Sam Taylor-Johnson

Meet ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Director Sam Taylor-Johnson: The Cancer-Surviving Badass

The director of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is a stunning, cradle-robbing blonde who has no problem with nudity, writes Marlow Stern. 

Peter Kramer/AP; Knopf Doubleday

Finally, it’s time to get kinky.

On Wednesday afternoon, Deadline’s Mike Fleming broke the news that Sam Taylor-Johnson (nee Taylor-Wood) has been hired to direct the film adaptation of E.L. James’s bestselling novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which will be distributed by Universal Pictures and Focus Features, and produced by Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, the team behind The Social Network.

“Sam’s unique ability to gracefully showcase complex relationships dealing with love, emotion and sexual chemistry make her the ideal director to bring Christian and Anastasia’s relationship to life,” De Luca told Deadline. “E.L. James’s characters and vivid storytelling require a director who is willing to take risks and push the envelope where needed, and Sam is a natural fit.”

Taylor-Johnson, a stunning British blonde, only has one feature-length film credit to her name—2009’s Nowhere Boy, about the formative years of pre-Beatles John Lennon. So who is the woman helming one of the most hotly anticipated films in recent memory?

Fifty Shades of Grey, for the uninitiated, is an erotic novel by E.L. James—the pen name of Erika Leonard. It’s the first in a trilogy of books that traces the psychosexual relationship of young college graduate Anastasia Steele and a kinky, hunky, and power-hungry young businessman, Christian Grey, who has a penchant for BDSM. The series was a global phenomenon, and has sold over 70 million copies in 37 countries, surpassing the Harry Potter series as the fastest-selling paperback of all time.

Ever since Universal and Focus won a heated bidding war to adapt James’s novel into a film in March 2012, the Hollywood rumor mill had been spewing story after story about Fifty Shades of Grey’s supposed director. First, there were reports that Milk director Gus Van Sant had filmed a steamy sex scene with Magic Mike co-star Alex Pettyfer as test footage with the hopes of getting the directing job. The Guardian claimed it was “the pivotal moment when the impressionable Anastasia Steele loses her virginity to Grey.” Then, it was erroneously reported that Anna Karenina director Joe Wright had won the job (a very strange choice). But now its been confirmed that Taylor-Johnson has won the directing sweepstakes.

Taylor-Johnson is a 46-year-old filmmaker (who looks about 20 years younger in person) who was born Sam Taylor-Wood in Croydon, England. Her father, who worked as a treasurer for Hell’s Angels, abandoned the family when she was 9, and Taylor-Wood lived on a commune with her hippie yoga-instructor mother until she, too, abandoned the family when Taylor-Wood was just 15.

Her career as a photographer/video artist began to take off in the early ‘90s, and in 1993, she collaborated with fellow Brit photographer (and paramour) Henry Bond on 26 October 1993, a recreation of the iconic 1980 John Lennon-Yoko Ono portrait by Annie Leibovitz (featuring a nude Lennon), with Bond and Taylor-Wood playing the roles of Lennon and Ono. Much of her early video artwork tackled madness, death, power, and sexuality. There’s Brontosaurus, where a naked man flails his body about like he’s possessed to a classical score; Knackered, where a naked woman acts out opera scenes; and Pieta, where Taylor-Wood cradles Robert Downey Jr. in her arms. In 1998, she was nominated for the Turner Prize honoring the best British visual artist under 50, but lost. Her most famous work from her pre-filmmaking period is Crying Men, in which Taylor-Wood photographed 28 famous actors in tears, including Ryan Gosling, Robert Downey Jr., and Paul Newman.

She married Tory minister and art dealer Lord Jopling in 1997 with whom she has two daughters—Angelica, 16, and Jessie, 7. In Dec. 1997, a short time after giving birth to Angelica, Taylor-Wood was diagnosed with colon cancer, which she beat. Then, in 2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, beating cancer again.

“I took on cancer like I take on everything—like a mission and a job to accomplish,” she later told Harper’s Bazaar. “I'd look at Angelica and say, ‘There's no option here. I've got to fight through it.’ I had to have major abdominal surgery, and they said, ‘You can't hold your baby.’ It was terrible.”

In 2006, she directed a segment entitled “Death Valley” as part of the erotic short film compilation, Destricted. The short centered on a man in Death Valley exploring different ways to stimulate himself. Two years later, in Sept. 2008, she split amicably from Jopling after 11 years of marriage, and that same year, she directed the short film “Love You More,” produced by the late Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), which follows two teenagers who are drawn to one another thanks to their mutual appreciation for The Buzzcocks' song “Love You More” in the summer of ’78. The following year, she began a relationship with actor Aaron Johnson when they met on the set of her feature directorial debut, Nowhere Boy. The film, which was released in late 2009 to positive reviews, centered on the teenage years (1955–1960) of John Lennon, prior to The Beatles. Johnson played Lennon, and the tabloids, as is their wont, had a field day given the couple’s age difference—Taylor-Wood was 42 and Johnson 18 when they met—as well as a nude photo spread featuring the couple in a 2010 issue of German Vogue.

“It all feels strangely natural,” she told The Guardian of their relationship.

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The couple got engaged in Oct. 2009, and married on June 21, 2012, both taking the name Taylor-Johnson. They have two daughters together—Wylda Rae, 2, and Romy Hero, 1—and Taylor-Johnson delivered her youngest when she was 44 (which goes to show you what she’s made of). And in 2011, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her life-long services to the arts.

Now, she’s in charge of helming the film adaptation of the hottest property since The Hunger Games.

She’s certainly got the chops for it.