On the eve of becoming notorious with the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, Dakota Johnson, its under-the-radar star, relishes her last moments of anonymity.
My most favorite thing about London,” confides Dakota Johnson on the first day of our madcap foray into the capital’s Fashion Week, “is that nobody recognizes me. It’s really . . . cool.”
At this point, it must be noted, Dakota hardly recognizes herself: She’s temporarily a flaxen blonde, and an overeager hairdresser has chopped something approximating sideburns into her tousled mane. “I’m not the kind of person who is like, ‘What have you done?!’ ” Dakota shrugs. “I’m like, ‘I love it!’ ”
But although she passes generally unnoticed by the city’s paparazzi as they scramble to photograph Alexa Chung, Poppy Delevingne, et al, that situation, it can safely be assumed, will soon change dramatically once Dakota, 25, embodies Anastasia Steele, the adventuresome heroine in the screen adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, E L James’s erotic best seller (“a very dark Grimm’s fairy tale, told for adults,” as director Sam Taylor-Johnson describes it). The Fifty Shades trilogy’s critical lambasting was rewarded with sales of 100 million copies worldwide, and the movie, a very alternative love story that opens on Valentine’s Day weekend, might just make Dakota this decade’s Vivien Leigh.
“I think about my dwindling anonymity,” she says, “and that’s really scary because a very large part of me would be perfectly happy living on a ranch in Colorado and having babies and chickens and horses—which I will do anyway.” Still, she could not pass up the opportunity to play a character that so many people felt they knew. “I wanted to be involved because it’s so different,” says Dakota, “and it’s an intense love story.”
Taylor-Johnson wasn’t aware of Dakota’s Tinseltown credentials (she was the first second-generation Miss Golden Globe) before they met, though she had seen her memorable cameo as the one-night stand of Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) in David Fincher’s 2010 The Social Network. “She was a bit of a scene-stealer,” says Taylor-Johnson. “It was one of those little appearances where you think, I need more of that girl!” For the Fifty Shades audition, Dakota was given a monologue from Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s intense 1966 psychological drama. “She blew us out of the water,” Taylor-Johnson remembers. “She understood the nuance of that passage and how to play something delicately. Dakota has the ability to play so fragile and vulnerable, but with this underlying strength that makes you feel she is going to triumph.”
Although the director was determined to give Dakota the role, she had her come back to read with a few contenders for the role of Christian Grey—the charismatic love interest with the unconventional sexual appetites.
“We couldn’t offer her the part until we felt there was a definite chemistry between her and whoever was going to play the part of Christian,” says Taylor-Johnson. Enter the improbably good-looking Northern Irishman Jamie Dornan, charismatic star of the hair-raising BBC crime series The Fall, with a proverbial twinkle in his eye. Their chemistry, as the director recalls, was immediate.
“Dakota is very funny—and humor on a film set goes a long way,” says Dornan. “But she also had the ability to be a very strong dramatic actress. She’d be telling a joke one minute and breaking your heart on-screen the next—so she was perfect.”
“There are tough scenes in this movie,” adds Taylor-Johnson, “scenes where she had to be naked—and not just in the flesh. But she was utterly fearless and brave.” Dakota, meanwhile, says that she and Taylor-Johnson “have a very special connection. I trust her with everything. She has a very level head, and there was never really an anxious moment.”
Although Dakota hadn’t yet seen the movie in London, she is one of the more than 100 million viewers who have seen the trailer, which became Universal’s most-viewed teaser ever. “It’s just the most insane thing to be a part of,” Dakota says. “I’ve never experienced anything like this; I don’t think anyone has. It’s terrifying—and it’s exciting.”
Still, while Taylor-Johnson works through the Los Angeles nights to edit her movie, here in London Dakota feels very far removed from the nine-and-a-half intense weeks that she spent filming it. Among other details, she hasn’t yet got a handle on the movie’s relentless promotional schedule: “I’m surviving on an hour-to-hour basis right now!” she says. She has, however, started working with the stylist Kate Young on her fashion choices. “We’re buddies—we like to hang out—and we come up with cool stuff together,” says Dakota.
With eclectic red-carpet dressing on her mind, Dakota is contemplating a rack of clothes to wear to a trio of hot-ticket London Fashion Week shows. Chic sexy? Ethereal romantic? Hitchcock class? And what about a shoulder purse? “It’s so nineties,” she says, sighing appreciatively.
The actress exudes the effortless cool of an It girl, from her Stella McCartney platforms and the eighties Rive Gauche and Ungaro pieces in her wardrobe (recently ferreted out from a vintage store on the Rue de Grenelle) to the discreet skull earrings that were a gift from her mother (Melanie Griffith, if you didn’t get the memo; Don Johnson is her father and Antonio Banderas her stepfather). The clothes are arranged in a suite at the Chiltern Firehouse, her London home from home (when she isn’t crashing with Kate Moss in her storied eighteenth-century house in the north of the city). Meanwhile, Dakota has her “best friend in the whole world,” the Nashville-based decorator Emily Ward, in tow for moral support and empathetic drollery. Ward, who could be a double for their mutual pal Reese Witherspoon, is married to the Black Keys’ drummer, Patrick Carney. (Dakota is currently stepping out with Welshman Matthew Hitt, the lead vocalist and guitarist for the indie-rock band Drowners and a sometime model with the attenuated looks of an Egon Schiele portrait.) Ward and Dakota spar in various accents—Scottish, French, Welsh, Wisconsin—and are so winning and conspiratorial and so very, very funny together that you find yourself wishing that you might be their second-best friend in the whole world.
