Dakota Fanning was just five years old and living with her parents and one-year-old sister in the small town of Conyers, Georgia, when, as she tells it, she and her mother had a heart-to-heart regarding her proto–movie star career trajectory. In the end they came to what she describes as a mutual decision: to move from their home, 20 miles southeast of Atlanta—where they were part of an athletic extended clan, and practicing Southern Baptists—to Los Angeles, where the only things anybody worships are fame and box office loot. There she would see if she could build on the success she had had being standout cute in community theater.
Which might sound a bit implausible if it weren't coming from Fanning, who is a lively, confident, and apparently quite undamaged 20-year-old woman, despite growing up on the big and small screens. What five-year-old is that methodical in pursuing her ambitions? Surely her parents pushed her to perform, at least subliminally? Her mother Joy is a former professional tennis player who majored in fashion merchandising and who, by Dakota's own accounting, gave up everything for her daughter. Her father Steven is a former minor league baseball player. So, at least from afar, they seem to fit the bill of the cliché of living vicariously through their children, for there are two stars in the family: Dakota and her fashion plate younger sister, Elle (who is appearing in Maleficent this summer).
But no, Dakota insists, a bit impatiently, it was all basically her idea. "It's hard to explain to someone who didn't know me as a child," she says, looking me right in the eye. "But even before I started working—when I was two, three, four, five—I was an exceptionally mature child. I just was. And my mom and I were able to have conversations like, 'Do you want to go to California and go to auditions for commercials and TV shows? Is that something you want to do?' And I was like, 'Yeah, let's give it a try.'"
I've met Dakota at one of her favorite restaurants, Lovely Day, a few blocks from New York University, where she is attending the Gallatin School for Individualized Study. She arrived early, as if to stake her claim, and already knows what she wants: vegetable dumplings and brown rice. I've been catching up on my Individualized Dakota Studies for the past couple of weeks, streaming some of the 26 feature films she has done (in addition to TV shows, shorts, and video game voiceovers), and I was struck by her preternatural dignity and grace—even way back in 2000, when she played the straight-shooting Lucy Diamond Dawson in I Am Sam, her star-making turn at the age of six. But there was a guarded quality, too, a wariness that has something to do with those pensive, headlamp eyes, the ones that get compared to Bette Davis's, the ones that made her seem like an "old soul" to Steven Spielberg, who directed her in the 2005 movie War of the Worlds.
Other than some nervous scribbling on the red paper sleeve her chopsticks came in, Fanning has that same assessing, unshellacked demeanor as she sits across from me. What's surprising is the tinkling blurt of a laugh—actually a wide variety of wonderfully expressive laughs, almost a language in themselves, from skeptical giggle to full-on guffaw. I get one of the latter when I mention the Bette Davis comparisons; she tilts her chin up, pulls her face taught, and bugs out her eyes in a demented impression of the screen legend. For an actress who tends to avoid comedy onscreen, it's startlingly funny.
Perception and reality are often at odds in Hollywood. On Saturday Night Live Amy Poehler did the recurring sketch "The Dakota Fanning Show," in which she played the actress as a wound-up, supercilious brat. It was amusing, if also a projection fantasy based on Fanning's grown-up self-presentation. I kept thinking, talking to her, that she's 20 going on 35. But as a result of people's assumptions, she's in the curious position of disproving the preconceived notion that she's a needy, know-it-all ingenue.
Kelly Reichardt, the director of this year's Night Moves, a spare, dark indie film about youthful eco-terrorists played by Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg, assumed the worst. "I always worry with our kind of filmmaking. We don't have a lot of extras or the means to spoil anybody," she says. The movie was filmed in Oregon, and Reichardt and crew were staying at a Comfort Inn right off the expressway in Medford (which locals call Methford). She intended to put Fanning up in the more picturesque town of Ashford, and rented her a car. But Fanning said she didn't need the car and moved into the Comfort Inn with everybody else. "We worked weird hours and late at night, and I'd see Dakota walking to Taco Bell."
Reichardt theorizes that "at some point she must have made the decision to stay connected to the big black hole of life's inconveniences. You couldn't do anything for her. She doesn't allow pampering. It's all hands on deck." Which means when their characters were supposed to be loading up a boat with 150-pound bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer (to turn into a dam-busting bomb), Fanning and Eisenberg were, in fact, heaving 150-pound bags filled with ammonium nitrate, never mind that it gave her a rash. "Dakota just loved it," Reichardt says. "The itchier, the sweatier, the better." (Eisenberg, meanwhile, thought they could fake it: "Are you serious? This is a movie!")
