Dakota Johnson keeps gathering momentum: her upcoming films are compelling and latent with noir drama, fear and laughter, all infused with a warmth that comes naturally to the actress both on screen and in real life. Here, read the full cover story from Vogue Australia’s October 2018 issue.
So we are conference-calling across the Pacific. “Hi, what time is it? What’s happening?” Dakota Johnson asks me.
I’m on Hamilton Island during Race Week, and it’s so beautiful: bright blue days, superyachts and racing, lots of lychee martinis …
“So do you have a hangover?” she wonders. No!
“Australians don’t get hangovers,” she says with a laugh. Not normally: it is 11.45am.
Johnson is in her home in Los Angeles. “It’s a beautiful home. I’m so lucky to live in a house like this, it’s like a treehouse/boathouse. It’s really special – I always feel it’s too nice for me.” Her home is by mid-century modern architect Carl Maston, and was completed in 1947. “The interior’s been updated, but other than that the skeleton and the structure is the same. I love being here. It does inspire me. I have an office in my house. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a real workspace, with everything I love to do, all of my paints, charcoal and things and my books; there are loads of bookshelves. It’s a beautiful place to be. It’s really green and there are lots of birds and I feel like Snow White.
“It’s nice to have a home base. I don’t spend a lot of time here – I’m always travelling – but it’s nice to know there is a place I can always go. I don’t know if I will ever sell it, even if it becomes a complete office space. It’s such a special little house.”
Johnson has been acting since she was 10 years old, but really has been in show business all her life. It is in her blood: her father is Don Johnson, her mother is Melanie Griffith, and her maternal grandmother is Tippi Hedren. She has over two dozen film roles in her filmography thus far. And now, at age 28, it feels as if she is really hitting the sweet spot, with two diverse and fascinating films to be released before the end of the year.
I’ve just watched the trailer for Suspiria, a re-make of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult horror classic, now directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name), and it is nail-bitingly scary. “It’s kind of twisted,” Johnson says. The poster is equally disturbing – starring an innocent-enough-looking Johnson with the simple proposition: ‘Give your soul to the dance.’
“The film is very, very intricate,” she says. “And there is a lot to absorb. It’s about a young woman who travels to Berlin to study at this prestigious dance company and it’s post-war Germany and it’s a very volatile time, a time when women were very expressive and angry and they were not afraid to show it. Then you realise that something is not right at the dance academy and it seems to be run by witches. It is sort of this young woman’s journey, discovering who she is and it’s really powerful and shocking. It was a shocking experience, a beautiful experience, and it was like a lot of work and a lot of learning and a lot of focus and diligence – but it was just so much fun.
“It’s really interesting to see and hear people’s reactions to the film. It’s very, very intense, but ultimately we had so much fun, and making movies is so much fun anyway, and so when you make something that provokes people, it’s really interesting, and it’s an exciting and mischievous position to be in.”
One of her Suspiria co-stars is the incredible actor Tilda Swinton, with whom Johnson worked alongside on Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash. “She’s amazing, such a wonderful woman. She is extremely intelligent and she has incredible taste and her knowledge of art and film and life, and the real juice and meat of experience … she is able to articulate it so beautifully. At the same time, she is extremely nurturing and warm and creative and excited about art. I really respect her so much; I love her deeply as a friend and as a collaborator I will work with her forever,” Johnson says.
I suggest Johnson is now right in there, in the heart of Guadagnino’s ‘crew’, that inner circle of actors and creative people who have made his films resonate so perfectly. “I feel like I might be,” she says hopefully, not daring to take anything this good for granted.
We talk about that exceptional Guadagnino visual poetry that is just so damn fine and powerful. “That’s one of the things that makes him such a distinguished filmmaker. His aesthetic is so specific, so detailed, and truly only he knows how to get it to where it is – really personal, it’s like his personality materialised, it’s amazing. He’s like an interior designer of emotion, so he can create a physical aesthetic and it will evoke feelings in you. He can make feelings physical, which is a real skill, a talent.”
