Dakota Johnson Can’t Fake It

On set, at junkets and in her relationships, the actor — and literary tastemaker with a new book club — favors blunt truths. And the occasional mischievous fib.

Interview by Charlotte Owen
Woman in white dress lies on grass by a deer, with scattered puzzle pieces around her.

Dakota Johnson isn’t very online, but she’s sometimes tempted. “I occasionally think of something or say something that I feel would be really great on Twitter,” she says, grinning. She’s probably right. Johnson has just wrapped a two-week press tour for Marvel’s Madame Web that was variously called “chaotic,” “unhinged,” and “refreshingly honest.” She has the kind of virality that can’t be studied — and to be clear, it’s not. “I live way out by the beach, out in Malibu,” she says of her personal life with her partner, Coldplay’s Chris Martin. “I need to be in nature. I can be out at my house and not see or speak to another human for days on end, and I feel wonderful.”

We’re here to discuss what Johnson does on some of those days at her house: read. On March 1, she launched her very own book club inspired by the work she does hunting for IP for TeaTime Pictures, the production company she co-founded with former Netflix development executive Ro Donnelly. “There are a lot of people who do things like I do and they have book clubs, and I was always like, Oh, the way that I read books, it’s so different,” she says. “I want to fall down the rabbit hole every time I read… to invest in the book, invest in the language, invest in the references. Like, Oh, what is that piece of art she’s talking about? Who’s that musician?

Gucci dress and shoes

I’m sitting with the 34-year-old actor at a restaurant on the beach in Santa Monica, California, near where she went to high school. (“Before that, I was all over the place with my parents,” she says, nodding to the acting careers of her mother, Melanie Griffith, and father, Don Johnson.) She looks polished, with Jessica McCormack heart-shaped diamond earrings and her impossibly long hair, due to be cut tomorrow, covering a striped sweater. Her jeans are high-waisted because she’s a millennial, not Gen Z, though she doesn’t want to get into that after her last comments on the topic went viral. She’s already predicting the potential aftermath of today’s conversation. “Like, ‘Dakota Johnson Breaks Her Silence On Madame Web’s F*cking Box Office Failure,’” she says, laughing. “It’s like, ‘No, I’m not breaking any silence. I’m just talking.’”

Part of the appeal of books is that she doesn’t have to engage in any of that nonsense. “TeaTime and I have an Instagram channel where you can have a chat with whoever signs up, and every few days we’ll be releasing a deep dive as we read along together,” she says. This might include a playlist the author made or information about their references. The first book, Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino, is a startling novel about a woman who believes she is an alien. It’s an interesting choice — literary, but accessible; concrete, but ambiguous. It feels fitting. “I don’t know if I’m from anywhere or I belong anywhere,” Johnson says when I ask her later. “So, yes, I do relate to the alien.”

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I read Beautyland in 48 hours and was so distracted by the ending that I left my passport on the plane. Why did you want to start with that book?

Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but this is a book that I will recommend to people for the rest of my life. It feels like we’re setting the bar so high, which I am proud of. Our book club is literary fiction. It’s not beach reads. It’s not silly. It’s not all female authors, but it is female-forward, and it’s a lot of first-time novelists.

Will the approach itself be different to other clubs?

I’ve found in book clubs that you’re just kind of on your own. You watch someone like me have a conversation with the author, but I don’t feel invested in that. I’m not very good at Instagram and I am constantly trying to figure it out, but the more I’ve learned and seen, something like this is really needed. People need to deep dive into knowledge about specific things rather than talking about what f*cking face serum they’re using and thinking that that’s the most important thing in the world. And… honestly I love a face serum. [Laughs.] But I also want to talk about this world that this incredible woman created.

So, big question — do you think the narrator in Beautyland really is an alien or she’s in a mentally difficult spot?

What’s the difference?


Have you seen Mother God? I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s this documentary on Max about a woman who claims that she’s been every incarnation of God. She was Cleopatra, she was Joan of Arc, she was Jesus. And she’s managed to convince 12 people. So there’s a cult called Love Has Won, and they call her mother or mom. Today I was in the shower and I was like, But what if she was? [Laughs.] Because I’m thinking about [Beautyland protagonist] Adina and I’m like, Maybe? Who knows. But I’m a real sucker. I would be the first one to join a cult.

What kind of cult do you think you’d join?

Any one that was like, this is really good for you and this will make you a better person for other people and it’ll help the world. But that’s what they all say. And then they all end up having sex.

It’s interesting you say that because I feel like your public persona is that you’re a bit anti-authoritarian, or “who gives a f*ck,” which feels anti cultish.

