Dakota Johnson - Thoughtful
After a whirlwind year, in which she rocketed to fame with her much-hyped starring role in 50 Shades of Grey, Dakota Johnson has hardly had time to rest on her laurels. She’s anxious to prove herself in serious films, where her work can take precedence over the media frenzy that first brought her into public view. Dakota has a naturally dismissive attitude toward celebrity anyway, having lived her entire life with the extraordinary attention that comes along with being the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson and growing up with Antonio Banderas as your stepfather. Johnson explains it as:
“ When you grow up in a family where you’re spending a lot of time on film sets, it’s natural that you feel drawn to that world. Sometimes you can get very anxious when your family is often being gossiped about in the media. But you learn to focus on things that are real, and in the end it makes you stronger. I try to live as spontaneously and openly as I can.”
Johnson’s new film, Black Mass, the gangster drama directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace), stars Johnny Depp as fabled American mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, a vicious southside Boston hoodlum who rose to become the city’s leading underworld figure. She plays Bulger’s wife Lindsey with a level of intensity and sensitivity that proves, as in the case of 50 Shades’ Anastasia, how she can be fearless in the face of domineering, and at times, sinister men. Her performance also made a huge impression on her famous co-star: “I thought she knocked it right out of the park,” Depp said. “The moment when Jimmy Bulger walks into that house, there begins this sort of definition of the man—and that’s purely Dakota. How she responds, how she talks to him, in a way that nobody talks to him. So she was integral (to the film).”
Johnson plays a very different kind of woman, however, in her other new project, A Bigger Splash, in which she plays opposite Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthias Schoenaerts. Set for release next May, Splash is a loose remake of Jacques Deray’s Swimming Pool (1969), the cult film noir that co-starred Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, who previously directed Swinton in I Am Love (2009), Splash gives Johnson a chance to demonstrate her abundant sexual allure as Penelope, a vampish object of desire who accompanies her manic music producer father Harry (Fiennes) on a trip to Sicily to visit his former lover, Marianne (Swinton), an aging female rock star recovering from vocal chord surgery. During the course of their stay, Penelope develops an attachment to Marianne’s hunkish boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), as tension builds in this eerie psychological drama.
26-year-old Dakota Johnson is currently single, and looked much more comfortable doing press rounds than in the past, as she promoted both her films at the recent Venice and Toronto film festivals. For our chat, she was wearing an elegant patterned Dior dress. In conversation, she is highly thoughtful, although she can be hesitant and shy at times in expressing herself. When it comes to having lived a relatively scandal-free life, despite growing up with famous parents, Johnson observed: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” a motto first coined by the late Hunter S. Thompson, who was a friend of her father, Don Johnson. “I constantly try to subscribe to that philosophy. It helps keeps me sane, or insane. You just accept it, and move on.”
STRIPLV: You grew up in a household of actors all of whom have had important careers in the film business. Do you feel that you’re starting to make your own mark?
JOHNSON: It’s a beginning. If you decide to follow in your parents’ footsteps, you naturally feel very anxious about establishing your own identity in the business. I’ve tried to find good roles, where I’m going to be judged on my acting alone and nothing else. I’m very grateful to have the support of my family and I like to believe that I’ve inherited the strength of character and many other qualities from my grandmother (Tippi Hedren – of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) and my mother. I also feel I’ve learned a lot from my father and stepfather, who have also helped me and stood by me.
STRIPLV: Are films like Black Mass and A Bigger Splash the kinds of projects that you believe will help you evolve as an actress?
JOHNSON: Anytime you get to work with outstanding actors like Johnny Depp or Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, talented people like that, you’re going to learn a lot and become better at what you do. I feel very fortunate also to work with directors like Scott Cooper, whom I had wanted to work with because I loved his previous films. I was also so thrilled to work with Luca Guadagnino, who saw really deeply into me and we developed such a good understanding of each other while working on A Bigger Splash.
STRIPLV: Was it interesting to be part of a big crime story in Black Mass?
JOHNSON: I was fascinated by how these people saw themselves as outlaws and enjoyed the challenge of breaking the law and defying authority. Even though they’re criminals, they are very strong characters with big personalities and their own sense of mission about what they do in life. They also have a fearless side that you can still admire, even though you might not like what they do. What made it really interesting for me is that the women in the film are very strong. They stood up to these men and they were an important part of the story.
