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- American actress, model, executive producer and activist from Texas
‘Do you know The Birthday Book?’ asks Dakota Johnson. She is sitting at a candlelit table; blue eyes inquisitive, fringe so expertly grazing her eyebrows that its maintenance looks like a full-time job. ‘It’s this huge book that goes through every day of the year and tells you about yourself, and other people born on your birthday. I was born on the Day of the Incorrigibles,’ she says. ‘And I’m like, That makes sense.’
We’ve been inside at Shutters on the Beach for an hour, the winter sun just setting over the Santa Monica sand. Johnson was late – something to do with talking to Andrew Garfield and the LA traffic – and I was recovering from a party the night before, so we started by addressing each of our needs.
‘We should probably order fries because you’re hungover,’ she says, after getting a tea for herself. She holds the warm drink in her hands while she explains more about what kind of person she is, the essence of which can apparently be traced to October 4, 1989, the day she was born. For one thing, she baulks at authority. ‘I do not like stupid rules, like rules for rules’ sake. Or people implementing rules because they’re seeking power,’ she says firmly. ‘If a chair is marked “Do not sit here” I’m like, “Why the f*ck not?” I don’t know where this came from and why it got so bad,’ she says, shaking her head.
As a presence, however, Johnson seems the opposite of incorrigible: absurdly serene, with a tranquillising voice that seems to lower your heart rate as she talks. This preternatural calm is surprising given her upbringing, which involved high-profile parents (Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), grandparent (Sixties film star Tippi Hedren) and step-parent (Antonio Banderas), and the fact that she was raised on film sets throughout the world. She learnt to drive on the sound stage where her dad filmed the cop drama Nash Bridges.
Unlike most humans – famous and otherwise – Johnson seems comfortable with gaping silence; whether in a conversation that’s very public (see her Ellen interview, famous on social media for the extended silences between host and guest), or between two people splitting fries. She lingers, deep in a pause for what feels like an entire minute after I ask why she can endure the kind of quiet that makes most people writhe. Finally, she breaks, but seems puzzled. ‘Well, what would I do to fight silence?’
It’s not just her restraint. Johnson emits the kind of unhurried composure that makes you feel like you might enjoy drifting off to sleep while she reads GPS directions aloud. Does she know that her Architectural Digest house tour [501,000 likes on YouTube] – in which she languidly discusses her mohair couch and a table made from the wood from Winston Churchill’s yacht – is compared to ASMR? ‘I was so hungover making that video,’ she says. ‘That’s probably why I was so calm.’ But where does it come from? She considers the question.
‘Well, my parents are... I don’t think I get it from them, they were wild when I was growing up,’ she says, obliquely referencing Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith’s tribulations with addiction and partying in the Nineties. ‘I think maybe I’m guarded,' she says. 'And that comes off as serene.'
Johnson is indeed guarded, and clearly skilled in withholding information that could wind up as tabloid kindling. Since 2017, she has been dating Coldplay’s Chris Martin and when in public, the couple attract hordes of paparazzi on both sides of the Atlantic. They’ve sought out a quiet existence in a modern Cape Cod-style house in Point Dume, Malibu. ‘We’ve been together for quite a while, and we go out sometimes, but we both work so much that it’s nice to be at home and be cosy and private. Most of the partying takes place inside my house,’ she says of friends who mostly seem in or adjacent to the entertainment industry.
At 32, Johnson tussles with the liminal space between young and not-so-young. ‘I feel both 48 and 26,’ she says. ‘I’ve had a lot of life in my life. I had a lot of life really young, so I think I feel older.’ This seems consistent, I note, with the fact that after this Friday-night interview, she’ll be heading home to watch Elle Fanning in season two of The Great. Johnson laughs. ‘I know! I’m like, it’s Friday! I should get slightly f*cked up. And sometimes I do! But I’ve been working so much that drinking tea and watching TV is appealing to me.’
It wasn’t always so. Johnson’s incorrigible streak meant she was sent to an all-girls Catholic boarding school for one year of high school. There she met a girl named Justine, who had arrived at Santa Catalina School after being kicked out of another. The two became fast friends and begged to be roommates, bonding over books, music and grunge. Johnson wasn’t long for Santa Catalina. ‘I was supposed to be a debutante and have a great time, but I didn’t do well,’ she says. The bond with Justine, however, endured. Her friend went on to New York and Paris, became fluent in French and Spanish and, in her mid-twenties, introduced Johnson to the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante – the Italian coming-of-age series that chronicles the complex 60-year friendship between two women. Johnson credits Justine with challenging her throughout her life; recognising a curiosity inside of herself that she didn’t yet see. ‘She actually is my brilliant friend,’ she says, referencing the title of Ferrante’s most famous novel.
So, in 2018, when actor Maggie Gyllenhaal received Ferrante's blessing to adapt and direct the screenplay for The Lost Daughter, Johnson's interest was piqued. She was intent on the role of Nina, a beautiful young mother vacationing with her family in Greece, who encounters Leda (played by Olivia Colman), a middle-aged professor with an unorthodox approach to motherhood that casts a shadow on her past. To Leda, it’s clear that Nina is a shiny object being crushed by the demands of parenting and the world’s expectations of mothers. ‘I don’t read women like Nina very often,’ recalls Johnson, whose career has included dramatic and comedic roles in network television, global franchise blockbusters, indies and comedies.‘It’s very rare to read a young woman who is lost, drowning, angry and hungry to be seen, who isn’t someone’s fully formed idea of what a woman should look like.’
