“I think I’ve learned more from the people I work with than from my parents,” Dakota Johnson says. Most young actors in Hollywood would probably say the same thing.
However, their parents wouldn’t be Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. The only child from that marriage, the 23-year-old Johnson grew up on film and television sets.
“I’d watch my parents working,” she recalls, “but I wasn’t sitting there studying them. I was off playing with a production assistant.”
Something must have taken. After a string of small parts in The Social Network (2010), Beastly (2011), The Five-Year Engagement (2012), and 21 Jump Street (2012), Johnson landed a starring role in the new Fox sitcom Ben and Kate. She plays Kate, a single mom who works at a bar and considers herself super-organized. When her older brother, Ben (Nat Faxon), crashes back into her life and decides to stick around and help out, a new “odd couple” family ensues.
Johnson compares Ben and Kate to The Cosby Show (1984-1992).
“It has that family vibe,” she says, speaking by telephone from her Los Angeles home. “Real things are going on. There’s a lot of love, but it’s also intense, funny, and silly. Johnson hadn’t expected to be starring in a television series quite so early in her career, she says, but was won over by “the crazy energy of the script.”
“Kate is like how a lot of women feel on the inside,” Johnson says. “She’s just trying to keep it all together and still be a good person and a good mother. It’s hard. Kate’s funny and silly. She makes mistakes that are embarrassing that she has to clean up. She also has this brother she has to clean up after.”
Series creator Dana Fox based the show on her relationship with her own brother. The network struggled to find the right actress to fill the role, deciding on the relatively untested Johnson only days before filming the pilot.
“They put a lot of blind trust in me,” the actress says. “Kate and I are completely different. She is older than me and has a 5-year-old daughter. I’m not close to being a mother.”
To bring out her maternal side, Johnson says, she turned to child actress Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays her on-camera daughter.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Maggie and asking her questions,” Johnson says. “It’s important that that relationship and bond be believable to viewers.”
It wasn’t that much of a stretch because Johnson has four younger siblings — 16-year-old Stella Banderas, 12-year-old Atherton Grace Johnson, 10-year-old Jasper Breckinridge Johnson, and 6-year-old Deacon Johnson. She also has two older half brothers, 30-year-old Jesse Johnson and 27-year-old Alexander Bauer. Her stepfather is Antonio Banderas, and her grandmother is actress Tippi Hedren, best known for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964).
Despite growing up in show business, Johnson says, she had no concept of the demands of a sitcom. “The hours are insane,” she says. “It’s physically taxing, because I’m on my feet 14 to 16 hours a day. I have to remember that I have a life and a family and that I have to call my mom back.”
Johnson grew up primarily with Griffith in Aspen, Colo., and in Los Angeles.
“I led a pretty normal life,” she says. “It was an average-ish home, aside from the fact that my parents were famous and we traveled a lot.”
Not so average was being named Miss Golden Globe at the 2006 awards ceremony, an honor bestowed on celebrity progeny. Nor was it normal to make her film debut at age 10, when she appeared briefly in Crazy in Alabama (1999), a comedy directed by her stepfather, Antonio Banderas, and starring her mother.
When she was 19 Johnson left home to live on her own.
Her first big break came when director David Fincher cast her as the Stanford University student who has a one-night stand with Justin Timberlake’s character in The Social Network. Her second came during an audition for The Five-Year Engagement, when Johnson discovered that she could do comedy.
“I improved with Jason Segel,” she says. “I’d never done that before, and it worked out pretty well.”
Before starting Ben and Kate, Johnson completed two independent films. In Theo she plays a homeless girl who befriends an Eskimo, and she has a supporting role in the high-school comedy Gay Dude, about two old buddies whose friendship is tested when one comes out of the closet.
However, the project most likely to raise Johnson’s profile is Ben and Kate.
“Except for paparazzi, people don’t really recognize me,” she says. “I’m so lucky, because I’m incredibly uncomfortable in situations like that ... It’s really a matter of how you present yourself to people. If you’re interested in that, it will come to you. If you’re not, it won’t.
“Hopefully people will just see me as a normal person.”
Fun for Johnson on a day off is hanging out with her boyfriend, musician Noah Gersh, and her dog.
“I bought this old, crappy, wrought-iron furniture for my back yard,” she says, “and I’m going to paint it this afternoon. Then I’ll go out to dinner with my boyfriend and watch a movie.”
That’s true even though today happens to be her birthday. There will be no Hollywood party at a trendy club, no over-the-top reveling, no Lindsay Lohan moments.
“I just don’t have that in me,” Johnson says. “I’m not interested in going to clubs.”
Which is not to say that she’s always been an angel.
“According to my mother I was a complete wild child,” Johnson says with what sounds like a smirk. “I was a little bit recalcitrant growing up.
“I’m not sure yet whether I’ve grown out of it.”