The star of Persuasion tells V.F. some surprising truths about her rise as an actor, producer, and fashion muse.
Dakota Johnson is proud of her vibrator.
The actor, producer, and fashion muse is due on the carpet at the Met Gala soon, and her hair and makeup teams are applying their finishing touches in a suite at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel. Turns out Johnson has a touch all her own—she used a vibrator on her face this morning as a makeshift lymphatic drainage massager. The device was from Maude, the sexual wellness company she joined a few years back as co–creative director.
“It’s not for your face but it’s good,” she says.
“You showed me how to use it on my face,” says Kate Young, her longtime stylist and date for the night. Young turns to me and points to her cheeks: “I use her vibrator.”
Johnson smiles. “My personal one.”
She’s still in gray sweats, sitting patiently as the teams scurry around. An electric teakettle is boiling. Room service french fries are being passed around. There’s a bottle of Sancerre on ice.
“I’m on a conveyor belt of beauty treatments,” she says. “You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz? One of them is getting stuffed with hay, and the Tin Man is getting polished. I feel like that’s me.”
Tonight, she will be wearing a custom lace and beaded Gucci bodysuit, which currently hangs on a door nearby. The house’s designer, Alessandro Michele, was a close friend before Johnson came on as a brand ambassador in 2017. “We talk a lot, we text,” she says. “I don’t feel he’s elsewhere when I speak to him, which I feel most of the time when I speak to people that work in fashion.” Gucci has welcomed Johnson’s input on tonight’s creation—“They’ve been wonderful to me about that”—and she will appear on many of the evening’s best-dressed roundups. As if that weren’t enough, Oscar Isaac will see her in a corner and tell her she looks like a rainstorm.
Right now, it’s drizzling outside, Johnson is running late, and there’s a camera crew at the door waiting to film her getting ready.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to just stay here?” she says, only half-kidding. “Go downstairs, have a nice dinner?”
She prefers to do her own bangs for public appearances—a good luck charm of sorts—and once everything else is set, she slips into the bathroom to ensure that she looks like herself. That done, she and a styling assistant privately deal with black star-shaped nipple covers that won’t stick.
“We are so late,” says Young, now in her own green Gucci frock.
Johnson disappears for what feels like half a second, reemerging in the bodysuit and choosing between two black heels, as the masked camera crew and Italian public relations team enter the room to capture some contractual content.
“Do I need a wallet?” Johnson asks Young, hitting her marks for the videographer while subtly checking her bodysuit for pockets.
There are none, of course. Just chains, beads, lace, and flesh.
“I got it,” says Young, emptying Johnson’s credit cards and ID into her own clutch. “We gotta go!”
In the hallway, a pair of tourists stand against either wall to make way for Johnson’s velvet robe. Only one elevator is working. When the doors open, it’s too packed. Jaws drop at the sight of her. As the doors close again, the least stunned of the folks in the elevator, a mom, calls to Johnson, “You look beautiful!”
“You guys too!” Johnson says.
While we wait, she realizes something and suddenly freezes in panic.
“There’s a hole in my crotch,” she says.
Young’s assistant drops to his knees to investigate.
“How bad is it?” Young asks.
“I mean, finger-sized,” says Johnson. Hearing herself, she feigns shock and scandal in my direction: “Hey-o!”
“You won’t be able to see,” the assistant says. “Just don’t twerk.”
Laughter fills the hallway.
Ifirst meet Johnson shortly before Easter at the Malibu home she shares with Coldplay’s Chris Martin. We walk through the couple’s succulent garden, then wind down a narrow canyon path to the Pacific. Johnson’s dog, Zeppelin, leads the way. The actor is wearing some delicate jewelry; a blue tie-dye sweater from the Elder Statesman; the kind of perfect vintage Levi’s that a dozen women are, at any given moment, scouring the shops of Topanga Canyon for; and a pair of fancier-than-usual collab-looking Birkenstocks. With the sun striking behind her, it could be Jane Birkin from La Piscine walking with me.