She pursued a meeting with Gyllenhaal, during which ‘we went so deep into the experience of being a woman, both in film and in this world’, says Johnson. ‘I was like: "I’ll do anything. I really wanted to follow her".’ Gyllenhaal was equally struck by meeting Johnson: ‘Dakota read the script and said, “I want to try something I’ve never tried before, and I want to do it with you.” And I think that’s what happened. I did kind of take her by the hand and say, “Let’s go.”’
Gyllenhaal reminded Johnson of other pivotal women in her life. Women like Justine, who pulled her up to another level. ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever had this where you meet another woman and see parts of yourself in them that you didn’t know you had before you’d met,’ she explains. ‘It’s almost like they turn up the dial on your life. And Maggie has been that person for me. She’s such a truth seeker.’
Johnson talks a lot about these kinds of women. The ones whose unspoken connection – similar to that which electrifies Leda and Nina in the film – pushes her to evolve. Women like Sam Taylor-Johnson, who directed her in her break through role in 50 Shades of Grey, Leslie Mann, her co-star in her own production company’s forthcoming film Cha Cha Real Smooth, her therapist, who Johnson calls her ‘full-on hero’, and her high-school boyfriend’s mother, who remains important to her.
‘She was just a different kind of mother,’ she explains of the latter. ‘She’s deeply spiritual and focused. My mother is nurturing and so loving,’ she says, ‘But sometimes you need something else from someone.’ The influence of these women in forms Johnson’s performance in The Lost Daughter, a quiet and searing film that is honest – and radical – about the realities of how women relate to the experience of raising children.
In presenting an unsparing portrait of motherhood’s harsh physicality, its suffocating selflessness, its maddening bargaining and euphoric love, Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter tugs at questions that lie deep in the experience of motherhood: what if you don’t like being a mother? What if you admitted it out loud? What if – like men have done for years – you abandoned responsibility for your children?
On her expectations of working opposite her much-celebrated co-star Olivia Colman, Johnson is typically placid. ‘Well, I was like, I wonder what she’s going to be like?’ she recalls. 'But we loved each other. She’s so maternal and embracing and always wants to hang out and drink wine and talk.’ Johnson has been watching women react to this movie as she’s attended screenings. They grapple. They cry. She’s noticed that sometimes younger women are angry. ‘They’ll watch Leda and say, “She’s a horrible person, I hated her, she’s so unlikeable.”’ During filming, Johnson thought a lot about her own mother, a working parent to three children, and someone she describes as capable of ‘making everything possible. She was able to be a nurturing, generous, loving mother, and do her job and be an amazing partner to her husbands. But there were also really dark times. So the point is to say that nothing is perfect all the time – nothing.’
I ask if Griffith has seen the film. ‘She’s seen it three times,’ Johnson says, raising her eyebrows. ‘I think it’s coming from being proud of me. I also think it’s something that she hasn’t seen on screen before, and she’s like, “You can say: I f*cking hate being a mother today?”’
Her grandmother, Tippi Hedren, has not yet seen the film. 'I think she'd love it,' she says, full of affection. 'She's so complex. Most women love it, I think. After it hurts, they love it.'
'Plot twist - Gucci!' Dakota responds, when I ask who made her lavender pussy-bow blouse, high-waisted trousers and buckled coat she's wearing today. 'To go out into the world, do hair and make-up and wear an outfit to look a certain way, it's super jarring,' she says. 'So to wear clothes in which I feel like myself is vital. I feel like Ok this is a version of me.'
Her ensemble makes her look like a businesswoman, an identity she’s trying to get used to. ‘I keep putting more jobs upon myself,’ she says. Incorrigibility was partially behind the decision to found her own production company in 2020, after being frustrated by not having a more holistic view of her acting projects. Tea Time Pictures currently has a slate of 25 films and TV shows, two of which - Cha Cha Real Smooth and Am I ok? – made the Sundance Film Festival.
‘For so long, I’ve acted in movies and, when it comes out, sometimes it’s completely different. And that’s really hard to grapple with as a person who is vulnerable for a living, because it feels like somethings are stolen,’ Johnson explains. The goal of Tea Time is to create opportunities for young talent, while also giving Johnson and her co-founder, former Netflix development executive Ro Donnelly, the creative authority she has craved.
In addition to shifting into a producer role, Johnson is an investor and co-creative director of sexual-wellness brand Maude. ‘When the founder, Éva Goicochea, and I met, I was like, This is exactly how I think about this – which is to say that products should be inclusive and straightforward, clean and approachable. If you love having a giant pink dildo, all power to you. That’s not my vibe – ha! Vibe,’ she says, catching herself. ‘But I think it’s healthy to have access to quality sexual-wellness products.’ Johnson is involved in development of all of the products, from vibrators to body wash. ‘So being able to say...’ Johnson stops mid-sentence. ‘I’m just remembering thatI had a dream about our butt plug last night. We were looking at the [prototypes], and one was too big. In my dream it looked like this’ – she grabs two decorative gourds from the table and holds them together – ‘and I was like, “No one’s going to be able to fit that in their butt!”’ We laugh, but Johnson sees the dream as a representation of her desire to explore ‘what the most pleasurable and chic and quality experience can be’.
Daughter of a Hollywood dynasty, Gucci-clad entrepreneur, actor, partner, loyal friend... There are further depths to discover beneath Johnston’s serene exterior. But these are layers she will peel back for her closest confidants, and for the roles that need her to access that rawness. The rest of us would do well to give the incorrigible Dakota Johnson the space to keep challenging everything; whether that’s through the noise her work makes or the silence she embraces.
The Lost Daughter is on Netflix now.
This interview appears in the February issue of ELLE UK, out on newstands January 6, 2021.
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