It can be a little shocking to realize that Dakota Fanning is still just 24 years old, so entrenched has she been in the popular imagination since her breakthrough big screen performance in I Am Sam in 2001. When she took on the role of a policewoman chasing a serial killer who hunts male prostitutes in 19th-century New York City in the TNT miniseries The Alienist, which aired this spring, it felt more appropriate to see Fanning as among the recent wave of mid-career movie stars who saw the potential of television rather than the twentysomething stars recently minted by the likes of Netflix. And it turned out that she really took to the form—and especially her time on the Budapest set of the period drama. "I've loved the experience so much," she said. "I wanna do something else on TV very badly." Here, Fanning shares her memories shooting The Alienist, and how she would fix her favorite reality shows.
Did you watch TV growing up?
When I was growing up, I didn't watch a ton of TV. It wasn't that my mom didn't let me, it was just I was busy. But as I've gotten older, I cherish my time watching TV, it's when I zone out. I've been really open to and excited about the possibility of doing something on TV, because I've been so inspired by the other actors and stories that I watch. I wasn't kind of actively looking for it, but I was hoping maybe something would come my way.
And The Alienist, is that the first big TV thing you've been offered?
I was in a miniseries a long time ago called Taken, that Steven Spielberg produced for the Syfy Channel, and that's that last time I've really done something on TV. And then The Alienist came along and the timing of it couldn't have been better. It has been one of the greatest experiences I've ever had.
Wow. Where did you shoot it?
In Budapest, Hungary. I was there for almost seven months. It became my home. I sobbed hysterically when I had to leave.
They set up a Ferris wheel in this square in Budapest, and we were there from March to September. The Ferris wheel kind of goes up when winter starts to end and then it's up through the whole summer. I would ride the Ferris wheel every once in a while. A friend would come into town and ride the Ferris wheel, because you can see the whole city. On my last night there, I rode the Ferris wheel and was just hysterically crying, and the Ferris wheel would come to the top and I would see the whole city and I would just start to cry because I didn't wanna leave. I got really attached to my little life there.
Did you get attached to your corset, too?
I didn't get quite as attached to the corset, no, but I also did in a way. I mean, one of the things about The Alienist, one of the most important things, is the costumes—and especially my costumes. Michael Kaplan is the costume designer, who is a genius.
Flashdance, Blade Runner...
Blade Runner, the new Star Wars, he's incredible. And so wearing those costumes was a real privilege because they were more than just costumes. I don't know, he puts so much energy into every little detail. I would have hours-long fittings and I hate to try on clothes, and I would just stand there. I fainted in my first fitting.
Really? Because of the corset?
Well, I had just landed. It was before we started shooting. I had just gotten of the plane, you know you're sort of swollen and tired and jet lagged and all that, and I went straight to the studio to my fitting with Michael. And they put the corset on, and yeah, I was like, "I'm going down. I'm going down!" I had to sit. And then they would try and be like, "Okay, are you all right now?" I'd be like, "No, nope. Still gotta sit." But then you get used to it. Your body just completely adjusts, it's so weird.
Did your whole rib cage change?
My body completely changed. I mean, I've worn corsets before but never for this long of a period. Seven months; your body completely changes. You can get it on without even lacing or unlacing. By the end I was just snapping it on, snapping it off. It was like second nature.
Keira Knightley, who I think has been in more corsets than any other human, told me that there was a whole thing with eating. That you have to time your meals, because otherwise it starts to come up.
Definitely. For better or for worse, the corsets kind of put you into the character because it does literally affect everything that you do: Breathing, walking, running, sitting, standing, and definitely eating. Yeah, you do kinda have to time it out because it can not feel so good after lunch.
I thought you said something really interesting on NPR, about what it was like for women then because they could not dress by themselves—how it changes how a woman can live her life if she needs to have someone there.
Totally. I definitely thought about that every single day, the fact that a woman in that time period—which was 1896 on the show—had to have help to do kind of the most intimate thing, which is just dress yourself in the morning, or undress yourself. Those are private moments, and a woman had to have someone there helping her do that. There were so many societal restrictions on women, even down to how they needed help to put their clothes on and take their clothes off. I just thought about that each day when I had my dresser, her name was Dora, and I loved her but, you know, it's like sometimes you just wanna take off your clothes by yourself. But you really can't with these clothes. It made me think about that and what that would've been like for a lady.
Did you take your corset from the set?
I didn't, no, no, no. I left it all behind. I left my corset and my heart in Budapest.
Have you gotten new fans coming up to you after the show?
One of the things I was really excited about with being on television was that there was a set time and place for people to watch it each week. Sometimes when you make films you feel like they kind of get released in either every theater in the world or one theater in New York and one theater in L.A., and you wonder if anybody ever is seeing those films sometimes. You feel like they can get lost. So I think that's what I've loved about this experience maybe the most is the accessibility of the show.
But the best encounter that I had was I was getting a bikini wax and my waxer was talking to me about the show, and how much she was loving it. I'm like, "Great, I'm really glad." I'm literally laying there, facing the ceiling, and she's deep in my bikini area and I'm talking about The Alienist.
It's kind of weirdly appropriate. Do you have a favorite TV show aside from The Alienist?