I offer that she is lucky working with him – and, of course, he is lucky working with Johnson. She laughs. “He and I just click into it immediately and we speak without speaking. We hit the ground running, we work seamlessly, and it’s like completely, totally easy with us. Beforehand we discuss and conspire, discuss ideas, vibes, feelings and moments for ages beforehand, then just do it.
“Sometimes he’ll direct me really specifically, like: ‘Move your head only an inch to the left’ – then it’s like we are one person. Then I’ve also seen him work with other people and it’s different with everyone. I think that’s the sign of a good director: he really adapts.”
We talk about fearlessness, and fear obviously, because her two upcoming movies are tense and scary. “I do have fears in life, I don’t like … Ewughhh, right when I said … that’s a huge spider in my house! Oh my god, wow, it’s sooooo big, I hate it, oh god, but I don’t like killing things, I can’t tell if it’s inside or out … It’s in! [Pause] I’m just like going to usher him out.” She is now talking to the spider. “Gotta get out of here, I love you, but leave, that’s good, thanks, got it. It’s scary, it could have been a black widow, could have been life-threatening!” Drama kween.
“Yes, I do have fears, but I try not to let it inhibit me.”
Well, she is a Libran, after all, which I suggest means she might be balanced. “I feel like I am balanced when it comes to other people, and their emotions. I don’t go through extremes … but I definitely have moments that are very dark and I definitely have very high highs. I think that’s also just being an emotional person. I’m not afraid of my emotions and I don’t hide from them. I use them: it’s my job. I’m interested in them. If something happens, I pay attention to the way I react. It’s not always comfortable.”
From its title, Bad Times at the El Royale, to the trailer, you know that Johnson’s next film is going to be lots of fun – and lots of dark. “I don’t know what it was, but last year I really went through a time where I gravitated towards these darker women, but they are all kind of juxtaposed with this warmth. I guess at the same time I explored this within myself. I’m a really kind and loving person, but I also struggle with darkness. I struggle with having difficult times and feeling quite low and heavy and it’s hard to break out of it, but then, you know, those things can co-exist. I found that in a few different characters I played, in Suspiria definitely, and Bad Times 100 per cent – and that film was so much fun to make. That was a period film (both of them are, actually) that takes place in the 60s, during a time when people were really expressing themselves. The rules were confusing, people were breaking the law, and things were pretty wild, but it’s a completely different movie to Suspiria.
“Drew Goddard wrote and directed it, and it’s a film-noir story of these strangers who end up in the same hotel one night and they don’t know anything about each other, but are all very tangled and their stories align.”
Did you align with Jeff Bridges (he plays one of the seven characters in Bad Times at El Royale)? He is such a legend. “Oh gosh, he was just amazing. He is such a wonderful human. I love him, he is so much fun, so talented and smart, a great, great guy to work with. He is really interested in people, hanging out and spending time. Sometimes you can work with people, spend all day on a film and then you realise that you don’t really know them and you’ve spent three month making the film … He is really just a personable guy and he really cares about people. He’s not like a precious actor, he’s just a good dude.”
A friend for life? “I would like to say that Jeff Bridges will be my friend for life, for sure.” That’s T-shirt worthy. “Yes, and only one that I can wear!”
And then, of course, there is Chris Hemsworth – Google him and Bad Times at El Royale and ‘shirtless’ comes up.
“Oh my god. It’s such a distraction,” Johnson says. “I was like, guys, you’ve made a huge mistake getting him to do this, because everyone is going to forget everything that happened [in the film] until this point. Chris is going to come onto the screen, and his body is outrageous, it’s unbelievable, like a crazy, crazy thing to look at, and his shirt’s completely unbuttoned. No-one on set could pay attention to anything else: it was so shocking, not in a sexual way at all, just, like, scientifically, how is it possible to look like that? Crazy! Then he would eat a bowl of Smarties and you’re like: ‘You’re an asshole, fuck you!’ I don’t eat anything sweet: I eat green things for three months in order to fit into a pair of jeans. And he eats whatever the fuck he wants and looks like he was literally chiselled out of marble – it’s insane.”
