Dakota Johnson has a lot to thank Margot Robbie for. When Robbie dropped out of the 2015 film A Bigger Splash at the last minute, it was Johnson who stepped in. Still in the afterglow of the sadomasochistic smash Fifty Shades of Grey, Johnson was searching for a new kind of experience, and she soon found it on the island of Pantelleria, working alongside director Luca Guadagnino and art-house doyenne Tilda Swinton.
“There was something about the way A Bigger Splash came into my life, and the relationship with Luca and Tilda that came out of it, that is so beautiful and special,” she says. “I arrived very Bambi-like, as if I’d just been hatched. Suddenly I was immersed in a whole new world, and I was hooked. I knew it was the beginning of a new phase in my life.”
It was here, in between takes on A Bigger Splash, that Guadagnino began discussing his next project with Johnson: “I hadn’t seen the original Suspiria before Luca spoke to me about his idea, but I was in. And once I had seen the film I was so in.” She stars as Susie Bannion, a supremely gifted American student who arrives at a prestigious Berlin dance academy governed by an ancient coven of witches. She isn’t quite sure how to describe what follows – “a sort of psycho-bending-horror-gore-drama... Is that a thing?” – but she is certain it’s her most full-on film to date. “On paper you might think Fifty Shades was pretty extreme, but there was something cosy about it, we made it edible for everyone. There is nothing cosy about Suspiria. It makes you feel very deeply uncomfortable, it’s unsettling and that feeling doesn’t go away quickly, it lingers. Perhaps a bit longer than welcome.”
Cameras don’t start rolling on Johnson’s next film until January: she remains politely tight-lipped on details to avoid jinxing it but, in the meantime, she’s looking forward to reading, riding her horse, hanging out with her mum in Los Angeles (yes, that’s Melanie Griffith; her grandmother is Tippi Hedren), finally watching Game of Thrones and “feeling my own feelings, for a moment”. But will there be another Luca-Tilda-Dakota outing? “Well, Luca and I are constantly conspiring and Tilda and Luca are in constant conversation, so... Suspiria is definitely not the last one, something else will evolve. We are a family.”
“This film was sort of a triple-threat magnet for me. Girls, dancing and witches. I’ve always been very drawn to movies that focus on a group of girls – I love them. The Craft,Heavenly Creatures, Girl, Interrupted, a movie my mum did called Now and Then; there is something so enticing and wild about a band of girls. Relationships between women are very complicated and magical. And the idea of dancers at a dance academy is delicious – I want to know everything the dancers are doing, what they eat, I want to see them warm up, I want to know what they wear, what they do at night... I went to an all-girls Catholic boarding school for one year and so I had some experience of that kind of environment, where you become a band of sisters in your own little world, and the people you’re with are the only ones who understand you, or sometimes really do not understand you. I did ballet until I was 14 or 15, and that background was also really helpful to know what it’s like to be surrounded by girls who are driven and disciplined and mostly supportive. Sometimes not so much.
“While I was training for the Suspiria dance routines, I discovered I still have muscle memory from years of learning choreography when I was young – my body understands movement. But that was the only bit of my past I could use, because the style of dance in Suspiria is a kind of German expressionist dance from the 1940s and it goes with gravity, not against it like ballet. In ballet you’re trying to make everything look graceful, light and effortless, but this was heavy and sharp and aggressive. When you’re watching the dance sequences in the film you feel like you can not only smell the scent of BO in the building but you can really feel the anger and aggression coming from the hearts of these women. The European female intensity is pungent and the energy is tangible, it’s feral and witchy.
“The dancers we worked with were so in touch with their bodies; as a woman that’s a very beautiful thing to see. So often today we’re caught up in social media, where everyone is flashing themselves and trying to look beautiful, skinny and whatever but feeling insecure, but these girls showed me a side of femininity that is really strong and sensual and in touch, connected. It’s amazing. I feel like connecting to yourself and your body is so important, especially as a woman. I mean, if you’re going to give life to another person, then you’d better be connected to yourself.
“It wasn’t difficult for me to tap into this kind of raw femininity because, in a way, it’s something I’ve been drawn to my whole life. There is this archetype of a woman in my head who is so fiercely loving that it’s powerful and magnetic and almost scary. I found that person in a lot of the characters in Suspiria – in Susie and, in particular, the grand witch, Mother Suspiriorum. For me, Mother Suspiriorum represents the all-knowing maternal figure; the ultimate female perpetually living in the struggle, the fight, the defeat, the victory, the love and the loathing, the grace and wisdom and compassion. She is a living, breathing connection to every type of woman. And then, you know, with magical powers.
“In my life, I’ve been surrounded by and crossed paths with some incredible women. Some very shy, very subdued women, women who don’t have any connection to their sense of self or worth or power. And then women who are so intensely the opposite it’s difficult for them to see eye to eye with anyone. I’ve seen magic and strength in a whole spectrum of women and, in my heart, Mother Suspiriorum is connected to all these different types. She’s fierce and, at the same time, tender. That’s an innate female quality if you’re brave enough to access it.
“My mum’s resting state is to love unconditionally. She is the most compassionate woman I have ever known. I really learnt from seeing how she handles people, she is always so gracious and accepting of everyone. And my grandmother taught me that you don’t always need to say everything, you don’t need to explain yourself. That makes her sound quite cold but really she’s just the most badass. And the classiest of all class acts.
“So, on the one hand, I have my mother who is openly loving and affectionate, and always expressing herself and her love for you, and on the other, my grandmother, who will only tell you what she wants to tell you... It circles back to my idea of Mother Suspiriorum in the film – someone who can have all this love, energy, power and freedom, knows when and when not to use them, and is not at the mercy of anyone or anything. I’m only just realising that perhaps Mother Suspiriorum is partly a combination of my mum and grandmother.”
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