Behind the scenes:
“I got you balloons!” Dakota Johnson shouts above a din of barking dogs, her hands cupped around her mouth in the shape of a heart.
As the iron gates of her mother’s Hollywood Hills house creep open, the auburn-haired actress is half-revealed on the stone steps beneath a dense tangle of helium-filled Mylar. She is wearing black Gucci boots and high-water vintage boys’ Levi’s in the ideal normcore wash. “Is this an appropriate outfit for meeting your landscape architect?” she asks, pulling on a crimson mohair sweater by The Elder Statesman (its designer, Greg Chait, is a pal). “Do I look like an adult who can convincingly use words like night-blooming?”
Of course she did not get me balloons. These are the detritus of the twenty-seventh-birthday party that her mother, Melanie Griffith, threw her a few nights before. The festivities culminated at Jumbo’s Clown Room, a strip club in Thai Town where Johnson watched what she describes as the saddest pole dance in the history of pole dances. We are now snaking through the hills in a soccer-mom SUV that has to suffice until the arrival of the forest-green 1995 Ford F150 that her grandfather has promised to send up from his house in Missouri. Our destination: the mid-century bungalow that Dakota, then living in downtown Manhattan, bought last winter in a clear concession to the fact that she was, is, and very likely will always be a creature of Hollywood. It was only the second house she saw, but she fell hard for its modernist pedigree; the architect Carl Maston built it for his own family in 1947.
“I used to spend hours and hours Googling mid-century houses,” she explains. “I get obsessed.” It is undergoing a renovation, and a thousand grown-up 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. Outside, a cobweb-covered urinal that belonged to the TV producer Ryan Murphy, a previous owner, leans on a wall under an enormous jacaranda tree. “Get that thing out of here!” she declares, though her smile seems to ask, What if I were the kind of person who made demands? The landscaper suggests replacing the grass between the flagstones with thyme. Dakota calls for a wall of white blooms to conceal her skinny-dipping habit.
“You want a hedge that’s not overly manicured,” the landscaper says. “Restrained but wild.”
“Like me,” she replies.
And so it continues. He suggests a citrus grove. She suggests a cannabis farm. Before we go, Johnson points up toward the guest room with its wall of south-facing windows. “Let’s do Roman shades in there,” she says, “because I think it’s kind of pervy to only be able to see people’s legs.”
There is always, with Johnson, an air of naughtiness mingled with an air of surprised pleasure at her own naughtiness. Is it a public accommodation, almost reflexive at this point, to the three years of prurient attention that have accompanied her star turn opposite Jamie Dornan in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, as well as its two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker—out this month—and the imminent Fifty Shades Freed? Or is that amused titillation—the taste for a sex joke, and really any joke—among the qualities that earned her the role of Anastasia Steele in the first place? It has now been exactly two years since Fifty Shades changed Johnson’s life, and although her bloodline is true-blue Hollywood—her father is Don Johnson, her stepfather is Antonio Banderas, her grandmother is Tippi Hedren—there is no gene for cakewalking alongside a $500 million cinematic juggernaut. She has heard it said that she despises Fifty Shades. Not so. “I’m truly proud of it,” she says. “It’s a cool story, and I think it’s different, and different is what I’m about.” She has read that Dornan and she can’t stand each other. She has read that they are having an affair. “We hate each other and we’re having an affair, so everybody’s right. How about that?”
We are now sitting at lunch at a restaurant in West Hollywood, in a room where a preponderance of the women sport lacquered lips and pronounced curves. Amid such overtness, Johnson’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. “Jamie and I worked so incredibly closely for so long. There were no inhibitions, and it was very honest, very trusting. But I mean, what a gamble! What if he had turned out to be a total dick? There’s no makeup. There are no clothes to tell you a bit about the story. There’s no jewelry to give you a clue about social status. So it becomes purely about the performance.” She sips her coffee and softens her voice, lest her cover get blown. “Will I stop doing nude scenes when my boobs start sagging? I don’t know. Maybe I have more of a European mind-set about these things. I don’t want to see someone wearing a bra and underwear in a sex scene. Let’s be honest about it. People are naked when they fuck.”
