While I wait in the hallway outside the hotel room where my 15-minute interview with Dakota Johnson will take place, one of her handlers kindly suggests that I not ask anything about Fifty Shades of Grey. “She’s also getting a little tired, so try to make your questions interesting and she’ll perk up.” #nopressure
I am ushered in and take a seat on a beige sectional. I smile at another handler who is seated across from me, ready to tape and time my speed-date chat with Johnson, one of three muses for the new fragrance Gucci Bloom. The 27-year-old actress is slowly pacing in the adjacent room, no doubt girding her loins for another interview.
Moments later, she walks in and quietly sits on the floor in front of me. She is barefoot and dressed in understated—at least for Gucci—black tux pants and a beige silk top. Her makeup is minimal, and her fringed and layered haircut, c/o celebrity hairstylist Mark Townsend, has me rethinking my no-bangs policy. She takes a sip of iced coffee and looks up. “You’re halfway done,” I say, trying to be encouraging. “What?” she responds, staring at another handler across the room. After being assured that her day is nearly over, she laughs and says, “Like, how far do those windows open?!”
She’s had a hectic few days, which have included walking the red carpet at the Met Gala with Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, and attending the fragrance launch party at MoMA PS1 in Queens with her fellow perfume muses, Petra Collins and Hari Nef. I begin our chat by asking her what song or book title best reflects the past 24 hours of her life.
“Oh, my God. That’s such a fucking great question,” she says, smiling. “Give me three seconds.” She reaches for her phone and starts scrolling through her music. “I don’t know. Hmm…that’s the craziest question,” she laughs and looks up. At the 1:50 minute mark, I suggest we move on. I’ve lost a minute, and there’s plenty to cover.
Let’s start with her take on what it means to be one of Michele’s Gucci girls—a title that confers instant retro-cool status. Since the Italian designer took over in January 2015, his influence in fashion can’t be overstated. “Guccification,” which was reportedly first uttered by Yves Saint Laurent as a slam for being too blingy, is now code for the creative, theatrical and quirky style that he has championed and that other designers now enviously emulate.
Johnson says she’s honoured to be associated with an “incredibly cool” brand that elevates fashion—and now perfume—to an art form that encourages women to be authentic and true to themselves. The pair met at one of Michele’s first shows for Gucci and became fast friends. Earlier that day at a Q&A session with journalists, the designer described Johnson as a “super-sweet diva,” adding that “she doesn’t care to be a diva. She’s a woman.”
Being authentic is important to Johnson as it informs how she approaches her work as an actress. Being cool—or striving to be perceived in a certain way—holds no sway with her. This explains her guarded participation in social media. She doesn’t have a Twitter account but suggests she could “nail it” with some of her one-line zingers.
On Instagram, she has an impressive post-to-follower ratio of 3 to 1.7 million. Her first and—at the time of this interview—only post is dated August 11, 2015. It was a cover shot of her on AnOther magazine, which coincided with the release of A Bigger Splash. It garnered more than 290,000 likes and 38,000 comments. “I like that photograph,” she explains, when asked why she posted it. “I just think that picture represents me in an accurate and honest way.”
The Austin-born actress explains that she has a love-hate relationship with social media—perhaps it’s the publicity-weary outlook that happens when your parents are Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, your stepdad is Antonio Banderas and your grandmother is iconic Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren.
“I’ve had private Instagram accounts where I post funny things or I can follow my friends, and that’s nice, but then I just get sick of it,” she explains. “I don’t feel the need to expose myself in that way…. I struggle with this because I could use social media as a platform to talk about issues that I’m passionate about and to connect with people who want to talk about art or music, but I can do that with people I know.”
When I ask her what might prompt a second post, she pauses before responding: “I don’t know. I don’t think about it.” Nine days after we chat, she re-grammed a shot of Thom Yorke from Pitchfork. The Radiohead frontman is scoring the music for the upcoming Suspiria, a horror film in which Johnson co-stars with Tilda Swinton and Chloë Grace Moretz. The movie, which is a remake of the 1977 witchcraft cult classic from Dario Argento, is about a ballet student who attends a prestigious school that is covering up a series of occult-style murders. It’s Johnson’s second film with Swinton, whom she describes as “brilliant.”
At the audition for that film, Johnson recalls being intensely nervous. “I just couldn’t believe that it was happening—that I was going to fly to this island off Sicily and do a table read with some of my favourite actors of all time,” she recalls. “My anxiety is so tricky. It becomes like a weird self-sabotage—like a weird little gremlin that I can’t control.” Despite telling herself that she couldn’t do it and that she wasn’t good enough, Johnson was able to pull herself together. But even today she isn’t sure how she did it. “It’s a total process,” she says and then pauses. “I just did it.”
It’s the same determination that’s driving her to star in and executive-produce a film that she says chronicles one of the “biggest missteps in American justice.” Unfit is a historical courtroom drama about a Virginia woman named Carrie Buck who was sterilized when she was 18 as she was deemed an “undesirable.” “It’s a very scandalous and very dramatic story to tell cinematically, and it’s also dealing with incredibly intense subject matter that is incredibly timely,” says Johnson, who is an active supporter of Planned Parenthood. “It’s about the most fundamental thing a woman can do and should have the right to do.” (Just before this story went to press, Johnson posted a link to a Planned Parenthood video on her Instagram feed with an amusing note: She couldn’t “figure out how to ‘post’ or ‘repost’ or copy and fucking paste the thingy into the thingy. How on Gods green earth do I get the little video into the picture square.”)
Her other passion project is Action in Africa, a community development project that her childhood best friend launched in Uganda. Encouraging creativity—whether through dance, music, storytelling or art—is the hallmark of the program. “We’re at a point where there’s so much trouble all over the world, and it’s impossible to save everyone’s life,” says Johnson. “But it’s not impossible to shed a little light and bring creativity into the lives of these kids.” She says the program gives children a chance to dream and to realize that they can invent something in their heads that can make them happy.
The handler across from me lets me know it’s time to wrap. My 15 minutes are up. As I’m leaving, I jokingly ask Johnson if she has thought of a song that defines her past few days. “Oh, God!” she laughs, and then makes a pfft sound. Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” comes to my mind as I leave the room and pass another writer waiting in the wings.