Few movie careers have been more bizarre than Dakota Johnson’s. Johnson, a child of Hollywood royalty, has created a defined public persona around being odd in public. She damaged Ellen DeGeneres’ already tarnished reputation when she called out the talk show host for not coming to her birthday party and then lying about it on air. She claimed to love limes during a tour of her home for Architectural Digest, only to reveal that those limes were a piece of set decoration that she couldn’t resist commenting on. What’s more, she may have trapped some coffee shop employees inside their store. It’s pure chaos, and that raw possibility has often extended to the roles she takes on.
Outside of her almost impossible-to-pin down online persona, Johnson has shown enough promise to become one of the great actresses of her generation, and it’s that same energy that has made her so compelling onscreen. Johnson’s big break came with the Fifty Shades series, but it speaks to her talent that she pretty quickly moved past that franchise once it was over. Since then, she has taken the chaos and mystery that defines her public persona and wielded it to create fascinating characters on the big screen.
Johnson has harnessed her innately chaotic energy to bring depth to a wide variety of roles in this vein. Luca Guadagnino was among the first to discover exactly what she was capable of, and he used to it full effect in 2015’s A Bigger Splash. Johnson only has a supporting role in the film, but she shares the screen with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, and more than holds her own. This first collaboration with Guadagnino casts Johnson as Pen, a young girl who is almost impossible to resist, but hides herself behind that obvious appeal.
Johnson’s performance in A Bigger Splash is, in some ways, the template upon which the best performances of her career will be based. Pen is the kind of character that Johnson excels at playing — someone who is magnetic but uses that magnetism as a weapon and a shield. She knows that she can hide herself, and she keeps that façade up until she is totally alone, and we see it break down almost immediately. What Johnson is great at, though, is allowing audiences to sense that there is something her characters are choosing to bury below the surface, so that when we finally see it come to the fore it feels like an inevitability instead of a surprise.
A Bigger Splash was, more than any other single project, a pivot point for Johnson, who starred in Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake just a few years later. Without getting into spoilers for that film, Guadagnino is once again playing off of Johnson’s ability to play characters carrying great secrets. In this case, Suspiria seems to cast her as an almost powerless ingenue, only to reveal that she has much more power than any of the people around her may have suspected.
Thanks in part to her collaborations with Guadagnino, more and more directors began to understand just how gifted Johnson was. The Lost Daughter sees Johnson in another supporting role, but one in which all of her strengths are on display. Playing Nina, a young mother who finds herself overwhelmed by the responsibility, Johnson is utterly sympathetic. Olivia Colman’s Leda finds herself invariably drawn to Nina, watching her on the beach before the two have ever really met. The Lost Daughter is Colman’s movie, but none of it would work without Johnson creating a plausible human out of Nina, who could so easily become nothing more than an object of fascination for both Leda and the audience.
More recently, she’s starred in Cha Cha Real Smooth and Persuasion, a pair of projects that are designed in large part around her magnetism as a performer. Cha Cha Real Smooth, in particular, gives Johnson an almost impossible task. She has to play a sexy, mysterious young mom who finds herself won over by the charms of a recent college grad. A plotline like this could read as hacky and riddled with cliché, but thanks to Johnson’s performance, her character feels like a real version of the trope-laden character we so often see. Johnson’s Domino is not a mysterious single mom, she’s just someone who’s trying her best to keep her feet planted on the ground, even as her impulses try to carry her off in other directions.
Johnson’s larger project, then, has been about busting the myth of the mysterious woman. Her characters are almost always undeniably alluring, but what makes them so wonderful is that getting to know them transforms them into so much more than that. Each and every one of her characters starts with what seems like a similar shell. But, for one reason or another, each of those shells eventually gets cracked, only to reveal someone much more compelling underneath.
What makes Johnson a great performer, though, is that while the shell may always be similar, what’s underneath can vary wildly. She can play a malevolent villain, a totally normal mom longing for stability, or a young woman just barely managing to hide how freaked out she is about what’s going on around her.
Each of these roles proves what a talented actress Johnson is, but it also extends to how we see her even when she’s not playing a character. Dakota Johnson has found a way to be a public person while telling us almost nothing about who she actually is. It’s a wise and deeply sane choice, and one that has hopefully allowed her to maintain some real privacy in her life.
So, yes, her limes and interviews with Ellen are utter chaos, but that doesn’t mean that disorder describes who Johnson really is. Like all of her best roles, it’s possible that the chaos is just a veneer, an expert way to hide her deeper humanity from public view. Whether she’s playing someone else or some version of herself, Johnson has proved herself to be a generational talent already.