Dakota Johnson and Leslie Mann reject the rom-com label for ‘How to Be Single’

Leslie Mann, seated, and Dakota Johnson in “How to Be Single.”
Leslie Mann, seated, and Dakota Johnson in “How to Be Single.”
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Yes, it’s a comedy. And, yes, romance is involved.

But don’t call the new film “How to Be Single,” which opens Friday in time for Valentine’s Day, a romantic comedy (or its familiar abbreviation, a rom-com).

“I feel like it’s a tiny bit sexist and gets applied to movies that women are in,” said Dana Fox, who co-wrote the screenplay for the Warner Bros. film. “The classic rom-com is not what this movie is about. It’s about everything else but that. It’s a comedy about what it means to be single in a very weird time to be single.”

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Dakota Johnson and Leslie Mann, who star in the film along with Rebel Wilson and Alison Brie, agreed that “How to Be Single” defies easy classification.

“There’s not the typical guy-meets-girl, it-doesn’t-work-out-but-then-it-does story line,” noted Johnson, best known to film fans as the love interest Anastasia Steele in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” “It’s about the relationships between sisters and best friends and old loves and what the real story is when you’re single.”

“And about what that period of time in your life is like when people used to think that they had to go to college and find a man, then get married and have kids,” said Mann, who joined Johnson for the interview. “This movie is saying you need to enjoy that time you have when you’re single, and there’s no pressure to get married right away.”

Added Johnson: “And it’s OK to take the time to cultivate your personality only for yourself.”

“How to Be Single” centers on a new college graduate named Alice (Johnson) who breaks off her four-year relationship to explore what life has to offer in New York City. Once she arrives in the Big Apple, her party-girl coworker Robin (Wilson) vows to teach her how to be single. Mann plays Alice’s sister, Meg, who is on the fast track in her career as an OB-GYN. But she’s feeling qualms about not being married or having children and fears that her time is running out.


The film also stars Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm and Jason Mantzoukas as some of the men who come into the women’s lives.

It’s about the relationships between sisters and best friends and old loves and what the real story is when you’re single.

— Dakota Johnson

The script for the film is, in part, inspired by Fox’s life and that of the women and men around her. Her goal while writing was to be authentic about dating in an app-based world where cultural pressure often dictates romantic encounters.

“Society forces you to rush through [being single] because there is a stigma attached to it,” she said. “But married life changes you. You wish you were back in [the single life] when you’re not in it, and when you’re in it, you just want to be out of it. We should look at being single as something that is fun, and you should cherish it.”

Johnson, who describes herself as a person “who tends to be in long-term relationships,” said that Alice’s single life was “not my vibe” but that she enjoyed the challenge of “lending a hand to the exploration Alice has.”

The comedy-based role was a welcome change for Johnson after the drama (both on-screen and off-screen) of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and her small role in the Whitey Bulger film “Black Mass.” She enjoyed returning to her comedic roots seen most recently in the short-lived series “Ben and Kate.” And being paired up with Mann, a veteran actress best known for comedies directed by her husband, Judd Apatow, including “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” made for a memorable bedroom scene and liberating experience overall, the duo said.


“It really makes a difference when you have an emotional connection with the person you’re working with,” Johnson said. “Like, I love her so much and I was able to do so many more things. You feel understood and then capable…”

“And free,” Mann said.

But the question remains, how does one be single? Don’t expect a cut-and-dried answer from the film or its leading ladies.

“I both crave and fear emotional intimacy, so I really can’t answer that question,” said Johnson, looking to Mann.

“I don’t know anything most of the time. So I can’t answer that question,” said Mann, who’s been married to Apatow for almost 20 years and has two children. “We’d sound like idiots if we did pretend to have an answer to that. It’s an individual thing, and everybody does things differently, but maybe you can take some of the pressure off of yourself and enjoy the time before you commit to something, or you don’t.

Mann’s advice: “Enjoy being single. Don’t waste that time moving on to the next thing.”