Maybe this connection to the quotidian has kept Fanning safe from turning into the other side of the former-child-star coin: the rehab princess. You could call her the anti–Lindsay Lohan, or the non–Amanda Bynes, or Drew Barrymore without all the baggage, an almost pre-postmodern celebrity, without a discernible exhibitionist streak or penchant for self-destruction. She has a boyfriend, Jamie Strachan, a British model who is 12 years her senior, and if you want to be thoroughly bored, Google "Dakota Fanning boyfriend" for endless shots of hand-holding on the streets of Manhattan—the beginning and end of any lovelife revelations. "I'm just never going to parade my personal life," she says. "If you choose to not do it, it's not hard to not do it."
Not doing it, she says, has everything to do with how she was raised. "It's very interesting to grow up with half a Southern mind-set and half a California mind-set," she says. "Like going to high school in Los Angeles and living in New York City and going to NYU, but having a family that was very traditional. I credit my family pretty much with everything—and especially my mom." The combination has also helped insulate her against the fevered expectations of her fans. As she puts it, "I'm super-happy that you've enjoyed watching me grow up. That's cool," but "because people saw me grow up, there's this weird sort of ownership that they feel for me and that is…difficult. Because it's not real; it's in their minds."
Fanning's parents were criticized for her controversial role in 2007's Hounddog, in which Fanning played a brash, naive, underparented country girl who gets raped by a milk delivery boy. The criticism—essentially "How could the adorable moppet from I Am Sam be put in such a horrible position?"—just proved "why that movie needed to get made in the first place," Fanning says. The negative attention made her feel as if, in illuminating a trauma millions of girls go through, she had done something wrong. "That's what the movie is about, that she is made to feel responsible. There is a real little girl who that is happening to right now." The reaction to the film was a turning point, forcing her to answer the question, Do you live to make yourself happy, or do you live to make other people happy? All the busybody calumny was "very, very upsetting—horrible" for her mother, she says.
Still, the overprotectiveness of her fans is, within limits, understandable. In growing up on film, she has become like the younger cousin we see every Thanksgiving: fixed in our minds somewhere between not quite adolescent and not quite grown-up. So much so that when people meet her they frequently exclaim, "You're so tall!" She rolls her eyes at this. "Actually, I'm not even that tall," only five-foot-four, though she's in reasonably high heels today, her pants rolled up stylishly. "But compared to a childI am!" She laughs with sarcastic glee. "I feel as if one day I'm going to be married and pregnant and people will still be saying, 'Oh my god, you're so tall!'
"People don't know me as much as they think they do," she goes on. "I'll be walking down the street and someone will say hello, and I'll go, 'Oh, hi!' I'll think I must know this person if they said hello, but then you realize, I don't know them." She laughs. "For the most part people are nice and respectful. But sometimes… Once I was sitting in a booth like this one and a girl sat down." She gestures at the seat next to her, which means she was blocked in. Fanning giggles at this further absurdity. "I'm also a real personal-space person."
I ask her what happened next. "She said, 'Are you her? Or do you just look like her?' I'm eating my pancakes, and I say something like, 'Uh, I am her?' " Her giggle is almost a squeal now. "I'm thinking, Will you just get up? I will say whatever you want!" And yet, she adds, "as uncomfortable as that was—and I can never, ever imagine doing that—I almost love having that kind of experience, too. Who is the person who would come and sit in a stranger's booth? That is very interesting to me."
IN SOME WAYS THE FANNING SISTERS ARE A HIGHLY unconventional result of the most conventional of parental impulses. And, strangely enough, it all worked out. "If we had been tennis players, our mother would have done the same things," Fanning says. "I know she secretly watches tennis players and thinks, 'Oh, I wish they were my daughters.' But I didn't have the talent."
For the record, Elle, who is 16 and does a great deal of ballet, is the more athletic of the two. "I am just missing the drive for athletics, which is half of what being an athlete is," Dakota says. "I have that sportsmindedness, that work ethic, for what I do." Which is living in an imagined world and an observed world. "I'm definitely in my own head," she says. "I'm a watcher."
