LOS ANGELES—Dakota Johnson was sitting in the den of her LA home, with a piano behind her—an apt setting since she plays on one in her new film, “The High Note.”
In the Focus Features film directed by Nisha Ganatra, Dakota plays Maggie, an overworked personal assistant to Tracee Ellis Ross’ pop superstar, Grace Davis. Maggie herself has dreams of becoming a music producer even as she is stuck running errands.
Also starring in the feel-good movie are Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, Zoe Chao, Bill Pullman and Eddie Izzard.
In our video call, Dakota, who is dating Coldplay’s Chris Martin, also talks about her own relationship to music, her shared kinship with Tracee (the diva Diana Ross’ daughter), the pandemic crisis and a film project that excites her.
Excerpts from our chat:
In playing a personal assistant, did you tap your own personal details? You were probably surrounded by personal assistants, beginning with your parents.
No, not really. The writer, Flora Greeson, was an assistant, so a lot of the circumstances came from her. The part that was important to me of filling out the human aspect of Maggie was her ambition, strength, drive and attention to expanding her talent.
What’s your experience with your own personal assistant?
I worship the ground that my assistant walks on. I cherish her. She wasn’t with me when I was making this movie, but she watched it and really loved it. Being a personal assistant is a very difficult job.
You have to have incredible bandwidth for managing a lot of different aspects of someone else’s life, as well as your own. You must have the ability to compartmentalize.
How do you relate in real life to Zoe Chao, who plays your best friend Katie in the movie?
I love Zoe deeply. She is a magnificent, incredible woman. She’s unbelievably talented. She gives me advice in real life. We FaceTime a lot. The relationship of our characters is special. She’s a doctor in the movie … Zoe and I are hopefully going to make another movie. Tig Notaro is going to direct.
Katie, Zoe’s character, gave an important advice to your Maggie character. Do you have well-meaning people like that in your life who tell you things that maybe you don’t want to hear?
Yeah, absolutely. Many people in my life tell me things all the time. Those are the people you want in your life, at least for me. My closest friends are the ones who are the most honest with me.
Were you surprised to hear Tracee’s singing voice?
Yes. I was so impressed. She’s smart, sweet and cool. We were in this studio one day—she was recording, then I had to go in and record some vocals with Kelvin [Harrison Jr.]. I was also in piano lessons and Tracee and Kelvin were in vocal lessons. We were all like, “Oh my God, I hope we pull this off (laughs).”
Both you and Tracee have very famous parents. Did you talk about that with her?
We definitely talked about it. There’s a lot that you can say without saying much when it comes to relating to somebody who grew up with a famous parent or, in her case, an icon. We definitely recognized ourselves in each other a bit. It’s very complicated. Knowing that there’s somebody who can understand even a little bit of what that’s like is a wonderful feeling.
Did your own parents offer any advice on dealing with all the attention?
They’re still trying to figure it out, too (laughs).
What’s your relationship to music?
I haven’t been playing the piano all my life. I had lessons when I was little, but I can only play random things. I learned to play the piano for this movie. I did a lot of rehearsals and piano lessons.
I have spent a lot of time in recording studios. I just understood the vibe and the language. I spent time with my friend Annie Clark, who’s a musician and producer, and she goes by [the stage name] St. Vincent. I studied her for a few days and just stole everything that she was saying, doing, her body language, attitude and demeanor in the studio.
You did an impressive job codirecting your boyfriend Chris Martin’s Coldplay music video, “Cry, Cry, Cry.”
It was an incredibly special experience. I was honored to make that video, with the quality of artists that I was working with across the board. It meant a lot to me to make it great.
Talk about the dance scenes in the music video. Was it your idea?
I was a dancer when I was younger. Dance is a way to communicate emotion and relationship dynamics in a nonverbal way. The thing about music videos is that you can play with reality. You don’t really have to explain yourself. I like that world. I’m OK staying there.
Has Chris made you appreciate even more the world of music?
I’ve loved music my whole life. My parents were always playing music in the house. My two older brothers are musicians. My dad was friends with a lot of musicians. Music is very important to me and has informed a lot of my life.
What type of music do you listen to? And what’s your go-to karaoke song?
Karaoke is like a dream and a nightmare, depending on the scenario. But I will always get down with some Shania Twain song.
I don’t even know where to begin with music, but it saves my soul every day. Like last night, when I was making dinner, I was listening to the songs of Leonard Cohen. Then, there’s a new Perfume Genius album that’s beautiful. Laura Marling has a gorgeous new album that pierces your heart.
How are you dealing with this pandemic period? Many people are anxious and can’t sleep at night.
This time is totally mind-bending for every individual, no matter where or who you are. I have difficult days, of course. I’m incredibly fortunate to live where I do and have the family and friends that I have.
But in terms of dealing with the ups and downs of being human, every day is different. You just try to do the best you can and be nice to people along the way. As for sleeping at night, I take a lot of Melatonin.
What else do you do to help ease the anxiety?
I’ve been doing meditation and yoga for many years. I’d be totally lost without it. It’s a lot better than drinking myself stupid every night, which I don’t do. But that’s some people’s choice. I just think that right now, whatever you can do to take care of yourself and the people around you is the best thing you can do.
Looking ahead, you will costar with Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley and Peter Sarsgaard in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directing debut—an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s hit novel, “The Lost Daughter.” What’s your relationship to Elena’s novels, including the series adaptation of her novel, “My Brilliant Friend”?
I read her Neapolitan novel series and loved them. I’m a big fan of Elena Ferrante. I hadn’t actually read “The Lost Daughter” before I got the script. Maggie adapted the script herself, and it’s incredible. We’ll figure out when we’re going to shoot it.
I have to say that I’m totally, madly in love with “My Brilliant Friend,” the TV show, but the second season is unbelievable. It’s like one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time.
I even FaceTimed with Saverio Coztanzo (creator of “My Brilliant Friend”) the other day because I just wanted to tell him how much I loved the series. I thought it’s so beautiful, intricate and complicated.
E-mail [email protected] Follow him at ruben nepales (@nepalesruben) | Twitter.
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