Interview: Dakota Fanning, star of Now is Good

Dakota Fanning arriving for the premiere of Now is Good. Picture: PA
Dakota Fanning arriving for the premiere of Now is Good. Picture: PA
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Unlike many child stars, Dakota Fanning has grown into an actor with an impressive range, and her new film, a small British project, gives her the chance to reflect on mortality. By Chitra Ramaswamy

It’s a disarming experience talking to Dakota Fanning about death. The Hollywood actor is just 18 years old and as full of beans as a puppy. She giggles like your typical teenager and is as wholesome as your average child star. Yet here we are in a London hotel suite talking about her latest role in British weepy Now is Good, which has forced her to face illness, sadness, and the end of her life.

Tessa (Dakota Fanning) and Father (Paddy Considine) in Now is Good

Tessa (Dakota Fanning) and Father (Paddy Considine) in Now is Good

“One of the reasons I wanted to play this character is because she is so full of life, yet her life is ending,” Fanning says, hugging her knees. “That dichotomy interested me. It means she is feeling a lot of different things at any given time. For an actor, that is a great challenge to portray. I wanted to go through that emotional journey with her.”

She claps a hand to her mouth and giggles. “I always talk about my characters like they’re real people,” she says. Then she shrugs. “But they are real to me.”

In Now is Good, based on the novel Before I Die by Jenny Downham, Fanning plays Tessa, a 17-year-old girl with a terminal illness.

Determined to live a little before she goes, she abandons chemotherapy and instead makes a bucket list, the kind any teenager might scrawl on their bedroom wall (lose virginity, take drugs, dance all night).

Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in 'War of the Worlds". Picture: Reuters

Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in 'War of the Worlds". Picture: Reuters

It’s a sweet, small-scale and slightly uneven British affair, written and directed by Ol Parker and co-starring Paddy Considine, Olivia Williams, and Jeremy Irvine. And it will have audiences bawling like babies.

Fanning had to don a cropped wig and an occasionally wobbly English accent for the role. She appears in almost every single frame, runs the gamut from selfish teenager to hollow-eyed patient, and didn’t get a day off during filming.

The result is a beautifully controlled performance: sensitive, subtle, almost spooky in its sincerity.

How did she cope with such distressing material? “It is really heavy,” she acknowledges. “You have all this stuff going on in the back of your head but that’s the trick of acting. And yes, there were times when it was about thinking about the end of my life, and sure those moments were difficult, but I’m an actor. I can tap into that and then tap out of it.”

We meet the night after the London premiere of Now is Good, when Fanning took to the red carpet in a glamorous sequin dress: cue lots of obvious headlines about the child starlet who is “all grown up”.

When I enter the room, she is in serious conversation with her agent, heads bowed and voices lowered. I stand around for a moment feeling like a spare part. She does, indeed, seem all grown up.

She is wearing a shirt with ruffled shoulders and a bow tie, her look lying somewhere between fashion-forward and Japanese schoolgirl. She has become something of a fashion muse since fronting an ad campaign for a Marc Jacobs perfume with the bottle pressed between her thighs. It caused a certain amount of controversy because she was 14 at the time. She has very long blonde hair and a heart-shaped face almost cartoonish in its perfection: porcelain skin, saucer eyes, rosebud mouth.

She jumps up, fixes me with a steady gaze, and gives me a sturdy handshake. So far, so adult. But then she throws herself on the sofa, draws her legs up, and sighs heavily. The global stance of the teenager.

“Sorry about that,” she says with a giggle. “We were just deciding what to have for lunch. I’m starving.”

It’s a transitional time for Fanning, who is still in that awkward phase between toothy child actor and fully fledged Hollywood star. On the one hand she is a screen veteran who starred in her first film, I Am Sam, with Sean Penn at the age of seven. On the other, she has yet to play a leading lady in love. But some think she is growing up too fast; she has been criticised, for example, for playing a rape victim when she was 13. The pressures are great, and the world often seems to be waiting for her to slip up.