I agree, adding that Australia loves him. Johnson concurs: “He is really funny, sweet and wonderful and a great actor, so I’m glad you guys love him, because he’s a real gem.”
The setting for Bad Times is Lake Tahoe, with the state lines of California and Nevada running right through the El Royale. “I think I’d do the California side; I’m a California girl,” she says. Even though you were born in Texas? “Well, here’s the thing, I was born in Texas, but we were only there for six days, ‘cos my father was filming a movie there.”
We discuss the concept of the hotel/motel scary movie being a genre all of its own, and Johnson says the scariest for her was the 1995 film Four Rooms: “That movie really kind of fucked me up when I was a kid. My stepfather [Antonio Banderas] was in it. There is a dead hooker under the bed and I saw it at quite a young age and I was like: ‘Oh my god!’ I’m in hotels a lot, what’s going on? It really stuck with me. And that movie when he turns into a mouse … you know … yes, it was called The Witches, with Anjelica Huston: this guy gets turned into a mouse in a hotel. And Eloise, for sure, we lived in the Plaza hotel for a little while when I was very young and I thought she was real the whole time. I always wanted to make play dates with her, so I would ask to and they would go: ‘Okay, we are going to have lunch with her’ and then last minute they would be like: ‘Oh god, she’s had to cancel.’”
We talk of other directors she would like to work with. “I would love to work with Wes Anderson; I would love to work with Tarantino. Oh my gosh, there are so many. David Lynch, Tim Burton would be pretty cool, the Coen brothers, but then there are people who are no longer making films, like Truffaut …
“I mostly follow my heart when it comes to making films, and I hope to do even more and broaden things. I have a feeling that there won’t be a linear story, judging from the way things have gone.”
Intuition is imperative. “Yeah, it’s true, and I think you can see in a film when you really know that someone means it, and, really, more in writing or in a painting, you can tell when there’s something really not quite right, when it feels forced, a little off. Art is emotive and it carries an energy no matter what the medium is. I think when you’re honest and if you’re going through something and it correlates with your work, then that’s beautiful.”
Johnson has learned much from her grandmother Tippi Hedren, who most famously starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. “Oh gosh, she inspires me so much. I was with her last night, actually. She has the most incredible timing and it’s most amazing. I was asking her what she was doing and before I could finish she was quick to respond to my answers, because she thought it was funny, and it was really funny. She inspires me more as a human being than anything to do with films.
“She has done a lot of speaking about her life and there are two films about her life with Hitchcock. My little sister has started filming some things with her and making some little clips.”
Hedren will be proud, I think, of her granddaughter’s cover shoot for us, which is unashamedly Hollywood ‘royale-ty’, blood-red silk Gucci, of course, and white Givenchy heels. She laughs: “Oh my god, it’s so funny. It was fun to do, very, very glamorous. It was at the end of a very long week and I’m really happy with the way it turned out. The photographer, Emma Summerton, is so incredible, so talented, really amazing to work with; it was such a pleasure.”
Yeah, she is such a Gucci girl. “Well, I am the face of the fragrance [Gucci Bloom], so yeah! It’s great to work with such a creative brand.” And so we talk about Alessandro Michele’s game-changing creativity: “It’s such a beautiful thing to see. It’s really great when someone comes in with a totally different vision and it’s accepted and encouraged and supported. And I love his journey.”
The next stop on Johnson’s own journey is checking that the spider has left her home alive. Black widow or not, she is all heart. Expect no less.
Bad Times at the El Royale is in cinemas on October 11; Suspiria is in cinemas from November 8.