It can’t be easy, acting in a Fifty Shades Of Grey movie. The series has a way of neutralizing even its positive attributes. Fifty Shades Freed, for example, begins with a scene that should be catnip to actors playing well-established characters. Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is marrying Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) after two movies of on-and-off, whips-and-chains courtship, and they exchange vows in a series of intimate close-ups. Only after they kiss does the camera reveal that they’re at a lavish, well-attended ceremony. It’s rare that a movie jumps straight into a wedding scene and lets most of it play out on the actors’ faces, without any cheesy audience reaction shots or contextual scene-setting. But because this is a Fifty Shades movie, Dornan and Johnson are still trapped, unable to make the scene their own. The vows are cheesy, and the close-ups aren’t especially evocative.
Though the Shades movies are popular, it would be fair to question whether anyone is eagerly anticipating the next steps of these performers. Conventional wisdom dictates that the era of the movie star is over, and that true stars are now beloved characters, brands, and other bits of intellectual property, and Johnson and Dornan don’t seem like exceptions to this rule. She has been the lead in one non-Shades minor financial success (How To Be Single), and he hasn’t appeared in many other movies at all, let alone hits.
But for a film series like Fifty Shades of Grey, or its antecedent Twilight (it can never be stated often enough that the Shades books began their lives as actual Twilight fan-fiction), it’s hard to say that stars don’t matter. Fans may go to these movies to see Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele (which is to say, moneyed and nudity-prone variations on Edward Cullen and Bella Swan), but once actors are cast in those roles, they become yoked to it in a way that seems to matter more than who’s wearing Batman’s cowl or Spider-Man’s suit. Series like Fifty Shades and Twilight may lack a rudimentary understanding of what constitutes interesting human behavior or a story with any momentum, but there’s so little (sometimes experimentally little) going on in these movies that they direct attention to their actors for virtually their entire running times.
At first, the resulting movie careers may seem just as limited as an ex-superhero’s. The leads of Fifty Shades may be hard to typecast, per se, if only because the series’ combination of sex, stupidity, and little of note actually happening is such a rare one, but the movies do them few favors in terms of showing off their chops. Johnson fares better, especially in the first film, where she’s allowed more notes of self-effacing, lightly comic disbelief at the world of billionaire sex-curator Christian Grey. Throughout the trilogy, she’s at her best when she’s regarding her boyfriend-turned-husband with patient skepticism, like the contract negotiation sequence in the first film, or a scene early in Freed where she lazily expresses her incredulity over Christian’s insistence that she cover up while lounging by a pool where nearly every other woman is topless. Unfortunately, Johnson’s natural charm can only go so far to undermine the stalker-romance at the heart of the series, which ultimately defeats her. She has to sulk a lot in the first two movies, act extremely smug about their marriage in the third, and appear sexily agog at a stunning variety of flight-crafts in all three.
However hamstrung Johnson appears, Dornan has it worse. He’s speaking with a flat American accent, often a personality-muffler for British and Irish actors, and the movie’s attempts to physicalize his strange, sometimes remote magnetism are noticeably awkward. At one point in Freed, he strikes a tortured pose in the shower that makes him look like he’s shedding tears straight onto his penis. Much later, he embraces his mother like a blind man just waking up from a coma. He either can’t or, more likely, is not allowed to hint that Christian is anything less than a sex god with a heart of gold, presumably. Even his designated tortured weaknesses don’t register, because the character’s dickishness provides such a stifling lacquer over his performance. Possessive jealousy, playful romance, and distress over his crack-addict birth mother all have the same unnerving stiffness.
This all makes Johnson and Dornan sound mostly doomed hereafter, thrust into the spotlight by a series too terrible to give them what they need to succeed in other movies. But a series like Fifty Shades can still boost a movie star career, and not just by briefly shooting up a star’s asking price. By simple virtue of giving its stars so much screen time and dialogue, Fifty Shades gives its stars a particular image that’s harder to shake than simply removing a cowl. It also, like Twilight, gives them something recognizable to push back against, whether directly or indirectly.
Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, for example, has taken the direct-pushback route. He’s played remote weirdos for David Cronenberg, and scuzzed himself up so as to be less recognizably handsome (or at least less dreamy in the follicular department) in last year’s The Lost City Of Z (bushy beard) and Good Time (bleached hair). His post-stardom performances may actually play better with at least a passing knowledge of his Twilight work, whether they’re playing (intentionally or not) on his vampiric nature in Cosmopolis or Good Time, or demoting him from heartthrob to limo driver in Maps To The Stars.
Pattinson’s Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart has made a similarly indie-heavy lineup of movies after bidding farewell to the series that made her a household name, but she seems less concerned with leaving her Bella Swan mannerisms behind. Though she has played some parts that have little in common with Twilight, like the military grunt of Camp X-Ray, she’s rarely too far afield from her established persona: self-conscious yet sincere, hesitant and thoughtful, a little twitchy. In a movie like Personal Shopper, she’s even interacting with sometimes-sexualized fantastical elements (albeit a texting maybe-ghost instead of a forever-teenaged vampire). But the shift in context is so dramatic that her discomfort levels transform from tedious to emotionally open and endearing.
Based on some of her pre-Twilight work, it seems likely Stewart would have headed onto this path even without Bella Swan. But Twilight both established her persona on a mass level and got her bigger, better parts than she likely would have secured based only on her earlier bit roles and kid-actor parts. Twilight may have done some short-term damage to her critical reputation, but it eventually allowed her to bring distinctive, well-honed movie-star charisma (what is star power if not the acceptance of certain tics?) to indies like Certain Women and smaller-scale studio movies like Adventureland or American Ultra.
This doesn’t mean similarly notable careers await Johnson and Dornan. But Stewart and Pattinson do suggest how Fifty Shades could inform its stars’ future work without hindering it. Johnson isn’t as galvanizing (or polarizing) a presence as Stewart, but she’s already harnessed the sexuality she brought to Anastasia Steele and put it to better, murkier use in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash; she’s also in Guadagnino’s next movie, a long-gestating remake of Suspiria. In less heady environments, Anastasia’s post-college whirlwind of virginity loss, BDSM experimentation, and hasty marriage makes Johnson feel, by comparison, like a more engaging sorta-rom-com heroine in a lightweight picture like How To Be Single. This is partly because it’s a relief to see her play a character who is like Anastasia, but far more willing to explore the world beyond a billionaire’s glassed-in castle; it’s like another layer of fan-fiction, written by someone who cares if Anastasia has agency. Even in Fifty Shades itself, Johnson is most compelling when she pushes back, however softly, against the domineering fidelity of the material.
Figuring out where Dornan might excel in the movies is trickier (I haven’t seen his TV work). His best moments as Christian Grey allow this character with such a picture-perfect physique to look a little unguarded, even dorky. His solo piano performance of “Maybe I’m Amazed” in Fifty Shades Freed may garner some unintentional laughs, and it is kind of funny, but it’s one of the few moments where his Christian Grey actually does something charming, rather than aiming his laserlike gaze and turning it to full blast. Christian’s humorless, privileged, creepy intensity might turn out to be a gift for Dornan; if he ever proves himself even halfway adept at playing goofy, sweet, or deadpan, he’ll seem like he’s performed a miracle instead of fulfilled a basic romantic-lead task.
Dornan could also turn out to be the next Taylor Lautner, blankly trading on the general vibe of what he does in his hit film series to amusingly diminishing returns. If he and/or Johnson wind up with careers that resemble the best of their sexy vampire ancestors, though, all that time in the Fifty Shades red room may turn out to be well worth the bad reviews and smug speculation that they secretly hate each other. These days, most of the superhero movies that come down the pike are some combination of better-written, better-acted, and/or better-directed than the average Fifty Shades installment. But actors who hitch their star to superheroes sometimes wind up casting about for a replacement or supplemental franchise, or keeping their capes for as long as possible. More often than not, they make their stars look good, but they mostly prepare them to make more movies of that ilk. Series like Fifty Shades Of Grey and Twilight may be regressive in their gender politics and newfangled in their insistence on faithfully adapting books where very little happens, but as acting vehicles, they’re intriguingly old-fashioned. They take hold of their stars, then shove them out into the adult world.