Johnson recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about working with Cowperthwaite, portraying a mix of different emotions in the film and why she set up her own production company. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: The movie opens with a scene between you and the character Matt, but you’re offscreen. So did you know that the movie would open that way and be shot that way? I’m wondering how you set the stage acting-wise with that knowledge.
Dakota Johnson: I did. I think I did know. It was written in the script that we wouldn’t see Nicole right off the bat and that felt really strong to me. There was something about having the feeling of her there without actually seeing her, because that’s sort of what the movie ends with as well. It just seemed really beautiful to me. But I think in that moment, it just felt so much about Casey’s work and his character that it was so beautiful to watch him and be there with him. It just felt quite raw and natural.
GD: The finished film takes this kind of vignette style, not that filming is normally chronological anyway, but I’m wondering how that narrative style impacted how you shaped your performance.
DJ: It was tough because we flipped around from years all the time, and there would be some days when we’d be in three different eras, so I sort of made a timeline and would mark them by what wig I was wearing and what color my nail polish was, which just helped me to be like, “OK, Nicole is at this stage of cancer and this stage of marriage and this age of being a mom.” That helped me in that way. Otherwise, I would have been lost. We were all a little lost sometimes, but we made it through.
GD: So you read the script first and then you read the Esquire article from which it was adapted. How did that change your perspective on the story?
DJ: Well, there’s something really sort of brave about the Esquire article, and then the script has the little sweet moments that I think were maybe not as amplified in the article. The article is so real. It’s so intense and dark sometimes, and I think it really just informed the script. The article is the guts of the movie, but that doesn’t always mean that you have to see all of that.
GD: Yeah, can you talk more about that? Because I feel like I did read about a lot of guts in the article and a lot more of that grotesque side, but then the film kind of goes back further to talk about more how their relationship came to start in the first place.
DJ: Yeah, I think it became really important. It’s a real question for Gabriela, but I think it became important that the gruesome side of life is there always, but that is not the thing that drives you forward or helps you move through. It’s love and compassion and it helps you to look at the gruesome things and acknowledge that they’re there and deal with them and then also see the beauty and the laughter and the levity and I think it’s hard because Gabriela and Brad Ingelsby developed it, the script, and I think it was really important to her to find, yes, the horrible, treacherous parts of this journey, but also the beautiful, sweet ones, because that’s the balance of living.
GD: Your director, she’s known for directing “Blackfish.” This is her second fiction film. What distinguishes her as a director?
DJ: I think her background in documentary filmmaking makes her have this ability to capture moments that are so real and little and so human, and she is always observing. She really sees people and when the little girls were on set, she would roll camera when they were playing with each other and she really captures the humanity of people in a way that’s noninvasive and it’s not forced and it’s not manufactured.
GD: So after a decade onscreen, what was new for you with this role?
DJ: A decade? Have I been on screen for a decade?
GD: I think so. “The Social Network” was in 2010.
DJ: Oh wow, I guess so. Yeah, well, actually, I made a movie when I was nine, but that doesn’t really count, I guess. What was different? I guess moving into a stage of my life where I can play a mother and play with themes of life that are not really available or haven’t been available to me yet, I think. It’s just interesting to explore different parts of being a woman and relationships that you can have as you grow through life, but I felt really lucky to work with everybody in this movie, like Jason [Segel] and Casey and Gabriela and the girls, and Cherry Jones is just really great. So I just think the more I work, the more I get to work with amazing people.
GD: So you shot this two years ago, it premiered a year and a half at Toronto, finally we’re able to see it in the public. I wonder about this side of being an actor where I feel like you are an actor to act, but you kind of spend years answering the same questions about these movies that you make. So do you find that frustrating or is that kind of a welcome side to your job?
DJ: I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s so weird, you’re right. I do get asked the same questions. It’s nice that people want to know about how it was to make a movie or ask questions. It’s lovely, but also it’s so interesting to talk about your work because it’s so hard for me to be objective and it’s so hard for me to even watch the movies that I’m in and because so much time passes from when you make the film and it comes out, I’m like a completely different person and I have an entirely different life. I feel like I’ve lived thousands of lifetimes in my life. So it all just feels like a retrospective and I’m sure that I felt completely differently making the movie than I do when I actually start to talk about it. You kind of process things and then look back on it in a more maybe objective in a good way, having space from it. I don’t know. Does that answer your question?
GD: I think so, yeah. I just want to hear the musings. You said that the most challenging scene in this film for you to actually shoot were the singing scenes. So I want to phrase it a bit differently. What scene do you think you would want to put on your hypothetical demo reel from this movie?
DJ: Yeah, weirdly, I don’t know why I talk about how hard the singing scenes were for me, because it’s not important. It was just a little bit scary because it was something that I hadn’t done before. I think there were so many scenes that Nicole was toeing the line between really deeply heartbroken about her life being lost and also wanting to engage in it so much. So there’s the scene where she’s talking about her writing letters to the girls and all of the things that she wants to do before she dies. I was like, that would be an exciting thing if I had thought about it and been there. That would be like, all right, this is the decision that I’ve made, but also the idea of not seeing my children grow up would make me bent with grief. Also, the scene where she’s talking about how people don’t look at her the same anymore and she’s lost her beauty, I think for a woman who loved to perform and loved to be up in front of people and really present herself, to have that be something that is on her mind was extraordinarily heartbreaking to me and difficult because how do you feel the feeling of having your beauty or your sparkle or something that you loved about yourself taken from you and be able to articulate it and also just be OK with that happening? I could only obviously imagine that being a really complicated series of emotions to go through, so those two scenes, I think. It’s always, like, “This and also this” which are the scenes that I mostly love in a movie.
GD: So last year, you had “The High Note” come out. Now “Our Friend” is out. I believe the last film you shot was called “The Lost Daughter” and you just started shooting a movie that’s kind of called “Am I Ok,” tentatively. So this is not really much of a question, but I just want to draw attention to these four films that you made in a row all have female directors, which I feel like is a record in Hollywood. So I’m wondering, is this more of a conscious or unconscious choice or any response to that?
DJ: Yeah, also, the next movie I’m making is a female director, and the one after that! That’ll be six in a row.
GD: I think I’ve heard of two before.
DJ: Two in a row? Yeah. Wow, that’s very cool. It’s not really something that I’ve totally done on purpose, but in the moment when choosing jobs and I guess also hiring directors, because some of the things I’m acting in and producing, I don’t know, that’s a really good observation. I don’t know what to say about it other than why not?
GD: And why set up a production company and how did that come about?
DJ: I just really love making movies and I found that there have been a lot of times when I have read something amazing, a script or a book or an article and it just falls into the depths of the earth and never gets made. So I really wanted to make these things that I love and I wanted to make them with people that are up and coming writers and directors paired with really established writers and directors. I really love creating a sort of safe space, like a hub for creativity, and so my producing partner and I, her name is Ro Donnelly, she’s a brilliant producer, we just like to support people and support writers and filmmakers so we’ve been developing a bunch of projects. I’ve sort of found that sometimes in this industry, you’re up against people who run shows or studios or sets in a really antiquated way and their mindset about working environments or any kind of inequality or disparity just doesn’t work for me, and I’m like, “I want to work with great people. I want to make great things and I want to have a really good time and I want everyone to be on the same team.” That’s not always the case on movie sets. I think that maybe things are moving in a different direction but to have the opportunity to have a production company where I can really make a whole world and make content that maybe wouldn’t be made in bigger studios or large streaming platforms where things get lost is just so much fun.