Maggie Gyllenhaal's debut feature, The Lost Daughter, marks the fifth time that Dakota Johnson has acted in a movie with a female director behind the camera. And from the beginning of the shoot, both were on the same page about how they wanted this particular collaboration to be different from the actress's experience on male-heavy sets. "Dakota's character is really just observed for the first section of the movie," Gyllenhaal tells Yahoo Entertainment while sitting alongside her star. "And we shot her in a very kind of classic way like she had been shot before, with the camera just adoring her."
But that adoration never tips over into objectification as it might have if a male filmmaker were behind the camera. "I didn't feel like I was being objectified," Johnson confirms. "I think that's also because our cinematographer, Helene Louvart, is a woman and she operates the camera. There's something powerful about that. Even though the point of some of the shots are, 'There's that girl on the beach,' it didn't feel lecherous — it felt beautiful."
Adapted from Elena Ferrante's 2006 novel, The Lost Daughter casts Johnson as Nina, a young mother who becomes the object of fascination for Leda (Olivia Colman), an older woman vacationing in a picturesque beachside town. As we come to learn over the course of film, which is currently streaming on Netflix, Leda has an emotionally fraught history with motherhood and that informs the way she regards Nina before getting to know her.
"We were playing with the language of objectification, but it's different in the way we did it," Gyllenhaal explains. "Leda puts on her own fantasy of who Nina is for a long time, and that informs the way we photographed Nina and her body before her mind gets to play a huge part in the film, which eventually it does."
Johnson credits Gyllenhaal's own acting career with informing how she approached how her cast would be presented onscreen. "She knows what it feels like to be an actor acting, and that's really rare. I felt really seen and genuinely loved, and that made me feel like I could do anything. I just felt cherished, and that also meant that what I was doing in the moment was going to be cherished in the editing room as well."
Prior to The Lost Daughter, Johnson's most high-profile collaboration with a female filmmaker was 2015's erotic drama Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Six years after that first installment in an eventual trilogy, she and her co-star, Jamie Dornan, notably, find themselves in awards contention for their current projects. Dornan recently received a Golden Globe nomination for his supporting role in Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, and Johnson was on the red carpet for the 2021 Gotham Awards where The Lost Daughter took home four statues, including Best Feature. "I am really grateful that this is my job," she says of the film's reception.
Johnson was also grateful to have Gyllenhaal's firsthand stories about motherhood to draw on while playing Nina. (The filmmaker has two children with her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard.) "I have all sorts of thoughts about motherhood," Gyllenhaal says. "You have a life growing inside you, and then it's born out of you and it sucks on you. There's no way to go into it without being anything but a beginner, so you're having to grow and learn as the child is growing. And growing hurts no matter what; that's just part of the experience. Personally, I think terror, despair and anxiety — as well as the most heart-wrenching ecstasy and joy — are all a part of the normal experience of parenting. And I don't think that's usually how it's framed."
Nina runs through a gamut of emotions while trying to have a relaxing beach vacation and also keep up with her young daughter, Elena (Athena Martin). Off-camera, Johnson had several tricks for engaging with her five-year-old co-star, who was making her feature film debut. "I got her huge bags of candy — I tried to bribe her," she says, laughing. "We also played on set. We made everything a game, because our scenes were pretty hardcore dramatically. She's not a kid that's grown up on movie sets, and it's boring, repetitive and frustrating to be a kid on a set. So we tried to make it as fun for her as possible."
For her part, Gyllenhaal was glad that Johnson and Martin kept their interactions confined to the set. "To create the most realistic version of that relationship, it doesn't mean they have to go on mother-daughter dates," she notes. "When you're someone's mother, you're often like, 'I can't play right now.' It's like Dakota comes over to my house and my children get a special hit of someone who's there just to be with them. For a mom, you've got a lot of other things going on, and it looks different. To be a convincing mother on film sometimes you need to do what Nina is doing, which is saying, 'I can't get in the water, I need a minute!'"
On the other hand, Johnson made sure to spend as much time with her grown-up co-star as she possibly could. "We were together all the time," she says of Colman, who famously let Johnson give her her first tattoo. "We would have dinners together every night, be together on the weekends and swim in the sea after work. It was totally dreamy and crazy, and she's just brilliant. I can't believe she likes me!"
The Lost Daughter is currently streaming on Netflix.