Dakota on the cover of Marie Claire US (March 2016)

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Interview Transcript
Surprisingly, Dakota Johnson doesn’t act like a Movie Star. This, despite the fact that she is the daughter of movie stars (Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), the former stepdaughter of a movie star (Antonio Banderas), even the granddaughter of a movie star (Tippi Hedren).
 She was protectively told what a tabloid was at the age that other girls were getting their first American Girl dolls. Besides, she’s been acting since she was 10, and her star status was cemented last year when she delivered a near flawless performance as the winsome naif (“I’m here to see...Mr. Grey”) turned wary bondage participant Anastasia Steele in the blockbuster movie from the blockbuster book that needs little more hint than “the red room” for you to know what we’re talking about. 

This month, she lights up How to Be Single, a chicks-gone-wild feminist frolic that calls to mind the too-likable-to-be-jealous-of screen sweetheart that Meg Ryan was to a previous generation. In May’s A Bigger Splash, she ditches the relatability to become a devious nymphet in Lolita glasses who may or may not be the daughter of a larger-than-life record producer (played by Ralph Fiennes, with Tilda Swinton as his rock star ex-lover). “She’s more of a pro than any of us,” says Swinton. “She knows those territories inside out. She is extremely experienced and knows exactly what she is doing.” 

Given all that, one expects a polite but blasé young woman to waft into Cafe Luxembourg on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for lunch. But when Johnson, 26, bounds in, not a trace of makeup on her pale, flawless skin, her light-brown hair falling in wisps to the shoulders of her black turtleneck-she is more like a bouncy, wry graduate student than a third-generation celebrity. Johnson does this fame business strictly on her own terms. With her, being an anti-star seems both a personality trait and a mission. When asked a personal question (“Are you back with [Drowners lead singer and guitarist] Matthew Hitt?”), she emits a Nice try! snicker. Eventually she does allow, “I don’t have a boyfriend-why? You got one for me? Right now I find myself having the capacity to love my family and my friends, and that’s it.” She’s bemusedly proud of the unique youth she had, toggling between divorced and remarried and re-divorced and then married-to-others parents. In fact, she cheerfully offers to draw a chart of its complexity: “One older [half] brother on my mom’s side, one on my dad’s,” two younger half brothers, and two younger half sisters.

In between bites of steak, Johnson makes it clear there’s thoughtfulness, candor, vulnerability, and outrage at what’s wrong with the world behind her quippy bon mots and genial sarcasm. There’s also a sweetness. “Just say that I love her,” Swinton writes in an e-mail. Says her close friend Dana Fox, the writer/producer of How to Be Single: “I love Dakota like family. It’s rare that someone who has her background has remained incredibly grounded with her moral compass in exactly the right place.” 

In How to Be Single, Johnson is Alice, who half holds on to a too-safe relationship in order to live on her own in Manhattan, with exhibitionistic Rebel Wilson playing her tart-tongued guide to vixenhood and clubland, and Leslie Mann as her sister, a stridently anti-motherhood, unmarried ob-gyn who suddenly has to have a baby. Alice learns the hard way the difference between “unattached” and “independent” It’s something Johnson is familiar with. “Alice is codependent [on] whatever boy she’s with [That’s] a very real person. I’ve been that way, where I severely rely on someone for my happiness.” Does she care to elaborate? “No!” “Most of the time you see these movies about men having these outrageous comedic stories,” Johnson says. “And then there’s [the spotlight on what’s] becoming more and more common and a positive theme: for young women to be on their own.” 

Johnson’s particularly validated by this last point because she lives alone in a downtown New York City apartment, “and it’s emotionally and mentally invigorating to be by myself. That’s when I spend my time reading”-among other books, the poetry and memoirs of Patti Smith, whom she was thrilled to meet-“and watching and listening to things,” although never television (no time, no interest). She is also an inveterate New York Times crossword-puzzle doer. Johnson is, by inclination and necessity, homebound when not meeting friends at restaurants or flying to movie sets. Growing up surrounded by paparazzi made her averse to the attention she’s getting now. She abhors gossip. “It just sucks! It sucks!” she repeats, as if doing so could banish old items (including those linking her to actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Jordan Masterson) from the Web. 