The calm that Dakota is so persuasively projecting is, however, illusory. In fact, she is thoroughly discombobulated. She has just spent two months on the rugged and far-flung Italian island of Pantelleria filming an update of Jacques Deray’s iconic 1969 movie La Piscine (in which she reprises the role played by Jane Birkin in the original) with I Am Love’s high-style director, Luca Guadagnino (Taylor-Johnson recommended her for the role). Dakota loved Guadagnino (“I’m so excited that he exists,” she says), as well as her costars Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, who calls her Cousin Duckie and talked her down from the ledge when she felt ill prepared for the role, which she had landed just days before filming began. “At times I was like, ‘This is my slow, trickling descent into madness—I won’t come back from this!’ ” Dakota says, laughing. “Luckily, I was playing a complete sociopath.”
But Pantelleria, she says, “is like being in Alcatraz surrounded by jellyfish—you really can’t leave! So I’m experiencing full-blown culture shock now. I have bizarre anxiety about being in a city—I have no idea who I am or where I am.”
Our immersive London fashion foray only promises to heighten her sense of disorientation. It begins at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, where Stella McCartney is presenting the sustainable clothes she has designed for Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge. “She’s very special, that Stella,” says Dakota. “No bullshit, very straightforward—and kind.” The two were originally introduced, in true child-of-celebrity style, by Henderson, a beloved New York driver whom the McCartneys and the merged Johnson-Griffith-Banderas clan have each used for decades. “I’ve known him my entire life,” says Dakota. “He knows everything about me—I tell him everything. He’s met all of my boyfriends.”
“I need a group hug!” yells Stella when Dakota and Emily walk into her party. At their first blind dinner date, when the girls were in town for a Black Keys tour, conversation turned to Akron, Ohio, where Carney comes from, at which point Stella thoughtfully summoned fellow Akronite Chrissie Hynde to join them. “It was the most glorious experience for us because we worshipped the Pretenders,” remembers Dakota. As it turned out, she and Stella had more in common than mere celebrity parents: Animal welfare exercises both of them. “She saved twelve horses from going to the meat market,” Stella says proudly about Dakota. “Paid the rent on a riding school that was hit by the recession—for three years.”
A passion for animal rights runs in Dakota’s family. As her grandmother Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie, has recounted, when she resisted the director’s sexual advances he made it difficult for her to work again as an actress. “The studio system then was crazy—you were like a trained animal,” Dakota tells me. “It’s hard for me to hear.” Tippi took to rescuing wild animals instead. Dakota’s mother famously grew up with a lion in the house, while Dakota herself gleefully remembers a brace of rescue elephants, Timbo and Cora, in their backyard.
Hedren now lives on a ranch in California’s Soledad Canyon “with some small cats and some big cats,” as Dakota puts it: “Lions and tigers, a black leopard, and a three-legged cheetah.” She calls her grandmother, who’s now 85, “the most glamorous woman I’ve ever seen. She’s so beautiful and smart and a real, true class act. She’s just extraordinary.”On the following day we head to the Erdem show, where Dakota admires the fey Edwardiana and again passes virtually unnoticed. We break for a salad lunch before Burberry, but the traffic is so horrid that we risk missing the show altogether. In desperation, I suggest that we get out and run for it. Dakota removes her high heels and gamely takes off like a cross-country runner. “I’ve been barefoot on an island for two months!” she yells. “It’s OK!” Arriving out of breath, we are hustled into our seats just as Malaika Firth appears at the end of the runway in an hourglass denim jacket and a golden-sequined pencil skirt.
“That was sooo funny!” says Dakota with a laugh after the show. “I loved every second of it!” She also likes Christopher Bailey’s frothily romantic color palette but admits that she preferred the men’s clothes. “I want to get my hands on those velvet pants,” she says.
Though Stella is hosting a girly lunch in Holland Park, after the near debacle of our Burberry adventure we decide to err on the side of caution and head over early to the Christopher Kane show at the Tate Modern instead. Lauren Santo Domingo joins us in the car. “If you have to grow old and knit, where would you live?” she asks Dakota. “Colorado—or Nashville,” she replies. “L.A. really doesn’t feel like home to me anymore.”
