When Dakota Fanning burst onto the scene at age seven in 2011’s “I Am Sam,” she already had the poise of a seasoned actress. Though she’d only appeared in small television roles, Fanning gave Sean Penn a run for his money as his astute daughter. (She stole most of their scenes together). For a while, Fanning had a corner on the market playing precocious children in bigger Hollywood productions. Now, with 55 credits to her name, Fanning has transcended that ability. Her recent choices have been decidedly risky: she’s played a rape victim (“Hounddog”), delinquent teens (“Night Moves” and “The Runaways), and now a pregnant young woman alongside Richard Gere in “Franny,” which recently premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. We caught up with Fanning to discuss her Hollywood childhood, her commitment to strong roles, and her impending graduation from NYU.
We love you at Indiewire because we see you as someone who, from the very beginning, has made a big commitment to indie film and has always gone for the underdog and taken risks. What appeals to you about that kind of career, and what do you look for in a role?
Most of all, I just look for a really good story and really good characters. If it happens to be an independent movie, that’s wonderful. I definitely think independent film is very exciting, and you get to sometimes take bigger risks. So that’s always a challenge and something that I look forward to. I think it’s also about the director, and in this case, it’s the writer and the director, and connecting with the people that you’re going to be working with. So that’s what I always look for. It’s just happened to be independent movies, which I love doing. I have done movies that are really small and movies that are really big, and the experience—the core experience—is kind of the same. In the scenes it’s the same. I just love making films. I haven’t made any conscious choices to only do independent films, but I have done a fair share and I’ve loved every minute of it. Sometimes you do feel like because it is very small, the hours are long, there’s never enough time, there’s never enough money…. You feel like you’re in something together and that you’re there because everyone there really believes in the project and wants to be there. That is a really good feeling.
What drew you to “Franny,” specifically?
Meeting Andrew [Renzi]. I just connected with him right away and I really loved the script. I thought it was a beautifully written story, and I loved the character. I thought playing a girl who’s very young and has gotten pregnant and married, and is trying to start this life, would be a challenge. It’s something I’ve obviously never experienced. And also, again, working with Richard Gere is really exciting. He’s such an iconic actor and that really felt like it would be a wonderful opportunity. But I think most of all, Andrew. Andrew is really special and really talented. Getting to work with him was such a pleasure, and getting to know him was really amazing. We have a great friendship.
And what about working with Gere? He’s larger than life in this movie.
I was so excited to come to work every day. I think this role is such an amazing role for him and so I was just really, honestly excited to see what he was going to do every day and what he was going to say and how he was going to bring some of his eccentricities to life. I was really inspired by him each day. I would go back home and be like, “Wow, he’s such an amazing actor.” So much energy, and he’s so giving to you as an actor as well. He’ll stay extra to be there off-camera, even when it’s just for one line or one look for the other actor. That’s such an important part of acting, is giving to the other actors you’re working with. And he definitely does that.
Was there any actors in your career, growing up, that really turned a corner for you in some way? Or taught you an invaluable lesson?
I think you learn something from everybody that you’ve worked with. I really learned how to behave on-set through the people that I worked with, like the importance of being on time and the importance of being professional. I don’t bring my cell phone on set; I leave it in my trailer. I look at it at lunchtime, or in between when I’m away from the set. Little things like that. Working with Richard, the amount of himself that he gives to his character is really inspiring. And Robert De Niro, when I worked with him, he would always be there, off-camera. He was also really giving. So I learned that was important. It’s the little things that you pick up.
There’s a moment in “Franny” that I love a lot: Richard Gere’s character surprises you with his old house and the camera stays on you for a long time. You seem like you’re absorbing so many memories that are both painful and welcome. In moments like that, what’s actually going through your head?
Sometimes it’s hard to say what’s going through your head! [Laughs] As much as movies are about the words that you’re saying, they’re also about what’s not said, the silent moments. Just being able to feel what a person is feeling and being able to convey that, which can be difficult. In that moment, I guess I was trying to put myself in her shoes. How you would feel when your past just comes flooding back, and all of those emotions. But at the same time, nothing’s going through your head. I think that’s the mystery of acting, that I know a lot of actors feel: You don’t know exactly what it is, it’s just this magical thing that happens and you don’t think about it too much because you just want it to keep happening.