She's also supremely focused, but that probably goes without saying. "Dakota's a really self-determined person," says Reichardt, who was persuaded to cast her in Night Moves, despite reservations that Fanning was too young for the part, by the actress herself. "She told me, 'I'm not too young—that's my role.' " Which is why the director finds it utterly believable that Fanning told her parents they should move to L.A. when she was five. Or that she started reading at two, skipped kindergarten, and went directly to first grade, and was a tiny, intense star by six. When Fanning was eight, the self-described nonathlete played a competitive swimmer in 2004's Man on Fire (with Denzel Washington) and willed herself to win the races against the extras, who were actual competitive swimmers. She also aced the teenage popularity contest at her North Hollywood high school, despite years of on-set tutoring. She got off to a rough start socially (initially bringing her books to school in a geeky rolling backpack), but before long Fanning was a cheerleader, then a homecoming queen who went to prom with a gaggle of girlfriends.
Just before we meet I watch the final film in the Twilight saga—perhaps the last mortal on earth to do so, or maybe just the oldest—in which Fanning plays Jane, a nasty, uptight, lay-down-the-law bloodsucker. Based on my Fanning Studies, I joke that she's not unlike the speedily maturing half-human, half- vampire superbaby her offscreen buddy Kristen Stewart gives birth to toward the end of the movie. Fanning laughs warily. Okay, maybe not. But how many 20-year-olds have Steven Spielberg as their career rabbi?
This fall Fanning stars in The Last of Robin Hood, playing an aspiring 16-year-old actress, Beverly Aadland, in the declining years of the old Hollywood studio system. (Weirdly, the film was shot in Atlanta, so she got to see "home" and relatives for the first time in seven years.) The movie is based, in part, on a true story and a book, The Big Love, that was written by Beverly's mother Florence, a one-legged former chorus girl who, in the late '50s, essentially pimped her daughter out to the still dashing but drug-addled Errol Flynn (played by Kevin Kline). "One of the things that makes the movie palatable is that Dakota doesn't play her Lolita-ish," says Susan Sarandon, who plays Florence. "I don't know if the word is mature, but she gives Beverly a certain grace."
Fanning is quick to make the distinction between Florence and her own mother. Joy was, if anything, overprotective of both of her daughters. She taught them the value of privacy; neither was allowed to be on Facebook. As a result Fanning finds excessive sharing puzzling, and also self-defeating for actors. "Any part of an artistic business is made better by there being a little mystery. That's what movies are about."
Joy was different in another important way. While she encouraged her kids, she never pushed. "She realized I had the potential to do things that were bigger than the life she knew. And she recognized that in Elle, too. When she made that initial move with me to L.A., she completely gave up her own dreams and started over in a place she never imagined living. I mean, Los Angeles, to a person from 20 minutes southeast of Atlanta, might as well be Africa." (Reichardt says that her first thought when she met Joy was that she "looks like June Carter Cash.")
Would Fanning want her own children to be actors? "The only reason I wouldn't is that I know how much work it took from my mom: driving me to auditions every day all over the city, making sure I had the right thing to wear," she says. "I am the person I am because my mom put that energy into me to make sure that I was not going crazy and that people weren't taking advantage of me. I plan on having a career, so if I couldn't dedicate that time to my children, I wouldn't."
Perhaps not. But it could be that, for all Fanning's maturity, she is too young to have figured out that if her children wanted to be actors there's not a lot she could do about it. Like anyone her age—and despite a career much further along than those of her friends—she is still trying to figure out just what her seemingly limitless future might hold. She chose to enroll at Gallatin because it allows her to study independently as she keeps acting. The school's flexibility lets her explore, with an adviser, what interests her. (Surprise, surprise: Fanning is a self-starter in college, too.) Her self-directed major is, loosely, a study of women in the entertainment industry. When I tell her this seems pretty meta to me, she agrees: "I'm obviously a woman in film, a part of this industry. I didn't want to stop working to go to school, and I didn't want to not go to school, so I thought that if I had them inform each other it would be interesting."
One of her study projects was on female directors. The question she was trying to answer was, Do women directors make a particular kind of film? "It wasn't, like, Are female directors better than male directors? It was more, Do we think that female directors make films to further women, or do they just make films they like?" (Her humdrum but correct conclusion: It depends on the director.)
Fanning shares a restless intelligence with Jodie Foster. Like the older former child star, she seems too brainy to be satisfied with just acting. And sure enough, she does want to direct and produce her own movies one day. (No surprise to Sarandon, who points out that Fanning often seemed more experienced than The Last of Robin Hood's two co-directors, who are twice Fanning's age.) In the process she hopes to right a prevalent wrong. "It's very hard to find a movie about a strong woman—one that doesn't have anything to do with a guy or the love of a guy or the heartbreak of a guy," she says. "Is that the only crisis that women deal with: love and loss of love and sadness? There's more to life than that."