DAKOTA FANNING was just five years old and living with her parents and one-year-old sister in the small town of Conyers, Georgia, when, as she tells it, she and her mother had a heart-to-heart regarding her proto–movie star career trajectory. In the end they came to what she describes as a mutual decision: to move from their home, 20 miles southeast of Atlanta—where they were part of an athletic extended clan, and practicing Southern Baptists—to Los Angeles, where the only things anybody worships are fame and box office loot. There she would see if she could build on the success she had had being standout cute in community theater.
Which might sound a bit implausible if it weren’t coming from Fanning, who is a lively, confident, and apparently quite undamaged 20-year-old woman, despite growing up on the big and small screens. What five-year-old is that methodical in pursuing her ambitions? Surely her parents pushed her to perform, at least subliminally? Her mother Joy is a former professional tennis player who majored in fashion merchandising and who, by Dakota’s own accounting, gave up everything for her daughter. Her father Steven is a former minor league baseball player. So, at least from afar, they seem to fit the bill of the cliché of living vicariously through their children, for there are two stars in the family: Dakota and her fashion plate younger sister, Elle (who is appearing in Maleficent this summer).
But no, Dakota insists, a bit impatiently, it was all basically her idea. “It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t know me as a child,” she says, looking me right in the eye. “But even before I started working—when I was two, three, four, five—I was an exceptionally mature child. I just was. And my mom and I were able to have conversations like, ‘Do you want to go to California and go to auditions for commercials and TV shows? Is that something you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a try.’ “
I’ve met Dakota at one of her favorite restaurants, Lovely Day, a few blocks from New York University, where she is attending the Gallatin School for Individualized Study. She arrived early, as if to stake her claim, and already knows what she wants: vegetable dumplings and brown rice. I’ve been catching up on my Individualized Dakota Studies for the past couple of weeks, streaming some of the 26 feature films she has done (in addition to TV shows, shorts, and video game voiceovers), and I was struck by her preternatural dignity and grace—even way back in 2000, when she played the straight-shooting Lucy Diamond Dawson in I Am Sam, her star-making turn at the age of six. But there was a guarded quality, too, a wariness that has something to do with those pensive, headlamp eyes, the ones that get compared to Bette Davis’s, the ones that made her seem like an “old soul” to Steven Spielberg, who directed her in the 2005 movie War of the Worlds.
Other than some nervous scribbling on the red paper sleeve her chopsticks came in, Fanning has that same assessing, unshellacked demeanor as she sits across from me. What’s surprising is the tinkling blurt of a laugh—actually a wide variety of wonderfully expressive laughs, almost a language in themselves, from skeptical giggle to full-on guffaw. I get one of the latter when I mention the Bette Davis comparisons; she tilts her chin up, pulls her face taught, and bugs out her eyes in a demented impression of the screen legend. For an actress who tends to avoid comedy on screen, it’s startlingly funny.
Perception and reality are often at odds in Hollywood. On Saturday Night Live Amy Poehler did the recurring sketch “The Dakota Fanning Show,” in which she played the actress as a wound-up, supercilious brat. It was amusing, if also a projection fantasy based on Fanning’s grown-up self-presentation. I kept thinking, talking to her, that she’s 20 going on 35. But as a result of people’s assumptions, she’s in the curious position of disproving the preconceived notion that she’s a needy, know-it-all ingenue.
Kelly Reichardt, the director of this year’s Night Moves, a spare, dark indie film about youthful eco-terrorists played by Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg, assumed the worst. “I always worry with our kind of filmmaking. We don’t have a lot of extras or the means to spoil anybody,” she says. The movie was filmed in Oregon, and Reichardt and crew were staying at a Comfort Inn right off the expressway in Medford (which locals call Methford). She intended to put Fanning up in the more picturesque town of Ashford, and rented her a car. But Fanning said she didn’t need the car and moved into the Comfort Inn with everybody else. “We worked weird hours and late at night, and I’d see Dakota walking to Taco Bell.”
Would Fanning want her own children to be actors? “The only reason I wouldn’t is that I know how much work it took from my mom: driving me to auditions every day all over the city, making sure I had the right thing to wear,” she says. “I am the person I am because my mom put that energy into me to make sure that I was not going crazy and that people weren’t taking advantage of me. I plan on having a career, so if I couldn’t dedicate that time to my children, I wouldn’t.”
Perhaps not. But it could be that, for all Fanning’s maturity, she is too young to have figured out that if her children wanted to be actors there’s not a lot she could do about it. Like anyone her age—and despite a career much further along than those of her friends—she is still trying to figure out just what her seemingly limitless future might hold. She chose to enroll at Gallatin because it allows her to study independently as she keeps acting. The school’s flexibility lets her explore, with an adviser, what interests her. (Surprise, surprise: Fanning is a self-starter in college, too.) Her self-directed major is, loosely, a study of women in the entertainment industry. When I tell her this seems pretty meta to me, she agrees: “I’m obviously a woman in film, a part of this industry. I didn’t want to stop working to go to school, and I didn’t want to not go to school, so I thought that if I had them inform each other it would be interesting.”
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