Johnson and Martin have been together almost five years. They met through a friend and have “never really left each other,” she says. Johnson tours with him when she’s not working. In October, while onstage in London, Martin pointed to her in the balcony as he introduced a new song called “My Universe.” “This is about my universe,” he said. “She’s here!” The crowd, and the internet, went wild.
“SOMEBODY ONCE SAID, ‘YOU’RE EITHER IN LOVE WITH EMMYLOU HARRIS OR YOU HAVEN’T MET HER YET.’ I FEEL LIKE THAT ABOUT DAKOTA.” —RILEY KEOUGH
As for Johnson and little Zeppelin, their relationship stretches much further back. Zeppelin, a Jack Russell terrier–schnauzer mix, has been at her feet, and in her arms, since she was 18. He was there before her sunburst of a scene steal in The Social Network, before the star-making Fifty Shades of Grey (the trilogy she’ll later refer to as “those big naked movies”), and before last year’s surprising, redefining performance in The Lost Daughter. To be specific, Zeppelin has been around since Johnson had a very bad breakup the summer after high school.
“I was like, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to cut my hair and get a puppy,’ which I did,” she says. “Both of those things.”
What was the haircut like?
“It was short and choppy. Not a pixie cut, but not a bob. It was bad.”
“Yeah,” she chuckles, remembering. “You could say that.”
Malibu has become a refuge. Martin surfs. Johnson swims and zips up and down the Pacific Coast Highway in a 1965 Mustang he gave her a few years ago for her birthday. She calls the car Dixie, and if she’s ever in a crash she plans to tell people, “My Dixie wrecked.” Say it out loud. You’ll get it.
Johnson and Martin guard their privacy, partly because theirs is a big, blended family and partly because of Johnson’s upbringing. She is one of seven half siblings, and Martin shares two teenagers with Gwyneth Paltrow. “Maybe I think about relationships like that differently because I grew up in my family,” she says. “We were all cool.” With each other, she means. “Obviously, there were times where it was not cool, but I experienced that, so I don’t want that in my life. I don’t want any kids to experience anything like that. It’s better to be kind, and it’s also really nice that everybody actually really loves each other and has each other’s backs.”
Johnson’s parents-to-be, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, were in Austin in the fall of 1989 because Don was shooting Dennis Hopper’s neo-noir The Hot Spot. Dakota was born on October 4. As we walk the shore with Zeppelin, we do the math. I am eight days older than she is.
My parents must have conceived me on Christmas, I say.
“My mom hosted SNL,” Johnson says, “and they had gotten back together for the, I don’t know, millionth time, and that night—after she hosted—my dad proposed for the second time, and then I guess I was conceived.”
So, yeah, her story is better.
Soon after Johnson’s birth, her dad’s movie wrapped, and the new family went home to Aspen. Johnson is the only child the couple share. She grew up reading Charles Bukowski and Viktor Frankl, listening to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, and riding dirt bikes. Her dad’s dear friend, the late Hunter S. Thompson, was an uncle figure. “Whenever he’d come over, he’d take his hat off and bend down and I would touch his bald spot,” she says. “That was our thing.” She smiles fondly. “He was like a mystical creature.”
Despite the bawdy humor, there’s an innocence to Johnson’s worldview. She remembers a shocking morning when she was 10: A family member—“I don’t want to name names, because I’ll hear about it”—told her in one fell swoop that the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, and Santa Claus didn’t exist. It’s not that the family was religious. Her father is spiritual in his own way, and Griffith bounced around from healer to healer. But for Johnson it was all about the pomp and circumstance, the magic and the fantasy. “My world came crashing down,” she says. Scandalized, she stayed silent through lunch. She understands that 10 is on the far edge of belief in the Easter Bunny: “But if I could, I would still believe in it now. Maybe that’s why I make movies and why I want to make movies forever and ever. It makes things feel a little bit more safe.”
