The fabulous Fannings—Dakota and Elle—on fame at 6, couture shows at 13, and their shared obsession with reality TV.
Lynn Hirschberg: Elle, since Somewhere, in which you played the only child of a male movie star, you have been very busy: costarring in Super 8, which was a hit this summer, and in We Bought a Zoo, which is in theaters December 23. You’re 13—how has your life changed since Somewhere?
Elle Fanning: After Somewhere came out, people started to recognize me more. Whenever I was walking down the street, they’d be like, “Oh, wow—are you Elle Fanning?” Before Somewhere, they asked me if I was Dakota Fanning, because we looked alike, and I’d say, “No, I’m her younger sister.” And they’d say, “Oh, okay.” But now I think they are starting to realize I’m my own person.
I’m an older sister, and my sister is always telling me how difficult it is to be a younger sister. But Dakota seems like a nice older sister.
She is a nice older sister. But it’s not like we always get along. Now that she’s going to college, it’s different. I went into her room at home in California, and all her clothes were gone! Her closet was empty! I don’t get to go in there and steal clothes anymore. It’s really strange. It’s sort of like she’s off making a movie, but this time she’s not coming back.
Your first part was playing Dakota as an infant in I Am Sam. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you played the young Cate Blanchett.
I was 9 years old during Benjamin Button. I had to wear a long red wig because [Cate] had red hair in the movie. I remember that. I had a great time on set. The director did a lot of takes, and he would say, “Take 50,” and I would just go do it again. I was only 9, so I thought that was fun.
Super 8 looks like it was exciting to make—the kids were the stars of the movie.
It was great! I was 12 when I did Super 8, and when Dakota was 12, she did War of the Worlds. Steven Spielberg was involved with both movies, so we both worked with Steven when we were 12.
You have kind of a love scene in Super 8. Were you nervous?
I didn’t have to kiss him. But it was a boy-girl scene, and we had to like each other in the movie. All the other boys made fun of us because we had to like each other. Did you have trouble pretending there was a monster about to attack you?
When we were filming, J.J. [Abrams, the director] would say, “The monster is right there,” and we’d be looking at a little dot on a pole. That’s it, that’s the monster—and we’d have to be afraid of it. We didn’t know what the monster was going to look like. J.J. kept that a secret from us throughout the movie. We were all probably imagining something different. It was fun going to the first screening and finally seeing the monster. That was the first time I saw what I was screaming at.
Are you still taking ballet?
Yes, five days a week. That’s something I always try to keep on my schedule. I would love to do a musical! Dakota did The Runaways, so she got to sing in that one.
Do you watch Dancing With the Stars? That’s my guilty pleasure.
Sometimes. We watch a lot of reality TV. My sister and I record Big Brother. We’re obsessed! And we love old game shows like Password and the original Family Feud. Also, me and my sister watch Criminal Minds. We record every episode, and we watch it every single night.
My sister likes psychology, and they really get into the mind of the killers.
Maybe you should do a guest spot.
I’ve been on Criminal Minds twice! On the first show, a boy brought kids out to the woods and was beating them with a baseball bat, but I got away. Then they brought Tracy, my character, back—as a kidnapped girl. They saved me two times! Tracy lived!
I know it was your dream to go to Paris, and you were invited to the Chanel couture show in July. Did Paris live up to your expectations?
Oh, yes! When I found out that I was invited to the Chanel show—that was the loudest I’ve ever screamed in my life. That was the best day of my life. It was my first fashion show, and I know every model by name. I go on Style.com and look at all the shows. It was just the best experience ever! And, of course, we did some sightseeing. We went to the Eiffel Tower at night. It was sparkling.
So, are you happiest when you are working or in Paris?
I would be the happiest you would ever see me if I got to film a movie in Paris. That would be everything!
Lynn Hirschberg: Dakota, you just moved to New York from Los Angeles to attend NYU. Why did you decide to go to college?
Dakota Fanning: For the same reasons I wanted to go to a high school: You hear people say, “Oh, when I was in high school” or “When I was in college.” That defines a lot of who people are, and I didn’t want to miss out on that.
Are you living on your own, or do you have roommates?