Despite all the on-screen exposure, in vivo Johnson has struggled with the idea of a public life. She is, perhaps, too jaded to enjoy the frisson of new fame, and too familiar with it from family life. “I’m terrible in crowds,” she says. “I was recently at the Gucci show in Milan because Alessandro [Michele, the brand’s designer] is a good friend, so I felt like I could just go, see what he was working on, and be like, I’m proud of you; call me later. But normally I’m sitting there thinking, I don’t belong here, I don’t know all these people, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I have a thing with the exposure, with the experience of the past two years. I think I went into this weird K-hole of feeling so scared of people. I noticed myself becoming shut off to strangers, even cold. That’s not my nature. I prefer to be tender.”
Tender is actually Johnson’s favorite word, and last fall her friend Dr. Woo, Los Angeles’s current status tattoo artist, etched it in fine, looping letters onto her forearm. Another tattoo by Woo in white ink reads LIGHTLY, MY DARLING, words plucked from a book by Aldous Huxley. (Not to be outshone, her mother recently had Woo tattoo the word HUSH onto her knuckles.) Famous people tend to squirm at the prospect of discussing their fame, but Johnson feels strongly that the accompanying crisis of tenderness must be overcome.
“No one wants to say that they want to be famous, nobody wants to sound like they like being famous, nobody wants to sound ungrateful, nobody wants to sound like they’re in denial,” she says. “It’s a scary word. What is the literal definition anyway?” She opens her phone and starts Googling. “‘Fame. From the Latin for rumor. The condition of being recognized.’ The condition! But then I’m like, am I even a famous person? Because I imagine that those are people who other people are constantly staring at, which isn’t me. Who gets photographed every day? Brad and Angelina? But they don’t, because I’m fairly certain that they’ve built underground tunnels everywhere, and that’s how they get around.”
Johnson, born in Texas and raised nowhere in particular, was primed for an unconventional life. Her parents were on location for long stretches of her childhood, and Dakota tagged along, nannies and tutors in tow. She cannot count the number of schools she attended, a few months here or there, or the number of childhood 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 well-publicized struggles with drugs and alcohol. “I was so consistently unmoored and discombobulated. I didn’t have an anchor anywhere.” School was a challenge, and she hated to study. “I never learned how to learn the way you’re supposed to as a kid,” she says. “I thought, Why do I have to go to school on time? 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 for so long that there was something wrong with my brain. Now I realize that it just works in a different way.”
Film was always the best way to engage Johnson, and she escaped to a succession of celluloid obsessions, films she would watch over and over: Mary Poppins, Home Alone, Beetlejuice, and later all of Bernardo Bertolucci and John Cassavetes. She studied ballet until age sixteen but always imagined a career in acting. “I thought, This is just what my family does,” she says. “It’s like, my dad’s a lawyer, so I’m a lawyer. Except that it doesn’t usually work that way.”
Tippi Hedren allows for the possibility that it’s the genes. “I didn’t push Melanie into films, and she didn’t push Dakota. I think neither of us is the type to push,” Hedren tells me over the phone one afternoon, as a tigress named Mona stares at her through the window of her home on the Shambala Preserve, the California animal sanctuary she founded. “Dakota and I never discussed the negative aspects of the business. I’m not good at advice anyway. But I have told her that I think it’s important to do different things in life, to have a sense of balance. Marnie, my second film with Hitchcock, dealt with a topic that films didn’t discuss back then: the effects of childhood trauma. Fifty Shades of Grey is similar in that it’s addressing something in a mainstream film for the first time. Although I haven’t actually seen it. Isn’t that the strangest thing? I couldn’t tell you why.”
Johnson made some money modeling while in high school in Santa Monica, the first time she was in one place for a few consecutive years, and when she graduated she moved herself and her then boyfriend to an apartment in West Hollywood. She had applied to a single college, Juilliard, in New York, for which she rashly performed monologues by Shakespeare and Steve Martin. “Juilliard and I mutually agreed that it wouldn’t work out,” she recalls. Back in Los Angeles, she began auditioning, and a break came when she booked what turned out to be a memorable cameo as Sean Parker’s Stanford one-night stand in The Social Network.
In the spring of 2016, in the long wake of the first Fifty Shades installment, Johnson appeared in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, a stylish remake of the 1969 film La Piscine, in a role originated by Jane Birkin. To watch Johnson slowly peel an Adriatic fig as she stares at the men who stare at her is a somewhat discomfiting experience. The accrual and deployment of adolescent sexual power, in this case grossly misused, have been Johnson’s on-screen dominion. “I’ve been in a phase of my life where I’m fascinated by young women coming to terms with their sexuality,” she explains. “I guess, by proxy, I have been experiencing that in my own life, and it’s very interesting to me.”