With two working parents at the height of their fame, Johnson spent her childhood on the road everywhere from San Francisco (where her dad made Nash Bridges) to Paris (where her mom made Tempo). She didn’t complete a full year of school in the same place until the fourth grade. Griffith has described her daughter’s upbringing as that of a “privileged gypsy.” Johnson wrestles with that term. “I think that glamorizes it a little bit or makes it seem like everything was totally amazing all the time,” she says. “My life is incredibly lucky and privileged, and the life I led growing up was remarkable—the places I went and how we lived and what we were able to experience. But we also struggled with internal family dynamics and situations and events that are so traumatic.”
“DAKOTA IS INSTINCTIVELY FLIRTATIOUS, AND SHE SEDUCED ALL OF US. IF THERE’S A TELEGRAPH POLE, SHE’D CHARM THAT INTO DOING HER BIDDING.” —RICHARD E. GRANT
Johnson is a third-generation Hollywood heroine. Griffith is best known for her Oscar-nominated turn as a secretary on the rise in Mike Nichols’s contact high of a rom-com, Working Girl. Johnson’s grandmother, the actor and activist Tippi Hedren, was Alfred Hitchcock’s muse in The Birds and Marnie, but he had a perverse, predatory obsession with her and, when she rebuffed his advances and assaults, he destroyed her career. “What happened with my grandmother was horrific because Hitchcock was a tyrant,” Johnson says. “He was talented and prolific—and important in terms of art—but power can poison people.”
She remembers attending a screening with her grandmother of her now friend Sienna Miller’s performance as Hedren in the TV movie The Girl. “We sat at HBO, my family, and watched that movie together,” Johnson says. “It was one of those moments where you’re just like, How could you not have warned us? We’re in a room with some execs. Maybe this warranted a little conversation beforehand? You look over and you see a woman who’s just been reminded of everything she went through, and it was heartbreaking. She was an amazing actress and he stopped her from having a career.” Griffith remembered receiving a Christmas gift from Hitchcock when she was a kid: a tiny replica of her mother in a tiny coffin. “It’s alarming and dark and really, really sad for that little girl,” Johnson says, thinking of her mom and nodding. “Really scary.”
Johnson stayed put in Los Angeles for high school, spending most of her time with her mother, then married to Antonio Banderas, a warm addition to their growing family. Often, she’d go out to canyon country and visit Grandma at her big cat sanctuary, the Shambala Preserve. Her longtime friend Riley Keough, now an actor and director, says that their adolescence had a distinct ’70s vibe, though it was the aughts. “We had boyfriends that were in a band together who hung out on the Sunset Strip, and we were basically the only girls,” Keough tells me. “We used to tell every single person we met that we were twins.” The women first crossed paths at an In-N-Out parking lot on a 15th or 16th birthday. “I knew who she was because she was just the coolest girl in town,” Keough says.
After high school, Johnson’s father told her that she had to go to college or get cut off financially. She chose independence. “Of course I worried about her going into this business,” says Griffith by email. “However, I was never worried about whether or not she had the talent and the magic. I knew how tough it was to navigate all of the aspects of filmmaking, and I hope she learned some good tips from me! I think she did. But it’s Dakota’s sense of self and her awareness of life, love, and hard work that has gotten her through scary times.”
Almost immediately, Johnson booked that role in David Fincher’s The Social Network as a Stanford coed who realizes that last night’s bedmate was not a classmate but rather the guy who invented Napster (Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake). “David said that role could have easily been thankless and that I did something different with it,” Johnson says. “I found that to be the most wonderful thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
Fifty Shades of Grey turned Johnson into a globally known name in 2015—and her charming turn in this summer’s sly adaptation of Persuasion will add still more fans to the club—but Keough insists “she’s still the same girl I met outside In-N-Out.” Both women grew up around fame: Keough is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley. Both know the pros of a public life as well as the pratfalls. “It can sometimes mess with people, but Dakota has not changed,” Keough says. “She always felt older and wiser than everybody else. I remember reading that somebody once said, ‘You’re either in love with Emmylou Harris or you haven’t met her yet.’ I feel like that about Dakota.”
Back at the beach, we see something splashing in the waves, and Johnson leaps to her feet. “Seals!” she cries out happily. “Do you see them? Oh, my God!” Then a moment of uncertainty. “They’re actually real seals, right? Because I don’t have my glasses on right now.”
