The (Very) Talented Dakota Fanning

The “Ripley” star on the lessons she's learned about acting—and life—over a 25-year career.

Dakota Fanning was just 5 years old on the set of her first project, a Tide commercial she scored after answering the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” at her audition. “All I wanted was mechanical pencils, and I think they chose me because I gave a weirder, more specific answer,” she tells us. In between setups, she heard the director call out for his “hero girl.”

“He was like, ‘Where’s hero girl? Can we get hero girl in here?’ ” Fanning recalls. “My mom and I, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s so cute. I’m a hero. That’s sweet.’ ” 

It was only later that she learned “hero” is a production term for a particularly important prop. She was essentially sharing call sheet space with the detergent bottle being used in close-ups. “It wasn’t not a compliment,” Fanning says with a laugh. “But it wasn’t exactly specific to me.

That was the first of a lifetime of lessons for Fanning, whose on-set education started early and never quite stopped. Her brief stint as a commercial kid star led to a trip from her home state of Georgia to Los Angeles to give pilot season a shot. At the time, she assumed she’d return home once the gigs stopped coming. As it turned out, they never did. 

“I feel like that’s how it happens sometimes,” she says. “You’re just present day to day, and then all of a sudden I’m doing ‘I Am Sam’ with Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer—which is a very different thing from being the ‘hero girl’ in a Tide commercial.” 

“It has always been, even now, about holding onto that childlike imagination, because I really think that’s what acting is at the end of the day.”

In the decade that followed, Fanning was quite literally Hollywood’s poster child—which is to say, if you walked past a piece of movie marketing in the early aughts, there she was, promising a performance well beyond her years. Her turn in the aforementioned “I Am Sam” (2001) earned her a SAG Award nod for female supporting actor at only 7 years old, making her the youngest individual SAG nominee in history. In 2004, she stood toe-to-toe with Denzel Washington in Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire.” A year later, she had top billing in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi blockbuster “War of the Worlds” opposite Tom Cruise, then sparred with Robert De Niro in John Polson’s psychological thriller “Hide and Seek.” 

Today, Fanning remains a commanding onscreen presence. Case in point: her multilayered performance on Netflix’s thriller “Ripley,” Steven Zaillian’s limited series adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Fanning plays the distrustful Marge Sherwood across from Andrew Scott's con man, Tom Ripley. 

Dakota Fanning

But reminiscing is in Fanning’s nature; it’s tough to discuss the actor she is now without first walking the long and winding road it took to get here. “The different chapters of my life are kind of defined by the movies that I was doing [at the time],” she explains. 

The actor is a serial souvenir collector. There’s a dress from “I Am Sam” framed on one wall of her home and a stuffed teddy bear from “Man on Fire” in a glass box upstairs. On her phone, she keeps a transcript of a letter she once received from Jodie Foster—a North Star for any preteen actor who’s made it in the industry. And while Fanning has never shared its contents with anyone else, it is “something that I go back to all the time," she says. "When I feel down or lost about something, I go back to that.” 

For her, these mementos are reminders that she’s done the work and will do the work again, which is especially important for someone who’s never quite pinned down what her “acting process” is. “I don’t mean this to sound annoying, but I do think that sometimes, people just have a natural instinct for certain things,” Fanning says. “I think that I did have that [as a kid]. And it has always been, even now, about holding onto that childlike imagination, because I really think that’s what acting is at the end of the day.

"Sometimes I’m like, Should I be doing more? But then I think, No, I can’t change it now," she continues. Then, more candidly: “I feel scared to change [my process], and I also sometimes feel scared to define it, because then it feels like I have to do the same thing every time. By not being able to put my finger on it, it gives me the freedom to do whatever I want.”

Fanning received her “formal” education from the murderers’ row of Oscar winners and screen legends she’s collaborated with over the nearly three decades of her career. The lessons that stuck along the way, she says, each had to do with “the particular environment, the director, the tone of that set, and the other actors that you’re working with.” 

“War of the Worlds,” for example, was an education in being present while surrounded by blue screens. “[Spielberg] is about the emotion first and about what the characters are experiencing. The actors aren’t there to service the special effects; rather, the special effects are there to heighten the story,” Fanning says. 

She got a different glimpse of the auteur approach 14 years later when she played Charles Manson acolyte Squeaky Fromme in Quentin Tarantino’s ensemble comedy “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” “I don’t bring my phone on set usually, but your phone’s completely not allowed [on a Tarantino project]. So nobody’s on their phone. That brings a different energy; you’re present in a different way.”

Dakota Fanning photoshoot

When Fanning did briefly pursue a college education, majoring in women’s studies at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study from 2011 to 2014, the decision was far more personal than professional. “Moving to New York and attending NYU for the time that I did… I just felt like I didn’t want those years of my life to be devoid of the normal experiences that everyone else has,” she says. 

“There are just some experiences that I didn’t get to have,” Fanning explains. (She thinks often of the time her mother taught her how to use a locker before starting ninth grade.) “People in life are constantly talking about, ‘Oh, when I moved here for college,’ or, ‘My prom’ or, ‘This party….’ I didn’t feel like, just because I found a career at an early age, I shouldn’t have those memories. I’d always dreamed of living in New York, and those were some of the best years of my life.”

