Dakota Johnson is having a very good year. On the heels of her critically celebrated turn in Bad Times at the El Royal, Johnson delivers the performance of her career in Luca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria remake, in which she takes on the iconic role as Susie Bannion. A challenging character with one hell of a transformative arc, the part of the ambitious dancer demanded rigorous physical performance — on top of her previous experience as a dancer, Johnson trained for six months to get the movement right — and equally nuanced emotional work. It’s easily one of the most impressive performances of the year, and just part of what makes the films so special.
With Suspiria now in theaters nationwide, I recently had the opportunity to sit down for a chat with Johnson about the film and taking on the role of Susie Bannion. We discussed what it was like to be tucked away on a remote set for the entire filming process, how that impacted the creative experience, being away from her family during the 2016 election, and watching Tilda Swinton transform into her multiple characters in the film. We also dove a bit into some spoiler territory and discussed how she perceives Susie’s transformation in the film and the special moment she wants audiences to find for themselves.
I love this movie.
I’m a bit obsessed.
JOHNSON: Thank you. Me, too.
I talked to someone who was on set with you guys and said it was a pretty remarkable experience being tucked away like that. What was that experience like for you, being there for that period of time just working, focusing on this one project?
JOHNSON: Yeah. It was really isolated and spectacular. Firenze is a very tiny little town in the north of Italy, an hour away from Milan. Where we were filming was up a mountain, like you can’t write this. It was up a windy road and we watched … as we were filming the season … the leaves fall from the tree and snow started to kind of stick more. It got colder and we’re in this abandoned hotel. They had completely … not renovated the hotel but it had evolved. I went to see it when I went for rehearsals. I saw like the guts of the hotel and Luca, me, and Thom Yorke, the three of us went up to see it, and it was just hollow and freaky.
There was sort of like an old asylum feeling to it. Then by the time I went back it had been transformed and it was warm. It had been painted. It looked fresh. It was beautiful. Obviously from the production design you can tell that it was very specific, the aesthetic. It was amazing. I loved it.
Every day going there and being in this place all day and, you know, we had … on one of the floors, one hallways, one corridor which used to be hotel rooms were our dressing rooms, and Mia and I were both smoking at the time, so we’d be like leaning out of our windows of this abandoned hotel on the top of a mountain in the dead of winter, smoking cigarettes like bundled up.
How does it affect like the creative process to be just so removed like that and so immersed in this one creative process?
JOHNSON: It’s so helpful. It’s so helpful. It’s funny because when we were filming Trump was elected to office and I felt like I was on another planet. I felt like I was looking down on the world, being like “Oh, God, what’s happening to my home?” It was both helpful and terrifying. I was really far away from my family. I felt like inferior that I couldn’t protect them from this, but it was a really interesting thing.
But it was helpful. It was really … I like being sort of sequestered into a place to make something and then leave and you emerge with this product of like creative force. To be there with a bunch of dancers and a bunch of incredible actresses from all over the world was unbelievable. It was like a real coven. It was like a real … there was some real witchy stuff.
I found this little restaurant that made the best burgers I’ve ever had in my life. It was hard to come by some really good food that wasn’t just pasta and bread there and playing a dancer you can’t really eat those things. I was so hungry. By Friday every week I would go to this restaurant and eat a burger and drink a bottle of wine and then wake up on Monday.
Perfect. That’s a good weekend. You got to work with all three versions of Tilda in this.
What was it like watching her go through this artistic process and play these different roles?
JOHNSON: It’s really extraordinary. I feel very privileged to be able to watch her work and to work alongside her. She’s the most inspirational woman I’ve ever met … for me. To be able to have a very intimate relationship with her is like out of this world. So to see her in all the forms … I mean, it was just fun. It was so much fun and it creates a completely different dynamic between us.
Every character she plays and that I’ve played when we’re working together, it’s like we have archives of relationships that we can get into and work with. I want … gosh, I want to do that with her forever. I think it would just be spectacular. There’s no limit to what she is capable of, and I’m working to believe that I am the same way, that I will have no limit to what I’m capable of. I’m far too critical and self-annihilating right now. Maybe when I’m more mature, when I’m a grownup.
Well, it sounds like a good influence to have around at least.
JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s the luckiest.
Have you worked with someone before in like extreme prosthetics or was that a first-time experience?
JOHNSON: Yeah, Johnny Depp was in prosthetics when we did the Whitey Bulger movie, Black Mass.
Of course, yeah.
JOHNSON: He wore the craziest contacts which made me feel funny. I think I’ve worked with other people in prosthetics but not full body like that.
Is that something that presents a unique challenge to you as an actor or do you feel that it’s just sort of part and parcel with the way films are made? Is it easier or harder than working with a green screen or something like that?
JOHNSON: I have such a wildly active imagination that it’s okay for me. I’m so into it. I think it’s great. I really love it. I’ve never worked with a green screen, so I don’t know what that’s like yet. I’m sure that I’ll come across that in no time, but it’s okay. I think movies are so cool, and anything that … I’m interested in new forms of making films, so I’m not distracted. I’m only distracted if someone’s not there and I have to talk to a tennis ball or something. That’s when things get tricky for me.
(Be aware there are spoilers below.)
The film leaves a lot of this up for interpretation but for your perspective as a performer, how did you perceive the transformation from Susie to the mother? Do you feel that that was always there in her or that it was something that happened when she went to be with Madame Blanc in this coven?
JOHNSON: That’s a great question. My perspective on that is I did make an effort to sort of leave that open for interpretation. So Susie’s evolution is very internal. It’s deeply internal, but the thing that draws her to Berlin to Madame Blanc is also deeply internal. There are so many threads of possibilities. She comes from a Mennonite family, which Mennonites came from Germany. She has sort of like denounced the church, her mother and her father. She does not … she just fundamentally does not accept the life that she’s been given, which a long time ago if you did that, you were a witch. If you were at all independent, if you thought independently, if you felt independently from your father or the church, you were a witch.
So there’s all these kind of like hints that Susie’s different but she doesn’t know. She just feels this pull, this magnet, this thing, to dance and she has to go to Berlin. She has to be with Madame Blanc. It’s like just she was born in the wrong place. I think that’s how she makes sense of it, like, “I just don’t belong here.”
Then I believe once she understands what is happening there is a very very subtle moment where I think she realizes what she’s meant to do. I want the audience to figure out when that is.
Suspiria is now playing in theaters nationwide.