It does, doesn’t it? Maybe I’d be a cult leader. But I don’t think I would do that either. I am a very defiant person. If somebody tells me I can’t do something, I am shaking, even if I had no interest in doing that thing.

Were you like that as a kid?

Yeah. I think I just find rules and some structure really ridiculous, silly and stupid.

Do your friends and family know how to accommodate that?

You would think so… [Laughs.] You would think they’ve learned that by now, but no. But I’ve always been the kind of person who’s going to do what I want to do. I will accept and accommodate everyone’s feelings and ideas and thoughts. But as long as I’m not hurting another human being in some way — even with my work, with agents or managers or whomever — I’ll listen to everyone and take everything very seriously and then I will do what feels really right to me.

That’s good.

But also, publicly… all that stuff is ridiculous. It’s hard for me to fake it. It’s hard for me sometimes to go along with the silliness of doing a press tour.

Gucci dress, Sophie Bille Brahe earrings

Have the last two weeks been weird? A lot has happened since I saw you playing with baby animals on set for the shoot.

Yeah. I had the LA premiere for Madame Web and then went to Mexico City. I had pneumonia and was on steroids and the nebulizer and doing all these little things, and I was really, really sick and felt horrible. I looked horrible. I was like, Ugh. And then the movie came out and it was… [Pauses.] Like, I can’t take any of it seriously at all. I dunno.

Does it bother you when people write nasty reviews?

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that this has gone down the way it has.

Is there a reason for that?

It’s so hard to get movies made, and in these big movies that get made — and it’s even starting to happen with the little ones, which is what’s really freaking me out — decisions are being made by committees, and art does not do well when it’s made by committee. Films are made by a filmmaker and a team of artists around them. You cannot make art based on numbers and algorithms. My feeling has been for a long time that audiences are extremely smart, and executives have started to believe that they’re not. Audiences will always be able to sniff out bullsh*t. Even if films start to be made with AI, humans aren’t going to f*cking want to see those.

But it was definitely an experience for me to make that movie. I had never done anything like it before. I probably will never do anything like it again because I don’t make sense in that world. And I know that now. But sometimes in this industry, you sign on to something, and it’s one thing and then as you’re making it, it becomes a completely different thing, and you’re like, Wait, what? But it was a real learning experience, and of course it’s not nice to be a part of something that’s ripped to shreds, but I can’t say that I don’t understand.

That’s a peaceful place to be in.

That’s why I have my own company. In a movie like that, I have no say about anything.

Are you going to adapt Beautyland?

Well, we don’t have the rights, but I’ve been trying to think of how it could work. There are some books that are really hard to adapt.

Oh, for sure.

I know Margot Robbie's company is making My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I’m sure you’ve read that. But how the f*ck? I don’t know how you do that.

I know you had the experience with 50 Shades, of an author being very involved in an adaptation. What do you think an author’s involvement should be?

Well… God, it depends. In The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal really absorbed that novel and then regurgitated her vision of it, and it was received so well by the author. Then with something like 50 Shades, the author was extremely precious about words, clothing, anything, everything. And it was really difficult to have any kind of freedom and spontaneity and authenticity because you’re in such a small margin. There’s no room for being expressive or discovering what is present in that real moment that you’re capturing. It’s contrived.

Having too many cooks in the kitchen is an eternal problem, especially with creatives.

It’s a big f*cking problem. It's also about control and feeling powerful, and that’s not what art is. There is so much room for the author to be present if they’re able to collaborate on what is the best possible outcome of that project. I understand if you’re precious about it being a certain way, but then don’t allow somebody else to adapt your book. Make your own movie.

Do you mainly read literary fiction? Are you a bit of a book snob?


I am too, but all of the momentum right now seems to be in erotic fiction. Or erotic fantasy. In the United Kingdom they call them “bonkbusters” — people are really into it.

Because people are so repressed.

And horny.

People are horny and they feel so much shame about it.

I found it jarring when the main character in Beautyland logs onto Twitter and finds her friend has labeled her as “asexual.”

Yeah, it’s definitely jarring and also sad. It’s not appropriate for us to do that to other people.

I keep seeing these stories about how millennials and Gen Z are having less sex than older generations. I know you’re involved in a sexual wellness company, Maude, but what do you think a sexually well person looks like?

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a sexually well person. Maybe the idea is someone who really embraces their own sexuality, whatever that is. Or even the idea of acknowledging that you have shame around your sexuality or shame around your desires. Gosh, is it true that millennials are having less sex?

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Compared to our parents' generation, yeah. Do you see all the discourse around sex scenes? Younger people are like, “Why did there need to be a sex scene?”

