Actress Dakota Fanning is only 23 years old, but has already been a household name for years thanks to her roles in such varied films as I Am Sam, The Secret Life of Bees, and The Twilight Saga. Most recently, she starred in Brimstone and American Pastoral, a film based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name, as Merry Levov, a teenager who becomes involved in political terrorism; and next, she is collaborating with Kirsten Dunst on an adaptation of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Here, Fanning opens up about these challenging roles, how she handles what people think about her, and more.
Lynn Hirschberg: In 2016 you starred in American Pastoral. How did the project evolve?
Dakota Fanning: So American Pastoral came to me a few years ago, with a different director and with Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly attached as actors to play my parents. So we were all three attached as actors for a while and this director ended up not being able to do it. It was one of those movies that like you kept thinking, "Oh, maybe I'm going to be working on it in the fall," and then the fall would be there and then you wouldn't be working on it and, "Oh, maybe it's going to be in the spring." It just kept getting pushed and pushed and pushed and then when that director fell out that's when Ewan asked if he could direct it. And they said yes and he still wanted me to be in it--I definitely had a moment of like, "Oh no, what if he doesn't want me to do it, like okay, that would be hard," but he did so that's that.
In the film, your character is in a cult. Was it difficult for you to go to play such a dark character?
So my character's name is Merry, in the middle of the film she becomes a Jane. Jane-ism is basically a religion that believes that you do no harm to anything, so that even includes like not bathing because you would be doing harm to the water. They sometimes sweep the ground in front of them so they brush away any living being so they don't step on them, they wear masks to not harm the air when they breathe, I had a mask that was made out of pantyhose, so it's super intense. I definitely did have to go to some really dark places but as an actor that is what I look forward to and love doing the most because I like – it makes me feel like I've actually done something hard, and pushed myself and – so there's a sequence in the movie when my character is at her lowest and I couldn't wait to do those scenes. I was so excited and I could've done that the whole time.
Did you stop bathing or did you do anything particular to put yourself in the mood?
I was method by chance simply because I had no energy when I would get back because we were filming all those scenes in the middle of the night so I would kind of get back and not wash my hair and so I was kind of living weirdly as a Jane just by total coincidence, total accident, laziness. Um, but no, most of it is acting.
It's really a heartbreaking film.
Yeah, Merry goes really dark and I think that Ewan is seeing as her father that pain of sort of losing your child and that there's nothing you can do. Obviously – I mean, I don't have kids, but I can imagine that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to a parent. So those scenes were tough, but they were also kind of inspiring and invigorating. I think Ewan and I felt really connected during those dark scenes as actors and as a director and an actor. My scenes are mostly only with Ewan and he was the director, and that was my first time having the person that you're opposite direct you. I will really remember the experience of making this film for a lot of reasons but especially that because it was my first time ever having that happen and it couldn't have been better; it was so wonderful. I loved getting to share that with him too.
How did your family feel watching the film?
Apparently my sister saw the film and had a really horrifying reaction to it like and she got really upset by it. Which I suppose I'm happy about that because that means like it moves somebody and even somebody that knows me as well as my sister that I could still make her feel that way, that was kind of exciting, but then I was like, "But you do the same thing, like what do you mean?" I wasn't with [my parents] when they watched it. I can never really take compliments from my family for some reason. I'm always like, "Okay, thank you. Thanks, thanks, like glad you liked it, okay." I don't know why but it makes me really uncomfortable when they compliment me. It's not that often to be honest but, my mom is so southern--you don't take a compliment; you don't brag. You just say thank you. So that's how she is, she tells me in private but like not ever in front of another person.
Do you have trouble watching it yourself because I would think it would be hard to watch yourself in that movie?
I actually don't have any trouble watching this movie. I don't know what it is. I really love watching it each time. I've seen it three times now. Maybe because I just really don't feel like myself. Like I have a stutter in the movie for a big portion of it, so I don't really sound like myself and then later on I don't look like myself so I think I really have some distance from it so maybe that's why it's easier to watch.
When you were a kid, I think most of the characters you played were pretty happy. Did you feel like it's harder to convince people that you can be a darker character now?
I mean I've never really thought about whether I'm going to play a darker character or a lighter character. It just has been what it is. I think that I have always had to let go of caring what other people expect from me or caring what other people think that I can do because inevitably there are preconceived notions of who I am and what I'm capable of because I started out so young, which I think is unfair, of course, but I've let that go. I've let that go because I think that that would just drive me crazy and make me make choices for the wrong reasons, make choices to prove something, when in reality I don't have anything to prove you know. I just let my work speak for itself and who I am speak for itself you know, like that's all I can do. So I just try and let that go, but it's been interesting because this film American Pastoral has been like a film that people have said, "Oh my god, you're so – you're finally so grown up!" and I'm like, "Okay, I guess." Because Merry – actually when I play her – I start playing her at 16. I was playing someone younger than I actually was; I was 21 when I did the movie. You know, perception follows people no matter if you're an actor or not. It's just as human beings that we assume and put people in weird boxes without knowing them all the time. So I totally understand it and I'm guilty of it myself but I try and curb it because I know how it feels.
I've always felt like I was expected to be mature and wise beyond my years like an old soul, which people would say about me. It's a compliment, but I didn't have to try to be those things, you know. I never tried to be those things. Some days I am an old soul and some days I'm not.
