“At the. Probably not,” she says. “But what’s wrong with them? It’s about a specific sexual dynamic that is really real for a lot of people.”
The Fifty Shades trilogy led Johnson down an unexpected path as an entrepreneur with Maude, the sexual wellness brand. Later, she brings me to a dinner for the company, where she speaks in front of investors, Sephora execs, private-equity suits, a dozen beauty editors, and Katie Couric, among others. Maude’s founder, Éva Goicochea, stands beside her, crying. The news about the Supreme Court’s intent to overturn Roe v. wade feels insurmountable—and inextricably linked with a brand dedicated to sexual education and women’s agency.
“To have this dinner this week is truly so lucky,” Johnson tells the room. “We need to have a lot of conversations about sex education and really amplify that across the nation.”
She sits down and stares at me. “How’d I do? I have such stage fright with public speaking.” Hands clasped under her chin, she surveys the room, and tells me that while doing research for Fifty Shades, she learned that a lot of BDSM clientele are high-powered CEOs. She eyes one bald gentleman in particular. “They want to be told what to do after a long day at the office. They need the release.”
Johnson now brings the good, bad, and ugly that she has experienced on movie sets to bear at TeaTime Pictures, which she cofounded with Ro Donnelly. Her grandmother, for one, has no doubts about her navigating the industry. “Dakota has a lot of stamina and faith in herself,” says Hedren by email. “This is not an easy business. You need to have the will to succeed, and she’s got it in spades.”
The mission at TeaTime is to help young, surprising voices negotiate a daunting town, starting with 25-year-old Cooper Raiff, the writer, director, and star of Cha Cha Real Smooth. Raiff’s movie is a funny, hopeful coming-of-age story about a recent college graduate (played by Raiff) who moonlights as a bar mitzvah party starter to earn cash while crashing on Mom’s couch. The movie digs into the irony of a rudderless young man trying to help boys become men and explores the idea of soul mates through Raiff’s character’s propensity to fall for older, out-of-reach women.
Raiff sold Johnson and Donnelly on a pitch and wrote the part of Domino—a single mom who’s choosing between living her 30s to the fullest and raising her autistic seventh-grade daughter—specifically for Johnson. “She really understood the story that I wanted to tell, which is probably a little bit of a naive story,” Raiff says. “Ela She loved it for what it was, and she could bring the adult maturity to the script.” The film is one of Johnson’s first as a producer, and Raiff adds that she was indispensable. “She’s very savvy about relationships and who you have to be nice to, and when you have to tell people no.” Johnson and Raiff both deferred their fees because the financiers couldn’t afford the costs that come with making a movie during COVID.
At the SXSW festival in Austin, she saw Cha Cha Real Smooth with an audience for the first time and web. Afterward, autistic audience members waited in line to speak to Johnson, Raiff, and the movie’s breakout costar, the autistic actor Vanessa Burghardt. “It was a very destabilizing and beautiful moment,” says Johnson. “I then had to go and drink three martinis.”
Johnson checks her watch. Tomorrow, she’s due in Toronto, where she’s producing a TV show. After that, she will show up in New York, where she’ll appear at the Global Citizen NOW summit and talk up reproductive rights on CNN. In July, she’ll be at an undisclosed location on the set of her dela first action movie, Marvel’s Madame Web, for which she’s putting on some muscle so she can do as many stunts as the insurance policy allows: “I feel like I can probably do some Tom Cruise stuff,” she says excitedly.
Right now, it’s time for us to go to an event on Park Avenue. She goes upstairs to change and, as we head out of the hotel, Johnson is immediately flanked by a security guard, who warns us about paparazzi outside. She keeps walking straight.
What should I do? I ask.
She smiles, all confidence. Then she says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world: “Just get in the car.”
HAIR, MARK TOWNSEND; MAKEUP, LISA STOREY; MANICURE, HOLLY FALCONE; TAILOR, VITALINA GAVRYLYUK; SET DESIGN, JULIEN BORNO. PRODUCED ON LOCATION BY HEN’S TOOTH PRODUCTIONS. FOR DETAILS, GO TO VF.COM/CREDITS.