Before E.L. James’s erotic Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling book series of all time, it had already sparked a studio bidding war that Deadline called the “wildest book-to-movie-auction in recent distant memory”—and with that, an Internet frenzy over potential leads in the BDSM Cinderella story.
So when James tweeted Tuesday morning that the books’ main characters, 21-year-old bookish college student Anastasia Steele and 27-year-old millionaire Christian Grey, would be played by Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) and Charlie Hunnam from Sons of Anarchy, the news was met with a surprising amount of “meh.” After all, casting rumors had been circulating the Internet ever since Universal and Focus Features won that epic bidding war for $5 million in March 2012, with huge names like Twilight’s Robert Pattinson and Harry Potter’s Emma Watson floated as leads. Instead, the coveted roles have been filled by actors with relatively little star power, which accounts for the underwhelming media coverage and backlash, most notably in the form of a Change.org petition demanding that Johnson and Hunnam be replaced with Alexis Bledel of Gilmore Girls fame and White Collar hunk Matt Bomer.
According to author Bret Easton Ellis, who publicly expressed interest in writing the screenplay, Pattinson was indeed James’s first choice for the role of Christian, but Bomer was “never in the running.” And if Ellis’s loose-lipped tweets are any indication, the 23-year-old Johnson may well have been the top contender for the story’s heroine.
But can she pull it off?
Yes, Johnson is beautiful (she resembles a young Meryl Streep), but her starry parentage and small collection of buzzy cameos belie a relatively shallow résumé. The actress first turned heads in 2010’s The Social Network as the underwear-clad Stanford girl who had a one-night stand with Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker. She went on to appear in last year’s tepidly received rom-com The Five Year Engagement as well as the better-received 21 Jump Street. She also garnered critical acclaim last fall as Kate in the Fox sitcom Ben and Kate, which, despite good reviews, was canceled after one season due to low ratings.
The biggest concern for many 50 Shades diehards—especially those who could hardly tolerate Anastasia’s dithering inner monologue in the books (every nipple twist and spanking from Christian is punctuated by a Holy Crap! or Holy Shit! or Holy Moses! from Anastasia)—appears to be whether Johnson will be able to manage a leading role in which she must make her onscreen character likable and sexy as opposed to loathsome and prudish.
In short, does Johnson have the talent, let alone the sexual presence, to tackle the sadomasochistic games—gag balls in her mouth, whips in Christian’s Red Room of Pain—that could potentially make this movie worth watching? (We’ve yet to get a solid indication on whether the films will be as filthily explicit as the books.)
We don’t have any reason to write her off just yet. Johnson’s onscreen roles have been small, but noteworthy enough that she caught producer Dana Brunetti’s eye. And while she hasn’t yet made her way to Hollywood’s A-list, it’s worth noting that neither had Kristen Stewart before her Twilight debut, nor Rooney Mara before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Acting also runs in Johnson’s family; in addition to being the daughter of two major Hollywood stars, she’s the granddaughter of Hitchcock darling Tippi Hedren. When she was younger, she would “watch my parents work and think, yeah, I’m going to do that,” Johnson said last October. “It’s the only thing I know how to do.”
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified Bret Easton Ellis as the screenwriter of Fifty Shades of Grey. The script is written by Kelly Marcel.