I feel like people get up in arms about things just to be up in arms about things. This culture of hating — it’s so boring. Because you know those people who are like, “Why is there a sex scene in it?,” are going to go home and watch porn. If there’s a sex scene that feels gratuitous and out of context, then yeah, say that. But if it’s part of the story and it makes sense, what are you going to say? It’s also like, can everyone just f*cking relax and stop judging each other so hard? Everyone’s doing their best. I mean some people are not. Some people are really doing their absolute worst and we see you. [Laughs.]

I did laugh during the one occasion in Beautyland when the main character has a partner and it’s a musician… What is it about the musician thing?

I don’t know. [Laughs.] I’m the wrong person to ask. I love me a musician.

Is it their talent?

I think it’s talent. I think it’s the way that they see the world. But I think it really depends on the musician. I’ve known some shitty ones. [Laughs.]

Do you feel some type of way when you watch Chris on stage? Or does it feel like you’re watching a public figure?

I don’t know. I love watching him. I could watch him every day. I don’t know how to explain it. I feel like, I don’t know... I’m watching my most favorite being do his most favorite thing.

Watching anyone who’s so good at something is sexy.

When people are really good at things, it is [sexy.] Except being a dictator.

Is that shame about sex something you ever reckoned with as a teenager?

Yeah, of course. I was lucky that I grew up with a mom who was very open — at times maybe too open — about sexuality, but it was always like, whatever you’re into and when you want to have sex, you just let me know and we’ll get birth control. It was really healthy, and it made me feel like I was allowed to discover my sexuality on my own, which I think is such a gift. We’ve progressed so much in some societies, for people to be allowed to say that they feel neither here nor there in terms of gender. That’s an incredible thing. It’s such a leap forward. And then there’s Alabama, and Texas, and the rest of the f*cking world that is in complete disarray.

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What do you think of the discourse around the rise of polyamory?

I think as long as you’re not hurting anyone physically, emotionally, psychologically, do you. I like that people are exploring existence and how to relate to other people. My stepson had a friend who was saying that at her school, some kids are identifying as cats. And I was like, OK, good for you.

What was their reaction to that?

She’s like, “I guess I have to call [her] ‘Kitty’ now.”

Do you like being a stepmom?

I love those kids like my life depends on it. With all my heart.

You've been in blended families your whole life, and people are fascinated by that…

Are they?

I think people are fascinated by your parents being together, then not, and the siblings and stepsiblings. It still feels radical to see blended families where everyone is like, “We’re good.” When Gwyneth Paltrow does an Instagram Q&A, people seem to ask about you a lot. She posted a picture of you holding hands. Did you see it?

[Laughs.] No.

People loved it.

That’s great. [Laughs.] I’m glad there was that positive reaction. I grew up in a family that was so big, and I just believe in the saying “Blood is thicker than water.” The actual saying is “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” which means that the connections with people you choose are more solid than the connections to the people you’re actually born to.

That’s such a big theme in Beautyland, too. Your chosen family can be just as important.

Equally as important, if not more. I have four brothers and two sisters, and my two sisters are not blood-related to each other, but they are sisters and they call each other sisters and they are always together. And my two older brothers are not blood-related to each other. And they are brothers.

No matter how f*cked up it is, or who’s in rehab, or who’s not speaking to whom, or who’s divorcing whom, we’re family. And we are always going to be a family. It’s really real. And most of us are artists. Even in my adult life and my new family, most of us are artists. Even the kids, they’re extraordinarily talented people. So you just are dealing with complex people. You grow and you embrace and you say, “F*ck you and f*ck off,” and then “I love you, come back.” [Laughs.]

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Is that something you’ve had to work at or did it come naturally with your new family?

I think because I grew up in it, it’s come more naturally, but I wouldn’t have it any other way really. I really wouldn’t. I love it. It feels very honest. It feels really authentic. No one’s hiding anything.

I watched Daddio, which you star in and co-produced, last night and loved it. How was that to work on?

Well, I went directly from Madame Web to Daddio, and that was my salvation. [Laughs.] We shot that in 16 days, and my company made it, so that means that I was very hands-on. It was amazing. Sean [Penn] was amazing. It was so contained. It was really like a play. We would shoot 20 pages a day.

There’s a point in Daddio where your character talks about the idea that motherhood didn’t choose her. It reminded me of when Adina says in Beautyland that she “doesn’t understand why she always has to be removed in order for her mother to breathe.” How do you feel about motherhood?

