The Five-Year Engagement is the latest offering from the ever-expanding Jason Segel-NBC comedy crew. Segel himself co-wrote the script with director Nicholas Stoller and stars alongside Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, and Chris Parnell—a promising line-up of familiar faces. A lesser known face, however, is that of Dakota Johnson, who plays the energetic, aggressive, and generally absurd Audrey. We’re enjoying tracing Dakota’s steady career-rise; in spite of her famous family*, Dakota is moving up the acting ladder the old fashioned way; myriad small (and often unflattering) roles in increasingly bigger films. So far, Johnson’s played Justin Timberlake’s Stanford bed-buddy in The Social Network, a catty cop in 21 Jump Street, and has dipped her toes into the indie-film pool with 2012 Sundance film For Ellen with Paul Dano and Jena Malone. We called Dakota to talk about martial arts, vigorous on-screen sex, her new TV pilot, and Christopher Walken.
*Dakota’s parents are Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. Her grandmother is Hitchcock favorite Tippi Hedren.
EMMA BROWN: I saw The Five-Year Engagement last night. You seem to be popping up in a lot of films recently, how did you get involved in that one?
DAKOTA JOHNSON: The casting director called me in to read with Jason [Segel], and then a week later I got the part.
BROWN: Your character, Audrey, is a little… special. How did they present her to you?
JOHNSON: [Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel] told me about what they wanted the base of this character to be, and then they gave me a lot of free range to do what I wanted. Obviously they use improv a lot, so I was pretty much able to create this character and make her really weird, annoying, and abrasive.
BROWN: Had you improvised on set before?
JOHNSON: I actually had not. I didn’t have any training in comedy or in improvisation. It was sort of scary at first, because it’s a big thing to be working with those guys, because they are like the funniest people around right now. But once I got a handle on the way that they work, it was just so much fun. They improvised on 21 Jump Street as well. I went straight from The Five-Year Engagement to 21 Jump Street, so I had a bit of a handle on how to work with these guys.
BROWN: Was it easier for you to settle into the group with 21 Jump Street having done The Five-Year Engagement? A lot of the actors in both films are part of the Freaks and Geeks-Judd Apatow/Paul Feig set.
JOHNSON: It was a little easier. I was also just really tired when I finally got to New Orleans to do Jump Street, and it sort of calmed me down a little bit, I didn’t have the energy to be nervous. [It was] a learning experience, definitely.
BROWN: Back to The Five-Year Engagement; you have some quite athletic sex scenes with Jason Segel…
JOHNSON: [laughs] Those things are always a little uncomfortable at first, but the whole point of the scene is just to show how ridiculous this girl is, so I made a complete fool of myself. It’s a lot more fun to do things like that when you don’t care what you look like.
BROWN: Do you know people like Audrey?
JOHNSON: Thankfully, no. Actually, maybe I do. I’m sure that I’ve met people like her, but if I was friends with someone like Audrey I’d probably knock ’em out.
BROWN: How do you get into character?
JOHNSON: Sometimes I’ll have genres of music that go with a character, or go with a certain time in their life that I may be… acting out. [laughs] But it’s different every time, sometimes it’s just a really intuitive feeling, and sometimes it’s a lot of research—learning about things that this character loves that I know nothing about. I did a movie where my character was obsessed with Bruce Lee, so I learned everything about Bruce Lee, read everything, watched his movies.
BROWN: What’s your favorite Bruce Lee film?
JOHNSON: Enter the Dragon. That one’s really nuts.
BROWN: Did you bully all of your friends into watching them with you: “Let’s not call Dakota, she’ll make us watch a Bruce Lee movie”?
JOHNSON: No, I did it by myself. No one really wants to sit through and get into a Bruce Lee movie. I guess it depends on the kind of person you are, but no one wanted to do that with me! It would be fine if it was on in the background, but I was studying all of it, [which] is not fun for anyone else.
BROWN: You didn’t seek out martial arts enthusiasts?
JOHNSON: [laughs] No.
BROWN: Does Audrey listen to a certain type of music?
JOHNSON: Audrey’s such a fucking airhead. She is a “Top 40″—the kind of person who will try and really talk to someone who knows about music, but will talk about Top 40 songs and dance-remix club music like she knows what she’s talking about.
BROWN: I heard that you just filmed a new pilot.
JOHNSON: It’s called The Kids, it used to be called Ben Fox is My Manny. I play a single mom with a five-year daughter, and it’s basically about me trying to take care of her and still be a woman. Then my older brother comes to town, he’s kind of incorrigible and disastrous and ruins a lot of things for me, but ends up helping me in taking care of my daughter.
BROWN: I think that playing a mother at this stage in life—when you’re 22 or 23—would really freak me out. Far too close to my teenage fears.
JOHNSON: It was weird, but it didn’t freak me out. It was pretty awesome, because I got to act [like a mother] with this little girl, who’s the sweetest thing. We had a week of rehearsals [before we shot the pilot] so I got to know her and hang out with her, make her feel comfortable. It’s always difficult with kids, you don’t know how they are going to act—if it works [better] to talk to them this way, or that way, to touch them. It was good that I got time to figure out what sort of little person she is. I’d never done a television show before.
BROWN: When will you find out when the series gets picked up?
JOHNSON: I think pilot season is in mid-May, so around then.
BROWN: Who is your dream interviewee, if you could interview anyone?
JOHNSON: Right now in my life? You know what, I met Christopher Walken last night so I’d probably want to interview him. He’s pretty cool. [laughs]
BROWN: What would you ask him?
JOHNSON: I’d probably be really awkward and ask him something stupid like, “Hi Mr. Walken, how are you?” [laughs]
BROWN: Not “Would you consider showing me some of your amazing dance moves from that Fatboy Slim video?”
JOHNSON: Maybe I would if things went well.
BROWN: What about your dream interviewer, who would you most like to interview you?
JOHNSON: That’s a weird one… Christopher Walken. [laughs]
BROWN: Is there anyone you’d love to work with?
BROWN: Christopher Walken…?
JOHNSON: Yeah, Christopher Walken. There are lots of people I want to work with, but I think, for today, Christopher Walken is my answer for everything.
BROWN: What’s the nicest thing anybody has ever said to you about one of your roles?
JOHNSON: When I did The Social Network, David Fincher told me that I managed to make a thankless character pretty awesome. I thought that was really cool because I think he’s really cool. [laughs]
BROWN: Whenever you are interviewed, do people always ask you about your family?
BROWN: Is it annoying?
JOHNSON: It’s not necessarily annoying. I’ve come to understand the allure of that to other people, how it seems so interesting and different. But for me it’s just my family, it’s the way I grew up and it’s my mom and my dad. It doesn’t really bother me because I get it, but sometimes it’s kind of a drag to talk about. People ask me about my grandmother [Tippi Hedren] a lot, too.
BROWN: What’s the most common question you get asked about your grandmother?
JOHNSON: I think they ask me about her cats mostly.
BROWN: Really? Not about Hitchcock? That’s strange.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I know.
BROWN: Last question: what’s next for you?
JOHNSON: I’m doing a short film for a friend; it’s her thesis film for NYU. After that hopefully I’ll have some time off. I’m going to try and find a house to live in.