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Dakota Johnson was dancing in a red slip dress, enormous gold hoops dangling from her ears. She was at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this year for the launch of her latest film, The Lost Daughter, written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, when Netflix offered to throw the cast a dinner. “Maggie was like, ‘Instead of having a dinner, let’s have a dance party,’ ” Johnson says. So they invited everyone from the other movies playing at the festival to a local restaurant, and it quickly became the hottest event in town. Benedict Cumberbatch, Jamie Dornan, and Kirsten Dunst all partied as Whitney Houston blared from the speakers.
There was a lot to celebrate. Only 24 hours earlier The Lost Daughter had premiered to a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. After the screening (Johnson forgot to bring her glasses, but she reports, “I think it was beautiful”) there was time for a quick glass of champagne before she and Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard boarded a jet to Telluride to do it all again. It was a lot to take in. The film, an intimate portrait of complex women making unspeakable choices (it also stars Olivia Colman), was shot on a shoestring on a tiny Greek island at the height of the pandemic, a world away from the festival circuit. Now it was suddenly being talked about as a major award contender. There was also the matter of just being out of the house.
At one point Johnson and her director locked arms on the makeshift dance floor and stared longingly into each other’s eyes. The photos ignited a Twitter frenzy, as Johnson’s red carpet moments would do repeatedly during The Lost Daughter’s press tour, but Johnson shrugs and says, “I didn’t even realize there was a photographer there.”
Not that she would have done anything differently. Why should she? Johnson may be the perfect person to lead us into the Great Reset. She’s a third generation Hollywood star who fronted the most controversial franchise in years, Fifty Shades of Grey, then refused to let either of those things define her. We’re talking about a woman whose public persona is glamorous but also coolly mischievous; she openly (and hilariously) called out Ellen DeGeneres for lying about a birthday party and lived to tell the tale, and she revealed recently that Jimmy Kimmel is a great neighbor, “except they have a lot of parties and they don’t invite me.” Surely Kimmel will update his guest list to include the Oscar hopeful, who is now preparing to direct her first feature and, if the New York Post is to be believed, recently moved into a $12.5 million house in Malibu with her rockstar boyfriend, Chris Martin, who called her “my universe” onstage in October, a rare public confession for the private couple. Can you blame him? She’s the girl of the moment for this very strange moment.
Dance parties would become a tradition for The Lost Daughter team, who threw down again after a New York Film Festival screening in October. Johnson and Sarsgaard shared their playlist with the DJ at Altro Paradiso in Soho. “It was a lot of Talking Heads, the Cranberries,” says Johnson, who—sometime later, back at the hotel—used a stick-and-poke kit to give Colman her first tattoo. (“Maybe it was me being completely seduced by this gorgeous person and wanting her to think I was cool,” Colman says. “Or maybe it was my midlife crisis.”) Summing up this post-vaccine return to joy, Johnson says, “The thing is, people are not behaving normally. If you go to a party, you fucking rage.”
Nothing about Johnson’s path could be described as normal. This life and career? They feel both preordained and impossible. She made her big screen debut as a coed bedding Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, but the public was already vaguely aware of her. She was Miss Golden Globe 2006, granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, stepdaughter of Antonio Banderas. She was a girl who—at age six—delivered an Easter basket to Madonna on the set of Evita.
Johnson sits in a booth at the Sunset Tower Hotel, the image of laidback cool in an orange print dress from Rodebjer, as we discuss her peripatetic childhood. The Tower Bar is a safe haven for celebrities, but especially for Johnson, who celebrated her 16th birthday here. “It was me and a bunch of girls in the penthouse,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I drank a bottle of Hypnotiq.” Hyp-what? “No one should know what that is. It’s a liqueur. It’s bright blue.” Once properly drunk, she and her girlfriends ran across the street to the infamous Saddle Ranch, where tourists ride a mechanical bull. Did Johnson take a spin? “No,” she says, “I did not ride the bull… Not that night.”
Johnson has seemingly always known what she’s doing, and she has had a flawless radar for fun. When she told her father she wanted to skip college to become an actress, he cut her off, wanting to be sure she’d actually put in the work. And she has, appearing in more than 20 films in the last decade, from big budget comedies to thoughtful dramas and even an artsy remake of the horror classic Suspiria. For the record, Johnson calls acting “ancestral,” not “genetic,” and the distinction makes sense. In comedies like Working Girl, her mother was the straight woman, with a breathy voice and an offbeat sexuality. Johnson, meanwhile, is a live wire—all unpredictable choices, brandishing her body as a weapon in films like Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, where her mere arrival at a vacation house threatens to overthrow the status quo. It’s not only onscreen that we haven’t been able to take our eyes off her. There she is sitting in the front row at Gucci, supporting her friend, designer Alessandro Michele, or in the tabloids, buying and renovating Ryan Murphy’s old house in the Hollywood Hills, turning it into a flawless Midcentury Modern retreat decorated with works by David Hockney and Alice Mann.