Despite the fact that the latter was true, “Don’t trust anything on the Internet!” is her anthem. “I would like to think that people in this industry have one another’s backs,” she says carefully, “but sometimes they don’t. I’ve become increasingly wary and protective of who I speak to honestly, of who my friends are.” Then there are those invasive photographers. “When a bunch of paparazzi [are] outside my apartment, [chasing] me down the street, it’s really embarrassing. I want to go to my coffee shop and talk to the guy who makes coffee ’cause he’s my friend. In a restaurant or on the subway, people sneakily take my picture. Just because I’m in the public eye, does that mean that my business is everyone’s business?" 

I don’t feel tough enough to be accosted by people,” Johnson has concluded. “When I’m feeling particularly fragile, I just won’t leave my house.” The delivery app Postmates has “changed my life.” The prospect of going to a club makes her say, “I don’t know what I’d do in a club.” Johnson is about to shoot two Fifiy Shades sequels back-to-back: Fifty Shades Darker and Fifiy Shades Freed. Yep, Anastasia and Christian “marry and live happily ever after, and they have two chil- dren,” keeping up their bondage sex but on a “lesser” level. She shrugs and explains: “People still do things when they have kids.” Because of the nudity required, she’s doing extra workouts with her trainer. “I think the human body is so sexy, and if I’m going to be naked, I want to look great.” 

She’s also done a year and a half of ballet lessons (dancing was her teenage forte) for the movie she will shoot right after the two Fiftys: a remake of the Italian horror art film Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagnino, who directed her in A Bigger Splash. And after that, she’s playing the young Jane Goodall in a biopic of the primatologist and world’s most famous animal-rights activist. This project is “very near and dear to my heart-it’s the craziest, craziest honor,” Johnson says, “because I’ve grown up around a woman who has some otherworldly ability to thrive with wild animals.” (Her grandmother, Tippi Hedren, has given sanctuary to more than 235 exotic animals on the wild- animals preserve she founded in Southern California.) But if this year’s worth of solid work is exciting, it’s also stressful. Before Fifty Shades made her an overnight star (and won her a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic Actress), Johnson was best known for pitch-perfect cameos as the Stanford student who has a one-night stand with campus Internet star Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) in 2010’s The Social Network; as Jason Segel’s nutty rebound Audrey in 2012’s Ther’ve-Year Engagement; and as the lead in the short-lived Fox comedy show Ben and Kate. 

Last fall, she played Johnny Depp-as-Whitey-Bulger’s baby mama in Black Mass. Now that she’s arrived, she’s having trouble falling asleep: “I try to count backward from 100, but it’s starting not to work so I’ve just counted from 300. It’s so annoying.” Other times, “I become a little bit narcoleptic. I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime.” Johnson has always been sensitive. “I’m a fairly empathic person,” she says. “I mean, like, extremely. Sometimes to the point where it’s diificult for me to be around certain people because I can’t handle [what they’re going through]. I just soak up all of people’s feelings and energies. If someone has bad energy, I feel it to my core. If a friend is going through something emotionally traumatic or insanely exciting, I get equally as sad or excited. It’s exhausting!” 

