At the age of 18, Dakota Fanning is already a veteran of Hollywood, having appeared in more films than she has years. How did she pull that off and grow up to be so normal?
In the New York studio of the cool fashion label Libertine, Dakota Fanning is executing neat little twirls while a photographer adjusts the light between takes. Wearing a cornflower-blue minidress that makes her pale, polished-marble skin appear incomprehensibly luminous, she telegraphs a serene self-confidence, offset by occasional bursts of teenage gawkiness.
When she stands still and gazes into the camera, she has an unearthly, doll-like beauty – huge, wide-set blue eyes and a slightly exaggerated forehead – but then she bursts into a goofy laugh, or twists her ankles into an awkward angle, and she's once again just an 18-year-old girl playing dressing-up.
It’s precisely this intriguing mix of guileless youth and worldly poise that makes Fanning so compelling to watch on screen – and it has been ever since her breakthrough performance at the age of six, playing Sean Penn’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter in I Am Sam (2001). It was a role that earned her the distinction of being the youngest-ever nominee for a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Since then she has deftly sidestepped the clichéed 'child star’ trappings, to establish herself as a gifted actress, fêted by the likes of Emma Thompson (who called her 'the real thing’ after working with her on the forthcoming period drama Effie) and Steven Spielberg (who deemed her 'an old soul’ when he directed her opposite Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds). A little unnervingly, 12 years into her career she seems to be just getting started.
Fanning suggests we go for coffee at a nearby café after the photo-shoot but, just as we’re about to leave, the heavens open with such ferocity that, she says with a giggle, 'the whole interview might end up happening underneath an awning’.
Instead, we locate a white sofa behind a potted palm-tree in a corner of the studio. Fanning, who has changed into white palazzo pants and a T-shirt ('I’ve had this for, like, six years,’ she says, 'my mom is always telling me to get rid of it, but I refuse’), plops down and immediately half-buries herself in scatter cushions. 'Now this,’ she says, 'is cosy.’
She is currently on summer break from her studies at New York University, where she enrolled last year. Her favourite subjects are literature and psychology.
'I think I really like psychology because my job is all about getting inside another person’s mind and thoughts,’ she says, 'and somehow with all of my assignments I end up talking in one way or another about what I do.’
It’s no surprise that her worlds are intertwined. Fanning is so committed to acting that she’s stayed in the sweltering city during her holidays to film Very Good Girls – about two teens vying to lose their virginity – alongside Elizabeth Olsen.
As she speaks, Fanning’s hands are constantly in play, sweeping broad arcs through space and fluttering to her lap.
She’s chatty and ebullient, especially when discussing something that gives her a particular thrill, such as living alone for the first time and being able to decorate her own flat.
'It’s very antique, shabby chic, pastel. Which is me in a nutshell, pretty much. With a little Hello Kitty thrown in.’ She erupts into a Tinker Bell-like giggle.
'I think I was a Japanese schoolgirl in another life. That’s how much I love Hello Kitty.’ On her bookshelves she files her treasured Jeffrey Eugenides novels along with her 'favourite-ever’ film, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. On the stereo you’ll often hear Say My Name. 'I love who I am and I love my life but if I could be someone else I’d be Beyoncé in two seconds,’ she says.
Being an East Coast college student constitutes Fanning’s first real shot of independence from her tight-knit family (including her younger sister, Elle, who has also shown herself to be a formidable talent, in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and JJ Abrams’ Super 8).
The experience is somewhat bittersweet, as it would be for any 18-year-old. 'I was saying to my mom the other day, it’s so weird not to have anyone around to run things by. Like, “I’m going to eat dinner now! Or I need to go do this…”
'You’re all by yourself. It’s crazy. But it’s really good for me, I think. My mom and I have been pretty much together my whole life, because when I was working before I was 18 she was always with me.
'So I’ve missed her a lot, and I’ve missed my whole family and my house and dog, but then I appreciate it all so much more when I go home. It's good never to take anything for granted.’
Fanning was born in Conyers, a small city near Atlanta. Precocious from the beginning, she learnt to read at two and started primary school two years early; she caught the acting bug doing drama at summer camp, and by five was starring in so many advertisements that her family upped sticks and moved to Los Angeles.
After I Am Sam, she went on to star opposite Denzel Washington (Man on Fire), Robert De Niro (Hide and Seek), Julia Roberts (Charlotte’s Web) and Kevin Bacon (Trapped), becoming one of Hollywood’s most in-demand – and highly paid – young actors.
Despite all of this, she insists that she had a 'pretty normal’ childhood. Although she was home-schooled until her early teens, she went on to an ordinary high school (albeit one whose alumnae include Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) in Hollywood, where she was a cheerleader.
'I wanted the social part of it and the classroom experience,’ she says. 'It turned out to be very much the quintessential high-school experience, and I met some of the most important people of my life during that time.’
Fanning doesn’t appear to have any of the affectations you might expect from someone whose life has been a series of fortunate events. She credits this to her 'awesome’ parents, both of whom were serious athletes when they were younger.
'My mom played tennis for, like, six hours a day and went to college on a tennis scholarship, because that was the way she could go to school. So they instilled in me the idea that you have to work hard for the things you want in life and never complain,’ she says. 'I’m very grateful for that.’
