When Dakota Johnson left for Greece to film Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, she wasn’t yet aware that a life-changing year awaited her. Months earlier, the prolific actress, still best known for leading the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, found passion projects including Lost Daughter being delayed due to COVID, while others were still gestating. By the time production on Lost Daughter finally commenced last September, on the Greek island of Spetses, Johnson’s schedule was stacked—she’d go on to work on three more projects back-to-back, without a break, over 12 full months.
Fortunately, she started the run with this one. As the 31-year-old Johnson tells me from a luxe condo in Telluride (where the film had just made its U.S. premiere), The Lost Daughter unlocked something in her—a new artistic path forward, a new window into her potential. Since Fifty Shades, she’s done the work in indies like A Bigger Splash and The Peanut Butter Falcon, but is currently receiving career-best notices for her tricky turn in Gyllenhaal’s uncompromising portrait of motherhood. Johnson plays Nina, a young mother on vacation with her family, and an enigmatic object of fascination to protagonist Leda (Olivia Colman). As Lost Daughter develops, Leda and Nina form a tenuous, shaky bond that hurtles toward a surprising, intense end.
I spoke with Johnson briefly on the day she’d flown in from Venice, where the movie world-premiered, at a packed filmmaker reception for Telluride—she still seemed to be processing the project’s sheer significance to her, especially as awards buzz began building for it and her performance. Coming here after a year of nonstop work, she’s at last in a position to reflect and think about what’s next. We sat down the next day for a conversation about all of that, and more.
Vanity Fair: One thing you’d mentioned to me yesterday was how meaningful of an experience it was making this movie. So I wanted to start with a big question: What does this project, this role, mean to you at this point in your career?
Dakota Johnson: Maggie allowed me the opportunity and gave me the guidance to go deeper into my artistry, into myself, into my work. She asked me yesterday what I thought of the movie and she said, “Are you pleased?” And I just said, “No, I’m honored.” I’m astonished by her work and the performances in this film. It’s so honest and it’s such a raw truth about motherhood and being a woman.
I felt a lot like how Nina feels in the movie, which is so hungry and so thirsty for something else and to be seen—to not just be the hot girl on the beach. She wants more. She wants to sink her teeth into something that satiates this hunger in her mind. I feel like that in my career a lot. I’m like, how can it be better than this? I want something deeper and darker, more real and more honest. I definitely feel like I got that with this one.
Did you talk to Maggie, going into the project, about how you wanted something like that?
Yeah. And also, you only have to ask questions in order to understand who somebody really is, and Maggie does that. I think that she saw it in me, perhaps before I saw it in myself. It was mutual—let’s go deep together.
Do you think that’s partly because she is an actor herself? You’ve worked with a wide array of directors, and it’s interesting that she would be the one to unlock a thing like that in you.
Yeah, I do. There was a level of understanding and trust that I had for her, because I knew that she knows what it feels like to not be seen. She knows what it feels like to not be handled with grace and with care…. The fact that she is an actress, of course, is a huge part of why working with her is amazing. Especially because she has a director’s mind, and also has this emotional actor’s mind of how to get inside something, inside someone’s brain.
How did you both talk about Nina? Particularly because, I think both in the book and in the film, she’s an enigmatic, tricky character for most of the story.
When Maggie and I started working on Nina stuff, I asked her if I should read the novel and she was like, “Maybe don’t read it.” [Laughs] I was on the fence about it because you’re taking an artist’s work and bringing it further. You’re helping it grow even more…. I want to make this Nina totally real, and just authentic and raw. She’s deprived—of being noticed for being a human being and being a person with a soul and a mind. And it’s devastating, but she’s also just trying, and that’s also devastating. I wanted to follow Maggie. It’s not like, Here’s the book on a screen. It’s someone receiving someone else’s work and having it touch them deeply. This is how they can share that feeling with the world.