The empathy seems to have been a necessity in her childhood, a protective adaptation. Sure, she loved that offbeat life of hers, where the looming sight of a wardrobe trailer in a godforsaken town was as much a lodestar as everyone else’s strip mall. She was flying every two weeks between her mom’s house in California and her dad’s spread in Woody Creek, Colorado (where one of his best friends was the late Hunter S. Thompson, a kind of uncle figure to Dakota), or to whatever location that one of her parents or her former stepdad was shooting a movie in, often being tutored instead of going to school. If she could change anything in her past? “I wish I had allowed myself to be young, to be 15 and 16” in that same carefree way her age-mates were. It was a complicated pre- and early adolescence. She attended Catholic and Episcopalian girls’ schools in LA “I think my parents were afraid to put me near boys [even though] I wasn’t particularly boy-crazy.” But your mom first got together with your father as a teenager, right? “Uh-huh.” Johnson sardonically narrows her eyes and, as if addressing her do-as-I-say-not-as-I-did mother a dozen years ago, says: “So bite your tongue. Bite. Your. Tongue.” It was when Johnson got to a snooty girls’ boarding school in the Bay Area that she really couldn’t take it. “There was a [social] class system, and it was scary to me. I was a very small 15-year-old, and I had my appendix out and when I came back to school, I looked like a total zombie.” 

She bonded with a transfer student who was a bit of a troublemaker, and the two girls became bohemian-rebel dorm mates, discovering hipster harpist Joanna Newsom when she was a local secret, listening to Serge Gainsbourg CDs, watching the arty Jim Jarmusch film Coffee and Cigarettes. “We were so thirsty for information beyond our years.” Eventually her father rescued her, and she enrolled in the coed progressive arts school New Roads, in Santa Monica, California, which she loved. Johnson’s list of admired actresses shows discerning homage to her grandmother’s generation: “Gena Rowlands is my all-time love", and to her mother’s: “Nicole Kidman, Michelle Pfeiffer. I grew up watching their work; they are extraordinary.” She also singles out Sarah Paulson as “an incredible actress and a glorious human” In terms of her contemporaries, she recently got to know Amy Schumer, and the two formed a mutual-admiration society, which thrills Johnson because, “I admire her so much. She’s fearless.” The daily-steam-gathering crusade of feminism in Hollywood, of which Schumer is one of the ballsiest and funniest truth tellers, is something Johnson is all-in for. “It seems crazy that we’re even having this conversation now. [Sexism in Hollywood] is a problem that should have been corrected years ago. The wage gap is completely absurd. Absurd!” 

Johnson says she would like to produce; she has already written a short film, which she hopes to make one day. Johnson has this feeling that her life will always be off some “normal” grid she never experienced “The idea of being at home and picking up kids from school and cooking dinner and then the husband comes home- there’s something that seems really nice to me cause I never had it growing up,” she says. “And it seems so enticing. But in my mind, I’m like, Well, I’ll just play that in a movie and go about my own life, bizarre as it is.” 

She doesn’t rule out dating fellow actors: “It is possible to make it work If you can let go of conventional ideas about what a relationship is, of what a family is. My life is unconventional. It’s always been unconventional. And it will probably always be unconventional. But that’s great” (For the record, she’s in no rush for a family of her own. “But I also don’t have rules on it,” she says. “If something happened tomorrow, and I met someone whom I wanted to marry who wanted to marry me, I’d marry him.”) She does feel closely parented-she regularly turns to her father for “advice on buying a house and a car: dad things” and to both her parents for wisdom. “When I was worried about something in the business side of the industry, [my mom] was like, ‘Remember why you do this. You love making movies. That’s what matters to you. Nothing else matters.’ And that’s the truth.” 

A few days after our interview, a gossip site ran a photo of the back of a young woman they claimed was Dakota getting affectionate with a playboy art dealer. I didn’t want this for Johnson-not the invasion of privacy she hates; if true, not the playboy. It’s hard not to feel protective of her, because she herself is protective of others. When we left the restaurant, I was hobbling in pain from a pinched nerve. Instinctively, she grabbed my bags and ran into rush-hour traffic to hail a taxi for me. If she took the subway home (as she tends to do), I hoped nobody took a picture of her. If they did, they wouldn’t see a celebrity. They’d see, despite her loved-and-hated “bizarre” life, an exceedingly likable normal young woman.

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