If only Dakota Fanning had been a bratty, entitled nightmare of a diva. Then, oh, what a story we might have spun, of a child star all grown up and running amok. Certainly our setting—a marble- and mirror-surface-filled private home perched high in Beverly Hills with panoramic views of a hazy Los Angeles below—was perfect for telling a cautionary tale of a youth spent in the spotlight.
But, instead, this 22-year-old actress had the audacity to arrive not only on time but early, quietly letting herself in half an hour before her call time, no entourage in sight, a camel-coloured coat draped over her shoulders and bare-faced save for a pair of round sunnies. “Hey!” she said with a smile, voice a little bit morning rough, to the surprised staffer who ran into her in the vestibule. “Where do you need me to go?”
And so it went—an easy, relaxed day in the California sunshine with a good-humoured young woman who was just plain chill, conjuring up the sort of vocabulary every journalist looking for a juicy story dreads: normal, well adjusted, professional and genuinely lovely. The worst part? Later that day, Fanning even half-
apologized for her impeccable behaviour. “Every interview I do is like, ‘Why aren’t you doing those bad things?’ and I’m like, ‘Sorry! I don’t know why!’” she said when asked if she feels like she dodged a bullet, growing up so “normal” after being a child star. She laughed as she said it, her manner hilariously overapologetic, but there was also a very real frustration behind her answer.
“People want that to happen to you, though; I’ve grown up with that energy around me,” she said, propping her feet on the table out on the patio at day’s end. “I just feel that when people like that crack, people go ‘Ha ha! You cracked!’…but, you know, maybe they might not have if you’d just let them be. Personally, for me, it was never going to go that way. Number one, my mom would have kicked my ass! Forget the public—she’s the person who crosses my mind before I do anything questionable. It’s like, ‘No, my mom would kill me!’”
Fanning, who was born in the American South but mostly grew up in L.A., was clearly genuinely disturbed by the head-craning-at-a-car-crash ill will she felt (and still feels, to an extent) as an adolescent growing up in the public eye. “Because I hadn’t gone in the…I hate to say ‘wrong’ but, like, that ‘other’ path, they kept asking me, trying to force me to go down it. And I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m good.’”
We’d say she’s more than fine. After hitting the big time as an astonishingly talented seven-year-old in I Am Sam, Fanning hasn’t really stopped working since. She has three films—Brimstone, Viena and the Fantomes and American Pastoral (more on this later)—doing the festival circuit this fall alone and a spate of upcoming projects that stretch into 2018. And while she didn’t give us the gory revelations of a broken little girl lost, Fanning was a surprise of an entirely more edifying sort: articulate, passionate and really funny, candidly chatting about everything from her future children, her career, her relationship with her equally famous little sister…and, of course, reflecting on why going from a child to an adult in the spotlight didn’t turn her into an insecure, self-destructive wreck.
You’ve basically grown up on camera—doing movies, photo shoots, etc. What effect has that had on how you feel about yourself appearance-wise? “I don’t think it’s had much of an effect. I think of myself as a confident person. Of course, everyone has things they wish they could change—anyone who says they don’t is a big liar! But when you’re acting, if you’re doing it for the right reasons, it’s about so much more than the way you look.”
What shakes your confidence then? “God, that’s hard! [Silence] Well, sometimes I’m quite scared of public speaking, so I have to put on a brave face for that. Anything that’s live…which brings me to the fact that I’ve never done theatre. It’s because I’m scared of it, which is probably why I should do it. And I will one day—I just want it to be the right thing. But I think that it will really throw me for a loop. I paused before I answered because I don’t like doing things that shake my confidence.”
Everyone has a weak spot, right? “I’m a very literal person, very factual. I’m very pragmatic. Sometimes I’m afraid I come off as a know-it-all. And it’s not that! It’s more like, ‘You’ve got it wrong; let me tell you the right thing.’ I sometimes pull that back because I know it gets annoying.”
But it’s kind of a public service, sort of? “I think that’s what know-it-alls say to make themselves feel better!”
Do you ever Google yourself? “Anyone who says they never have is also a big liar.”
Are you aware that the number three result for you is an article titled “Why you never hear about Dakota Fanning anymore”? “That’s hilarious! No, no, no. I’ve never necessarily gone anywhere, but my career has been going for 16 years now, you know? You go through ebbs and flows and changes—it would be impossible to saturate everywhere all the time, and I don’t think anyone would want that. I wouldn’t want that.”
Did you ever go through a wobbly period in your career, in that weird transition from child to adult actor? “There was a period when it felt like people weren’t going to let me grow up. And for a minute, I thought, ‘I can either let this define my life and be about trying to prove something to people, or I can forget about it and just let it happen naturally, and people can get on the train or not.’ I guess I could have gone and done bad things to prove I’m old enough to do them, but I didn’t need to do that. I started at six and now I’m almost 23—that’s a couple of lifetimes!”
Do you feel like you’re entering a new phase right now? You’re about to graduate from New York University with a women’s studies degree…. “In the fall, I’m in my last year credits-wise. I’ve never taken any semesters off, but there were some when I’ve taken one class. I’m studying the portrayal of women in film.”
