“You’re so sparkly.”
That’s what Dakota Johnson said in the middle of introducing her film, The Lost Daughter, with her co-star Paul Mescal and director Maggie Gyllenhaal at the Mill Valley Film Festival recently. She said that, breaking in the middle of something else she was saying, to me, who was sitting in the front row in a sweater beaded with over 1000 small rhinestones. Little did she know that the interview she has set for during the film’s screening was with The Sparkly One.
While you probably know Dakota Johnson best from her breakthrough role as Anastasia Steele in the Fifty Shades series, the third generation Hollywood legacy is much more. After kicking around with bit parts in 2010’s The Social Network, TV’s The Office and 2012’s 21 Jump Street, Johnson landed that coveted Fifty Shades role and turned it into worldwide superstardom with a devoted fan base (“I love the fans. I love my fans,” she says) and a ticket to whatever she wanted to do next. The legacy of such massive success and being the face of a multi-billion dollar hit series gave Johnson the opportunity to explore a much wider range of roles and instead of forging into more mainstream material chose instead of focus on character-driven dramas like The Peanut Butter Falcon, for which she received rave reviews, and her work with Luca Guadagnino on the eclectic A Bigger Splash with Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton and the gorgeously macabre remake of Suspiria, which stunned audiences with her range.
In Netflix’s The Lost Daughter (in select theaters on December 17 and on Netflix December 31), the feature directorial debut from Maggie Gyllenhaal and based on the novel by Elena Ferrante, Johnson goes into even deeper waters to play Nina, a young mother at her rope’s end with a young daughter who is fraying the last of her emotional nerves. In the film, she forges a unique bond with Leda (played by Academy Award winner Olivia Colman) on a remote Greek island in a story of intrigue and deception and giving Johnson the opportunity to give one of the best performances of her career.
I sat down with Dakota Johnson during the screening of The Lost Daughter at the 44th Mill Valley Film Festival, where she accepted the fest’s Ensemble Award alongside her co-star Paul Mescal and Gyllenhaal. And let’s just say she was pleasantly surprised to see who was interviewing her after her shout out just moments before. In our chat we talk about the film, the experience that festival season has been for her, the “lime” drama and she reveals a deep dark secret just for me.
Erik Anderson: This festival season has been such a whirlwind for you since the beginning of September, you are across oceans and across the country. What’s that been like? And how does it feel to be part of this film for it?
Dakota Johnson: It’s really special. I mean, it’s exhausting. And it’s a lot of travel, but it’s not at all… There’s nothing bad about it. It’s like I get to hang out with people that I genuinely love and respect and admire like Maggie and Olivia and, and Paul. And I love these people and there’s never a dull moment. So I would go to the ends of the earth. And it’s just really cool to go. I’ve never been to this festival. I was in Middleburg yesterday.
EA: I know.
DJ: Which was like, “I’d never been there.” I also was saying “I’ve been to a lot of places.” And I was saying for four days that I was going to Vermont and it’s just fully in Virginia.
EA: It’s Virginia, it’s a V, so you were close.
DJ: Not in Vermont (laughs).
EA: Understandable with all this travel. Tell me a little bit about getting the call from Maggie about this film.
DJ: Well, I read the script and I hadn’t ever… I wish it was possible for people, if they really love the film, I’m sure it is to be able to then read the script afterwards, because there’s so much that is special about it. And the way that has translated on screen is… there was nothing like it, I’ve never read anything like it. And I’ve never experienced someone like Leda and like Nina. I didn’t read the book. Now I can read it and probably just enjoy it as a novel that I’m enjoying. But I read it and then Maggie wanted to meet with me and she was meeting with other people too. We had lunch and there was something about it where I was just like, wow.
Nina sees this woman and suddenly she’s like, “Wait is there more for me? Can I do more with my heart, with my mind?” So hungry to learn and hungry to be saturated. And she’s never going to have that, Nina. And I guess maybe that happened a little bit with Maggie. I was just like, “You made this, how?” And how I just wanted to… Not that I was shocked that she did it, but just, it just struck these chords in my heart and in my woman’s soul that I didn’t really know existed.
And then some time went by after that and she asked me if I would come to New York and read. And I did. I flew myself to New York and I read with her in a casting office.
EA: Oh, wow.
