now!’”
Doing the uncomfortable thing doesn’t bother Johnson. Case in point: that comic sketch about ISIS on Saturday Night Live (“outrage” duly followed in the Twittersphere.) Then there was the televised quarrel with her mother at this year’s Academy Awards when Griffith said she hadn’t seen her daughter’s big break. (For the record, she still hasn’t.) “Oh my God, so embarrassing!” Johnson bursts into laughter. “All day it was building up to that moment and then it was just the wrong time for me to have a little spaz…” Still, this family has been in the public eye for so long, what more natural place to air your grievances than in front of 36.6 million viewers?
When she hosted Saturday Night Live back in February, Johnson revealed she was conceived the night her mother hosted the same show in 1988. (Her parents, sitting in the audience, covered their faces in mock embarrassment but admitted it was true.) That was the year an effervescent Griffith starred in Mike Nichols’ Wall Street fable Working Girl, and Don Johnson was at the height of his pastel-suits-and-Wayfarers fame, as undercover cop “Sonny” Crockett in Miami Vice. The couple, who notoriously married and divorced, then remarried and redivorced, shuttled their daughter between them in her early years: “I’d go absolutely everywhere with them,” Johnson remembers. “It was the only way that I could be with them. And since they were divorced I would spend two weeks with one and two weeks with the other, travelling with a tutor.” Time spent with her father on his Colorado ranch included education in the basic life skills – how to build a fire, shoot a gun, ride a horse and a motorbike – while she was still in single figures. Back in LA, her mother’s basement provided an education in film: “My house in LA was really old and there was a vault with a giant door, filled with movies in alphabetical order, shelves and shelves of them – and then a little section of home movies that are very, very special.”
If they’re anything like 1981’s Roar, starring Hedren and Griffith, they’re probably deranged. When Johnson says she grew up in the circus, she means it quite literally. Her grandmother survived avian attack in Hitchcock’s The Birds and played a disturbed thief in Marnie before walking out of her studio contract when the director’s sexual advances became unbearable. Hitch vowed she’d never work again. Undeterred, Hedren reinvented herself as a trailblazing animal rights activist, founding big-cat sanctuary Shambala in the California desert. There are photographs of Griffith as a child sharing her bed with a 400-pound lion named Neil. (Aged 85, Hedren still lives with a three-legged cheetah in Soledad Canyon.) Roar, directed by Hedren’s then-husband Noel Marshall, starred mother, daughter and a rowdy cast of lions, tigers, jaguars and pumas. By the time filming wrapped, 70 crew had been injured; Hedren had her leg broken by an elephant; the 24-year-old Griffith needed reconstructive surgery around her eye; cinematographer Jan de Bont was virtually scalped by a lion; and Marshall had gangrene. The lions fared much better – one taught himself how to skateboard. “Oh God, that movie was so dangerous! So stupid!” says Johnson. “But I grew up around these extraordinary animals, they’re so beautiful. I have a favourite lion at the sanctuary, Zeus. We have a spiritual connection,” she deadpans. No wonder sitting in a classroom didn’t come easily. “I hated school,” she says. “I travelled so much in my early years that I didn’t understand the process. I felt suffocated – not like I was some grandiose artist, I just felt like an alien.” Put her on a red carpet, though, and she looks pretty comfortable – there’s footage of Johnson at the Oscars aged ten, all blonde hair and freckles, being quizzed by press about her silver gown, flanked by Griffith and her stepdad, Antonio Banderas.
Being sent to an all-girls Catholic school in northern California as a teenager then, must have come as a shock. (“Such a mistake,” she says). She eventually transferred to New Roads in Santa Monica, a private school where, she says, “There were a lot of children in a similar situation.” Factor in two wild, divorced, celebrity parents, an upbringing worthy of fiction, and an elite West Coast school, and you’d expect Johnson to be headed for the kind of story Bret Easton Ellis or Bruce Wagner feast on. But she insists her teenage years were pretty normal: “I was with my family a lot and I had a very serious boyfriend. I was into a lot of music. I got in trouble for smoking pot… I was more interested in spray painting things and hanging out with my friends than I was in school.”