Yes, I assure her. There are two.
“Good,” she says. She laughs. “Chris and I came down here the other day, and I was without my glasses. We were watching ‘seals’ for 10, 15 minutes—and it was seaweed. He just let me think that they were seals the whole time.” She imitates Martin, sounding sweet, patient, and slightly concerned. “Yeah, there they are: seals.”
Before we leave the beach, Johnson and I have one more sighting—and it’s more surprising than seals.
“Are those people naked?” she asks, squinting toward the cliffs.
“Uh-huh,” I confirm, trying to politely ignore a nude 40-something couple behind some brush.
“Fully?” she says. “Is he doing sexy stuff to her?”
“It looks like it’s body healing? Reiki maybe?”
“Look away!” she says. “Look away!”
“Yeah,” I say. “Fully nude.”
“What confidence,” she says. “How amazing to think: Let’s do that!”
“Do you want to—” I say.
“Should we just—” she says.
“Join them?” I say.
“Happy Easter!” she says, and laughs.
Johnson says the skies and stars in Malibu remind her of growing up in Colorado. “Living out here, for me, is really good.” She’s diligent with yoga and Transcendental Meditation, which means she can “easily and often trip the fuck out about the universe.” She can pretend she’s on vacation; run her new production company, TeaTime Pictures, which just sold its movie Cha Cha Real Smooth to Apple for $15 million; or sync up with friends ranging from childhood pals to legendary names. At one point during our monthlong series of interviews, Barbra Streisand will post a picture on Instagram of Johnson and Martin at her home, the caption reading: “With friends at my recent tea party.”
If you’re curious how a free spirit like Johnson handles a social gathering, here’s a story from a get-together not long ago: “People were talking about the metaverse. It’s very serious business. And I said, ‘I have a couple of NFTs.’ And they said, ‘Oh really? What do you have?’ I said, ‘Nice fucking titties.’ Big laugh.”
“Dakota is instinctively flirtatious, and she seduced all of us,” says her Persuasion costar Richard E. Grant. “If there’s a telegraph pole, she’d charm that into doing her bidding.”
Persuasion, in theaters soon and later on Netflix, is ripe for summer—Jane Austen’s last completed novel lit up with the knowing irreverence, and lust, of Fleabag. Johnson, the only American in the cast, stars as Anne Elliot. At 19, Anne was convinced to end her engagement with her true love, navy man Frederick Wentworth, because he lacked a title and a fortune. She’s now drifting through her mid-20s, in grave danger of spinsterhood, when Wentworth returns, handsome, rich, and still deeply pissed off. Grant plays Johnson’s father, Sir Walter Elliot—“the vainest man in literature,” as the actor coos to me from Brisbane, Australia.
“I really felt like Anne Elliot is maybe the most like her—like Austen,” Johnson says. “In her prose, she’s sort of winking and nodding to the reader.”
Anne does that literally in the new movie. The role is a showcase for Johnson’s comedic chops, as she expounds to the camera and guides her audience from heartbreak and wine in a claw-foot bathtub to happily ever after. Persuasion shows us a Johnson we haven’t entirely seen before onscreen, and it feels closest to the person I sat with on the beach in Malibu.
“Dakota’s very disciplined,” says Grant. “Considering who her parents are, you project an idea of somebody coming from that amount of privilege. You think that she might be—how do I put this?—that there might be a Paris Hilton element to her character. But there wasn’t. Instead, I think what that background has given her is a great assurance of who she is. I mean, she’s 32, but she has a no-shit-Sherlock approach. And having seen her on that infamous Ellen DeGeneres interview, you know that she takes no prisoners. You don’t mess with Dakota Johnson, and I think that’s incredibly sexy.”
That interview took place in 2019, when DeGeneres flippantly remarked that she was not invited to Dakota’s 30th birthday party. Most guests in Johnson’s chair would have taken the hit for the sake of live TV, but Johnson responded as only she can: “Yes, you were, Ellen.… Ask everybody.” After her executive producer confirmed that DeGeneres had indeed been invited, she quickly changed topics: “I must have been out of town.” The interview was one of the moments where fans first saw possible cracks in the cheery host’s façade. Later came criticisms from staff of internal bad behavior, an apology, and ultimately the show’s ending. Johnson obviously couldn’t have predicted all that. She was just doing her signature no-B.S. thing. Among the zillions of comments on social media praising her style, humor, and authenticity, there’s a keeper that reads simply: “Once again, DJ chooses chaos.”