“Los Angeles is a really strange place,” she tells me later. “I grew up there like a normal kid, but it was not until I experienced other parts of the world that I realized how really and truly bizarre to the core it is—inside the homes of the powerful and damaged. Nashville is only a couple of hours from New York,” she says, “and people just move at a slower pace there—and they don’t care who you are or what you do.” In fact, her phone has been beeping almost constantly with Zillow alerts on Nashville real estate. “Sometimes it’s nice to just hang out in someone’s backyard instead of prancing around the city,” she says. “But other times . . . it’s nice to prance around the city!”
A relentless travel schedule was a fact of life for Dakota when she was growing up. Her “normal kid” childhood was spent “everywhere,” she tells me: “Cincinnati, Colorado . . . Budapest. I traveled a lot with my parents”—to their movie locations, and then between them when they split (for the second time) in 1995.
“I was always taken in and out of school,” she says (she counts seven or eight of them total). Mornings on the road were spent with a tutor and afternoons on adventures, exploring new cities and museums—an upbringing that has left Dakota with an ardent curiosity and an informed sense of global culture. She studied art in high school, but “I just assumed that what I would be doing is making films,” she says, “because I grew up around people making films, making art, making music. And being on a film set is the most comforting thing in the world to me. Seeing a catering truck feels like home.”
We are so early to the Kane show that they are still in the middle of rehearsals in the museum’s Turbine Hall, so we take in the Robert Mapplethorpe show. “He holds a really special place in my heart,” says Dakota, who was stirred by the photographer’s Grand Palais retrospective, as well as by Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir of her life with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, and The Coral Sea, her elegy for him. She once caught Smith’s eye in Paris when they were both shopping at Dries Van Noten (the men’s store, naturally). “I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Dakota tells me. “Then she left and I followed her down the block and I felt really, really creepy!”
From London, Dakota is heading to New York, where her beloved younger sister, eighteen-year-old Stella del Carmen Banderas, has an interview at Barnard—“She’s the smartest person in our family,” says Dakota—before flying to Vancouver to shoot some additional Fifty Shades scenes and thence to Los Angeles, where we meet up again, a month after the London shows, on a balmy afternoon at LACMA. The now-brunette Dakota is wearing a dark Laura Urbinati bra (which she admits she stole from the wardrobe of the Piscine remake) under her filmy blouse and is delighted when it’s pointed out that her Jen Meyer turquoise heart pendant matches the color of the day’s museum pass.
Dakota, who hasn’t been home to L.A. in nearly a year (Mom has been dog-sitting Zeppelin, her Jack Russell–schnauzer mix), seems serene and collected after the disorienting London adventure—but the calm is illusory this time, too. The week before, Dakota had finally seen the latest cut of Fifty Shades—an experience that has left her feeling discombobulated once again.
“It looks beautiful,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. But it’s confusing to the brain—I still can’t look at it objectively or wrap my head around it. The parts of the movie that are difficult to watch were even more difficult—and emotionally taxing—to shoot.”
Dakota loves the museum’s stylish exhibition of 1920s German Expressionist cinema—particularly the Weimar filmmakers’ idea of “the set of a movie being a character along with the actors, where even the wallpaper means something.” It reminds her of the Red Room on the Fifty Shades set, where “everything has a place and every drawer and cabinet and box has something in it”—though it’s not something even visible to the viewer. “Only Jamie and I knew,” she says.
We then decide to take in the “Hollywood Costume” exhibition, put on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where Dakota notes more hidden details—the brightly colored linings of Mary Poppins’s dour wardrobe, for instance, or the purse that Meryl Streep carried to embody Margaret Thatcher, carefully filled with all the correct paraphernalia, which only the actress knew about.
“I know that voice!” says Dakota suddenly as we turn a corner. “I can hear my grandmother!” Sure enough, Tippi Hedren’s pistachio-green suit from The Birds is in the next room (Dakota deconstructed the look for her appearance at the Christopher Kane show). The exhibition designer’s conceit is to have Tippi in conversation with archival footage of the famed costumer Edith Head—in whose legendary wardrobe building on the Universal lot Dakota’s nuanced Fifty Shades costumes were fitted by designer Mark Bridges. Then the Tippi Hedren voice comes through again: “I realized how important wardrobe is to a film, to a character. . . . Is she rich? Is she poor? Is she . . . a slut?”
“What? What?!? Mormor!” shrieks a genuinely outraged Dakota, using the Swedish word for “grandmother” and revealing a streak of prudery that seems somewhat at odds with her on-screen antics in Fifty Shades. “Oh. My. God.”
She’s somewhat pacified by the 1930s Adrian and Travis Banton costume extravaganzas that follow. “Movies are just the best things in the world,” she says, sighing. Suitably enthused, she decides to see one this evening with her sister, and they agree on Gone Girl.
What does the immediate future hold? “I do a bit of press for Fifty, and then I’m just going to take the rest of the year off,” says Dakota blithely. “I want to hang out with my friends. I want to hang out with my family—well, I sometimes want to hang out with my family!”
Sam Taylor-Johnson isn’t quite so sure. “I think it’s going to take her to a place where she has witnessed her parents go,” she says of Dakota’s career-affirming role. “Now she’s going to experience it for herself.”