When Dakota Fanning was just 7 years old, she took home her first acting award, besting a fellow by the name of Daniel Radcliffe for the Best Young Actor/Actress prize from the Broadcast Film Critics Association for her heartstring-tugging turn as the child of a developmentally disabled father, played by Sean Penn, in I Am Sam.
She marched onstage to give her acceptance speech, but couldn’t reach the microphone. So presenter Orlando Bloom, ever the dashing gent, held her up to the mic while she delivered her thank-yous. The Lord of the Rings star was expecting something short and sweet, a speech befitting a child of her age. Not so fast. The precocious Fanning unleashed an articulate, two-minute allocution paying respect to her trio of agents, managerial team, fellow nominees, and even the executives at distributor New Line Cinema. The bizarre scene, a twentysomething Ken doll propping up this remarkably aware little kid as she delivered a comprehensive acceptance speech, had the room of Hollywood A-listers in stitches.
By age 10, after learning Spanish to play Denzel Washington’s surrogate daughter in Man on Fire, the whole “wise beyond her years” designation had become terribly cliché. Roger Ebert even called the ethereal blonde “a pro.”
Ten years and three Twilight films later, Fanning has morphed from Hollywood darling to reliably excellent indie star—a career about-face she made after finding herself transfixed by the largely improvised Blue Valentine. Her latest—and arguably best—film is Night Moves, in theaters May 30. It's written and directed by Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff), who’s fast become the premier portraitist of the Pacific Northwest.
Fanning stars as Dena, an East Coast trust fund baby turned environmental activist who bankrolls a dangerous mission to destroy a hydroelectric dam with a boat (named Night Moves) full of explosives. She’s joined by the alpha of the group, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s ex-military, and Josh Stamos, an organic farmer-cum-environmental radical played by Jesse Eisenberg. The mission doesn’t go as planned, and the gang—in particular Dena and Josh—struggles to cope with the fallout.
“For Kelly’s sake, she would want me to say that they’re not ‘eco-terorrists,’ and she doesn’t know what an ‘eco-terrorist’ is,” says Fanning. “The things that people do for causes result in very small changes and sometimes you never even see any results, so for these people, they need something that’s immediate that they can see. They want to make a big statement, unlike turning off the light switch or not running your air conditioning all day.”
The film was shot on location in Medford and Ashland, Oregon, over five weeks—with Fanning completing her scenes in three-and-a-half. While Reichardt is a very naturalistic filmmaker who lets her films and characters breathe—a true rarity in the superhero era—she’s also a fast worker, usually only requiring one or two takes per scene, which Fanning describes as “an intense experience.” The actors stayed in the same motel, and Eisenberg and Fanning drove to work each day. And there was just one big trailer for the entire crew.
Aside from the chance to work with one of the film world’s most underrated directors in Reichardt, Fanning, who’s enrolled at New York University, was also attracted to the film’s environmentalism themes—especially when it comes to climate change.
“We can’t continue to take from our planet the way we do and not give anything back, and the idea of, ‘Oh, but it’s fine, I won’t have to deal with it in my lifetime,’ well, you need to think about the future generations who will have to deal with it,” she says.
As far as NYU goes, Fanning is majoring in women’s studies with a focus, interestingly enough, on “the portrayal of women in film and culture.”
“It’s something I’ve studied and thought about a lot,” she says. “It’s rare to see women in a film who are not somehow validated by a male, or discussing a male, or heartbroken by a male, or end up being happy because of a male. It’s interesting to think about, and it’s very true. Of course men are a part of women’s lives, and that’s fine, but it’s important to see strong, independent women who are making their own choices and aren’t completely at the mercy of men. It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, does this guy love me?’ It should be, ‘Do I love the guy?’”
She pauses. “It’s about both genders being equal. There’s a history where when women get to a certain age in this industry, the roles become strictly the mother, the wife, or the older single woman. There should be more of a variety because there are so many different paths that humans take and they should be given a platform to be seen.”
At just 20, Fanning’s managed to act alongside some of the finest actors around, from Tom Cruise, who gave her her very first cellphone as an 11th birthday present, to Robert De Niro, who gifted her with a doll that resembled her character in their film Hide and Seek. Fanning, ever the old soul, returned the gestures by knitting the veteran actors scarves.
The best career advice she’s received, she says, came from Steven Spielberg, who directed her alongside Cruise in a big-budget remake of War of the Worlds.
“I worked with him when I was young and we’ve kept in touch—he’s a very big part of my life,” says Fanning. “I was going through a very difficult time and he told me, ‘This isn’t the first difficult time you’re going to go through—there will be another one—but you just have to keep following your path and experiencing your own journey.’”
Fanning describes the “difficult time” as “very personal” and wouldn’t elaborate further. Despite the dark period, presumably around the time of 2007’s Hounddog, wherein the young actress and her parents received harsh criticism for allowing her to feature in a dark film where her character is raped, she says she’s still very much in love with acting and doesn’t foresee a career change anytime soon.
“When I’m working, even though it’s sometimes challenging and difficult, there’s still no place I would rather be,” she says, cracking a large smile. “That’s how you know you really love what you’re doing—when you’re at the lowest point, you’ve slept for two hours, it’s zero degrees, you’re starving, you’re tired, everybody’s snapping at each other, and you think, ‘I still love being here.’”