What else are you doing this year?
I'm doing a little short film with the director Neill Blomkamp, but I'm mostly thinking about and working on a film adaptation of The Bell Jar. Which I'm producing and I'm in and yeah, I'm very excited.
That's the coolest thing ever. Who's the director?
Kirsten Dunst. I'm super excited about it and it's the first time I've ever been really involved in something from very early stages and putting it together and making like decisions that you don't get to make as an actor.
Has Kirsten directed anything before?
She's directed short films before. Kirsten has directed short films before but this is her first time directing a feature.
And when do you hope to start?
In the spring. I hope to start in the spring. We actually think we want to film it in Boston, which is where Sylvia Path is from, and then maybe a little bit in New York for some of the New York moments.
That is super exciting. Congratulations.
Now, time for some fun questions. Where was your first kiss?
Sweet Home Alabama – the first scene of the movie I play young Reese Witherspoon and that was my first kiss. I was seven years old, he was 10, it was very, you know, it was nerve-wracking.
But for a 10-year old he's got quite a line because you say something along the lines of, I want to marry you…
Yeah, I say, "What do you want to marry me for anyhow?" and he says, "So I can kiss you anytime I want."
And then he leans in like he's a pro...
He's like hot stuff for a seven and a 10-year old I think. My studio teacher who was my teacher my whole life before I went to high school, she was with me on that movie and she told this story all the time. In between each take we would do the kiss, right, and then I would slowly turn away and wipe my mouth off so he couldn't see or so no one could see becauseI was trying to be kind but I wasn't really into it.
You were seven! And you looked adorable.
I'm also like miniature, like so tiny because I was always so small for my age so I was 7 but I was so short and small. I remember they like curled my hair in this whole style for that movie and like straightened it and had like this whole thing and we filmed it like on the beach in Florida and they didn't realize that I had curly hair and I just walked out of the trailer and like poof, like it just didn't – it was like gone. The style was gone and I knew that it was gonna be gone but I was so young like I didn't say to them, "Don't do that like it's not gonna work out," because I just let it happen. I didn't know you know – I didn't know and it was like 2 seconds later like all curls, like soaking wet, sweaty, and they just let it be like that.
Okay, so after that initial excitement when you were 7...
My real first kiss?
My real first kiss was in my driveway. I was 14 and I was walking him out, he had been over at my house swimming in my pool and I was walking him out and I had gotten him a gift and I forgot it so I ran back inside and he was wearing a baseball cap and when I came back out he had turned the baseball cap around and I remember thinking, "Oh my god. Oh god. That's what that means." And then, that was it. It was like against my mom's car in the driveway and then I remember coming inside and just feeling like everybody could see it all over me, like there was something like on my face. It was kind of intense so it felt like his 16-year old scruff had kind of chaffed me a little bit and so I just felt like everyone could – that I was bright red and everyone knew and everyone could tell. I just remember being like, "Oh, everyone knows." And I knew my sister was probably like looking outside, like she's such a weirdo like that; she totally would do that, so funny.
What was your favorite birthday?
My favorite birthday was my – part of me wants to say my 21st birthday and then part of me wants to say my 10th birthday. My 10th birthday – was on the set of this movie called Hide and Seek with Robert DeNiro, and I went in the lunchroom like everything was normal and then everyone was like, "Surprise," and they had my favorite foods and like my favorite cake and like Bob was there in like a little party hat and it was so fun and so cute. I think they decorated my dressing room on the sound stage, like it was so fun and made me feel so special. And then my 21st was just wild so that's why I liked my 21st too.
What did you do that was wild?
I had like my actual birthday night where I went to a dive bar for the very first time, like I never snuck into anywhere I wasn't supposed to go. If there was like an after-party or a movie or something that was at like a club then of course I would get to go to that, but I never snuck around or went anywhere that I wasn't supposed to go, like I was too afraid of getting in trouble. So I really had never been to a dive bar with a pool table so that's all I wanted to do and so that's what I did on my actual birthday. And then I had a party like the weekend of. I had a big party, and it was so fun.
Was there karaoke?
That was my 22nd birthday I did karaoke, yeah.
What's your karaoke song?
Carrie Underwood, "Before He Cheats," is my karaoke song.
That's a good one. What movie makes you cry?
Um, I've realized that when I'm feeling unsafe I need to watch the movie Almost Famous and it makes me cry and laugh and it's like the movie that I can't turn off when it comes on you know. I love it.
I love that. Is that a particular scene that gets to you?
I think when they sing "Tiny Dancer" in the van and when – when Kate Hudson – when he tells her that she was like traded for a case of beer and she says, "What kind of beer?"
And who's your current cinematic crush?
Hmm, my current cinematic crush? I'm trying to think what movie – oh, I watched Notes on a Scandal for the first time, I had never seen it before, and they're both so – Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench are so incredible in that, so it's like I can't really choose but that film, I'm obsessed with – I was crushing on their talents hard.
They're major in that movie.
The movie is like – it's insane. My mom is not a movie person weirdly, but she watched that film recently on an airplane and it's one of like maybe five times in my life that my mom has been like, "I loved this movie, like you have to watch it," so that's what made me like actually watch it because I was like whoa, for my mom to say that…