Dakota Fanning's Guide to Growing Up in Hollywood: On Acting, Aging and Leaving Child Stardom Behind

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Photo: Getty Images
"I didn't stay quiet, I don't think," Dakota Fanning considers, before deadpanning far more certainly, "I don't think I've ever stayed quiet in my entire life." I've just asked Fanning, 23, if she went method for her latest film, the grueling Western drama, Brimstone. Not that it's particularly easy to picture the actress being the type of nightmare that mails her co-stars used condoms or refuses to break character while texting or whatever staying in character might inspire here, with Fanning playing an old-timey prostitute on the run from retribution. (Stabbing Guy Pearce because he took the last bag of Doritos at craft services?) More so, the question was whether the challenge of playing mute (her character's tongue is cut out as a result of a series of truly unfortunate events that play out in the film—out now) necessitated that Fanning remain silent on set. "Oh, no! No way!" she exclaims, letting out a high-pitched laugh. "Not possible."
"Obviously words are a necessary part of making a film and a necessary part of acting, but they can provide sometimes a bigger challenge," Fanning says. "You're saying lines that have been written by someone else and sometimes they can feel funny in your mouth. But they have to be said. And that's your job, to figure out a way to make them work. I actually found this-- obviously challenging, but I was really excited by it."
Photo: Momentum Pictures
Fanning calls from Budapest, where she is filming TNT's upcoming series, The Alienist, and where she shot parts of Brimstone in 2015. "It was definitely a little bleak when I was here for Brimstone," she muses. Her role in the R-rated Western feels exceedingly adult, but not calculatedly so, according to Fanning, who rebuffs the idea of signing on to specific projects to distance herself from her child star beginnings. (Like 2007's Hounddog, which flippantly became known as the "Dakota Fanning rape movie.")
"That would be making choices to prove something to other people and I don't think you should ever make a choice for those reasons," she says. "I've always wanted to do something because it felt right to me and I felt that I was doing it for the right reason. And that wouldn't be the right reason. That would be making choices to make other people happy or to change perception, and that's just always felt disingenuous to me."
Instead, Dakota Fanning's Guide to Growing Up in Hollywood is as follows: Let the natural and unavoidable passing of time slowly, year by year, take its inevitable toll.
"I am now 23, and that's just a fact," she says nonchalantly. "If somebody is really attached to the film Man on Fire, and they kind of see me as that character-- I happened to be nine in that film, but that's OK. Like, you know, that's all right! It doesn't, like...make me upset!" She giggles and adds, pragmatically, "Everyone sees things differently and sees people in a different way. I've come to a place of like, I accept that."
"I never want to come across as being ashamed of anything that I did when I younger or being young or anything like that," she goes on, "you know?"
Dakota was the prototype of sorts for the Fanning Child Star Factory (her younger sister is 18-year-old Elle Fanning, star of Super 8 and, recently, 20th Century Women) but the family nailed it on the first go, with their eldest daughter specializing in portrayals of precocious children with rich inner lives in films like I Am Sam and then War of the Worlds. The former earned Fanning a Screen Actors Guild Award at the age of seven, the latter an MTV Movie Awards nomination for Best Frightened Performance. "When I was younger, I kept doing this because I found it fun," she remembers. "It made me happy. I think that I still approach what I do with a very childlike spirit. That hasn't changed. I don't do what I do for any of the other stuff that comes with being an actor. I really do it for the experience of making work and actually being on set. That's what I live for. That's where I've always felt most myself."
"Obviously I've grown up and learned and matured and, of course, I see things differently—obviously—but I think I still approach it with that kind of wonderful...I don't know. Naivety is the wrong word..." As if with a shrug, she decides, "I approach it from the place I always have, of just pure love."
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Fanning has since aged into playing a myriad of different women with rich inner lives—in Brimstone, the American West tale of Biblical proportions (both in running time and some Genesis-level incest stuff), but also in The Runaways as rock 'n' roller Cherie "C-C-C-Cherry Bomb" Currie, in The Twilight Saga as a centuries-old member of the undead Illuminati, in last year's American Pastoral, as a teenage political terrorist. Fanning doesn't over-analyze each IMDb credit ("I don't think about myself or my work as, like, whether the thing is good or not") but only wants to find truth in her work and good people to work with.
"Kind people," she emphasized. "It takes a lot of vulnerability to make a movie or show or whatever. You really have to be vulnerable and raw, so working with people that are kind and nice and make it a good experience, that's also really important -- besides just finding challenging material [and] continuing to take myself out of my comfort zone in some way with each role that I do. I think that's all I've ever really asked for."
Fanning next appears in Ocean's Eight—yes, Dakota Fanning is also in Ocean's Eight—and a new take on The Bell Jar, meaning she'll be spending a good portion of the year amongst the likes of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway for the caper, as well as Kirsten Dunst, who is set to direct The Bell Jar with Fanning producing. "It's so exciting to be a part of female-driven projects. I love being around other cool ladies," Fanning tells me. "It's fun to be around women that you look up to, women that you admire, women that inspire you."
She's just not, strictly speaking, looking for anyone's guidance.
"I've only been given, like, a few direct pieces of advice in my life," Fanning says. "Usually, I learn by watching people, by observing them work, observing their personalities, [and] the way they interact with other people. That's where I've gotten my 'advice' from. I'm a watcher. And I said that I talk a lot—and that's true for people that really know me—but I'm actually a quiet observer at first, until I feel comfortable." She laughs, "And then I don't stop talking."