Fifty Shades of Grey: Casting Dakota Johnson

Dakota Johnson, who had nailed her audition months prior, recalls the day with her signature laugh: “Chemistry reads with actors are the weirdest things.  You don’t know each other, so there’s no way around that, but you try to make it work.  You attempt, in a short period of time and in front of a lot of people, to try to find something that you like about the person reading with you.  So it’s strange and not a normal situation at all…but Jamie came in and he was cracking jokes the entire time.”

Joking aside, Johnson commends: “He brings intensity because he has this face that can look so dark and somewhat closed, and you wonder what on earth he’s thinking about—which is perfect for Christian.  Jamie also brings this youth to Christian that is so necessary.  There are scenes in the books where Ana sees him light up and become a young man, instead of his usual mature self.  She sees a glimpse of a little boy, and Jamie has that, which is very special.”

The actress had been intrigued by the role of Anastasia even before the project had come together.  Johnson shares her interest in the material: “I feel the world is changing so rapidly and things happen in such a short period of time that the sex in the book—how vividly and how literally it’s described—was very freeing for people.”

She reveals that when she found out who was behind the production, she “thought that it sounded promising.  I read the books to see if it was something that I could believe in, and if I could find some connection with the story.  Then, about a year later, when the time came for the audition, I asked if I could go in for it.  After my first audition, I read a few more times, and I was offered the part of Anastasia.  There was a sense of wanting to find someone who could bring a bit of lightheartedness and humor to such dramatic material.  I think that’s why it worked out for me.”

Johnson’s director explains why her leading lady was so right for the role: “I knew the moment we met Dakota that we found our Anastasia.  She provided us the perfect balance of vulnerability, sass, beauty and courage.  Dakota came in very early on and read for the part.  It was one of those moments where I knew the part was hers, but we had to go through the motions of seeing a good few hundred other actresses just to make sure we covered all ground.  Not even in the back of my mind, but quite close to the front of my mind it was constantly, ‘The role is Dakota.  The role is Dakota.’  She has the wit and charm and intelligence of Ana and brings life into that character like I can’t imagine anyone else doing.  She is a phenomenal actress and it felt like I was given a gift of being able to present her to the world.”

James echoes those sentiments, knowing in her gut that Johnson was her Anastasia Steele.  She shares: “Dakota is just such a fantastic actress.  She managed to capture Ana’s combination of innocence, desire and defiance.  She lights up every scene she’s in.”

Naturally, Johnson’s take on the character James wrote was crucial to her casting.  Brunetti comments: “She saw Ana in a very similar way to our envisioning; she is the audience’s way into the story and into this very different world.  Dakota has the same kind of innocent look and demeanor about her as Ana.  She’s very attractive, but she is relatable to a lot of women who will see themselves in her.  It’s compelling to watch Dakota as Ana swan into a beautiful woman.  She goes from an innocent college student to someone who is involved in this lifestyle and this world.”

The producers felt that Johnson’s uniqueness and instant connection with her fellow performer made the actress the perfect Ana to Dornan’s Christian.  Brunetti says: “We had to make sure that Dakota and Jamie had that chemistry.  Because the actress playing Ana could be the best actress in the world, and the actor playing Christian could be the best actor in the world—and they could both be good-looking and comfortable being undressed—but the chemistry that’s going to show on camera couldn’t be faked.”

Brunetti’s fellow producer agrees that conveying the extreme depths of her principal characters’ passion toward one another was crucial.  James reveals that it was actually quite simple: “How do you define chemistry, or predict it?  It’s either there, or it isn’t.  When I see Dakota and Jamie together on screen, I know we made the right choice.”

As the pair entered preproduction, both Johnson and Dornan would have to ready themselves to portray the type of relationship required.  Describing the bond that Christian customarily seeks, Dornan states: “The only type of relationship he has ever had is a dominant/submissive one, where he has a partner sign a contract so that he can treat her in the way they have both agreed to.  There have always been clear-cut rules, negotiated and signed before any kind of physical relationship begins.  Until he meets Anastasia.”

Ana is both a typical and an atypical college senior: She’s a studious, clever English literature major who still parties, but is physically inexperienced because she’s not found the right partner.  Johnson reflects on Ana’s developing singular tastes: “Her reaction, when Christian reveals the type of relationship he’s interested in pursuing, is something that’s surprising.  Normally, you’d think that a girl who has never been exposed to any of that sort of relationship would run away, thinking that he’s the most messed-up person she’s ever met.  But, Ana doesn’t.  Instead, her reaction is to try and understand it.”

Christian rushes to assumptions about Ana when they meet, when Ana steps in for her ill roommate to interview him for her campus newspaper.  She is less than prepared, for either the interview or the reactions she elicits from this enigmatic billionaire.  Dornan explains: “Ana’s uncomfortable and awkward.  He’s all about control and precision, but she turns all of that on its head.  He’s attracted to her, but she affects him in a far more profound way and much deeper than he’s experienced before.  Essentially, the story is about two people who have fallen in love and face massive hurdles that are stopping them from having a ‘regular’ relationship.”

Johnson reveals what millions of readers have discovered and devoured: “The danger of it, and I think this is exciting, is that the story has all of the components of a thriller; you don’t know what’s going to happen.  Is she going to be okay with this difficult thing to grasp?  Will she be able to reconcile herself to it for Christian?  Will she be able to change that much and love him despite this?  Will he be able to do the same for her?”

Taylor-Johnson discusses that her leads were attuned to this quandary: “That evolution is a finely balanced tuning that we keep in check throughout the whole film.  We shot some of the scenes that are closer to the end of the movie first, so that relationship hadn’t quite formed yet.  It was trying to make sure that was instilled in the scene and that we knew exactly the emotional temperature.  But that’s what I love doing more than anything, working with the actors and gauging and playing the scenes and judging those emotional highs and lows.”