Her breakout role, the Fifty Shades franchise led to numerous other performances in such films as: Black Mass (2015), How to be Single (2016), Suspiria (2018), Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019), The Lost Daughter (2021), and now she stars in Cha Cha Real Smooth, for which she also takes her first producer’s credit.
Cha Cha Real Smooth premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to rave reviews. The film stars newcomer Cooper Raiff, who also wrote and directed the film. He stars as a bar mitzvah party starter who befriends and falls in love with a young mother (Johnson) of an autistic child.
In Johnson’s personal life, she has been in a relationship with Coldplay frontman, Chris Martin, since 2017. They reside in Malibu, California.
You played a mother in Cha Cha Real Smooth and also in The Lost Daughter. Not being a mother yourself, what kind of inspiration do you draw from?
My best friend is a mother of two kids, who are my God babies. And she’s a big part of [my research] if I play a mother in a film. So, it’s a lot of watching her be a mom and asking her questions about what it really feels like deep on the inside. But in general, I guess, just observing people. And also, I grew up with a lot of siblings. I’m not a mother yet, so I don’t have my own experience to draw from, but I did have a lot of siblings and I did raise a lot of them or take care of them in a lot of ways.
The Lost Daughter explores a darker side to motherhood. That doesn’t only pertain to your character but the film reveals Olivia Colman’s ambivalent feelings about motherhood.
Yes. We were getting reactions from women like, ‘God! Thank you for saying that it’s really hard to be a mother, it’s not always nice, and I don’t always like it.’ And other interesting thing was that men also acknowledged it. They said, ‘I recognise those women. That’s my mum, or that’s my partner.’ It wasn’t this perfectly happy, buttoned up, gorgeous thing that we never see in real life because it’s not real.
You did your first movie, Crazy in Alabama when you were 9 years old. That’s pretty young.
Well, my mom was in it. My stepdad directed it (Antonio Banderas) and I played my mom’s daughter. And then I didn’t work again until I was 18. My parents didn’t want me to be involved in movies. I really wanted to work and I was desperate to be on set. I wanted to make movies so badly but they wanted me to study and have a proper education.
And you weren’t interested?
No. My dad wanted me to go to college, but as I grew up on set, and grew up traveling because I was always on location with either of them. So, I’d spend two weeks with one and then two weeks with the other while they’d be all over the world, so I never learned how to study correctly. I didn’t have any time management skills and it was hard for me. So when I graduated I immediately started auditioning for films.
I know you’re an avid reader. You’re a fan of Elena Ferrante which The Lost Daughter was adapted from. And she’s famous for her series of novels, My Brilliant Friend.
Yes. I had read her Neapolitan series because I went to an all girls Catholic boarding school for one year in Northern California. It was horrible. I had a best friend, Justine, and she gave me the first of her novels so that’s how I knew about Elena Ferrante.
I found My Brilliant Friend to be so beautiful. And when I read Maggie’s (Gyllenhaal) script (The Lost Daughter) it was less about Elena Ferrante, it was more about Maggie, for me. Maggie’s just such a force and a real seeker of truth. I was beckoned by it. I was so intrigued. Her mind is really powerful and her heart is just so intricate. I learned so much.
That was your first time being directed (Gyllenhaal) by an actor?
Yes and it’s different being directed by a female actor. I think especially because I guess in this specific environment, because we were a lot of the time on the beach in bathing suits, and because it was so much about the intricate and complicated feelings around motherhood and Maggie as a mother, that made it different. But she’s also a f***ing amazing actress…and she knows what it feels like to be an actor, acting.
It can be so exposing and so vulnerable and so confusing, you can feel so lost. And I think she really understands how that feels and also is able to hold you and guide you. There’s an empathy, I think, that she has, or an understanding that she has.
You also produced another film, Am I Ok – about a woman coming out in her 30s in which you take a starring role opposite Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina). Do you feel you’re still learning about yourself? Was that something that came through as you were working on these two films?
Yeah, I guess it is in both of them, I liked the idea that you don’t have to have everything figured out by a certain point in your life. It’s entirely impossible to do that. I think the world would be a much calmer place if people had a little bit more room to just grow, and be, and change. In both Cha Cha and Am I Ok? it’s about women who are alive, bleeding, beating people. They are thoughtful and they are discovering themselves. I think I’m also like that in my life.
What kind of movies do you want to produce going forward?
I always want to push boundaries a little bit. I’m not trying to fit into some box or some model of what we know to be successful in streaming or cinema. I don’t find that to be fulfilling. I think people want to be challenged and they want to feel like they’re experiencing something that maybe exists inside themselves that they haven’t looked at before.