For over a decade now, Dakota Johnson has carved out a distinctive space in both big-budget studio projects (the Fifty Shades series, 21 Jump Street, How to Be Single) and more far-out arthouse material (A Bigger Splash, Suspiria).
With Maggie Gyllenhaal's lauded directing debut, The Lost Daughter (on Netflix now), the 32-year-old actress finds a sweet spot in between, starring as a conflicted young mother alongside Oscar winner Olivia Colman, Chernobyl star Jessie Buckley and Normal People's Paul Mescal, among others, in a sun-drenched psychodrama already shaping up to be an awards-season MVP. Recently, Johnson sat down with EW for a spoiler-heavy conversation on finding sisterhood, and herself, in Daughter's journey to the screen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you remember from your first meeting with Maggie? She said it all came together over one very intense lunch date.
DAKOTA JOHNSON: In my experience as a woman, sometimes you meet other women that you recognize something and they recognize something in you, and you have this unspoken communication, this agreement, or this sort of... Like an understanding, I guess. And that's what it felt like.
I think I also was getting to a place in my work where I just was becoming really tired of falsities and fronts and these just ridiculous, shallow, surface-level meetings. And that's just not what it was with her. It was very real and very human and just exactly what I was hoping could exist in this industry.
The movie shot in Greece, which was a mid-pandemic pivot Maggie made basically just to find a place where you could safely film. That must bond the cast in a different way, that kind of summer-camp island situation.
Yeah, I think any time you're on location away from home, it lends a sort of intensity and comradery to your work and to the people you're working with. Even if you're in Boston or you're in Shreveport, La., it does feel a little bit like summer camp. With Greece, it was just a hyper version of that.
We were so much in a bubble. It was a pretty hardcore quarantine before we started shooting, and luckily, we all really, really enjoyed each other, so we just only spent time with each other. It was just the cast and crew all the time, and it was so fun and so cozy… And there weren't any cases on the island, so people were really just living their lives there.
Netflix Dakota Johnson in 'The Lost Daughter'
When we sat down for a roundtable a few months ago, you called Maggie "a seeker of truth," and your costars Dagmara Domińczyk and Jessie Buckley both said she's very much a note whisperer. Do you remember any particular character notes for Nina that were light bulbs for you?
Speaking of Dagmara, there's that scene where Nina goes up to [Colman's] Leda and thanks her for finding her daughter, and then Callie [Domińczyk] comes up behind her and puts the sunscreen on. And Maggie gave me a note one take that maybe Nina finds Callie really hilarious — like genuinely, ridiculously funny. And there was something about that that I loved so much.
Like Nina f---ing hates her but also finds her so amusing because she has to because she's stuck, you know? She's imprisoned in this life, so she can be totally f---ed off by Callie, but then also just find her ridiculous.
Paul Mescal's character also warns Olivia's away from you and your family at one point, telling her, "They're bad people." Do you think he means actually criminal, or just vaguely untrustable?
[Laughs] I mean, fairly criminal, I would say. I think that they probably get up to some shady deals and certain things, but I guess it's nice to leave that open to anyone's imagination.
As a cast, you all obviously spent a lot of time in bathing suits, which is probably no actress's dream. But it doesn't feel uncomfortable or disempowered in this movie for some reason.
It's such an interesting conversation to have, because it's definitely not a dream. There's part of it that is like, "Oh my God, I get to be on a beach in Greece and just be a freak? Cool." But then in the reality of it, there's cameras and people, and it's not relaxing.
Maggie's hand as a director is so safe, it's so nurturing, and it wasn't about our bodies. She's talked about how, in the beginning of the movie, it was almost objectifying Nina with the camera angles and the distance — like she was an Antonioni character like Monica Vitti, but then you get to go inside her mind. The thing was, it didn't feel lecherous, Maggie's eye. It felt like she was observing and studying. I think someone else's eye could feel quite dangerous.
You guys have taken this film to so many festivals, and it seems like a little bit of a Rorschach blot, who viewers identify with. Would people come up to you and have different ideas of villains and heroes in this story or who they were rooting for?
Yeah, I love when men, after having seen the movie, come up and they really recognize the women in it. They're like, "Oh, that is what my mother was like!" or, "That's my aunt," or "I recognize parts of my wife." That is really cool to me.
And then I've also experienced young women really disliking some characters. And I find it really interesting because the journey of being a woman really is a journey, do you know what I mean? At some stages you know a lot, and then suddenly you know so little, and then you learn more. But the other side of that is women feeling so seen and feeling less crazy and less guilty, and feeling like they're not alone in having complicated feelings as a woman or as a mother.
I thought of A Bigger Splash more than once while I was watching, just in terms of the trickiness of the script and the beauty of the setting. Which is definitely a compliment, but I don't know if it felt similar for you at all while you were making it, it might have been a completely different experience.
I can see the similarities. I think there's a lot of European filmmaker in Maggie's mind — Italian cinema, French cinema has really spoken to her heart. The experience wasn't the same, though. This movie for me felt like Maggie offered me her hand and was like, "I see you. I see something in you that maybe you don't see yet, but come with me and come with these other women, who are the most f---ing talented actresses, and come on this journey with us."
And it was a moment of evolution for me as an artist, but also for me as a woman. I turned 31 when I was there [in Greece], and it was just a really interesting time to go deeper into what it really feels like to be a woman in the world.
In your mind, did you play out a future for Nina? Do you think she stays with her clan and her man?
I have a gut instinct about her. You know, sometimes there's those relationships that thrive on turmoil, they need the friction in order to move forward? I think that that's kind of what she has with her husband. And what happens with Leda at the end of the movie with the hatpin, that's Nina mothering, that's her going, "Oh, no, this is the end for you. You don't do this to my family." It's ultra-protective, you know? It's primal.
I don't know if any actor can ever say they actually enjoy a press tour, but the Daughter cast does seem like they've been having a better time than most.
There's nothing better than doing press with people that you genuinely love, because it can be pretty exposing and difficult sometimes. It's amazing because we get to travel all over the world and be together and talk to so many people and experience so many people watching the movie, but then also it can be a lot, you know? A lot of opening your heart.
So what is this business about you giving Olivia a stick-and-poke tattoo after a New York screening — do you just go around branding Oscar winners now?
[Laughs] Yep. That's my side hustle. But I don't want to tell you [what it is] if she hasn't said anything about it! That's her body to talk about.
A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.