Dakota Johnson: 'Gritty' Madame Web spoke to me but I'll now go back to doing weird movies

Putting her artsy indie flicks aside, the Hollywood star lets The National in on her biggest challenge yet, which led to a performance that is anything but Marvel by numbers

Indie film favourite Dakota Johnson turns big-screen hero as Marvel's Madame Web. AP
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It makes sense that Madame Web is not a typical Marvel superhero movie, because the film's lead, Dakota Johnson, is not a typical Marvel actress.

The American star, 34, shows exactly what makes her different in nearly every exchange.

It is an energy thing. Somehow, she maintains a mystique that makes her impossible to read, even though she is indefatigably authentic, blunt and often deliciously sardonic. She will point out faults others would shy away from, laugh when others might cry. There is both aloofness and intensity of spirit, and it is often hard to reconcile those two things.

None of this character profiling interests Johnson, of course. “I didn't know that I did that,” she tells The National. “But, well, thank you. I think.”

Johnson is on a worldwide tour to promote the biggest film of her career so far. She plays Cassie Webb, a woman born with a gift of premonition that she inherited from her mother. Why? Because her mum was bitten by a rare spider in the South American jungle right before she gave birth. Just go with it. It is more fun if you take this one as the 2000s-era teen thriller it seeks to emulate.

Webb, a down-on-her-luck paramedic, finds her life turned upside down after she sees in her mind’s eye a possible tragedy from the near future. Three teenage girls, played by Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria and Anyone But You), Isabela Merced and Celeste O’Connor, are about to be murdered by a mysterious figure. Webb stops it and soon becomes their reluctant caretaker.

“I wanted Cassie to feel protective over them, but also be quite annoyed by them. Because that feels real to me,” Johnson says.

She adds: “I worked on trying to bring all the complexities into Cassie and her relationship with herself, and then her relationship with the girls, with the world, with her mother and with this villain. It's not all so black and white. It's very nuanced, I think."

Johnson is something of a natural leader herself. Many people know that both her parents are Hollywood stars – Don Johnson (Miami Vice) and Melanie Griffith (Working Girl) – but her pedigree goes back further. Her grandmother is Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, who reportedly was deeply mistreated by her director, which had an unjustly deleterious effect on her career.

It's no surprise, then, that Johnson has become a women’s rights advocate, narrating a recent documentary, The Disappearance of Shere Hite, about a notable feminist researcher, and working to shine a light on the way certain aspects of the female experience have been ignored.

It would stand to reason if the young actresses in Madame Web looked to her for guidance.. But when asked, she dismisses it.

“I think they think I'm a loser,” Johnson says. “I don't think they look up to me that way.”

She does note, however, that that may have been because they simply don’t need her.

“I just don't think that they really wanted me to give them any advice," she adds. "I think that the three of them are so self-empowered and very much on their own paths that they didn't really want my help."

Johnson, too, is following her own path. That’s part of what makes her work fascinating – you never know where she may show up next. For many actresses, a role such as hers in the Fifty Shades trilogy may have defined her career, but she’s too enigmatic for that.

She followed it up immediately with a remake of the classic Italian horror film Suspiria with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Luca Gaudagnino to great acclaim and nearly stole every scene away from Olivia Colman in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s psychological drama The Lost Daughter. Colman received her third Oscar nomination for her role in that film.

So how does she end up in a superhero film? “That’s a good question,” she admits.

“I really just fall in love with stories and with characters. With this one, it came to me and I had not been thinking that I would be in a superhero movie. At all. I never thought that that would be something for me.”

There was something about Webb, however, that she couldn’t resist – and something that dovetailed with exactly what she wants from her characters, and more from female characters in general.

“It’s because her power is her mind," she says. "She's a young woman, and her superpower is her intellect. I found that really fabulous and important.

“I like that she's not connected really to any other Marvel world. That's her own world. It felt like a new kind of Marvel movie. It's more grounded in reality. It’s gritty. It's more like a psychological thriller. And you don't have to go in having done homework on who all these characters are to understand what's going on.”

She knew that taking on this kind of role would come with increased scrutiny, but it is a challenge she was ready for. Risks, after all, are where many of the joys of life are to be found.

“I thought, I guess I could do a crazy big movie and then also be able to make all my other little weird movies on the side," she says.

From now on, expect her to take on even more empowered roles, not just in front of the camera, but behind. She’s started producing some of her own starring efforts, including Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022) and Daddio (2023), and there is plenty more to come.

“There will be more producing, definitely," she adds. "I love to develop my own movies, as well as films for other people. There are a few projects that we'll be announcing later, some I’ll be appearing in and some I won’t, but all I’ll be producing.

“It’s just really exciting and fun to be able to create little worlds for people.”

Madame Web is in cinemas now across the Middle East

Updated: February 20, 2024, 7:57 AM