Filling your cup, Fanning says, “just makes you a more well-rounded, fuller person; and that can only help your work.” 

Nowadays, the type of work she seeks out is also an exercise in self-fulfillment. “Sometimes I’ll read [a script], and it isn’t that it’s not good or that it won’t be great with somebody else…” she says. “I just [experienced] this the other day. I said, ‘I just don’t know what this [script] is trying to say. Not that everything has to have a message—I don’t mean in a moral or ethical way. I just wasn’t sure what this particular [project] was saying or what the point was. I couldn’t figure that out, so I wasn’t the right person to be in it.”

“If you can still say to yourself that there’s no place [you] would rather be, even though [acting] technically isn’t fun at this moment, I think you should still be doing this.”

For Fanning, it’s vital to understand the why behind the what on every job she takes. “When you don’t know what you’re saying, then you can just feel like a clown in a costume. That’s the only way I know how to describe it,” she explains. “Being an actor, sometimes you are a clown in a weird costume doing weird stuff—that’s part of it. 

“But if you can hold onto why you’re doing it, then it doesn’t feel weird or goofy or embarrassing. I’m usually just trying to not be aware of the ridiculous aspects of what I’m doing, and that usually comes from [having a] deep understanding of why you’re doing it.”

When Fanning read the scripts for “Ripley,” that why was easy to answer. “I’m a big director person; I love that relationship. There’s nothing better than talking to a director and really connecting and getting an experience out of that bond,” she says. “When I heard it was Steven Zaillian, I really didn’t need to hear anything more.” 

The Oscar-winning writer of “Schindler’s List” and “Moneyball,” as well as the co-creator of HBO’s “The Night Of,” wrote and directed all eight episodes of “Ripley.” The story, previously adapted to film by Anthony Minghella in 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," follows parasitic social climber Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) as he worms his way into the lives of the wealthy Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn) and his girlfriend, Marge Sherwood (Fanning). 

Ripley

“Ripley” Credit: Stefano Cristiano Montesi/Netflix

It’s a tale steeped in deception, populated by characters who say one thing while meaning another. For Fanning, the unique challenge became communicating all of those layers at once. “The scripts are written from Tom’s point of view, and he’s this unreliable narrator,” she explains. “As the people playing the other characters, there are a lot of blanks that you’re filling in.” Often, playing Marge called for nothing more than a shifty glance or an uncertain eyebrow raise. 

“It’s not a super word-heavy piece,” Fanning says. “It’s about the silences and what’s not being said—the emotions underneath—which is what I actually love doing as an actor.”

As she has countless times before, she looked to her collaborators for a starting point. “Steve and I would talk all the time, and sometimes I would just throw some-thing out there and wonder if that’s what he wanted,” she recalls. “And then he would be like, ‘I think it’s good that Marge knows this but not that yet.’ It was about mapping the timeline.” 

Fanning’s character is one of the few people who doesn’t buy into the bullshit Tom is peddling. The actor relished the chance to dig into that dynamic with Scott, who shares a playful approach to even the darkest material. “Andrew and I are similar in our way of thinking. There was a lot of laughter,” she says. 

“In some of those scenes where Marge and [Tom] are going at it, Steven would call cut, and Andrew and I would just look at each other, enjoying the bitchiness. We had our inside jokes. I can’t exist on a set without that, and I don’t think Andrew can, either.”

That lightness is another essential piece of Fanning’s approach. “There are certain scenes where you can think about what you’re going to have for lunch, and then there are certain scenes where you can’t. You know the difference in the moment,” she says. “I try not to take myself too seriously with all this stuff. You do want to be respectful and do the best you can and make sure that you’re focused. 

Dakota Fanning cover

“But also, the experience of making something is time in my life that I can’t get back,” she adds. “So I want to make sure that I am enjoying my life, and it’s not all, every day, this very serious, heavy experience.”

Fanning has been taking this temperature check since her earliest acting days, from her first commercial work to "Ripley" and beyond. “I check in on every project, on the worst day of it, whether it’s freezing cold but you’re in a summer dress, or you’re sitting in the woods in a scary little tent by yourself with a weird heater in a folding chair,” she explains. “If you can still say to yourself that there’s no place [you] would rather be, even though this technically isn’t fun at this moment, I think you should still be doing this. And if you can’t say that, then you need to think about why.”

That mindset, more than anything, is what Fanning believes has kept her “sane and grounded” over the years. “It’s that I have some autonomy; and way more times than not, there’s still no place that I would rather be. When I’m on a set, when I’m working, there’s a sense of calm that comes over me, because everyone in my life that’s important to me knows where I am.”

And maybe the day will come when her answer changes. For now? “I’ll probably always be the ‘hero girl’ in the Tide commercial,” the actor says. “No matter what, this mechanical pencil–loving, crazy 5-year-old.” 

This story originally appeared in the Apr. 11 issue of Backstage Magazine. To hear our full conversation with Fanning, listen and subscribe to In the Envelope: The Actor's Podcast.

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