From young innocent to wife of mobster

Dakota Johnson (left, with Johnny Depp as James "Whitey" Bulger in Black Mass) relishes the challenge of playing the wife of the Boston mobster in the film.
Dakota Johnson (left, with Johnny Depp as James "Whitey" Bulger in Black Mass) relishes the challenge of playing the wife of the Boston mobster in the film. PHOTO: WARNER BROS

Actress Dakota Johnson says she has no interest in female characters with little substance

Dakota Johnson's biggest role was this year's controversial erotic drama 50 Shades Of Grey, where she plays an innocent young woman who falls for a man with a serious bondage fetish.

The movie and best-selling book it is based on have been widely criticised as anti-feminist, particularly in how Johnson's wide-eyed Anastasia puts up with the controlling and abusive Christian Grey.

But Johnson, 25, has defended the film, arguing that Anastasia is not the pushover many believe she is.

"I really don't think she's a weak, submissive victim. I think that she's a strong woman who is fearlessly exploring herself emotionally and sexually," she had said.

She continues to insist that she has no interest in female characters with little substance.

It's these women who allow us to understand the depravity of the men.

DIRECTOR SCOTT COOPER on how the women in Black Mass serve as the moral compass of the story

Promoting her new crime drama Black Mass, which casts her as the wife of notorious Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, she says: "Normally, in gangster movies, the female roles are mostly narrative constructs made simply to move the story along or to be an enticing sparkly thing in the corner of the frame, so that your attention is taken away from the masculine mayhem that's happening."

But while the movie boasts a largely male cast led by Johnny Depp as Bulger, with Johnson and Julianne Nicholson playing secondary roles as two of the wives, director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, 2009) says these women "serve as the moral compass of the story".

He adds: "It's these women who allow us to understand the depravity of the men. These women have a strong sense of right and wrong and they stand up to their men in ways that other people didn't."

Johnson - the daughter of actors Don Johnson (TV's Miami Vice, 1984-1990) and Melanie Griffith (Working Girl, 1988) - furrows her brow when she is asked if doing 50 Shades Of Grey has given her an appetite to take on something grittier or at least completely different.

"Yeah, I guess so. But I feel like I'm always looking for different things to do. I can't find a common thread in any of the work I've done thus far," says the actress, who, apart from 50 Shades, has had mostly minor roles in films such as The Social Network (2010) and 21 Jump Street (2012), and has signed on to reprise her role as Anastasia in the two sequels, 2017's Fifty Shades Darker and 2018's Fifty Shades Freed.

"But that wasn't my point," she says of playing Lindsey Cyr, the mother of Bulger's only son, who died when he was just six.

This tragic family story was what drew her to Black Mass, which is showing in Singapore now.

"I felt extremely challenged by this character and the things that she has to go through and that's exciting to me," says Johnson.

"I'm not a mother and I trusted the director to get me to that place that was as honest as possible. I didn't want to do it wrong."

• Black Mass is in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2015, with the headline 'From young innocent to wife of mobster'. Print Edition | Subscribe