Guadagnino possesses an auteur’s loyalty to his players, and it was during the filming of A Bigger Splash that he asked Johnson if she would take on the leading role in a remake of Suspiria, Dario Argento’s cult horror movie from 1977. The film tells the story of an American ballet student who enrolls in a German dance academy that turns out to be controlled by a coven of witches. Tilda Swinton, the star of A Bigger Splash, plays the academy director. “Dakota and I have a rolling foolishness between us,” she explains, “a kind of childish nonsense that was born the moment we met and means that we are always on the verge of not being able to get serious work done. Having to meet each other’s eye during a take is generally a pretty significant challenge for us.”
Suspiria, for which Johnson spent six months retraining herself in ballet, represents the first time she has been involved in a project since its inception. “It feels like we’re not making this for anyone but ourselves,” she says, “which is how I would 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 commercial and mainstream, the subject matter isn’t. In that way I can do something mass but stay true to my weird interests.” One might accuse Johnson, who was last seen in the 2016 romantic comedy How to Be Single, of the shrewdness to turn herself simultaneously into an art-house fixture and a mainstream star. That balance is extremely attractive to her. “The stories I want to tell, the characters I want to play, don’t typically exist in huge, commercial box-office movies,” she says. “But this is a business.”
Johnson and I meet again a few weeks later, at the famous Glass House that Philip Johnson built in the Connecticut woods. Is it too predictable that she is struck in particular by the bed that Johnson shared with David Whitney, his partner of 45 years? “It’s the tiniest bed,” she says. “I love it. I mean, if you always want to cuddle the person you’re with, then you’re in a pretty good spot.” Johnson ended a relationship with Matthew Hitt, a model and the lead singer of the band the Drowners, last spring. “Shit happens,” she says. “I think I’m a little bit heartbroken all the time, even when I’m in a happy relationship. I don’t do casual very well, and my feelings, even the good ones, get so intense that they hurt.” For the present, Johnson is on her own. Enough said. “Can we make things really juicy? Can we say that I’m taking this time to explore my bisexuality? Or that I have given myself to the Lord following the release of my sexually explicit trifecta of films?”
Fifty Shades Darker is a bit more of a thriller than its predecessor, and the sex, now that Ana has allowed Christian back into her life on her own terms, is more impassioned, less clinical. “This woman is a badass,” Johnson says. “She’s hyperintelligent and hypersexual and very tough and very loving, and her character has so many different aspects that don’t normally make sense in one person. I tried to amplify them all.” In the process of unpuzzling Ana’s complex sexual life, Johnson has developed a deep admiration for BDSM, which she feels is still vulnerable to ignorance and scorn. “First of all, there are some very chic avenues in BDSM,” she says. “It can be very beautiful and tasteful, and the materials can be luxurious. It’s not like being on Hollywood Boulevard and walking by a ball-gag store. But what I admire is the bravery and the honesty of people who get down with it, who aren’t afraid to say that they need something a bit more in order to get off. America is still so sexually oppressed. Isn’t God’s gift to humans the orgasm? Here’s a fun fact: A woman has the same number of nerve endings in her clitoris as a man does in his entire penis.”
Johnson spent most of the first half of 2016 in Vancouver shooting the two forthcoming installments, both directed by James Foley. He recalls her coming to set with a crumpled printout of The New York Times, which she would read during makeup. “She would talk about the stuff happening in Crimea and then, the minute I said ‘Action,’ do things with her character that I was never expecting, but with total authority and authenticity,” he explains. “She has a very sensitive bullshit meter, so if she does something that is the least bit unreal she just stops herself. She is just bizarrely instinctual about it all. She already knows enough to direct something. Easily.”
As it happens, Johnson would like to get behind the camera, and though she has her own production company as well as a writing partner, lately she is too busy to get anything off the ground. “I have a plethora of half-filled journals,” she says. Suspiria finishes shooting this winter, and then she moves on to The Sound of Metal, a love story written and directed by Darius Marder and costarring Matthias Schoenaerts. Johnson recruited her friend St. Vincent (ex-girlfriend of her friend Cara Delevingne) 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 fighting, 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.”