Dakota Johnson Was Inspired by 90s Witch Movies in 'Suspiria'

The former "Fifty Shades" star tells Broadly how films like "The Craft" informed her role as a dancer who gets sucked into a coven of witches.

by Katherine McLaughlin
Nov 5 2018, 3:24pm

Photo by Andrea Raffin / Alamy Stock Photo

“I’ve wanted to act since I can remember being alive,” explains Dakota Johnson, which makes complete sense. Her mother is Melanie Griffith, her father is Don Johnson, and her grandmother is Tippie Hedren. Acting is in her blood. Crazy in Alabama, the first film she appeared in, starred her mother and was directed by her step-father Antonio Banderas. Johnson has since become best known for her role of Anastasia Steele in the Fifty Shades trilogy. Freed from the franchise, she has opted for darker roles, and she takes her darkest role yet this autumn: the lead in Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino’s bold and brutal reimagining of the seminal Dario Argento horror Suspiria.

Johnson wanders into our suite at the Soho Hotel with a cup of coffee in hand and perches elegantly upon the sofa. Halfway through our conversation, she begins to rest her head upon the cushions and says, “I don’t mean to melt into this couch. I’m jetlagged and I feel comfortable with you, so take it as a compliment.”

Is feeling comfortable an important factor in who she chooses to work with? “I don’t want to work on a project where the people are not great. I want to work with people who are kind, talented and really want to be there and want to work with me too. It’s not worth it to damage yourself and to suffer through bad relationships on set.”

Johnson is a warm presence, but she maintains a professional distance when I ask her to consider her mother’s career against her own. “Do you have a theory?” she laughs. “We talk more about personal parts of life and working in general, but we don’t sit down and compare our careers. I hope we never do that.” Griffith did visit her on the set of Suspiria: “I threw my back out on the day she arrived, and she cooked me dinner. It was really great timing and so nice.”

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Guadagnino approached Johnson while she was filming his Sicily-set character drama A Bigger Splash and asked her to take the lead in Suspiria, alongside her Bigger Splash co-star Tilda Swinton. Johnson had at that point not seen the 1977 horror, but she was attracted to the powerful female role and its witchcraft aspect. “I love movies about girls and I love movies about witches and I always have so much growing up.”

She goes on to list The Craft, Practical Magic, Hocus Pocus and The Witches as personal touchstones for her role as Susie Bannion, the American dancer sucked into a dance school that is a front for a witch coven. “I saw Susie’s journey as this magnetic pull towards something she doesn’t know or can’t quite explain. I empathized with a young woman being born into a world that she doesn’t feel she’s from.”

Guadagnino amassed a huge cast of women to appear in his Rainer Werner Fassbinder-influenced remake, transposing the horror film to late 70s Berlin. The backdrop taps into the political turmoil of the time, explicitly referencing Nazism, the rise of fascism, and the left-wing extremist Red Faction Army. Women make up the majority of the cast— Nymphomaniac actress Mia Goth plays a confidante to Susie, model Alek Wek plays a beguiling dance teacher and Jessica Harper, who starred in the original Suspiria, came out of retirement to play long-lost partner to psychiatrist Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Swinton under heavy prosthetics).

“To work with a cast of 38 women and more behind the camera, it was so calm, collaborative, mischievous and fun,” Johnson says. “When you have this gang of women it can be very graceful chaos. To work with these mostly European actresses of all age ranges was incredible. I learned so much from them.”

Dakota Johnson and cast in Suspiria
Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Johnson trained for over a year working with various instructors and choreographers to prepare for the physically demanding role. “It was important that I didn’t look like a ballet dancer. It was important to me that Susie’s body looks as though she’s never been formally trained but is very active and expressive with her body. Two months before I started filming I went to Verase [in Italy], where we shot the film, and learned the choreography from Damien Jalet. I was there for two weeks and then I went on a press tour for a month and was doing freaky dance moves in my hotel room around the world.”

The dance scenes in Suspiria are far removed from the ballet moves of kindred movies like Black Swan. The witches use dance to cast a literal spell on innocent bystanders, and their commanding expressionist style is inspired by dance pioneers like Mary Wigman, Isadora Duncan, and Pina Bausch. (Wigman, most notably, was known for the surreal Witch Dance and fell out of favor due to her associations with the Third Reich.)

“For this film specifically I focused more on harnessing human energy and really connecting to the greater unknown,” Johnson explains. “Susie’s evolution is that she becomes everyone—she becomes the villain, she becomes the saint, she becomes the virgin. She is everyone. It’s this super-mother, this ultimate matriarch, this ultimate feminine energy where the feminine mystique and divine power that women possess is amplified. The volume is turned up and there’s no perforating that at all.”

One year on from the inception of the #MeToo movement, it feels exceptionally radical for one of the most anticipated horror films of 2018 to be fronted almost exclusively by a roster of female stars. Johnson has worked throughout the upheavals wrought by the outpouring of accusations against Harvey Weinstein, but thinks a shift is still to come.

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria
Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

“I’m not sure what is going to come because I find this time across the board extremely frustrating and confounding,” she says. “I’m often really despondent to it and just frustrated, just so frustrated. I’m optimistic that it will settle into a very positive place for everyone. I feel like this is a very important movement and I hope it will gracefully lead to a better working environment for women in Hollywood, for sure.”

When Johnson landed her breakthrough Fifty Shades role, nobody could have guessed that she would end up as the go-to actress for an auteur like Guadagnino. Creative differences between director Sam Taylor-Johnson and author E.L. James led to James Foley taking over and the films getting progressively worse. Johnson made the best of a bad situation, but awkward press tours with co-star Jamie Dornan only fueled internet gossip that she loathed working on the films. (For the record, she told Vogue that she was “truly proud of it.”)

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But it was in between filming Fifty Shades that Johnson began making connections with directors outside of the Hollywood system, including Under the Shadow filmmaker Babak Anvari. Now her upcoming projects include a modern reimagining of the works of Mark Twain, a courtroom drama about the sterilization of Carrie Buck, and an Anvari horror project with Armie Hammer.

“I’ve started to pay more attention to who I will be working with,” Johnson says. “That’s very important. Right now, I do have the luxury in my career of being able to take my time choosing projects and really working on things that drive my soul. I’ve taken time to build my own projects and put weird ideas into action to make them real. It’s a really interesting time and I feel like this work should always be hard work, but it doesn’t need to be torture.”

dakota johnson
Broadly Witchcraft