It didn’t take long to find her way to the drama department, where she was cast in Molière’s The Hypochondriac and promptly forgot about her other classes. “I got kicked out of the play because my grades were failing. So I was like, ‘Fuck the drama department’, and I studied figure drawing for three years.” With DNA like hers however, drama was going to be difficult to avoid. Johnson can’t place the moment she decided to pursue acting; there was never an idea she wouldn’t be an actress. “At first my parents were like, ‘No fuckin’ way!’ But I think they knew they didn’t really have an option.” Even so, her audition for hallowed New York drama academy Juilliard wasn’t a promising start. “They said, ‘We’ll ask four out of 150 of you to sing.’ I thought, ‘God, that sucks for those guys.’ I went in so nervous and my comedic monologue was one that Steve Martin wrote. They didn’t think it was funny. At all. And then, of course, they asked me to sing. So I just sang the song in my head, which was Nude by Radiohead, because In Rainbows had just come out. It was so awkward. I was just wailing and they stopped me and said, ‘Thanks for coming.’” She was not asked to join Juilliard.
Today, Johnson still finds auditions tough. “Sometimes I panic to the point where I don’t know what I’m thinking or doing. I have a full anxiety attack. I have them all the time anyway, but with auditioning it’s bad.” That glimpse of vulnerability is part of what directors have fallen for – it translates to a litmus-paper sensitivity on screen. Plus, she’s good fun to be around. People who work with her usually want to repeat the experience; she’s already deep in ballet training for a second project with Guadagnino, a remake of Dario Argento’s cult witchcraft horror Suspiria. “I’m so terrified of it. I have crippling self doubt!” she says. “But the things I’m the most afraid of, I run towards.”
This autumn, Johnson will be on screen in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, the biopic of chilling South Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, who was captured in 2011 after 16 years on the FBI’s most wanted list. A creepy, virtually unrecognisable Johnny Depp plays Bulger, while Johnson plays his girlfriend. The pair bonded on set over a late friend and Woody Creek, Colorado resident: “It was cool because we have a connection in having known Hunter S. Thompson,” she smiles. “My dad was quite close with Hunter. I spent a lot of time in Woody Creek as a kid and he was a magical person to me. He would come into the driveway at odd hours and rearrange rocks and things… He’d bring me odd gifts, like bird collars, or weird fishing gear. Whenever I’d see him, he would bend down and take his hat off and I would pat his bald spot. I have no idea why! It was a thing we did…” Thompson’s former drinking den, the Woody Creek Tavern, strung with fairy lights near a trailer park off Highway 82, still serves a Hunter-strength margarita today. Meanwhile the Woody Creek Valley store, where Johnson worked summers as a kid, is now full of old Rolling Stones and Gonzo posters and stickers from when the Fear and Loathing author ran his unorthodox campaign for sheriff. Tomorrow, Johnson is flying there for the Fourth of July celebrations: “They set off fireworks from Aspen mountain. I’ll see friends, go to barbeques, sit on the mountain, drink PBR, and be a good ol’ American,” she jokes. “My family dynamic has sort of changed recently. The houses that were home, my mom is moving out of. So I’m in this position of really badly wanting to go home for a while, and not having that. I’m trying to grasp on to anything to make me feel grounded and stable. So I’m going back to Colorado. That is the most ‘home’ place of all time.”
Woody Creek might provide a break from the paparazzi attention she’s been subjected to this year – countless snaps of her walking Zeppelin, her dog, or hand in hand with boyfriend Matthew Hitt, frontman of Drowners. It doesn’t help, she says, knowing that her parents went through it. “You never know what it feels like first-hand until it happens to you. You become afraid and so self conscious,” she says. “As a kid I understood my parents were famous, but it annoyed me when people had no regard for us just trying to have a family meal in a restaurant. But back then, they’d want autographs, or to shake your hand. It seemed more personable. Now I’ll glance over and someone is taking a zoomed-in picture of me from across the room. It’s become weird.”
The first notes of Radiohead’s Nude filter out of the bistro’s speakers and Johnson cringes. “Oh my God, they’re playing Nude! Why did I sing that? That song is only sing-able by Thom Yorke…” If Juilliard didn’t appreciate Johnson’s endearing eccentricity, she certainly doesn’t need them now. A few days later, over the phone from Paris, Luca Guadagnino gives his verdict on the young actress. “Alfred Hitchcock said actors shouldn’t be intelligent because they are cattle to be used by the director,” he says. “I am one of the greatest Hitchcock admirers but I have the contrary advice. I want very clever people and a capacity for surprise. Dakota is incredibly intelligent, with a determination and wit that’s very exciting. I think she has a big box of surprises that will go on for a long time.” The Hitchcock reference seems apt. Four decades ago, Tippi Hedren’s Hollywood career may have been cut short, but whatever Hitch tried to extinguish only seems to be burning brighter with every generation in this family. As Johnson heads to Colorado in search of home, she admits there’s one place, not necessarily geographical, that will always feel right. “A film set is the most comfortable place I could be in the world, that’s what I know,” she nods. “I always thought this is what I would end up doing. I just had to wait until it was my turn.”