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Dakota Johnson says making ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was a ‘battle’ with author E.L. James

“I signed up to do a very different version of the film we ended up making,” the 32-year-old actor said.
Dakota Johnson poses backstage at "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" on Tuesday, June 14, 2022
Dakota Johnson poses backstage at "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" on Tuesday, June 14, 2022Todd Owyoung / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

"Fifty Shades of Grey," a series of BDSM-infused romance novels by E.L. James, were the bestselling novels of the past decade, selling 35 million print and e-book copies from 2011-19.

Building on the books' popularity, each of the installments in the film trilogy, released between 2013 and 2015, landed at number one at the box office.

But behind-the-scenes, tension brewed between the film's production team and author James, whose real name is Erika Leonard.

Johnson, who became a household name after landing the starring role as Anastasia Steele, candidly opened up in a cover story interview with Vanity Fair published on Tuesday about her “weird” filming experience — for what she said was the very first time.

"I haven’t been able to talk about this truthfully ever, because you want to promote a movie the right way, and I’m proud of what we made ultimately and everything turns out the way it’s supposed to, but it was tricky," Johnson told Vanity Fair.

For Johnson, who was cast to play Anastasia 2013 at the age of 23, the appeal of the franchise was evident from the start. “I’m a sexual person, and when I’m interested in something, I want to know so much about it. That’s why I did those big naked movies," she said.

According to Johnson, expectations did not align with reality of the filming experience. “I signed up to do a very different version of the film we ended up making," she continued.

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele in "Fifty Shades Of Grey."
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele in "Fifty Shades Of Grey."Maximum Film / Alamy

When asked whether the changes were made by the studio or the directors, Johnson replied, "Combo," before naming another name.

“It was also the author of the books,” she said, referring to author James

Johnson shared that the author “had a lot of creative control, all day, every day, and she just demanded that certain things happen.”

For example, “The Lost Daughter” actor said there were sections in the novels, such as the inner monologue portions, that Johnson did not think would work in a film because they were “at times incredibly cheesy.”

“It wouldn’t work to say out loud,” Johnson said. “It was always a battle. Always.” 

Screenwriter Kelly Marcel, in 2015, said on Bret Easton Ellis' podcast, per Deadline, that she could not watch the movie because the final product was so different to her original artistic vision. According to Marcel, the contention came down to the dialogue, as Johnson noted.

"I wanted to take out ... all of Ana’s inner monologue… I wanted to remove a lot of the dialogue. I felt it could be a really sexy film if there wasn’t so much talking in it," Marcel said.

The scripts for the subsequent two movies were written by James' husband, Niall Leonard.

According to Johnson, tensions around the script worsened after Charlie Hunnam dropped out from the leading role of Christian Grey, citing scheduling changes. Johnson said James was so upset she discarded the original script, which was revised by playwright Patrick Marber.

“I was young,” the 32-year-old actor recalled. “I was 23. So it was scary.”

Jamie Dornan eventually landed the role as Anastasia's billionaire boyfriend. Johnson raved about their relationship, likening the Northern Irish actor to a "brother."

"I love him so, so, so much. And we were really there for each other. We had to really trust each other and protect each other," she said.

According to Johnson, on-set drama continued through filming. "It just became something crazy. There were a lot of different disagreements,” she said.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in "Fifty Shades Darker."
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in "Fifty Shades Darker." Universal Pictures / Alamy

Johnson said that director Sam Taylor-Johnson shot multiple takes to reflect “the movie that (James) wanted to make," and the "movie we wanted to make." Johnson tried to incorporate some of Marber's dialogue back into her role.

She called the situation “mayhem all the time.” 

Nearly 10 years on, Johnson and James don’t seem to have any bad blood between them. Later in the interview, she praised the writer for being “a very nice woman," and said she was "grateful" for the experience. "She was always kind to me," Johnson said.

Despite the difficult environment, Johnson told Vanity Fair that she does not regret starring in the franchise. 

“If I had known at the time that’s what it was going to be like, I don’t think anyone would’ve done it. It would’ve been like, ‘Oh, this is psychotic.’ But no, I don’t regret it," she said, adding that the movie was "great" for her career.

Last year, Johnson and Dornan reunited at the Telluride Film Festival and posed for pictures together.

Johnson’s film, “The Lost Daughter,” was screened at the festival. It is one of the many dramatic roles she has taken since 2018’s “Fifty Shades Freed.”

Recent projects include the romance "Cha Cha Real Smooth" and Netflix's “Persuasion,” based on the Jane Austen novel.