Nothing could stop her. Until, well, everything stopped in early 2020. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is wild,’ ” she says. “All of a sudden people were in complete and utter fear.” Like everyone who was lucky enough to shelter in place, she made some strange decisions, including buying a house in Colorado—sight unseen—because she had spent time in the state as a kid. It was an emotional choice similar to the way she chooses projects. Johnson is someone who feels a lot; she has the word “tender” tattooed on her forearm.
The world was four months into lockdown when Gyllenhaal called to say The Lost Daughter was a go. It would be one of the first films to shoot in this era, and though there were higher-profile projects vying for Johnson’s attention, she couldn’t shake this one. At first glance, it’s a curious choice. The film is based on an Elena Ferrante novel, but there’s almost nothing in the way of plot. Olivia Colman stars as Leda, a professor on vacation in Greece who becomes fascinated by a young mother, Nina (Johnson), traveling with her husband, daughter, and extended family. When Nina’s daughter briefly goes missing, and Leda finds her on the beach, a tentative friendship develops between the two women.
Although Johnson is a “movie star,” as Gyllenhaal puts it, the story is told through the eyes of Colman’s character. But in a way it makes sense that Johnson would be drawn to a supporting role like this one. She is an actress whose body was used to sell an R-rated franchise that earned more than $1 billion; The Lost Daughter offered a chance to unpack some of that objectification. Gyllenhaal says, “Nina is so gorgeous. Her sexuality is the currency with which she moves through the world. And then she finds herself all of a sudden at—I don’t know, 30—starving.”
Says Johnson, “Nina was this girl who is so much more than she appears to be and is so hungry to be seen. It was an honesty that I hadn’t seen in a film about women who are imperfect and cut open and not always pretty.”
In order to get difficult scenes to play out, Gyllenhaal would whisper secrets into her actresses’ ears and then let the cameras roll. But it wasn’t all hard work. Johnson was furnishing her Colorado home at the time, and when she discovered that Colman shared an obsession with interior design, the two spent hours on websites like 1stdibs and Chairish. A tufted pink velvet sofa now adorns Johnson’s living room. Perhaps something as quotidian as finding fabrics was the perfect release from such difficult subject matter? Colman says it’s a nice thought. “I should be saying that, but actually we just had such fun,” she tells me. “It’s often the case that if a film is about stuff that’s quite hard, you end up laughing a lot.”
Still, there was no distraction from the meat of the thing. The Lost Daughter (which opens in theaters in December before streaming on Netflix on New Year’s Eve) asks thorny questions about motherhood, sacrifice, self-worth, and regret. I wonder if Johnson had ever had those conversations with her own mother. “I actually spoke to her a few weeks ago. I was like, ‘Is there something that you dreamed of doing that you never did?’ And she said, ‘No. I wanted to be a mother, and I wanted to have a family.’ That was her thing.”
Johnson is perhaps still wrestling with these questions. (She’s a fiercely private person. When asked where she’s living right now, she deflects: “I’m living everywhere.”) It was Johnson who sought out this project, and when she and Gyllenhaal first met over lunch, the director recalls, “Dakota said to me, ‘I want to go deep. I want to do a film where I get to explore the things that are on my mind. And some of those things are unusual and painful.’ ”
A few months ago Johnson was in Bath, England, shooting a modernish adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, running through the woods in a corset despite having a kidney infection—exhilarated by the material but also in pain. The novel is about Anne Elliot, who, at the urging of her family, rejects a man only to regret that decision years later. It’s always Jane Austen season in Hollywood, but I ask her what about that character appealed to her now? “Part of it was being a woman who was in the wrong family in the wrong place and was never seen,” Johnson says. “She has the hugest heart but is just kind of stuck.”
It’s the second time Johnson has talked about being drawn to a character who is “stuck.” Maybe that’s what she’s bristling against as the world returns, or what all 32-year-olds are fighting against: convention. Maybe it’s not enough to emerge from the pandemic dancing on tables—it’s about taking the biggest swings. Last year Johnson invested in a design-forward sex toy company called Maude and then became the company’s co-creative director. Why not front a company that offers a lube bottle sleek enough to leave out on the counter? Or put out into the universe that you want to star in an adaptation of Patti Smith’s Just Kids (“That’s the dream. It’s all I want”)? Or give Olivia Colman a tattoo? In a way it’s not unlike something Johnson’s mother used to tell her: “Don’t do anything if it doesn’t make your heart beat fast.”
In 2022, Johnson will direct her own first feature. The project hasn’t been announced yet, and she’s wary of even talking about it, but she will say it takes place on “a mythical island.” Of the project she says, “We talked about someone else directing, but then I was dreaming about it, having ideas all the time. It’s in my bones, this story. I’m like, ‘Is this too soon?’ But it’s happening. I’m gonna do it.” That seems to be exactly what works best for Johnson: Dance like nobody’s watching, and the world might not be able to look away.
Photographs by Amanda Demme; styled by Kate Young, assisted by Taryn Bossi.
Hair by Mark Townsend for Dove Haircare at a-frameagency.com. Makeup by Georgie Eisdell at the Wall Group. Nails by Betina Goldstein for Chanel and Augustinus Bader at the Wall Group. Set design by Evan Jourden. Production by Viewfinders LA.
In the top photo: Carolina Herrera dress ($6,990); Tony Duquette necklace.
This story appears in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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