Two nights after the Met, Johnson and I meet up at the Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca. The dinner portion of the gala felt long to her. “There was no vibe, just chatter and silverware scraping,” she says. She smiles and sips a mint tea. “That’s my one note, Anna. It doesn’t have to be a playlist—just have a beautiful string quartet or something.” Johnson didn’t have her glasses that evening, so she’s not entirely sure who she saw or waved back at.
We’re in the courtyard off the bar, and she’s wrapped in a brown suede trench coat. Yesterday’s purchase. Johnson admires the cordless Pina table lights on our table, and I wonder aloud if my mom would like them for Mother’s Day. She says her own mom would like diamonds and asks me if I know any suitable L.A.-based bachelors to help arrange that.
People start filling the courtyard—Windsor-tied happy-hour drinkers from a corporate conference—and I find myself instinctively adjusting my seat to stop them from staring at Johnson. I mention that since we last spoke, an old clip of her reacting to Johnny Depp’s bandaged middle finger at a 2015 press conference has resurfaced and brought her, once again, into the zeitgeist. A YouTube clip with more than 3 million views is titled “The EXACT moment Dakota Johnson KNEW Amber Heard was VIOLENT towards Johnny Depp.”
Johnson has seen the video. “I was like, ‘For the love of God, why? Why am I involved in this?’ ” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t remember that at all, but please, take me out of this. Don’t let this go further. Can you imagine, oh, my God, if I was called to the witness stand? I can’t believe that people are watching [the trial] like it’s a show. It’s like it’s a courtroom drama and my heart breaks. It’s so, so, so crazy. Humans are so fucking weird. The internet is a wild, wild place.”
She admits there are things she will probably never say publicly because of the risks to people in her position. But she will say this: “What I struggle with in terms of cancel culture is the term cancel culture—the whole concept behind canceling a human being, like they’re an appointment. No person will not make mistakes in their life. The point of being alive is figuring it out. Hurting other people, harming other people is not okay. There are consequences for those actions. But the concept of the Twitterverse deciding if someone just all of a sudden doesn’t exist anymore is horrifying, heartbreaking, and wrong. I do think that it will pass. I believe that people want to live in a better world, ultimately. Also, Twitter makes up like, what, 12 percent of the world? I mean, some of these people can’t even spell.”
This reminds Johnson of something.
“Look at my new tattoo,” she says, gingerly lifting her leg above the table and pulling back a pair of black trousers to reveal some more Gucci sneakers—and a fresh scarab beetle inked on her ankle. She and her Lost Daughter director, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and her costar Jessie Buckley all got the same tattoo after the Met Gala.
Olivia Colman was supposed to get it with them but was shooting a Sam Mendes film in England. “I got a WhatsApp photo of them all getting the tattoo that we were all meant to be having together,” she says by phone. “I was rageful. I was so jealous. Tell her if she doesn’t give me my tattoo, that’s the end of our friendship—and I was considering her a friend for life. ”
Johnson confirms all this, laughing: “She was pissed off. She called and was like, ‘What the fuck?’ ”
“IF I HAD KNOWN WHAT IT WAS GOING TO BE LIKE, I DON’T THINK ANYONE WOULD’VE DONE IT,” JOHNSON SAYS OF FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. “IT WOULD’VE BEEN LIKE, ‘OH, THIS IS PSYCHOTIC.’ BUT NO, I DON’T REGRET IT.”
