The new darling of Netflix, Dakota Fanning has dodged the pitfalls of child acting, choosing challenging roles and landing squarely on her feet. By Noelle Faulkner. Styled by Natasha Royt. Photographed by Emma Summerton.
Perhaps it’s just clickbait, but it seems the more you look around, the more you become attuned to actors going method, being overtaken by their roles, getting lost in whatever emotional weight their character carries and their pains. We applaud the actors who go too far, I’m not saying they’re undeserving, but there’s something to be said for those who can take on the complexities of trying roles with a Teflon-like attitude. From age six, Dakota Fanning has been the latter. Whether she’s falling in love, being sexually abused on screen, committing a crime or dealing with death or mental illness, she’ll perform as if she’s lived it, but shrugs it away to the same tune: “It’s pretend.” It begs the question: is Dakota Fanning the most level-headed actress in Hollywood?
It’s just leading up to Christmas when we speak. Having escaped New York for the holidays, she is holed up in her parents’ Los Angeles home. As happens to busy people this time of year, Fanning has come down with a flu that reared its head as soon as she stopped. A sickness, she says she’s been fighting off all year due to pressing schedules, international travel and work. Having spent a good chunk of her last year in Budapest filming her first television series, The Alienist (now screening on Netflix), Fanning is enjoying a moment of down time. This year will see her star in Australian director Ben Lewin’s film Please Stand By (Australian release to be confirmed), make a small appearance in the all-female Ocean’s Eight, and continue her work to get an adaption of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar off the ground.
However, you could say that The Alienist is Fanning’s biggest project to date. The ambitious adaption of the Caleb Carr novel of the same name saw the 23-year-old dive headfirst into a project with a crew of strangers, in a foreign country, no less. “I was really scared before I went,” she admits. “Six months is a big chunk of your life. I didn’t know, nor had I ever met, anyone I was working with, and while I’d been to Budapest before, I didn’t know the city that well.” She lights up, her voice sparkling: “But it was one of the most pleasant surprises of my life. I was so comfortable; I learned to unwind and really enjoyed my life there. I sobbed hysterically when I had to leave!” She laughs. “I was trying to explain it to my mum, who wasn’t able to visit, but she just didn’t get it. She was like: ‘Well, glad you liked it.’” She laughs again.
A crime drama set in the late 1800s, surrounding a series of young male killings, The Alienist sees Fanning take on the strong but delicate role of Sara, a glass ceiling-smashing secretary-cum-detective, and stars alongside Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans. The project is co-produced by a stellar team, including director Jakob Verbruggen (Black Mirror, The Fall, House of Cards), Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Jane Eyre), Oscar winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, House of Cards) and nominee Hossein Amini (Drive, Two Faces of January), so Fanning is in primo producing hands.
“Television has become an amazing place; I feel like I’m watching more TV than I am movies at the moment,” she says. “So it was something I was completely open to, I just hadn’t found the right project. I was not familiar with the book, but the more I mentioned it, people would say like: ‘Oh my God, the book is so good!’ When I read these scripts and the character, it just started to feel right.” She adds: “I’m such a planner. I like a routine, I like a schedule, and I’m in completely the wrong profession for that personality type,” she says, laughing. “So much is out of your control and changes on a whim. So it brought me some peace, in a way, knowing this is what I’m going to do for the next six months.”
Fanning joins the extensive list of major actors making the switch from film to TV lately. No longer the B-grade medium of the industry, there is actually more to it than a hefty pay packet: accessibility, a distribution politics bypass. As an actor, the idea that your character can unfold week by week, reveal a piece of itself to as many screens as possible around the globe, is tempting. Working with a budget and talent that ensures a feature-film-quality patina? The cherry on top. “There is something so exciting about TV,” she nods. “The way things are now, certain films will only screen in certain theatres and countries, and people might not even know they exist. So it’s something really cool for me to know that this show is going to be available every day and reach more people in their own homes. ”
From the young daughter of a mental-illness sufferer to an overtly sexualised teen, a jailbait rock star, leukaemia patient, victim of sexual assault, environmental protestor, child bride, criminal on the lam, mute fearing for her life, unwashed political activist hiding in the underground, escaped clone, young autistic, and the hunted prey of an Arctic monster … create a shortlist of Fanning’s most interesting roles (she’s appeared in more than 45 films) and you’ll see that she’s certainly done a lot of running, but also chooses characters with layers of complexity. From the age of six, Fanning has been picking up these tough characters and experiencing life through them vicariously – how has it not made her go insane?
“[There’s] a boundary, and I’ve always said or thought this in the back of my mind: maybe it’s because I started when I was younger, but it’s all make-believe,” she says. “It’s like: ‘Oh, I’m going to go pretend to do this.’ As I’ve gotten older, the boundaries have always been clear and that’s stayed with me. So I still am just like: ‘Oh, I pretended that happened to me.’” She pauses. “It’s also important to remember that just because you acted something doesn’t make you actually know what it’s like.”