DJ: Yeah. But it was just me and her reading. And then a few weeks later I was actually on set. I was directing a music video and it was my first music video [Coldplay’s “Cry Cry Cry”] and she sent me an email while I was… literally, we were on the lunch break, right next door in a restaurant. And my friend, who’s an amazing photographer, she took a photo of me right when I read the email. And I just had tears streaming down my face. Cause it was a long… It was something that I was just really holding onto that I wanted to make this film.
EA: That’s perfect. It kind of leads me right into that Nina is really unlike anyone you’ve ever played before. Obviously, what drew you to her, but what did you think that you could bring to her?
DJ: I think for as long as I’ve been acting, every woman I’ve played is written as this, almost like a fully realized person and Nina is not. She is very flawed and doesn’t know who she is and that is every human. I don’t… It’s so rare that I meet someone who’s like, “This is who I am. I’ve gotten nothing else to learn. That’s the extent of my being.” I like that she’s in a place in her life where she’s not happy and not okay. She’s in this life that she’s locked into and maybe even kind of imprisoned by and she’s never going to be seen really ever and that was really interesting to me. Then also the dynamic between Leda and Nina, where women can have a million conversations with each other without ever saying a word.
That is so much what happens between them. And that’s so much… I’ve had that experience so much in life and there’s just something so honest about it and scary and uncomfortable, but so real. And I’m at a place in my life and in my career where I’m like, “Yeah, it’s fun to play parts of the the funny girl.” Or whatever it is.
I’m really interested in the truth and Maggie is really interested in the truth. I think another thing is this film allows women to feel like the complicated feelings and thoughts that they have, doesn’t make them a freak or a bad person. And that is so important. It was important to me.
EA: I think speaking right to that, I was going to obviously ask you about working with Olivia Colman. But what struck me in this, and especially the first moments on the beach is what you said. You’re just looking at each other without words, but it’s really kind of also redefining the female gaze because you have a female novelist writer, director, and it’s you two women together. There’s a curiosity, maybe a sensuality, what is going on between them?
DJ: I know that’s something that I thought was so interesting as well, because for a while, you’re like, “Are they going to talk, are they going to fight each other? Are they going to have sex?”
EA: Or all of it?
DJ: Or all of it. Are they going to kill each other? What’s going to happen? And that’s in Maggie’s writing, it would be so simple. It would be like ‘Nina looks at Leda.’ Or ‘she sees Nina.’ It’s… that’s something that maybe normally I’d just gloss over, but it’s those moments that mean so much. And Olivia…she is the greatest. The greatest of all time. The GOAT.
EA: I think that’s probably what allows you to infuse her yourself? Everything’s not literally written out for you get to create that.
DJ: Yeah, for sure. Maggie also guided me to fill out those moments rather than just being there. There’s moments where Nina is far away. And so I was like, “Oh, well then where is she?” And it’s almost like, she’s tripping out a little bit. And the way that she’s been able to survive in this world with her daughter is by being in this kind of magical imaginary world with her. And if her daughter is tripping out with some watering can and her doll, then Nina’s like, “Okay, I’ll do that.” Almost like she’s on drugs without having to be on drugs. And then when she meets Leda, it’s like this crash of reality that I think makes her realize that it’s not okay. You know?
EA: Absolutely. Maggie obviously mentioned the COVID element of this [during the introduction of the film] and that everybody was… You were working together in your own bubble. How was that experience? And in terms of being able to find your character and find rhythm with all of these protocols and things kind of invading that?
DJ: I think we were so fortunate because we shot on an island in Greece. We were pretty isolated and people weren’t really coming in and out the island. Aside from quarantining for two weeks beforehand and being, obviously cautious on set, we were all together all the time.
DJ: So it was fun. It was like, after work, we’d jump in the sea and then drink wine. And all be together.
EA: Sounds like Mamma Mia.
DJ: Truly, it was. And then Jessie Buckley would sing and Jack Farthing would play guitar. It was so amazing. It was like, after having been in lockdown and in a pandemic to then, that was the first job I went back to. And none of them since then have been like that. It’s been a year. This time last year we were filming.
And it was just like, it was not lost on any of us how dreamy it was and how privileged we were. But it also wasn’t really like… This movie is so intense.
EA: Yes, it is.
DJ: It is fucking gnarly to watch, but while we were filming it, we were having the best time. It was just crackers.
EA: That’s so awesome.
EA: You mentioned that this was a year ago and since then you’ve had four other movies that you’ve made?
DJ: Three since then.