The tattoo was done in Gyllenhaal’s Brooklyn kitchen by a friend. The women agreed on the scarab together—it’s a symbol of rebirth that Gyllenhaal used as a touchstone during production—and Johnson felt a particular resonance. “I think that’s been me forever,” she says. “Being alive is still such a mystery to me, and maybe I think about it more because I am in therapy, and I have struggled with depression for my whole life. I’m always trying to navigate that in an honest and safe way.” She pauses. “My job is luck. I get to go on journeys of exploring people’s minds. And I think—in a time where I’m reading that Roe v. Wade is most likely going to be overturned and everyone is struggling so hard right now and people are being so horrible to each other—that if I didn’t try and apply great meaning to little things, I honestly don’t think I’d make it. I think I’d be in a loony bin.”
In The Lost Daughter, Johnson played an open wound of a young mother named Nina. “I think she was excited to play something that was messier and more confusing,” says Colman.
As the hotel courtyard gets crowded and loud with Wall Street types, Johnson tells me that playing Nina aided her in a transition in her own life and career: “I was letting go of how I allowed others to look at me.”
It was the Fifty Shades of Grey movies that defined her in the public imagination for years. When we finally discuss them, it’s clear that Johnson has weighed what she wants to say. What follows comes across as an unburdening.
“I’m a sexual person, and when I’m interested in something, I want to know so much about it,” she begins. “That’s why I did those big naked movies.” She sips her tea without breaking eye contact. “I signed up to do a very different version of the film we ended up making.”
I ask if the studio or the directors were the problem, or if it was a combo platter.
“Combo,” she says. She leans in. “It was also the author of the books.”
That would be E.L. James, who goes by Erika.
“She had a lot of creative control, all day, every day, and she just demanded that certain things happen. There were parts of the books that just wouldn’t work in a movie, like the inner monologue, which was at times incredibly cheesy. It wouldn’t work to say out loud. It was always a battle. Always. When I auditioned for that movie, I read a monologue from Persona”—the Ingmar Bergman classic from 1966—“and I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be really special.’ ”
Johnson scored a three-picture role as Anastasia Steele opposite Charlie Hunnam’s Christian Grey, and the playwright Patrick Marber (Closer) revised the script. But Hunnam ultimately dropped out of the project, citing a scheduling conflict. James was so enraged, Johnson says, that she scrapped the script.
“I was young. I was 23. So it was scary,” she says of the contract she signed, and it’s hard not to hear echoes of the binding agreement that Hitchcock used to ruin her grandmother’s career. “It just became something crazy,” she continues. “There were a lot of different disagreements. I haven’t been able to talk about this truthfully ever, because you want to promote a movie the right way, and I’m proud of what we made ultimately and everything turns out the way it’s supposed to, but it was tricky.”
Jamie Dornan replaced Hunnam. Along with Sam Taylor-Johnson, the first film’s director, the trio tried to salvage some of Marber’s script.
“We’d do the takes of the movie that Erika wanted to make, and then we would do the takes of the movie that we wanted to make,” Johnson says. “The night before, I would rewrite scenes with the old dialogue so I could add a line here and there. It was like mayhem all the time.” The one Marber scene that made it into the first film, she says, is the negotiation where Anastasia and Christian outline her sexual contract. “And it’s the best scene in the whole movie.”
I ask if she regrets making the films.
“No. I don’t think it’s a matter of regret. If I had known…” she trails off. “If I had known at the time that’s what it was going to be like, I don’t think anyone would’ve done it. It would’ve been like, ‘Oh, this is psychotic.’ But no, I don’t regret it.”
Ironically, rumors from the set usually involved a supposed feud between Johnson and Dornan. “There was never a time when we didn’t get along,” she says. “I know it’s weird, but he’s like a brother to me. I love him so, so, so much. And we were really there for each other. We had to really trust each other and protect each other.”
She smiles, remembering the more outrageous scenes. “We were doing the weirdest things for years, and we needed to be a team: ‘We’re not doing that,’ or ‘You can’t do that camera angle.’ Sam didn’t come back to direct after the first movie, and, as a female, she had brought a softer perspective. James Foley came on to direct, and he’s an interesting man. It was different doing those bizarre things with a man behind the camera. Just a different energy. There are things that I still cannot say because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s career and I don’t want to damage anybody’s reputation, but both Jamie and I were treated really well. Erika is a very nice woman, and she was always kind to me and I am grateful she wanted me to be in those movies.”
