Dakota Johnson was less shy in our recent interview with her compared to our chat last year for “Fifty Shades of Grey.” She was her usual demure and soft-spoken self. But in “Black Mass,” she makes quite an impression despite her short role—she delivers a strong, memorable performance acting opposite veteran Johnny Depp.
Pretty in a black Saint Laurent dress, Dakota occasionally chewed her nails as we talked to her at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto. It was an endearing indication that the actress was not self-conscious. She turns 26 next month but she looked girlish, a look enhanced by her becoming hairdo.
To some, Dakota may be a surprising choice to play Lindsey Cyr, the longtime girlfriend and the mother of the only child of James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny), one of the most dangerous mobsters in US history, in “Black Mass.”
But director Scott Cooper’s casting choice paid off. From a simple dinner scene to an intense argument in a hospital, both with Johnny, Dakota was a good match to the actor. These scenes are an effective counterpoint to the depiction of Bulger’s brutality, who rose to become Boston’s most notorious crime lord. He was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list until his capture in 2011 in, of all places, Santa Monica, California.
The daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson will be seen next in “A Bigger Splash” and “How to Be Single” and is set to shoot “Suspiria.” And there are those two much-awaited films in her future, of course: “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.”
The following are excerpts from our chat.
What are your earliest memories of Johnny Depp?
I met him when I was a young girl. We had a mutual family friend. I remember seeing “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Benny & Joon” and seeing this magical person who could just walk on screen, into a room, stand there and do nothing—and you’re fascinated. There are very few people who can command your attention that way.
And now, you are working with him.
Working with Johnny was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had. You wonder how somebody like that works and what his process is. There was a moment when we were filming the scene in the hospital. It was a close-up shot. He was so energetically, 100 percent there.
It was as though a wave of anger, hatred and complete and utter despair from him blasted through me. I was weeping on the side of the camera and shaking. I couldn’t control myself. I was trying so hard to not bump the camera so I didn’t ruin his scene. But I was like, God, that is an artist. That’s the magic—that’s the thing.
Is this your first time to play a mother?
I played a mother on a television show called “Ben and Kate.” I love playing a mother. I have a lot of younger siblings. I took care of them a lot. I would love to have babies.
What is it about a powerful man that attracts women?
I feel that Lindsey Cyr and Whitey or Jimmy Bulger are equals in their house. Even though he does what he does outside of the house. She’s as emotionally tough as he is. I don’t know what the thing is about powerful men that attracts women to them.
Lindsey and Whitey had a relationship that was only between them. She saw a side of him that was gentle, maybe, or a bit tender. She saw the way he loved his son and that was the one thing that really got into his heart. I think that was the thing that drew her to him.
Have you been attracted to power?
Not yet (laughs). I’m working on it.
Did you get in touch with Lindsey Cyr as part of your research?
I didn’t get the opportunity to speak with Lindsey Cyr before filming or after.
There was a lot of information available about her. She has become increasingly vocal about their relationship over the past few years. I was searching for footage so I could study mannerisms or speech patterns but there wasn’t anything from that time when she was with Jimmy
Bulger. Most of the research I did was on Jimmy Bulger.
Do you think that Lindsey Cyr knew what her boyfriend was doing, that he was one of the most dangerous criminals in Boston?
I do. She said that she did know. But I wonder if she knew the extent of what was happening, with the murders and things.
Did you know anything about James “Whitey” Bulger before making this movie?
I knew [him] a little bit because the building that he was living in was owned by the family of a kid that I went to school with. So when that happened (when authorities tracked down Bulger and arrested him in Santa Monica, California), it was on the news, obviously.
It’s such an interesting story to know that a fugitive had been found. That was years prior to this film.
Which gangster movies do you like?
One of my favorite films is “Casino.” And “The Godfather I and II,” “Angels with Dirty Faces” and “Scarface.” My brother’s (Alexander Bauer) dad (Steven Bauer, Melanie’s ex-husband) is in “Scarface,” so I have to say “Scarface.”
The movie shows clan and neighborhood loyalties—blind or compromised—and betrayals. What does loyalty mean to you?
Growing up in a family such as mine, I was exposed to some people who were not necessarily loyal. That has made me a fiercely loyal person. But if they’re not going to be a good person to me or my loved ones, then I would remove myself (from the company of those people).
In an interview with your dad, he said that you don’t need any help because you’ve always been independent. When did you find your independence, your essence?
That is a lovely thing for my dad to say. I’m sure it was really annoying [to him] when I was young to think that I was really independent but I probably wasn’t (laughs).
I don’t know if I’ve found my essence yet (laughs). I always feel a little bit out of control. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel completely in control of my life or myself.
Did you butt heads with your parents?
No, I think I just challenged them.
How do you decide what to share or not to share with the public in social media?
I recently discovered that a lot of people were paying attention to the social media sites of my family members. So I thought that if I had one (site), then people could just get [information] directly from me.
I also really like pictures. I love looking at people’s photo albums. It’s like that (on Instagram) and you get to do that. It’s like if I wanted to show Julianne (Nicholson, her “Black Mass” costar), a photo of my dog or my sister, I could do that.
What qualities do you like in a man?
Someone who is smart; someone I can spar with intellectually; someone who has integrity and is funny and sweet.
The opposite of Mr. Christian Grey.
What are the small things that make you happy?
People being kind makes me happy. Music, good food, dancing….
Why did your parents name you Dakota?
My parents had friends who were pregnant around the same time as my mom. They were going to name their son Dakota and I was supposed to be named Ruby. My dad thought that Ruby Johnson sounded like a hooker’s name (laughs). But there’s actually an incredible singer named Ruby Johnson. So then my parents were like, “Oh, Dakota, that’s a really good name.”
What was your Miss Golden Globe 2006 experience like?
I was so afraid. I had never been on stage before. I couldn’t walk in high heels. I was wearing this really tight dress. I had like black makeup on my face. I just wanted to hide (laughs).
But I was so honored to be doing that. It did feel at the time like it was a rite of passage. Oh, God, I wish I could go back and do it again and be like, it’s OK to feign elegance (laughs). But it was phenomenal.
Can you talk about your next film, “A Bigger Splash?”
“A Bigger Splash” premiered in Venice. That was very exciting. It was a totally different world from “Black Mass.” They are like polar opposites.
It’s sort of a retelling of “La Piscine” with Romy Schneider, Alain Delon and Jane Birkin. Working with Luca Guadagnino (director) was simultaneously relaxed and frantic. He’s an Italian filmmaker through and through—he sees things in colors, music, energy and shots all the time. He’s constantly imagining and coming up with ideas. Everything is very colorful.
My character is Penelope who was Jane Birkin’s character. Jane Birkin was doe-ish, coquettish and very enticing as a shy, young woman.
I saw the opportunity to portray a young girl who is frighteningly in tune with her sexuality, very manipulative and hyperintelligent to the point where playing with people’s emotions was fun for her. That ends up turning on her. She’s a 17-year-old who realizes that she doesn’t really know anything. So that was interesting.