Dakota Fanning: I wanted to go to college but acting came first
A big-screen veteran at 22, Dakota Fanning's latest role shows she is as happy playing strong female characters as she is studying them.
Dakota Fanning had less than a month to prepare for her role in Martin Koolhoven's very bloody new revenge western, Brimstone. She took the part when Mia Wasikowska pulled out of the film just before shooting was due to begin.
"I didn't have any trepidation," she says of the very late call-up. "I just hoped that Martin would want me to do it. I just read the script and really loved it. I felt it was very different from anything I had ever done. Any opportunity to have a strong female character be the lead of a film - we don't see that nearly enough."
What the answer glosses over is just what her character Liz is forced to endure in the film as she is pursued across the prairies by a vengeful and sadistic preacher (Guy Pearce). Fanning gives an exceptional performance in a movie during a large part of which she is only able to communicate in sign language, as if she is a silent movie actress. Brimstone, which was shot in Europe, is a long way removed from some of her glossier Hollywood roles.
At the age of 22, Fanning is already a veteran of the film business. Acting, she says, is all she has ever known. She has close to 15 years of filmmaking experience. Since her debut as Sean Penn's seven-year-old daughter in I Am Sam (2001), she has worked with Steven Spielberg and appeared in the Twilight saga. Her films have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Like many bright young actors of her generation, Fanning has been leading a double life. On the one hand, she is a Hollywood star who appears to be working constantly. On the other, she has studied at New York University's Gallatin "School of Individualised Study", trying to blend in on campus.
"I wanted to go to college and eventually get a degree and graduate but I wasn't willing to sacrifice my career," Fanning explains a routine which has involved her taking courses even as she works on films.
One area she has specialised in is "the portrayal of women in culture and film." She claims that she "didn't really think" about her studies when she was doing Brimstone but this is the type of movie that she and her fellow students could easily have pored over. It exposes the extreme misogyny in the Old West. It is also, as she points out more than once, a rare western in which the female character is the lead.
Interviewed in a beach front cafe in Venice on a sweltering afternoon, Fanning looks every bit the glamorous young movie star. However, she points out that the actual process of making films, especially those as grim in their subject matter as Brimstone, isn't easy.
"There are days when you're in the freezing cold in a muddy field in wet clothes, wearing a wig. You don't feel like yourself. You've been away from home for months," Fanning says, briefly making her work sound akin to a stint in the salt mines. "If you don't love what you are doing, it could be misery. When I am cold and tired and hungry and want to rip the wig off my head, there is still no place I would rather be than right where I am because I love what I do so much."
There are countless examples of child stars (for instance Lindsay Lohan) who've struggled to adjust to adult life. Fanning insists she is not one of them. "I think what has helped me is that I've never thought of myself as a child star. If you think of yourself like that, you might have problems." It helps that Fanning has largely managed to keep out of the gossip columns. There haven't been lurid stories about substance abuse or messy accounts of her love life.
"There is a lot of negativity that you welcome into your life when you're an actor," Fanning says. "You bare your soul for anyone to see. Now, we live in a world where, when you become recognisable, it turns into that you open your whole life up for opinion. That can be stressful…"
She credits her family (her former tennis professional mother Joy and ex-minor league baseball player dad Steve) with keeping her level-headed. "I think I am the same kind of person I would have been if I wasn't an actor," Fanning declares. "I am not a robot. Of course, I am not somebody who can't be hurt by things but I make sure always to remember that the people who know me - my family and friends - those are the opinions that matter."
She went into the business out of choice, not because her parents were pushing her. The family was still living in Georgia when Dakota was first establishing herself in LA. She moved there when she was only six years old. "My mom always said when you're ready to go home, you just tell me. I just never wanted to go home. Now, acting feels like second nature to me."
No, Dakota isn't in open competition for roles with her younger sister, Elle Fanning. "Work is not that much part of our conversation. We've kept that separate. I know what films she is working on and where she is in the world. If she is having a problem or issue, I know about it. In general, she doesn't really ask me for advice. I think it's important for us to have our own identities and our own experiences."
Both Fanning sisters seem increasingly drawn to independent or offbeat fare. Elle recently starred in Nicolas Winding Refn's outrageous thriller, Neon Demon. Dakota, meanwhile, will soon be seen in Ewan McGregor's directorial debut, American Pastoral, adapted from Philip Roth's novel. "I play a character who is moving in a very turbulent time in America and coping with her protective bubble in which she grew up in - and trying to rationalise how that can exist amid such chaos. That manifests itself in a very rebellious and violent way."
She insists that she doesn't have any grudge against Hollywood. "I am all about the script and director and connecting with the material. Wherever that happens, if it's an independent movie, a studio movie, European or American, whatever it is, I just love to explore different characters and push myself, regardless of what kind of film it is."
Having proved her mettle in front of the camera, Fanning is also keen to direct and produce. She is already working with her close friend Kirsten Dunst on an adaptation of Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar, which she will produce and Dunst will direct. Fanning herself is expected play Esther Greenwood, the young woman who takes an intern job at a prestigious magazine but who then has a nervous breakdown and is forced to endure shock therapy. "I do think Sylvia Plath, as I've learned about her and researched her, is a really important author."
Fanning's approach to her work is instinctual and she loves to immerse herself in roles. The hardest part, she suggests, is when a film finishes shooting. "You put a tiny bit of yourself in all of the characters that you play because you give so much of yourself to telling the story. It is a weird thing when you make a movie. One day, it's just over. You all go home and it's like, 'whoa, what happened. We had this whole thing going on and now it's done'. That's so strange…"
- Brimstone screens at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival, until October 16