God, I have so many. Well, I'm a reality TV watcher, too, which we won't get into that.
No, let's get into that. What is your favorite?
I like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the Real Housewives of New York, the Bachelor, and the Bachelorette.
Oh, I'm obsessed with the Bachelor and the Bachelorette. It's high drama.
High, high drama. Especially the last Bachelor. It was some of the best TV I've ever seen, the Arie and Becca breakup. I was screaming at the TV, "Leave already. Leave already!"
But the funny thing is, my mom and I always read the spoilers on the blog Reality Steve, but still watch the show. I don't know why.
You don't like the suspense?
I read the synopses for most film and TV that I watch before I watch it. Isn't that weird? I don't know why I do it, but it won't make me not watch it. I'll still watch it.
But didn't you know that Arie would go for the blonde in the end?
Good riddance to Arie is all I have to say. I'll be a proud watcher of Becca's Bachelorette.
Yes, I agree. Does it bother you that they almost never stay together?
You know what, it doesn't bother me that the bachelor and the bachelorettes don't stay together because the ones that are together, are really together. Do you know what I mean? t's either that they just break up pretty quickly and don't get married, or they have been married for 10 years and have two kids. That's what keeps me watching. I'm going for the long haul.
You know what I don't like on the Bachelor and what I need them to stop doing if they're listening, is introducing the first five guys on the "After the Final Rose." Did you see that? They have Becca, they put a façade of the mansion behind her, and then have a couple guys come out. They did it with Rachel. That has to stop. It's so cringeworthy, and I don't like that at all. It's cringe-y enough on the night in front of the real mansion. I don't need a façade of the ivy covered mansion behind her, and I didn't like that at all.
Do you prefer the Bachelor or the Bachelorette?
I do prefer the Bachelor because I like seeing the dynamics of all the girls interacting with one another.
And as an actress do you find that some of them just seem like bad actors?
They're either bad actors or the best actors in the whole world. That's what I'm still trying to figure out with all reality television. The Real Housewives, I don't know exactly how much of it is real and what's set up and whatever. I don't care. If it is kind of set up, then they're the greatest actors in the world.
With Housewives, do you have ones that you like better than others?
I definitely have favorites. It was funny, at The Alienist premiere in New York, Carol Radziwell was there and she was standing by the bar, and everyone knows how much I love the Real Housewives and I was with people who were like, "Oh my god there's Carol." And I get so nervous. I don't ever go up to people or I get really nervous, but I was like, "I'm doing it. I'm doing it." I walked over and I was like, "Hi, I'm Dakota. I'm on this show, and I just love you so much." And her friend was like, "Oh, from Housewives right?" And I was like, "Yeah, but I've also read your books." I wanted to seem like a real fan, too. She was so so nice. She's been watching the show and she'll send me an Instagram DM about it every once in a while, so I love that.
You've made headway into the Housewives.
I did, I have. I got a little in.
But do you add to your portfolio? It's a lot of Housewives now.
It is. You know, I've fallen off a couple. Beverly Hills, New York, and Orange County, are my—I won't stop watching. And New Jersey. I won't stop watching those.
New Jersey's got a lot of juice, I have to say. You don't watch Atlanta?
Atlanta I was watching it because you know, that's where I'm from originally. I used to watch that one religiously as well, and then, yeah, I've stopped watching. I was in Budapest, that's the other thing. When I was in Budapest with my shows, I would have to ... because there's Netflix in Budapest but there wasn't anything else. I would have to buy it all on iTunes. I had to prioritize.
Okay, so let's ask some fun questions. What was the first album you ever bought with your own?
God, probably Britney Spears.
Were you a big Britney fan?
Huge. I was a huge Britney Spears fan. She was the first famous person I ever met. I met her when I came to California. I was six. I was with my mom and my mom's sister in Fred Segal and Britney Spears walked into the shoe department. And I had the total, classic, starstruck-as-a-six-year-old moment. And she was in kind of a furry coat and sunglasses, and one of those kind of newsboy hats. I'll never forget it. She was very nice.
What was your first red carpet outfit? What did you wear for the I Am Sam premiere?
I wore a champagne satin dress that had little cap sleeves and a bow. And I think it was Neiman Marcus. And I had a purse that was from Target that was a black patent... it was shaped like a present, and it was black patent and a champagne ribbon that matched the dress.
Did you do interviews on the red carpet?
Was it scary?
I remember when I did interviews I just was saying "thank you" the whole time. I didn't know what else to say. People were talking about it. I was like, "Thank you. Thank you." And I remember there was this woman at the premiere and she was like, "Well, it seems like all she knows how to say is 'thank you.'" And I overheard her say that, and I was like, "Well, there're worse things to say than 'thank you,' right?" I was okay with that. I was just overwhelmed.
What was your favorite Halloween costume?
t was Scarlett O'Hara. I had the green curtain dress made. It was so amazing that I wore it two years in a row, maybe when I was 10 and 11? I loved Gone With the Wind.
Did you have the hat with the fringe?
I had the hat with the fringe. I had the wig. I was on a set at the time, and so the hair person that was working on the movie fixed my wig for me, and it was such a great costume that it had to be worn twice.