Feature film shoots are generally described as marathons rather than sprints, so imagine doubling the distance to the finish line by filming two movies back-to-back. That’s the race Dakota Johnson is in the middle of running now. Since February, the 26-year-old actress—well versed in the Hollywood grind, given the acting careers of her parents, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and her grandmother, Tippi Hedren—has been working on both sequels to the 2015 hit, Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the blockbuster trilogy of erotic novels by E L James. For Fifty Shades Darker (scheduled for February 2017) and Fifty Shades Free(February 2018), Johnson is returning to the role of Anastasia Steele, the innocent college girl who gets involved in a less-than-innocent sexual relationship with mysterious billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). “It really is a marathon, and I don’t see the end,” Johnson tells Yahoo Movies. “But hopefully I’ll see it soon! It’s going really well.”
Johnson’s upbeat description of life on set runs counter to some of the earlier bad buzz surrounding the sequels. In the wake of the first Fifty Shades’ massive success, James made it clear that she wanted to assert more control over the screenplays for Darker andFree. That may or may not have contributed to Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s decision not to return, paving the way for James Foley (whose credits include Glengarry Glen Ross and Fear) to step behind the camera for the two follow-up films.
Meanwhile, rumors swirled that Johnson and Dornan’s onscreen chemistry didn’t exactly translate offscreen, and both actors sought significant bumps in salary to continue their characters’ romance. But the dust has since settled, and production on the films is chugging along, with everyone seemingly in good humor. Speaking of good humor, Johnson confirms that the sequels will leave room for some of the (intentional) laughter found in the first movie, such as the amusing contract negotiation scene between Anastasia and Christian. “We’re trying to figure out the best way to level out all the emotional aspects of the story, as well as the comedic notes,” Johnson says. “Hopefully, these films will be funny—that’s what I appreciate about them.”
Before embarking on her Fifty Shades marathon, Johnson was fortunate to receive an exotic vacation, of sorts, courtesy of her new film, A Bigger Splash, which is expanding to more theaters after its limited release on May 6. Loosely adapted from the late ’60s European psychosexual drama, La Piscine, the movie required Johnson to journey to the picturesque Italian island of Pantelleria, nestled in the Mediterranean Sea. And she didn’t make the trip alone: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthias Schoenaerts were her traveling companions, under the guiding eye of their director, Luca Guadagnino.
In the film, Johnson plays Penelope, the twentysomething daughter of flamboyant music producer Harry (Fiennes), who has brought her along to visit one of his favorite clients, rock goddess Marianne Lane (Swinton). Once upon a time, Harry and Marianne were lovers as well as collaborators, but she’s since built a life with Paul (Schoenaerts), who is keeping her company at her Pantelleria villa while she recuperates from throat surgery. Harry’s arrival inevitably stirs up old feelings with Marianne, while Penelope—perhaps acting on her father’s orders or by her own accord—strikes up a lazy flirtation with Paul. “For me, there’s a side of Penelope that is finding her footing in the world,” Johnson explains. “She’s a very young girl who is very comfortable with her sexuality and craves attention, which makes her completely different from Anastasia Steele. But she can also be very uncomfortable at times. And that island was sometimes very uncomfortable, so that helped.”
That’s right, despite Pantelleria’s sun-dappled scenery and gorgeous ocean views, Johnson cautions that the island isn’t necessarily a paradise. “It’s definitely not a soft and cozy place,” she explains. “The terrain is rough, and the roads are rough. There are no beaches and the water is fully of jellyfish. The energy is sort of high-strung everywhere, and that factors into the movie as well. All the characters have this baseline of anxiety.”
And they all react to that anxiety in different ways. Harry, for example, gets extra-boisterous, which allows Fiennes to indulge in more of his late-career flair for comedy, as seen in such films as Hail, Caesar!, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and In Bruges. “Ralph has this process, and you’re very much aware when he’s in it,” Johnson says. “This character is some of the best work he’s ever done. And we definitely talked a lot about Grand Budapest on set, because Tilda was in that as well. These actors have existed in my mind for so long as these magical creatures I would never have face-to-face conversations with. I learned so much from them.”
To hear Johnson tell it, the best souvenir she received from her stay on Pantelleria filmingA Bigger Splash was Swinton’s friendship. “She gave me books to read, and taught me how to play Gin. I think she just loves me a lot and wishes I were part of her family.” Johnson even has her own Tilda-approved family nickname: “She calls me Cousin Becky!” she says, laughing. Better that than Cousin Oliver.