That’s kind of a hot topic in 2016, when we’re talking about things like the gender-wage gap in the movie industry. “It’s frustrating that you still have to talk about it. As part of my school, I’ve studied lots of different periods, and if you go back to, like, The Taming of the Shrew, it’s talking about the disparity between genders, and it’s crazy that we still haven’t cracked that.”
Is that something you’ve experienced in your own working life? “Definitely. I’m producing [a film version of] The Bell Jar, which is one of the most famous novels of all time and one of the greatest feminist pieces of literature. It has taken such a long time to get it made, and having to explain h why it would be interesting…it’s like, I don’t even know how to answer that question. It’s The Bell Jar—what are you talking about? Why would it not be? I hate having to explain why it’s important to make films about women. I’ve experienced a little of that, and I’m sure things that I don’t even know about have happened to me. I remember realizing that being a girl meant a different thing than being a boy, and I wasn’t raised like that. I don’t believe in that!”
So what is the Dakota Fanning philosophy of life? “I am a woman, and I’m very proud of that. I love men. I believe all human beings are equal and should be treated accordingly. I try not to worry about things, and I always say to myself that one day what you’re experiencing will be a memory.”
This too shall pass…. “Exactly! I do try to remember that the things that feel life shattering or defining or like you have to figure them out right now, one day you’ll look back on it and it will have worked out and you’ll have come out on the other side. It’s weird because as I’ve gotten older, anxiety has crept more into my life. I think it comes with the lifestyle of an actor, because sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to be and you can’t make plans. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt more of a desire to have roots. Sometimes I feel like I’m constantly waiting, like I’m in this holding pattern for something, and I have to knock myself on the head and say ‘This is it, you’re in it, you’re en route!’”
You’re definitely not alone in that. We live in a very anxious age! “I wake up in the night all the time. I’m a list person, and sometimes it’s as simple as ‘Unload the dishwasher,’ but I need to get it out of my brain for my own sanity. It’s not about the existential stuff for me; it’s about ridiculous things, like packing. Like, I have to call my mom or my best friend and they tell me ‘You’re going to live another day!’”
Do you see your life going anywhere in particular? “Working is a big part of who I am, and it’s really important to me. I’m working toward being a better actor, challenging myself more. Personally, my biggest goal in life is to be a mother. I’m really looking forward to that, and I want to get to a place where I feel like I’ve accomplished what I want for myself, and then when I have my kids, I don’t matter anymore. Not that I would ever stop working, I don’t think, but I know that changes when you experience having kids. And I’m not saying that you don’t matter when you have kids, but it’s like, ‘Phew, this is what’s important, none of that matters.’ But that’s not for a while.”
So there’s nothing you want to announce…. [Laughs] “No! I’m definitely looking forward to it. I guess when I’ve thought about the person I want to become, having kids and becoming a mother is the ultimate thing. And it’s not that for everybody, but for me, I think it is.”
I think a lot of young women would be afraid to say that. “I agree! I do think that sometimes young women now feel like saying that means that they’re just turning into a housewife. And if that’s what you want, great, but if you don’t, it’s not what becoming a mother has to mean.”
Often, it still feels like a choice—motherhood or a career. “I’m not there, so I don’t know if I will feel like I have to make a choice. But I would like to think you can try to have some sort of balance. So stay tuned for that. It’s TBD.”
One of the movies you have coming out this fall is American Pastoral, which is based on a Philip Roth novel about a middle-class young woman in the ’60s who blows up a post office. Would you call her a terrorist? “It’s set when the Vietnam War was the biggest topic, and everyone, young people especially, felt like they had to do something to make their voice heard. I’d like to call her more than that word.”
So what would you call her? “A radical. A person who is flawed.”
Is there anything you’re that passionate about? Not that you’d ever blow up a post office, but…. “I can rule that out. That is not TBD. That is a hard fact. I do work with a charity called Save the Children, which deals with early education and childhood development. I’m super-passionate about that, but I will stick to helping in a rational manner!”
Your younger sister, Elle, is also in the movie business. What’s it been like watching her career take off? “It’s cool! We definitely stay out of each other’s way. We don’t really talk about it. I think we’ll appreciate it when we’re older because it’s rare to have two people grow up in the same house who also do the same thing—so you have that automatic understanding of your childhood and you have that other understanding [of your work]. But, at the end of the day, she is totally my little sister—that’s just what she is.”
She’s family. “That’s the thing. I talk to my mom every single day, and I feel like if I’ve talked to my mom, I’ve talked to everybody. My sister and I, we go for long stretches of time where we don’t meaningfully ‘talk’—we maybe chat or whatever—but that doesn’t mean we can’t. We jump right into it, like no time has passed. We’re sisters, we’re family, and we don’t have to keep up our relationship. It is just there and always will be.”
Are there any preconceived notions about who Dakota Fanning is that you’d like to clear up? “People think I’m younger! [Laughs] People think of me as a good girl, which I am, but I have other sides to me. I am also goofy and weird and I make mistakes. I am mature, but I’m also normal. I think that’s something I want people to know. But the other side of it is: I don’t actually care. I care about the opinions of my friends and my family, and everything else is like, ‘If you get it, you get it; if you don’t, you don’t.’ What am I going to do about it? Look at my Instagram. If you still don’t like me, whatever. Everyone is so into everyone’s business. It’s like, leave that person alone. Leave me alone! Why do you care? It has nothing to do with you. Go live your life the way you want. Let me live mine.”
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