Actress Dakota Fanning is only 23 years old, but has already been a household name for years thanks to her roles in such varied films as I Am Sam, The Secret Life of Bees, and The Twilight Saga. Most recently, she starred in Brimstone and American Pastoral, a film based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name, as Merry Levov, a teenager who becomes involved in political terrorism; and next, she is collaborating with Kirsten Dunst on an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Here, Fanning opens up about these challenging roles, how she handles what people think about her, and more.
Lynn Hirschberg: In 2016 you starred in American Pastoral. How did the project evolve?
Dakota Fanning: So American Pastoral came to me a few years ago, with a different director and with Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly attached as actors to play my parents. So we were all three attached as actors for a while and this director ended up not being able to do it. It was one of those movies that like you kept thinking, “Oh, maybe I’m going to be working on it in the fall,” and then the fall would be there and then you wouldn’t be working on it and, “Oh, maybe it’s going to be in the spring.” It just kept getting pushed and pushed and pushed and then when that director fell out that’s when Ewan asked if he could direct it. And they said yes and he still wanted me to be in it–I definitely had a moment of like, “Oh no, what if he doesn’t want me to do it, like okay, that would be hard,” but he did so that’s that.
In the film, your character is in a cult. Was it difficult for you to go to play such a dark character?
So my character’s name is Merry, in the middle of the film she becomes a Jane. Jane-ism is basically a religion that believes that you do no harm to anything, so that even includes like not bathing because you would be doing harm to the water. They sometimes sweep the ground in front of them so they brush away any living being so they don’t step on them, they wear masks to not harm the air when they breathe, I had a mask that was made out of pantyhose, so it’s super intense. I definitely did have to go to some really dark places but as an actor that is what I look forward to and love doing the most because I like – it makes me feel like I’ve actually done something hard, and pushed myself and – so there’s a sequence in the movie when my character is at her lowest and I couldn’t wait to do those scenes. I was so excited and I could’ve done that the whole time.
Did you stop bathing or did you do anything particular to put yourself in the mood?
I was method by chance simply because I had no energy when I would get back because we were filming all those scenes in the middle of the night so I would kind of get back and not wash my hair and so I was kind of living weirdly as a Jane just by total coincidence, total accident, laziness. Um, but no, most of it is acting.
It’s really a heartbreaking film.
Yeah, Merry goes really dark and I think that Ewan is seeing as her father that pain of sort of losing your child and that there’s nothing you can do. Obviously – I mean, I don’t have kids, but I can imagine that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to a parent. So those scenes were tough, but they were also kind of inspiring and invigorating. I think Ewan and I felt really connected during those dark scenes as actors and as a director and an actor. My scenes are mostly only with Ewan and he was the director, and that was my first time having the person that you’re opposite direct you. I will really remember the experience of making this film for a lot of reasons but especially that because it was my first time ever having that happen and it couldn’t have been better; it was so wonderful. I loved getting to share that with him too.
How did your family feel watching the film?
Apparently my sister saw the film and had a really horrifying reaction to it like and she got really upset by it. Which I suppose I’m happy about that because that means like it moves somebody and even somebody that knows me as well as my sister that I could still make her feel that way, that was kind of exciting, but then I was like, “But you do the same thing, like what do you mean?” I wasn’t with [my parents] when they watched it. I can never really take compliments from my family for some reason. I’m always like, “Okay, thank you. Thanks, thanks, like glad you liked it, okay.” I don’t know why but it makes me really uncomfortable when they compliment me. It’s not that often to be honest but, my mom is so southern–you don’t take a compliment; you don’t brag. You just say thank you. So that’s how she is, she tells me in private but like not ever in front of another person.
Do you have trouble watching it yourself because I would think it would be hard to watch yourself in that movie?
I actually don’t have any trouble watching this movie. I don’t know what it is. I really love watching it each time. I’ve seen it three times now. Maybe because I just really don’t feel like myself. Like I have a stutter in the movie for a big portion of it, so I don’t really sound like myself and then later on I don’t look like myself so I think I really have some distance from it so maybe that’s why it’s easier to watch.
When you were a kid, I think most of the characters you played were pretty happy. Did you feel like it’s harder to convince people that you can be a darker character now?
I mean I’ve never really thought about whether I’m going to play a darker character or a lighter character. It just has been what it is. I think that I have always had to let go of caring what other people expect from me or caring what other people think that I can do because inevitably there are preconceived notions of who I am and what I’m capable of because I started out so young, which I think is unfair, of course, but I’ve let that go. I’ve let that go because I think that that would just drive me crazy and make me make choices for the wrong reasons, make choices to prove something, when in reality I don’t have anything to prove you know. I just let my work speak for itself and who I am speak for itself you know, like that’s all I can do. So I just try and let that go, but it’s been interesting because this film American Pastoral has been like a film that people have said, “Oh my god, you’re so – you’re finally so grown up!” and I’m like, “Okay, I guess.” Because Merry – actually when I play her – I start playing her at 16. I was playing someone younger than I actually was; I was 21 when I did the movie. You know, perception follows people no matter if you’re an actor or not. It’s just as human beings that we assume and put people in weird boxes without knowing them all the time. So I totally understand it and I’m guilty of it myself but I try and curb it because I know how it feels.
I’ve always felt like I was expected to be mature and wise beyond my years like an old soul, which people would say about me. It’s a compliment, but I didn’t have to try to be those things, you know. I never tried to be those things. Some days I am an old soul and some days I’m not.