So you just show up on set and hope that you’ll go along for the ride?
You can prepare when you know that there’s something that you want to come across or know that this is “this moment in the movie,” or “this is going to be that turning point.” You know those basic things, and maybe how you would want to respond, but I think ultimately things change as well when you’re there and you discover different things. There’s another person, or multiple people who have different ideas about the scene, and they’re also in it and you react to what they’re going to do as well. That’s the fun part. You can prepare, but ultimately you’re probably going to throw most of that out the window because things change. Unless you’re doing something where you have to learn a skill or something like that.
So, you go to NYU. That’s where I went, too. What’s your college experience been like?
Oh, cool! Yeah, it’s been a balancing act for sure, but I go to Gallatin and they’ve been very flexible with my schedule and allowed me to do independent studies and take classes and sort of come in and out. Everybody’s been very understanding and supportive of that. It’s kind of what Gallatin was founded upon, so it’s really worked for me. I definitely want to finish. It’s hard to put pressure on yourself as to when, just because you try and do everything your best, but now I’m almost there.
And you’re studying women in film?
The portrayal of women in film. I’m doing an independent study on Hitchcock and seeing how he portrays women. It’s really cool. It’s been a journey. I’ve watched pretty much every Hitchcock film known to man. Well, not every one, but most of them. And yeah, it’s been really interesting to see the portrayal of women in his films but also just see how his filmmaking style evolved from his films that he made in England to his big Hollywood films.
What about the portrayal of women in film is interesting to you?
I think, as someone who wants to continue to be an actor hopefully forever — which is what I want to do, it’s what I love — it’s important to have diversity in the way that films portray women. There’s not just one path that a woman should take; there’s all different kinds of women, and just because you’re a woman in your 50’s doesn’t mean you have a child. Everyone is having a different experience and I think that as the world is changing and evolving, and people are learning and growing and accepting new things, I think that films should also reflect that. I’ve been lucky in that I feel like the films that I’ve done have been in line with what I believe, as far as women in film. As a young woman, sometimes you know that the part that you’re reading is just “the girlfriend” to the guy in it—and sometimes that’s great and totally fine, but there should also be more than that. Especially at the age that I am, which is like, you’re in between a lot of different stages in your life. A woman in her 20s is in this kind of limbo, and so [I look for parts] that aren’t just about finding a relationship to be in.
Do you want to direct one day?
I definitely do. I’ve always known that I want to be a director, but I’ve also learned that I would love to find my own material and develop that. Maybe not even be in it; developing projects, as well, instead of just being a passive person in your career, waiting for things to come along. That can be frustrating sometimes, and I’m looking forward to being very active on that side. I would love to direct one day. I value the relationship that I have with a director so much, and I would be really excited to be on the other end of that relationship.
What kind of stories do you think you would be ultimately drawn to?
It’s hard to say. One of my favorite movies is “Blue Valentine,” and I wish I could have directed that or been in it. It’s one of those where you get this, “Oh, it’s so good” — I loved that movie. Something like that would be amazing, but you never know. Maybe I’m a comedic director. You never know!
How did you develop a centered sense of self while growing up in the spotlight?
It can be difficult because your life is different than the majority of the world, but then you also have to have times when your life isn’t different. I was just saying upstairs in an interview, “Yes, I have a screening to go to tonight, and I’m giving interviews and I’m an actor and all of that, but I’ve got to pick up my dry cleaning tomorrow. I’ve got to take out my trash before I leave on Sunday for L.A.” I have those things on my mind, too. I think my parents did a really good job of keeping me grounded and I started living on my own when I was 18. Having to learn how to do things for yourself — I was never somebody where everybody just did everything for me. So it’s hard to put your finger on exactly, why, I am who I am. I think it’s just trying to find the balance and trying to maintain that balance. I’ve never felt a real relationship with fame. I would never refer to myself as a “famous person.” I started doing something at a young age and I’ve been able to continue. I guess being in the public eye comes with the job that I do, but I still don’t have a big relationship with fame. I am who I am, and my job is a part of who I am, but I try and also just be Dakota.