Lately Fanning has begun to negotiate the (rocky, for some) transition into more adult roles.
In 2007, aged 13, she played a rape victim in the controversial Hounddog, and in 2010 wowed critics as a kohl-eyed, bustier-loving singer, Cherie Currie, in the jailbait-band biopic The Runaways.
It’s not a process she plans to rush. 'I think it’s important not to grow up in life too fast and not to grow up on screen too fast,’ she says, twirling strands of her hair around a finger.
'And that can be difficult, because sometimes who you are and the characters you play don’t match up. Like, I found that when I was 12 the characters I responded to were emotional and sometimes dark, and I had to be true to that… This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, so I want to do it right.’
Having appeared in three of the Twilight films as an evil vampire, Fanning has also watched first-hand the hysteria surrounding her friend Kristen Stewart.
She’s unsure whether she’d be able to suffer the slings and arrows of tabloid ubiquity in the way Stewart has. 'When I go to the premières I see the people who have camped out for weeks, and it’s all really exciting,’ she says, 'but I think if I were in the middle of it, it would be very intense.’
Her next two films will certainly broaden audiences’ perception of her talents. First she’ll appear as a British 17-year-old dying of leukaemia in Now Is Good, an adaptation of Jenny Downham’s novel Before I Die. The story, which Fanning describes as 'emotional and painful but also really beautiful’, follows Tessa as she tries to experience as much as she can of life in the time she has left.
'There are things that she sets out to do, a “bucket list” of sorts,’ says Fanning, 'but I think a bigger theme of the film is that life just happens. You try to plan things, but sometimes you have no control, and that can actually be pretty great.’
She pauses, thoughtfully. 'Tess does fall in love, and that’s one of the things that drew me to the story, because as a young woman you have dreams of having boyfriends and going to college and meeting someone you want to spend the rest of your life with and having kids.
'And thinking about someone for whom none of these things will happen… that was what took me there.’
Fanning breaks the sombre mood with a bright laugh. 'I’m a really big dreamer. I’m a fantasiser. Like’ – her big blue eyes widen – 'I wonder what my life will be…’ She is not one to discuss whether or not she has a boyfriend, but says that if she had a bucket list of her own, children would certainly be on it.
'I want to have a million babies!’ She succumbs to a fit of giggles. 'Not that I’m getting started now! I have plenty of time.’
The next film she’ll be seen in is Effie, as the teenage bride of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin.
It is written by Emma Thompson, of whom Fanning says, 'She is beyond. I want to be like her when I grow up. She is such an amazing woman and writer and actor and humanitarian and mother and wife. She just has it all down.’
Like Now Is Good, Effie was filmed primarily in Britain. 'I’ve had to learn not one but two British accents!’ Fanning exclaims, her hands flying to her face in mock horror. 'It’s so hard!’
Fanning gets particularly giddy when she talks about her love of London – she will return in a few weeks to visit her sister Elle, who is filming there.
'My family just can’t get away from the UK,’ she says. On her itinerary, naturally, is Topshop, 'especially the vintage stuff’.
She’s been a fashion muse since she appeared in Marc Jacobs’ campaigns in 2007, and made headlines last year when an advertisement featuring her clutching his perfume, Oh, Lola!, between her thighs was banned for being sexually provocative.
She says, 'I thought it was hilarious. All of my friends were like, “Yeah, you’re corrupting youth with your perfume bottle and pink polka-dot dress!”’
She shakes her head. 'I’m constantly baffled by what people care about, when there are real problems in the world.’ Yet despite her fashion-world all-access pass, she is no red-carpet vamp – indeed, she is one of the few young actresses who dresses her age, favouring flouncy frocks for premières, and when she’s caught by the paparazzi on the streets of Los Angeles she looks like a typical teenager (read: shorts, T-shirts, no make-up).
'I love fashion,’ she says, 'but I’m nothing compared to Elle.’ She talks about her sister with real admiration. 'People always ask me if I’ve given her advice and I honestly haven’t. I don’t think she needs it!’ she says.
'The most amazing thing about my sister is that she’s so beautifully unaware. She has no insecurities. She’s completely free. She just lives and does, and I love that.
'I wish I had more of that in me sometimes, because I’m more controlled, and I keep things inside myself.’
By now the thunderstorm has rolled off into the distance, signalling that it’s time to go.
Fanning strides off down the still-wet street, wobbling a little coltishly in her Isabel Marant boots. As she disappears into the distance, she looks just like any 18-year-old New York City girl finding her feet.
A few more candids from 09/24:
It's been posted, but here's a refresher on her British accent.
Telegraph interview | candids
tl;dr Dakota's favorite subjects at NYU include psychology and literature. Her next two films will have her playing a terminal cancer patient and a teenage Victorian bride (both requiring English accents). Emma Thompson adores her. Confesses Elle has better and more natural sense of fashion than she does. She decorated her apartment with antiques and and Hello Kitty (FYI: "The starlet is renting out this two-bedroom, two-bathoom unit for $8,400 a month." via E! See pics here.) She continues to be well-adjusted and talented.