Dakota Johnson opens up about the chaotic filming of ‘50 Shades of Grey’ and her battles with the saga’s author

The actress says she joined the project expecting a very different movie than the one E.L. James had in mind

Actress Dakota Johnson in November.
Actress Dakota Johnson in November.Amanda Edwards (Getty Images)

The 50 Shades of Grey saga may have launched actress Dakota Johnson to fame, but the end result is far from what she had envisioned. “I signed up to do a very different version of the film we ended up making,” Johnson told Vanity Fair magazine. “There were a lot of different disagreements. I haven’t been able to talk about this truthfully,” the artist added. Now she has shared her experience in a long interview. it’s clear that Johnson has weighed what she wants to say,” writes Britt Hennemuth, the journalist who wrote the piece. “What follows comes across as an unburdening.”

Johnson says that the filming process was “weird” and “psychotic.” “I was young. I was 23,” she recalls nine years later, “so it was crazy. It just became something crazy.” When asked if the problems came from the studio, the directors or a mixture of factors, the interpreter obliquely indicates the last option: “Combo,” she says. But then she points to a specific person: “It was also the author of the books.”

E.L. James was the film’s assistant director. She had previously worked as a television executive. In the early 2000s, during her spare time, she wrote a Twilight fanfiction in which she added sex and removed the vampires. That would become the book 50 Shades of Grey, released in 2011, part of a series that has now sold more than 31 million copies worldwide. James’ past in the world of television and cinema may have contributed to the author’s clear vision of how her novel was to be adapted.

“She had a lot of creative control,” Johnson says of the author, “All day, every day, and she just demanded that certain things happen.” The daughter of fellow actors Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson explains that certain passages, which made sense in the book, seemed absurd in the context of the film, “like the inner monologue, which was at times incredibly cheesy. It wouldn’t work to say out loud.” The movie includes interior monologues from its protagonist Anastasia Steele, played by Johnson. “It was always a battle. Always,” she adds.

Dakota Johnson achieved worldwide fame after the film’s release. 50 Shades defined its protagonists’ public images for years to come, and she has sought to shed that image through interviews and other film projects. The actress, who is co-creative director of sex toy company Maude, tells Vanity Fair that she made those “big naked movies” partially becuase she considers herself “a sexual person.”

Johnson landed the three-movie role as Anastasia Steele opposite a Christian Grey who was originally to be played by Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy). Screenwriter Patrick Marber, the author of films including Closer, was in charge of the script. But when Hunnam dropped out of the project, citing scheduling conflicts, the novelist was so enraged, Johnson says, that she scrapped Marber’s script.

Jamie Dornan replaced Hunnam. At the time, rumors about the filming pointed to an alleged feud between the two leads, which Johnson denies in the interview. “There was never a time when we didn’t get along,” she says. “He’s like a brother to me. I love him so, so, so much. And we were really there for each other. We had to really trust each other and protect each other.”

The two actors teamed up with director Sam Taylor-Johnson to try to salvage part of the original script. But James had other plans. “We’d do the takes of the movie that Erika [James] wanted to make, and then we would do the takes of the movie that we wanted to make,” Johnson says. “The night before, I would rewrite scenes with the old dialogue so I could add a line here and there. It was like mayhem all the time.” The only scene in Marber that got past the writer’s screening, says the actress, is the negotiation in which Anastasia and Christian outline their sexual contract. “And it’s the best scene in the whole movie,” she says.

The film was criticized for being much more conservative than expected, perhaps partially because of the issues on the set. At one point, the journalist asks the actress if she regrets having participated in the saga. “No. I don’t think it’s a matter of regret. If I had known…” she pauses. “If I had known at the time that’s what it was going to be like, I don’t think anyone would’ve done it. It would’ve been like, ‘Oh, this is psychotic.’ But no, I don’t regret it.”

This is the first time that Dakota Johnson has spoken openly about the movie that launched her to stardom. Despite her reputation for brutal honesty, she says that she continues to hold back. “There are things that I still cannot say because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s career and I don’t want to damage anybody’s reputation,” she adds, trying to put a positive spin on the experience. “Erika is a very nice woman, and she was always kind to me and I am grateful she wanted me to be in those movies. Look, it was great for our careers,” she says. “So amazing. So lucky. But it was weird. So, so weird.”

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