It may be waiting some time. “The other day it popped up on my news feed that I was photographed not wearing a bra under my shirt,” she says, and starts laughing her head off. “There was, like, a poll … should young women wear bras in public or not?”

She rolls her eyes. “Look, I did not feel like wearing a bra. I did not wear a bra. And guess what? You don’t get to tell me whether to wear a bra or not. It’s none of your business. I mean, why are you looking?”

She’s hit her stride now, and raises her voice. “People wonder why famous people go through lows. It’s because people care about whether they’re wearing a bra. It’s because they’re called fat in a magazine. It’s totally understandable. My responsibility lies in my acting, not in wearing a shirt without a bra in New York City. I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but I don’t care. And you know what? Sometimes I wear the same shirt over again, too. I don’t throw my clothes out after one wear. Shocking, I know.”

Fanning had a Southern Baptist upbringing in the small town of Conyers, just outside Atlanta. She was a prodigious child, like the young Jodie Foster with whom she is often compared.

By the age of two, she could read, talk to her mother “like we were best friends” and play a mean game of tennis.

“My parents never talked to me like I was a kid,” she says. “Maybe that’s why I’ve been seen as mature.” When she was two? Fanning laughs. “I know. I think I was a little bit scary. But you know, I was my mum’s first child. She thought it was normal.”

The family was sporty rather than arty and it was expected that Fanning would become a professional tennis player. But it was not to be.

“I was being groomed to be a tennis player for sure,” she says chirpily. “My grandparents and parents realised I had a natural athletic ability and if I was forced to do it, I could probably do well. But all I wanted was to play pretend. So after a while they accepted I was going to be different to what they thought.”

And so it turned out. By the age of five Fanning was starring in so many adverts her family moved to Los Angeles. “We got there ten days before my sixth birthday,” she recalls. Wasn’t she intimidated arriving in LA after life in Conyers? “No, it was the most fun thing ever,” she says, her eyes widening. “I felt completely at home.”

Fanning went on to become the youngest nominee yet for a Screen Actors Guild Award. She now has more films under her belt than birthdays and every actor who shares a set with her is blown away by her talent.

Steven Spielberg has referred to her as “an old soul”. Emma Thompson, who co-stars with her in upcoming British flick Effie, says she is “the real thing”. Tom Cruise, with whom she co-starred in War of the Worlds, gushed that she is “a terrific person” and “enormously talented”.

As an aside, she is also an excellent knitter and her scarves hang around the necks of Cruise, Denzel Washington, and Robert De Niro.

Parker, who directs her in Now is Good, calls her “a little genius” and someone who is “incapable of a false moment on screen”. As with all great child actors, Fanning’s maturity, wisdom, and talent are completely at odds with her age. She can convince us as a Bowie-obsessed, pill-popping glam rocker in The Runaways or as a girl in love with her pet pig in Charlotte’s Web.

Doing so means feeling things she has never actually felt, and understanding things she has never experienced. Where does it come from?

“I don’t think I can explain it,” she admits. “I just understand things. But I think when I’m working and having all these emotions and things are coming out, I have this feeling that it’s what I’m meant to be doing. It’s a powerful thing to know exactly where you’re supposed to be. When I’m working I have this strange feeling of calm. There is nothing else to do but this thing. No phones, no friends, no family. You’re just doing it and it feels so right. I’m able to be my full self on a set.”

Her younger sister, Elle, who is also an acclaimed actress, has spoken about Dakota’s uncanny powers of observation. Apparently she always remembers what strangers are wearing and can imitate their accents and mannerisms to boot.

She laughs raucously. “I am a watcher and a listener. That’s what I do. I think I naturally enjoy the details of people. I notice when someone says a word too much, things like that. It’s just who I am. I don’t really have to work at it.”

Does she find this ability mysterious? She nods vigorously and starts playing with her hair. “It is a mystery to me. It’s kind of weird. But this is my career. I guess I’m supposed to be able to do it.”

• Now is Good is in cinemas from tomorrow