The former Anastasia Steele is moving on. But that trilogy has taught her resilience, and given her a springboard to two differently dark new films. By Jonathan Dean
Dakota Johnson, dressed all in black, glides into a dark Los Angeles bar with her sunglasses still on and settles at a corner table, popping the shades to one side. She wants a drink. “I’m going to have a glass of red,” she says. She is effortless. Her jewellery — third-eye necklace, crucifix earring — suggests somebody looking for answers, but she seems to have them all already. A lot of actors play a cartoon of themselves in interviews, but the Johnson I meet is, I think, the Johnson you would meet at home. She is, simply, relaxed and very, very cool: Steve McQueen cool, with no desire to put on a show for anyone.
I tell her I saw Bad Times at the El Royale — the bloody thriller in which she stars as a vengeful hippie — that very morning. It is the film we are meant to be talking about. “You saw it?” is her gasped response, voice higher than its usual purr. “The whole film?” I nod. “I think you’re the first. I don’t even know how much I’m in it.” She is flabbergasted. “Wow. Did you see Suspiria too?” She means the remake of Dario Argento’s classic horror by the director of Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino. Yes, I reply. We’ll get to that. It’s a long chat. “What did you think of Bad Times?” she asks, interviewing the interviewer.
It is good, I say. Telling the story of bad choices by people including Jeff Bridges’s peculiar priest and Jon Hamm’s vacuum-cleaner salesman, it is tense adult drama, unafraid to be grim. There’s abuse, heroin, Vietnam: everyone is mysterious, but the film is also a ride. “It’s not pompous,”Johnson agrees. “Just smart. You don’t leave the cinema feeling stupid.” She pauses. “Did it make sense?” Yes. “Wow, it’s so interesting you saw it. I’d be able to follow you more if I had seen it too.”
Why did she want to be in it? “Because it’s hardcore,” she says. “My character does terrible things, but only as she’s fiercely protective of her sister. It’s a devotion I found beautiful.” The film reminds me of the intricate TV show Fargo— it is nostalgic, and people die horribly. Yet, compared to Suspiria, it is easy viewing — almost mainstream. She bursts out laughing. “They don’t live on the same planet!” she roars. “We’ll get to that, though.”
Johnson was born in Texas in 1989, to 1980s acting royalty: Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. After a bit part alongside her mum in Crazy in Alabama, directed by her stepdad Antonio Banderas, she didn’t appear on screen again until The Social Network, a decade later, stealing the scene as Justin Timberlake’s one-night stand. To many, though, she was unknown until she became Anastasia Steele, the woman in the Fifty Shades films who falls for Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and gets whipped a lot. Once Fifty Shades Freed came out earlier this year, she was no longer tied up on the poster for a mass-market S&M franchise. Instead, she has been wowing film festivals with Suspiria, while also glamming up the grimy Bad Times at the El Royale.
A cynic may suggest these films are an effort to move on from Fifty Shades in the most obvious way possible. She stops to think, blue eyes fixed on mine. She rarely breaks contact.
“I don’t think the majority of Fifty Shades fans are cinema fanatics, so I hope they don’t get upset, but, also, what am I going to do?” she asks rhetorically. “But I don’t feel I need to pack those movies away, since they’re so much a part of my career, and the reason I can do these new films. Yes, they were very public, but also really weird subject matter. I learnt so much, and getting through that made me lean towards films like Suspiria, because that is a Goliath of its own. I now feel, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’”
Both of her new films are intense and violent, work for which an actor needs to trust the director, given the physical and mental turmoil of being tossed around in nightmarish visions. That trust isn’t just needed on set, but also in the edit, where a film either fulfils the promise of the script or exploits the actors, no longer able to defend themselves.
Has the latter ever happened to Johnson? Given their content, Fifty Shades and Suspiria are films that could make anyone feel exposed. She is silent for nearly 20 seconds, which is a long time. Count it out. I listen to the bar stereo, segueing oddly from 1970s sexual soul to a steel-drum medley.
“I’m not sure,” she says eventually, so quietly I can still hear the tune. “Yet there have been projects that turned out to be something different from what I originally thought they’d be.
“But the thing about Luca [Guadagnino],” she continues, “is that I completely turn over to him.” The pair also made A Bigger Splash, a few years ago, a gorgeous film in which Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and Johnson flirt around an Italian pool, and Johnson has a mesmerising movie-star final scene in the rain. “I unzip and open for him,” she says, deadpan. “I’m down for anything, and it feels collaborative, mischievous. We create a safe environment for extreme things. The more films I make, the more I wise up, but it’s important to do your homework. You never really know, but with Luca it’s like family.
“I just don’t like it when an experience becomes scary or painful,” she adds, “because I love my job, and 90% of the time I have so much fun.” What is the other 10%? “Sometimes you can be cornered, or put into a situation where you’re not artistically fulfilled. But that’s the extent of what I can say about that.”
