Johnson and director SJ Clarkson tease their “psychological, cerebral” Sony-Marvel movie, about clairvoyant heroine Cassandra Webb.
Dakota Johnson, future Fast & Furious star?
Since her breakout role in the Fifty Shades movies, the 34-year-old actress has amassed an eclectic and impressive resume, from comedies like How to Be Single to buzzy indies like Suspiria and The Lost Daughter. Now, Johnson is suiting up to join the world of superheroes, playing a clairvoyant heroine in Madame Web (out Feb. 14). In an exclusive interview with EW, Johnson opened up about joining the Marvel pantheon — and the high-speed hidden talent she discovered while filming.
“I got to do a day of stunt driving work, and I’m really good at it, it seems!” Johnson exclaims, speaking to EW via Zoom in January. “I mean, I can do some really wild things with a car. I drove an ambulance. I drove a taxicab. I drove everything in the movie — except for flying through the air and out of a building. But other than that, I’m like, ‘Watch out, Tom Cruise.’”
Johnson puts those newfound skills to the test in Madame Web, the latest superhero flick set in Sony’s ever-expanding Marvel universe. Directed by SJ Clarkson (Jessica Jones), the film follows New York paramedic Cassandra Webb (Johnson) as she develops preternatural superpowers after a freak accident, allowing her to see into the future.
Clarkson initially reached out to Johnson about playing the titular web-weaver in 2021, shortly after the actress had finished filming The Lost Daughter. Her initial reaction, Johnson admits, was skepticism: “I got sent this script, and I was like, ‘I don’t know about me being a superhero.’” But the more she read, the more she found herself drawn to Cassandra.
“I was sort of mystified by her powers,” Johnson adds. “I felt like, ‘Oh, I really would love to see that superhero. I would love to see a young woman whose superpower is her mind.’”
Madame Web is part of Sony’s large stable of Spider-Man characters, and at first glance, she may seem like an odd choice for a solo movie: Denny O’Neil and John Romita Jr. created Cassandra in 1980 as a supporting character in the Spider-Man comics, introducing her as a blind and paralyzed elderly woman with telepathic abilities. In Marvel comics, she spends most of her time hooked up to a web-like life support system, guiding other heroes with her psychic powers. But Johnson and Clarkson say they wanted to, ahem, weave their own version of Cassie’s journey, and they describe Madame Web as an “origin story” for the character.
“I really love the idea of somebody who can see into the future, but until they can really understand their past and appreciate where they are, they can’t use that power,” Clarkson explains. “Without wanting to overload it with profundity, I thought that’s an amazing thing to explore: If we understand our past and see where we are in the present, we can then make better choices for the future.”
Set in 2003, the film follows Cassie as she grapples with her newfound powers and faces off against a mysterious enemy named Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim). Ezekiel is hunting three young women: Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), and Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced). Those are names that should sound familiar to hardcore Spidey fans: In the comics, Julia, Mattie, and Anya all develop spider-related powers, and in Madame Web, Ezekiel seems determined to stop that from happening. It’s up to Cassie to team up with the young trio, helping to protect them from Ezekiel’s watchful eye. (Adam Scott also appears in an unspecified role, and although Clarkson remains tight-lipped about his character, she does tease that the Parks & Recreation alum is responsible for ad-libbing some of the film’s funniest lines.)
Clarkson herself is no stranger to superhero fare, having directed episodes of Netflix’s Marvel series Jessica Jones and The Defenders. The British director admits that she never considered herself a particular superhero fan until working on Jessica Jones, and she says she wanted to bring a similar grounded, female-led vibe to Madame Web.
“I loved the psychological, cerebral nature,” Clarkson says. “Not to sound too wanky about it, but it’s about what’s going on in [Cassie’s] head and her grappling with that. Is she going insane? Is this real? She’s battling with that within herself and trying to understand it.”
“It was really important to me that she’s really human and grounded in reality, and that her life feels like, ‘Oh, I can relate to that,’” Johnson adds. “Sometimes it’s hard to relate to someone shooting lasers out of their eyes.” The actress pauses, then smiles. “I mean, not for me,” she deadpans. “I obviously do that all the time.”
Madame Web comes as Sony continues to build its ever-growing universe of Marvel characters: So far, the studio has released films featuring Tom Hardy’s Venom and Jared Leto’s Morbius, and up next, Aaron Taylor-Johnson will star in a Kraven the Hunter movie (out Aug. 30). Still, despite all those interconnected webs, Clarkson wanted to structure Madame Web as its own self-contained story. The director explains that unlike her clairvoyant heroine, she chose to focus not on the future but on the present.
“She’s definitely in a standalone world,” Clarkson adds. “I was able to just have free rein and let the movie be what it needed to be, as opposed to trying to force it into something else. That was a gift, in a way, to be able to take something and bring a fresh and I hope original take to it.”
Still, centering your story on a prophetic hero can make for a complicated shooting schedule. Clarkson explains that the crew would often have to shoot versions of the same scene over and over again, each with slightly different outcomes depending on Cassie’s visions. Johnson says she frequently lost track of which scenes were real and which were inside Cassie’s head, and she’d often have to check in with Clarkson for a refresher.
“I trusted her so much,” Johnson says. “I’ve never really done a movie where you are on a blue screen, and there’s fake explosions going off, and someone’s going, ‘Explosion!’ and you act like there’s an explosion. That to me was absolutely psychotic. I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be good at all! I hope that I did an okay job!’ But I trusted her. She works so hard, and she has not taken her eyes off this movie since we started.”
And, Johnson notes, she’s since discovered a newfound affinity for all those explosions and car crashes. One of her favorite days on set was when the stunt team sent a taxi careening into a diner. “I didn’t get to actually drive it into the diner, which is really a bummer,” she says sadly. “I really wanted to, but I guess they don’t want to put their lead actor in actual danger, unless you’re Tom Cruise.”
“But I’m getting there!” she adds with a laugh. “I’m working on it.”
Madame Web is in theaters Feb. 14.