STRIPLV: You play a woman trying her best to deal with the life of living with a vicious mobster while raising their son. How did you approach your character?
JOHNSON: I saw her as a woman who is in a difficult situation, of wanting to give her child a healthy home life, even though she is aware that he will probably be drawn into his father’s life of organized crime. She knows what is right and wrong, and would like her son to have those kinds of values, but that’s very hard when the father, a very forceful and charismatic man, is teaching him that it’s alright to beat up people if they do something wrong to you. She would prefer it if Whitey would be gentler and play a bigger part in their lives, but that was never going to happen.
STRIPLV: Did you do any research into the character?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I did. There was a certain amount of information available, and some footage, and I was hoping that I could find something so that I could study mannerisms, or speech patterns. But all of the stuff that is available of Lindsey Cyr is pretty recent, and she’s sort of reflecting on her life. So, I didn’t get to see anything of their time together, obviously. Most of my research was just about Jimmy Bulger, and kind of then imagining what it would be like to be his wife.
STRIPLV: What was it like for you to work opposite someone like Johnny Depp?
JOHNSON: It was, I mean, extraordinary. Sadly, the things that we had to do were mostly very heartbreaking and it was a very heavy atmosphere. But I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anybody else. It’s an absolute privilege to work with someone who doesn’t have a limit to their capabilities as an artist. And there’s no fear. He’s not afraid to go to all these different places, and that made me feel like I could do the same. When we were filming, I feel like the scenes with Lindsey and with Jimmy Bulger—they’re like in their own little world, and he’s different, and you see a different side to him. And then all of a sudden, it just completely goes away, and it just comes crashing down, which is just awful. But doing the actual scenes was just lovely.
STRIPLV: What attracts a woman to a man like Whitey, with this terrible dark side?
JOHNSON: Men like that have a very powerful personality and women are drawn to that. They’re very strong characters and very charismatic and those qualities can be very attractive.
STRIPLV: Could you ever find yourself attracted to someone like a Whitey Bulger, or a Christian Grey, for that matter?
JOHNSON: (Laughs) No. I would rather be with someone who is pleasant and very respectful. Also someone you can have a lot of fun with in life...
STRIPLV: You have some very intense scenes in Black Mass, a very compelling one in particular with Johnny Depp. What was that experience like?
JOHNSON: It was very heavy, and it was very difficult to do those scenes, because they’re so intense, emotionally. They’re the kind of moments you want to look for as an actor, but you also worry about how you’re actually going to get through those very rough kinds of scenes. When I read the script—that was the scene that I was kind of pointing myself towards, because I knew it would be so powerful and intense. But Johnny was so great and so good to work with that it made it much easier. Those were the moments where Whitey would show a side of himself that he would never show to anyone else but her.
STRIPLV: Sounds like you had a great experience!
JOHNSON: Absolutely. But everything—to work with him, and then have the guidance of Scott, and have Masa (Cinematographer: Masanobu Takayanagi) behind the camera, was just like the perfect combination. Nothing could go wrong.
STRIPLV: What can you tell us about your role in next year’s film, A Bigger Splash?
JOHNSON: I play a young woman who is in the process of discovering her sexuality. Penelope is very smart, but she has a bizarre connection to the world around her and she’s trying to figure out so many things about herself, as well as her sexuality. She doesn’t know who she is yet, and she has an ability to manipulate others and play with people’s emotions. Penelope is at a point in her life where she’s also playing around with different ideas of who she is and who she wants to be. She’s a child in some ways and still in the process of becoming a woman.
STRIPLV: What was it like working with an Italian director and shooting in Sicily?
JOHNSON: It was strange in a way, because I came into the film quite late and I didn’t have as much time to try to get into the character and figure her out, as I would have liked to. But Luca and I had some amazing discussions about her. Penelope doesn’t have enough life experience yet, and she’s struggling to understand how she fits into this world of adults around her, who also have a lot of complex issues they’re dealing with. I tried to compare myself to Penelope and we had some interesting similarities.
STRIPLV: What were they?
JOHNSON: (Laughs) I’m not going to say!