I wonder if it is, though. When Johnson auditioned for Fifty Shades of Grey, she read a passage from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and wanted the part because Sam Taylor-Johnson was directing — a woman, obviously, but also an artist, two factors that made the life-changing decision to star in soft porn easier to make. By the second and third films, however, Taylor-Johnson was gone, after a dispute with the novels’ author, EL James, and a male director was hired. Johnson was contracted to continue.
As I run through the details, the actress clicks her knuckles loudly, over and over again. She is looking down, dark hair shielding her face. It is either nerves or memory suppression. She is quite obviously uncomfortable, and it’s particularly noticeable because she had been anything but up to that point.
Was it tricky to continue with Fifty Shades? “Extremely,” she says, at the quiet level she uses for a topic she doesn’t enjoy. “That circles back to being in a situation that may not be completely ideal, but you figure out how to make it work. I signed up to a film with a Patrick Marber screenplay, directed by Sam, and it just turned into something completely different. It did exactly what it was supposed to do, and turned out great, but it shape-shifted in the night.
“And shooting two films back to back, where the majority is the same, over and over, did get a little bit tedious. It became: ‘How are we going to make this goddamn sex scene better than the other ones?’ There’s only so much you can do when the film is rated R.” She tries to continue, but stumbles. There is something on her mind. “It was tricky,” she says, trying to sum up. “But it was a challenge I’m not ashamed of and I’m infinitely grateful to.” Why? “I learnt so much about my personal resilience.”
I ask if her grandmother Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds, offered her advice. In the 1960s, after the actress rejected Alfred Hitchcock’s advances, the director said he would ruin her career. He largely succeeded. Again, Johnson pauses. She is not one for a regrettable quote.
“Well,” she says carefully, “what happened to her would never happen now — to be sexually harassed by the person who was her employer. It was when the system was that you were signed to a studio for years. You were theirs. It was so kooky. But because she said no, he ruined her career. That was a blatant version of what has been happening for a long time in Hollywood, and people either thought it was normal or just got used to it.”
Essentially, Johnson thinks not only that Time’s Up has brought swift changes in the way women are treated in her industry, but also, thanks to social media, that there are no secrets any more. Her grandmother’s abuse would have leaked, leading to “a takedown of the men in power”. Cameras, recording devices, all work to reveal the stars. “Nothing is quiet any more,” she says with a mix of relief and fear. (Her boyfriend, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and their matching tattoos are the only subjects off the table.) “There are so many more eyes. Everyone is watching everyone all the time.
“But I am lucky not to have experienced anything like that,” she says about the abuse many in her industry have reported. “Maybe it’s because I had my grandmother and mother and could see how they acted. My family have gone through a lot, and it’s all been public. It’s made me very aware of the nonsense that brings, how things can get so f*****.”
Speaking of which, Suspiria is an erotic dance thriller that makes Black Swan look like Strictly. Johnson is Susie, a Mennonite who joins an avant-garde Berlin troupe run by Madame Blanc (Swinton). She’s a revelation in the role. It is a sensual, sinuous film, propelled by a gripping Thom Yorke score. (“Radiohead are my favourite band, so I had to wrap my head around Thom watching my movie, wondering if he’s just judging me.”) Johnson, as in Fifty Shades, is the human core of the film’s weirdness. One scene has rampant nudity in a bloody, witchy space, which could be read as shoving off Ms Steele for good, given that it is a red room not even Christian Grey would enjoy.
In the scene of the year, Susie, via dark magic and dance, rips apart the body of an older woman (“Olga’s mangling” is how she describes it, with a wicked grin). There is a lot going on here. “Tell me what you’ve read,” Johnson says, fascinated by the allegories clasped at by reviewers. Feminism. Dance itself. Hollywood, and how new flesh kills old, and everything is run by a shady cabal. “Oh, wow. I never thought of that.” What does she think the film is about? “Everything,” she says, but she’s not dodging the question. It really could be.
“It’s all about why people get obsessed,” she says, admirably trying to specify. “But also female relationships.” This take gathers speed. “The anger of women who sacrifice for art. When a man does that, it’s ‘You sweet, poor thing’. When a woman does, it’s ‘You horrific monster!’ It must be the abandoning of this archetype of a mother.” She pauses. “Where did this topic come from?” Suspiria, like everything. “Basically,” she says, eyes raised, beaming.
“Also,” she says, “it’s about how we all try to survive our mothers.” (Griffith’s cosy Instagram pics of the pair suggest this isn’t a personal dig.) Next, she says Suspiria is about manipulation. Or politics. She’s having the time of her life. Frankly, she could say it’s about coats and sustain an argument, but let’s stop. It’s a great film. A cool film. She’s a cool person, and now she is freed.
Bad Times at the El Royale opens on Friday, Suspiria on November 16.