Johnson pauses, struggling to tie a bow on an experience so full of contradictions.
“Look, it was great for our careers,” she says. “So amazing. So lucky. But it was weird. So, so weird.”
I ask if she thinks the Fifty Shades movies could be made today, given how charged the climate is around personal and sexual politics.
“No. Probably not,” she says. “But what’s wrong with them? It’s about a specific sexual dynamic that is really real for a lot of people.”
The Fifty Shades trilogy led Johnson down an unexpected path as an entrepreneur with Maude, the sexual wellness brand. Later, she brings me to a dinner for the company, where she speaks in front of investors, Sephora execs, private-equity suits, a dozen beauty editors, and Katie Couric, among others. Maude’s founder, Éva Goicochea, stands beside her, crying. The news about the Supreme Court’s intent to overturn Roe v. Wade feels insurmountable—and inextricably linked with a brand dedicated to sexual education and women’s agency.
“To have this dinner this week is truly so lucky,” Johnson tells the room. “We need to have a lot of conversations about sex education and really amplify that across the nation.”
She sits down and stares at me. “How’d I do? I have such stage fright with public speaking.” Hands clasped under her chin, she surveys the room, and tells me that while doing research for Fifty Shades, she learned that a lot of BDSM clientele are high-powered CEOs. She eyes one bald gentleman in particular. “They want to be told what to do after a long day at the office. They need the release.”
Johnson now brings the good, bad, and ugly that she has experienced on movie sets to bear at TeaTime Pictures, which she cofounded with Ro Donnelly. Her grandmother, for one, has no doubts about her navigating the industry. “Dakota has a lot of stamina and faith in herself,” says Hedren by email. “This is not an easy business. You need to have the will to succeed, and she’s got it in spades.”
The mission at TeaTime is to help young, surprising voices negotiate a daunting town, starting with 25-year-old Cooper Raiff, the writer, director, and star of Cha Cha Real Smooth. Raiff’s movie is a funny, hopeful coming-of-age story about a recent college graduate (played by Raiff) who moonlights as a bar mitzvah party starter to earn cash while crashing on Mom’s couch. The movie digs into the irony of a rudderless young man trying to help boys become men and explores the idea of soul mates through Raiff’s character’s propensity to fall for older, out-of-reach women.
Raiff sold Johnson and Donnelly on a pitch and wrote the part of Domino—a single mom who’s choosing between living her 30s to the fullest and raising her autistic seventh-grade daughter—specifically for Johnson. “She really understood the story that I wanted to tell, which is probably a little bit of a naive story,” Raiff says. “She loved it for what it was, and she could bring the adult maturity to the script.” The film is one of Johnson’s first as a producer, and Raiff adds that she was indispensable. “She’s very savvy about relationships and who you have to be nice to, and when you have to tell people no.” Johnson and Raiff both deferred their fees because the financiers couldn’t afford the costs that come with making a movie during COVID.
At the SXSW festival in Austin, she saw Cha Cha Real Smooth with an audience for the first time and wept. Afterward, autistic audience members waited in line to speak to Johnson, Raiff, and the movie’s breakout costar, the autistic actor Vanessa Burghardt. “It was a very destabilizing and beautiful moment,” says Johnson. “I then had to go and drink three martinis.”
Johnson checks her watch. Tomorrow, she’s due in Toronto, where she’s producing a TV show. After that, she will show up in New York, where she’ll appear at the Global Citizen NOW summit and talk up reproductive rights on CNN. In July, she’ll be at an undisclosed location on the set of her first action movie, Marvel’s Madame Web, for which she’s putting on some muscle so she can do as many stunts as the insurance policy allows: “I feel like I can probably do some Tom Cruise stuff,” she says excitedly.
Right now, it’s time for us to go to an event on Park Avenue. She goes upstairs to change and, as we head out of the hotel, Johnson is immediately flanked by a security guard, who warns us about paparazzi outside. She keeps walking straight.
What should I do? I ask.
She smiles, all confidence. Then she says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world: “Just get in the car.”