Dakota Johnson takes charge of her career as star and producer of ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

Actress Dakota Johnson (right) and filmmaker and actor Cooper Raiff, stars of ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth,’ at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco on April 30. Raiff wrote, directed, co-produced and co-starred with Johnson. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

As Dakota Johnson takes a seat at the Fairmont Hotel to chat about her latest film, she feels remarkably at home.

That’s because she grew up in San Francisco while her father, Don Johnson, filmed the hit CBS television series “Nash Bridges.” From age 7 to 13, she got used to luxury hotels like the Fairmont.

“We lived for a while at the St. Francis Hotel, and I think – maybe – hereJohnson smiles, looking around. “I don’t remember, but we had a big hotel room with a library. Then we lived in a house in Pacific Heights.

Johnson, whose mother is actress Melanie Griffith – meaning her grandmother is Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Bodega Bay-turned masterpiece “The birds,” and her stepfather for a time was Antonio Banderas – went to the city’s Hamlin School and spent his junior year of high school at Santa Catalina School in Monterey before moving to Los Angeles.

But on this trip to San Francisco, she’s in charge. Her production company, TeaTime Pictures, which she co-founded just before the pandemic with former Netflix development head Ro Donnelly, is behind her latest film, ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth,’ which closed the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 30 in front of a packed house at Castro Theater just hours after an interview with The Chronicle.

The film begins streaming Friday, June 17 on Apple TV+.

Writer-producer-director Cooper Raiff (left) and producer Dakota Johnson in a scene from “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Photo: SFFilm

Sitting next to Johnson was writer, director and co-star Cooper Raiff, a 25-year-old rising auteur and the kind of independent filmmaker TeaTime Pictures aims to support.

Raiff has created one of the most unusual paths to starting a film career. Originally from Dallas, he enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles with the dream of breaking into film. He made a 50-minute short, posted it on YouTube, and tweeted a link to filmmaker Jay Duplass. This led to Raiff’s feature debut, “S-house”.

For ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth,’ as her debut, a sweet coming-of-age comedy — Raiff reunited with Johnson in Greece, where she was filming ‘The Lost Daughter’ with co-star Olivia Colman and director Maggie Gyllenhaal . He thought Johnson would be perfect for the role of Domino, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage and mother of a teenager on the autism spectrum.

“I thought he was so great on Zoom, even though I was so far away; I was like, ‘Oh, this guy really sees me,'” said Johnson, who turned to Raiff and added, “You said you really like my work, and I was like, ‘Wha do you mean? Do you know me?’ I talked to Ro, and I said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

Raiff, displaying the comedic timing that is prevalent in his movies, deadpan, “I forget what I said.”

Johnson smiled at his co-star. “Yeah, you didn’t mean it. He was just saying so at the time.

Dakota Johnson (left) and Cooper Raiff of “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Kidding aside, being seen is now important to Johnson, 32. Stepping out from the shadow of famous parents is one thing; going beyond a popular film franchise is another. Johnson said she enjoyed the success of the “Fifty shades of Grey” trilogy, but the offers that have come his way since have been mostly disappointing.

So she set up her own production company, cutting her teeth by co-directing “Cry cry cry,” a music video for Coldplay (Johnson’s boyfriend Chris Martin is the frontman for the UK band). TeaTime’s release party was at the Sundance Film Festival in January, when “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and another Johnson-starring film — the LGBTQ-themed comedy-drama “Am I OK?” – made their world premieres.

Johnson said she felt like a natural producer.

“I realize that I really have a very collaborative work ethic,” she said. “I want to understand what everyone feels and wants, and I really want to do something together. I think Cooper works the same way. I understood that what he was doing was a huge task to write something, to star in it and to direct it. So I – and Ro – were there to support him on all of those levels. I think we balance each other out really well, and at any time there are really no bulls…”

Raiff added: “We all had plenty of room for each other – the three of us. Dakota was really protecting us.

Johnson replied, “I know how it feels to be unprotected. I think artists work 10 trillion times better when they feel safe.

Vanessa Burghardt (left) plays Dakota Johnson’s daughter in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” available Friday, June 17 on Apple TV+. Photo: AppleTV+

Johnson will continue to act as long as a project interests her – she can be seen in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ next month and will soon begin filming the Marvel movie ‘Madame Web’ – but said she was pleased with early results from TeaTime and is committed to producing her own work.

“I love doing my own movies with my business because I feel a sense of freedom,” Johnson said. ” I am delighted ; I’m going in a direction that feels right and fun to me. It may also be a form of rebellion, in a way. … I feel like having my company and deciding who gets into the movie – from the director to the producer to the costume designer – and the studio says, ‘No, we can’t do that’, and I go , “But we will”, makes me feel like a small act of resistance.

“But I feel like I can get to people’s hearts in a way that doesn’t go through an algorithm or something that’s worked before. It’s more truthful. I’m really interested in truth.

“Really Smooth Cha Cha” (R) is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Friday, June 17.


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