EA: Yes, three since then [Cha Cha Real Smooth, Persuasion and Am I Ok?] Do you have a rhythm that you try and keep with what you choose and when you choose to work? Is it a mental or physical decision?
At this point, a publicist pops their head to signal final questions.
DJ: I wish we had more time together.
EA: I know I have like 20 more questions.
DJ: We can talk again another time. It’s so nice to talk to you. Is it a mental or a physical decision? Whether I do a job?
DJ: I don’t know. I think maybe right now in my life, I’m just in it and maybe I should probably take care of my body and my mental health. But I actually really do. I’m in therapy a lot. I’m really healthy. I work out. I sleep a lot. I get really excited about working. I was making a movie in England for a few months. And then right after that, my company had the opportunity to make a movie. And it was like, I mean, I should probably take a break, but yeah, let’s do it. And I’m tired, but it works.
So like, let’s go! I know that at some point having a break is good and I think it’s also, I’m really lucky that I’m getting to a place where I can be really deliberate about my choices. And that is a real gift. That’s like…
EA: That’s kind of what I was thinking, that you’re in a position in your career now to make choices instead of having to have them be made for you.
DJ: Yeah, exactly, I love making movies so much that I always make the choice to work. So I’m like, whatever, I guess I’ll sleep later on.
EA: Yeah exactly, sometime. You mentioned the music video [Coldplay’s “Cry Cry Cry”], which is definitely something I wanted to ask you about. Is feature directing a natural progression for you, now that you’re producing as well? Does it make sense to do that? Or is that even not on the horizon yet?
DJ: I don’t rule that out at all. I love music videos and I know that I will make a film. When, I don’t know. But it’s not something that I’m like, okay, it’s the time, I’m actively seeking this out and it’s time.
But I also feel like something could come along and if it’s the right thing… There’s this, I think that there’s a thing that happens like with Maggie and this movie where it’s like, “Oh, I have to do this.” Can you just do it? Because it’s like coming out of your pores and it’s in your dreams and it’s… I can imagine that that would happen, but I also really love acting.
Publicist #2 pops their head in.
EA: [To Dakota] I’m going to try and squeeze in two more.
DJ: Yeah, keep going. [To the publicist] Can we have five more minutes?
Publicist: Yes, you can.
DJ: Thank you.
EA: What do you think the biggest misconception about you is?
DJ: Maybe that I’m not just this one-time thing, that the more work I do people will realize that I am an actor and I am a filmmaker and I think I feel like that is something that will happen on its own naturally.
EA: Sure, the thing that you’re known for vs. that you can be something else entirely. I’ve talked Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart and Jamie [Dornan] about this too, of transcending a franchise and coming into your own.
DJ: It’s just like, I love the fans. I love my fans. I think I have a strength around that because I felt that growing up with my parents. So I always just was like, no, I have a path.
EA: Ok now for some very serious questions. After the bombshell reveal that you don’t actually love limes and that you are allergic to them, what other shocking secrets do you want to reveal about yourself?
DJ: Well, that… now I have the opportunity to get clear about the limes, thank you. I will say that first of all, between the Architectural Digest shoot and the lime allergy reveal, I had an allergy test. Before I wasn’t lying, why the fuck would I lie about a lime.
EA: Right? You were touching them.
DJ: Also, I love me a margarita. And then I did an allergy test and I found out that I’m allergic to limes. So, there was time between that. I also don’t keep a bowl of limes in my house. (laughs)
EA: That’s good to know.
DJ: That was that they just made that look really nice. You know, like how in food commercials they spray it with gel to make it shiny. Do you know that?
EA: Oh, absolutely. I’ve seen some scary food videos.
DJ: Yeah. But if there’s another secret of mine? I really don’t like the feeling of… I mean, I guess it’s more of a pet peeve, but I really don’t like the feeling of wet floors on my bare feet.
EA: Oh my God. I love that but also hate it.
DJ: You know what I mean? Like if someone gets out of the bath or the shower and it’s just like flapping around when they’re wet feet. Okay. And then I have dry feet…
DJ: …or if you have socks on and you step in something wet.
EA: Stop, you’re scaring me. Wet socks are literally the worst thing ever.
DJ: It’s not good.
EA: Dakota, thank you so much for making time to chat with me.
DJ: Yeah, that was fun. I mean, you’re amazing.
The Lost Daughter will be in select theaters on December 17 and on Netflix December 31.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.