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Dakota Johnson On Her Role In 'The High Note'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, we want to leave you on a high note - literally. We're talking about the new movie, "The High Note," which tells the story of a classic diva with all the amazing clothes, fabulous houses and luxe parties. But it also tells the story about the assistant in the background handing her tissues and green juice, handling her messes and bucking up all those insecurities that the rest of the world does not see.

Directed by Nisha Ganatra of "Transparent" and "Late Night" fame and starring Tracee Ellis Ross as music icon Grace Davis, the film also digs into the story of Maggie, played by Dakota Johnson. She is an aspiring music producer who spends her days tending to the needs and whims of her boss. So it's kind of a buddy movie which Maggie wants to believe is a friendship. That's something her real friend Katie isn't quite buying.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HIGH NOTE")

ZOE CHAO: (As Katie) You're not friends. We are friends. You know how I know we're friends? Because friends don't pay friends to be their friends.

DAKOTA JOHNSON: (As Maggie Sherwoode) I actually feel like I've paid for a lot of...

CHAO: (As Katie) This is like a trap, you know? You are not the only person in the world for her. You are my only person in my world.

JOHNSON: (As Maggie Sherwoode, laughing) I know that. But if you told 12-year-old me that one day I'd be working for Grace Davis - I mean, she's an icon. It's the dream job.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE ALERT)

JOHNSON: (As Maggie Sherwoode) Or at least it's, like, the gateway...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE ALERT)

JOHNSON: (As Maggie Sherwoode) ...To my actual dream job.

CHAO: (As Katie) It's the gateway to, like, Stockholm syndrome.

MARTIN: And that phone you hear beeping in that clip is actually Maggie's phone because Grace is calling yet again. And Dakota Johnson is with us now to tell us more.

Dakota Johnson, thanks so much for talking to us.

JOHNSON: Thank you for talking to me. I love ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm so glad. Well, first of all, I want to say thank you for giving us the perfect pandemic film because it's hopeful. And it seems quite a change from some of your previous roles in "Fifty Shades Of Grey" and the thriller "Suspiria." What attracted you to this film?

JOHNSON: Well, I started working in comedy. My career kind of started in comedy. And it's always something that I am thinking about and part of my career that I really would like to maintain. But it's kind of hard to find great comedies that are smart and not, like, demeaning towards women, or the woman is the supporting role.

And I read this script, and it was the coolest version of a commercial comedy that I could find. And it was talking about something that I care about, which is, A, music, and B, women really pursuing their dreams and believing in themselves and supporting each other and working to get to where they want to be.

MARTIN: Maggie is in an interesting position in this film because she's so close and yet so far. I mean, she's trying to get ahead, but she's also trying to get ahead in a way that we don't often see, right? She's not using her body. I mean, she's not - it's not, like, through some sort of sleazy relationship with somebody. And she's - she does take some risks in an industry that is notorious for sidelining women. And I was just wondering how you thought about her, how you saw yourself in her.

JOHNSON: I mean, this is kind of, like, controversial, but I was constantly trying to minimize the love relationship between Maggie and David, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. because I was, like, why do we have to have that? Why does she - why do they have to fall in love? Why can't they just make great music together and have a great working relationship? But then I'm also, like, I understand that people want everyone to win at the end, and you have to have a happy ending in a commercial movie.

But it was really important to me that that you are hooked into this character and this heart, this person, because you see the amount of talent and drive that she has and is always learning. And those types of people are very fascinating to me, and you have two of them in this movie. So there's Grace Davis, who's extremely successful and an icon. And then Maggie is her assistant.

MARTIN: I like what you said because it's definitely work first for her. And I don't mean that in a way that she's a narrow figure, but she loves the work. She loves what she does. She loves music, and it makes it very clear that she's really willing to work hard for that thing that she loves and that she doesn't just love music. She loves excellence...

JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You know. And she's always pushing for it, and she's willing to take risks. But in the film, that doesn't always work for her. I mean, at one point, she remixes one of Grace Davis's old songs to convince her that she has the chops to produce Grace's new music, but that's not a priority for Grace's label. So I'm just going to play a short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HIGH NOTE")

JOHNSON: (As Maggie Sherwoode) It's not over for you. You said it in there. You said it - a new album. That is what you should be doing.

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (As Grace Davis) Do you know what they were avoiding saying in there?

JOHNSON: (As Maggie Sherwoode) What?

ROSS: (As Grace Davis) In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a No. 1 hit. And only one of them was black - one. Do you understand that? No.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask you about that - sort of understanding what those guys have been through. I mean, you and Tracee Ellis Ross are both second-generation Hollywood stars. I mean, let's just get real about it. I don't know what your story is entirely, but this whole idea of having to just fight just to be seen - is that something that you feel is true for you?

JOHNSON: On a personal level?

MARTIN: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, I have not just one famous actor parent, but I have three and my grandmother. So I'm third generation. And it's - there is a lot of struggle that has come with growing up in a famous family, growing up in a - I guess in a spotlight, as you would call it. But I've also had immense privilege and such a fortunate life. I've traveled. I grew up all over the world. And that, I think, has helped me to understand that sometimes maybe it just will take a little bit longer.

Like when I first started working, when I started acting, I was out of high school. I didn't go to college. I wanted to start working. And it was a constant hustle to try and prove myself as someone who was capable. There was a lot of proving myself. And I think for Tracee as well as - its not so much that you're in the shadow of your parents, but there's just a really high bar to live up to.

And then it's a matter of, like, well, am I living up to that? Or am I carving my own path? Am I a totally different person than my parents? I don't - I work completely differently. Sometimes I catch myself sounding like my mom...

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: ...In certain words that I say. But other than that, I'm, like, I don't - I'm nothing like you guys. I don't know you. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: You don't know me (laughter). But I also think just on an individual level, being a young person with big, big dreams, you just feel like you are fighting all the time to make it through the day or make it to the next accomplishment.

MARTIN: Some of the most interesting scenes for me were also with you and Ice Cube, who plays Grace's manager. And he's constantly telling you to take a seat - like, what you don't know, you just don't know. You just don't - you don't know anything. I thought that was so interesting, too.

It isn't until the scene we just played that they bring race into it to say, well, part of it is that it's a different struggle than you're going to have. Everybody has their struggles, but our struggle is different from the struggle you're going to have. I was interested in what that was like for you to have those conversations on set.

JOHNSON: I thought it was awesome. I love that Maggie is so ambitious and so driven, and because she does think outside the box so much and has this sort of pioneer vision for what the second half of Grace's career should look like, she also doesn't know everything. She does not know what it's like to be Grace. She doesn't really know anything about working in the industry other than what she's learned from working with Grace.

So there's a level of inexperience that is honest. And there's a struggle that Grace has experienced that Maggie never will because she's white. And that's a truth, and it's a truth that should be talked about in movies, especially big, popular, funny ones. And those are the ones that, you know, reach mass amounts of people. And it's a conversation that should be had, and it should be perpetuated until differences are made.

MARTIN: That was Dakota Johnson. She co-stars in a new movie, "The High Note," which is available now for rent on most on-demand platforms.

Dakota Johnson, thank you so much for talking to us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE MYSELF THE HIGH NOTE")

ROSS: (Singing) But is it fake love if I'm lying to myself, trying to fake the way I feel? Am I a stranger if I don't recognize myself trying to fix up something real? I don't really care. I don't wanna (ph) keep my head down. Got nothing to share, maybe I should put my phone down. I don't really care if everybody likes me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.