Fanning adds that making a point of under-thinking things helps her to keep her mental health in check; the opposite, she says, leads to insecurity and a tendency to get overwhelmed. “This is not just particular to being an actor or being in the entertainment industry,” she says. “You can make yourself insane thinking about all the possible outcomes of the what-ifs, the should-ofs … It’s just like an endless, endless hole, and I just … can’t. So all those parts, I never really thought about them as that. There was just something about the project or about the character that I was like: ‘Oh, that’s cool’ or: ‘Oh, I want to do that. I want to be the one who gets to say that!’”
She’s been a working actor since kindergarten (just like her younger sister, Elle), so one has to ask how has she navigated the rocky path of cliches that many child actors trip over. “I still don’t know how to answer this,” she says. “I think because I’ve always maintained that I never felt that I was entitled to anything because I did movies. I guess that comes from my mum. It took her years and years to admit that we lived in Los Angeles. When people were like: ‘Oh, where do you live?’, her answer was always: ‘We’re from Georgia, we live in Georgia, we’re just out here doing this for some film Dakota is doing for a little while.’ There was no: ‘We’re moving to Hollywood so Dakota can be an actress!’” Which arguably says more about Fanning and her family’s down-to-earth way of raising spotlit children more than anything else. “I just never wanted to make too big of a mistake that jeopardised what I love doing,” she adds thoughtfully. “There can be other reasons that it goes away – nothing is ever guaranteed. But, I never wanted it to be taken away from me because I had made a really bad decision, you know? And I’m also really scared of my mum and didn’t want to get in trouble or disappoint anybody.” What a woman Mrs Fanning must be.
The actress also maintains that she never experienced any of the dark clouds that have been hovering over Hollywood, insisting she was never sexualised as a young star, or at least if it happened in the media, wasn’t privy to it. Even when she fronted a controversial Marc Jacobs campaign at 17, which was criticised for sexualising a minor, she paid no notice. “There are much more important things to talk about than what I’m wearing or not wearing,” she says. “It’s a waste of energy. I’d done things with Marc Jacobs before and [photographer] Juergen Teller is a friend of mine and when somebody tried to pollute that, I was just like: ‘You’re not going to take this away from me. This is so cool. It’s girlie and pretty and I can wear that I want. If you’re being creepy, then you have the problem.’”
One of the few actors her age who has managed fame and privacy for as long as she has, Fanning didn’t jump on to social media right away, worried she’d reveal too much, make mistakes or disappoint her future self. “I remember sitting in a class in high school looking at our phones and Instagram had just come out,” she says. “My friend was like: ‘You’ve got to get on Instagram.’ I never had a Facebook or Twitter or anything, because I was always afraid. What was I going to put up? I didn’t want other people to see my stuff. It’s changed now, but I feel I got to go through some of those true teenage years before things entered the craziness level they are at now. Even though they were kind of crazy then, I feel like things have just taken such a bigger turn.”
And then there’s dating, which Fanning despises – preferring to either be all in or all out. The former is where she’s currently at, or rather, “happily not single”, but not dating “a public person”. “I’ve always sort of dated somebody a little bit removed,” she says, her most notable relationship in recent years with model Jamie Strachan, 13 years her senior. “I see the whirlwind of [famous] people dating [famous] people and it just looks so intense,” she says.
How exactly does one navigate dating when your entire childhood, adolescence, early adulthood and literally everything you’ve ever said in public is accessible? Especially for a self-confessed over-thinker? Fanning breaks into a sweet laugh. “Hey, I’ve done it! I swear, when it comes to Instagram, my stalking abilities are unparalleled. I can find out anything, I really can. I have a private account for my stalking.” She cracks up again. “But it would weird me out if someone started talking about all that stuff. It’s like: ‘Okay, look it up for your own personal knowledge bank, just don’t tell me you have!’” Celebrities, they’re just like us.
It’s hard to believe that someone so young and so accomplished still carries the hunger for her craft, but you get the feeling Fanning is turning a corner right now, and landing exactly where she’s meant to be. “I want to feel settled personally and professionally,” she shrugs. “I feel most settled when I’m consistently working. I want to direct more and, personally, I can’t wait to be a mum. I can’t wait to get married. Not yet, but those things are very important to me and I think about them.”
Fanning will turn 24 on February 23, marking what she refers to as her “make-believe age”: the number that’s always been her age when playing dress-ups. “When we would play around the house when I was younger, we would all pretend to be 24,” she reveals, laughing warmly. “It didn’t sound too young, and it didn’t sound too old, and so I’m finally getting to be 24, which is weird. It’s always the age I’ve pretended to be.”