I’m so open to that. I’ve gotten to this place where I really want to experience everything that life has to offer. And especially being a woman, I’m like, What a magical f*cking thing to do. What a crazy, magical, wild experience. If that’s meant to happen for me, I’m totally down for it. I’ve been really tripping out recently like, we’re not here for very long. There’s so much to eat up and learn and grow from and experience and feel. That includes all the pain and the suffering and feeling so helpless about the world. Most days I feel like the most useless piece of sh*t. I’m sitting in this dumb*ss chair, talking about this dumb*ss movie, and there are people in excruciating catastrophes, and what can I do? I do have that incredible friction in myself. And then I’m like, We’re not here for very long, so if I’m meant to be a mother, bring it on.

Do you ever write fiction?

No, I could never. I’m so mystified by people who can write. I can write a really good email or a really good love letter. That’s the stuff that flows out of me. But if I have to write something as an assignment, forget it.

Did you find school boring?

I hated it. But I went to an art school, and you did your academics for the first half of the day, and then for the second half you did whatever art you were into. And I was in visual arts, so I was painting and I loved it so much.

Do you still paint now?

Yeah. I love to.

Would you ever sell your art?

No. I’ll sometimes make something for someone or give something away, but I would never take myself seriously if I had an art show. There’s just no way.

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I feel that sometimes with writing. There’s something about how earnest the endeavor is that I cringe at myself. There’s something so admirable about, say, Taylor Swift’s lack of cringe. She’s immune to it.

She is… but also you don’t see her. I mean, I guess she was in Cats, but that’s just because she loves cats. I don’t know if this is a bullsh*t belief, but I’m like, I am an actress, I’m a filmmaker, and I will stay in my lane. I will never release an album. I will never have an art show. If there’s a musician who is like, “I’m also an actor,” I’m like, “No, you’re not. F*ck off.” [Laughs.] Like, the only musician who is also an actor that I’m like, OK, is Tom Waits. I’m like, “Fine, you get to do both.” I’m so judgmental about actors, but if there’s a musician who’s like, “I’m having an art show,” that feels OK to me. [Laughs.]

Are you a Swiftie?

Of course!

What’s your favorite album?

I really like Lover. It’s such a great album, but I think all of her albums are really great. I just find her existence really radical in the sense of what it literally means. Not rad or cool, but radical, and I’m totally into it. She’s a fabulous songwriter. She works so hard. She is really kind to the people that love her. I’m just like, do you, girl. I support.

Does being famous sometimes suck? I know that’s a sh*tty question for a celebrity because you sort of can’t win in answering.

Sometimes it’s really tough to deal with, but I also have access to incredible people, and I have the ability to impart a little bit of my experience. But I don’t want to be like that all the time. There’s a set time and place to be photographed for what I do. That’s part of my job. But to be photographed when I don’t know I’m being photographed and it’s a private moment? That feels like the most invasive, violating, horrible thing. People say that’s the price you pay when you’re famous, but I don’t believe that’s necessarily true.

You’ve spoken before about living with depression and anxiety. Is it something you still have to manage?

Yeah. I’ve explored everything, which is such a gift. I’ve started to be less and less ashamed of it. There’s such a weird stigma on depression and mental health. It’s hard. Do you meditate?

A little bit. Do you?

I do TM [Transcendental Meditation]. It is very easy on your nervous system and it just regulates your brain waves. They say that 20 minutes of TM can be like a two-hour nap.

I was cracking up at your responses when someone asked you about the 14-hour sleep thing, and you were like, are you all f*cking idiots?

Truly, but I know I’ve exaggerated in this interview, and you can tell that I’m exaggerating because you see my face. If it’s written down, it’s hard. But it’s fine. I got into a funny little fight with somebody. I was really annoyed by everyone in the world talking about my sleep schedule, and someone that I know was like, “But do you really sleep 14 hours a night? That’s amazing.” And I was like, “Did you read the article or did you just read the f*cking headline? Asshole.” I bit her head off.

I don’t have a nine-to-five job, so I don’t wake up at the same time every day. Some days if I’m shooting, I’m waking up at 3 o'clock in the morning, and I work a 17-hour day, and then when I’m not working, I sleep a lot because I am f*cking exhausted. Or I’m depressed. So just like, everybody, f*ck off. [Laughs.]

Is it ever fun to lie to the press though? Just to shove a little something in there?

The most fun. The most fun. Sometimes when you’re in a ridiculous situation, you just have to be ridiculous.

Join Dakota Johnson’s TeaTime Book Club here. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Top image: A.W.A.K.E. MODE dress, Bottega Veneta earrings

Photographs by Agata Serge

Styling by Kate Young

Assistant Stylist: Caroline Dejean

Set Designer: Enoch Choi

Hair: Mark Townsend

Makeup: Georgie Eisdell

Manicure: Ashlie Johnson

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: Sam Miron

Associate Creative Director, Video: Samuel Schultz

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Charlotte Owen

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert

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