No roommates. Because I’m only 17, my mom is staying with me in my apartment for a little bit. She’s teaching me how to wash clothes and such. But I’m so excited to be on my own. In my house in L.A., we all feel that everything is everybody’s, and so doors are never really closed. My sister and I share a bathroom, and when you have a sibling, nothing is actually your own. I’ve never really had anything or any place that was just mine.
Have you bought your first couch?
About the only thing I don’t have is a couch! That’s the hardest thing about furnishing the apartment. I’m trying out a couch and thinking, Is this where I want to watch my shows? Am I comfortable enough here? The couch has been a bit of an ordeal! [Laughs.]
Your first film was I Am Sam, opposite Sean Penn. You were 6. On the first day of work, you had all your lines memorized, and he started to improvise.
And I thought, Okay, that’s what it’s going to be like. There was no other choice. I think he said, “Knock, knock,” which was not in the script. I said, “Uh…who’s there?” [Laughs.] And, yeah, that’s what it was like. It definitely prepared me for the future. At other times, in other movies, actors would go off script and kind of test me like, Ah—maybe she’s not going to be able to reply. And I already knew how to be ready for anything.
That’s a hard lesson to learn at 6! Have you ever been intimidated on set?
I played the young Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama when I was 7, and the boy who played the young Josh Lucas was 10. We had to kiss. I was watching it the other day because my sister put it on, and I was so embarrassed looking at my 7-year-old self having to kiss that boy. I don’t remember feeling embarrassed at the time, and that was kind of weird too. Why wasn’t I more embarrassed? But I think that may be the most intimidated I’ve ever been—having to kiss that 10-year-old boy on the beach in Florida over and over. [Laughs.]
When you were younger, did you like to audition?
It didn’t bother me, but I usually wouldn’t get things because of my hair. I had really short, wispy hair, and the girls with perfect long, straight hair with bangs and a butterfly clip would always get picked. Finally, I got some more hair and started getting roles.
One of the things that always impresses me about actors is their ability to fake a skill at a high level. An actor won’t be able to boil water, but he can convincingly play a chef.
I’ve had to learn so many different things for movies. When I played a competitive swimmer in Man on Fire, [director] Tony Scott wanted me to do all the swimming myself. I had to race against girls who were competitive swimmers—and he wanted me to actually win the race. There would be some takes where I didn’t win, and we had to do it again. I willed myself to win.
Have you always been interested in fashion? How old were you when you did the Marc Jacobs campaign?
I was 12. I was always into fashion because my mom has always been interested in fashion. She majored in fashion merchandising in college, and it’s always been something we have in common. When I did that first campaign for Marc Jacobs, I really wasn’t old enough to wear the clothes. He made all the clothes from the runway in my size. I still have them.
Could you wear them to school?
Not really. They were too adult, and my school, Campbell Hall, had uniforms. But on Fridays we could wear anything we wanted. There would always be at least one Friday where you’d forget and show up in uniform. It would be so embarrassing. I did that once and actually made my dad drive me back home to change.
You must have been famous in your high school. Has there ever been a time in your memory when you haven’t been known by the world?
It’s all I’ve ever experienced, and it’s what I’m used to. When you’re 6 years old, which is when I started, I think you start forming how you think about things. I’ve dealt with being known for so long that it’s just kind of normal to me. And that attention comes with what I love to do, which is act.
Have you ever received any advice on how to balance your career and your personal life?
I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten any formal advice, but I’ve always felt that you should never forget that you’re just a person. Even though you’re not like everyone else, you are just like everyone else. For instance, I met someone the other day, and they said, “Hi, I’m so-and-so.” I said, “Hi, I’m Dakota.” And they’re like, “Yeah, I know.” But I can’t lose the fact that I still need to introduce myself to people even though they might already know my name or who I am. Oh, yeah, I guess you already know my name, but I’m going to say it anyway.
Have you ever thought of not acting?
I never have. It’s the only thing I feel like I know how to do well. I don’t really play any sports. [Laughs.] Maybe in college I’ll find something else to do if this doesn’t work out. But I’ve never wanted to do anything else.
If one of your movies comes on TV, do you watch it? Very few people can see themselves at so many ages.
Watching I Am Sam does feel weird, because it seems like it was yesterday, and yet it feels like a completely different person. If I see a movie on TV that I’m in, I usually will watch it for that reason: It’s like I’m watching another person.