In "Charlotte's Web," Dakota Fanning's farm girl grabs an ax from her father as he is about to slaughter a runt piglet. "I will not let...
In “Charlotte’s Web,” Dakota Fanning’s farm girl grabs an ax from her father as he is about to slaughter a runt piglet.
“I will not let you kill him,” her Fern declares. Fanning’s first take of the scene wowed director Gary Winick, who told his charge it was better than Meryl Streep. But this was a children’s movie. He asked her to do it again.
“The next take, she was a 10,” Winick recalls. “She totally simplified it and got it to be innocent and instinctual.”
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That is Fanning, the technician and the natural. To some, she is the total acting prodigy package. With the same blue eyes, blond hair and spritely appeal, she is perhaps the Jodie Foster of her generation, or just a few heavyweight roles away.
Fanning already has held her own with co-stars Robert De Niro (“Hide and Seek”), Tom Cruise (“War of the Worlds”), Denzel Washington (“Man on Fire”) and Sean Penn (“I Am Sam”). She is doing her part to restore the good name of child actors, often recognized for offscreen troubles more than onscreen talent.
“I don’t really know about other child actors and the mistakes that they make,” she says. “I can’t really think for anyone else but myself. I do movies.”
Fanning, who turns 13 in February, is able to mix kid-friendly and thriller fare with smart indies. The trick will be to sustain momentum. She says the roles will grow with her.
“I don’t think of myself as famous,” she says in a recent phone conversation. “I just enjoy what I do. I love that people give me the opportunity to be in their movies.”
If her next venture is any indication, she is willing to take the transition head-on. In the small-budget “Hounddog,” which premiered at Sundance, she appears in a rape scene. Her agent has trumpeted the role as Oscar-worthy. No Method angst here. Fanning was able to shed the uncomfortable on-set violence the way a peer might toss aside a video game.
“I’m an actress,” she says. “I’m playing someone different than myself. When they say cut, it’s all over.”
“Charlotte’s Web,” adapted from the 1952 E.B. White barnyard classic of an underdog pig named Wilbur and a smart spider named Charlotte, offers more wholesome rewards. Winick needed authentic emotion to carry the human face of his $80 million “Babe”-style version. (Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and others provide the animal voices.)
“You will never not believe Dakota in a scene,” the director says. “That is rare in any actor.”
Off-camera, Fanning benefits from a positive cast of characters around her, Winick says. “Stage mom” often conjures images of a starry-eyed bully grinding the spirit of child and performance, but her mother, Joy, is apparently the poster woman for showbiz parenting.
“She isn’t in the business,” Dakota said. “She’s just my mom. She’s my best friend, my biggest role model. She’s done so much for me.”
Dakota has a friendly rival in sister Elle, age 8, who has played the younger Dakota in the Steven Spielberg miniseries “Taken” and “I Am Sam.” (Elle plays her granddaughter in a flash-forward scene of “Charlotte’s Web.”)
The family’s start in entertainment took root when Joy nudged Dakota into a community playhouse near their Conyers, Ga., home. The director recommended she join an agency. The agency suggested that the family give Los Angeles a trial run. Intending to stay for just six weeks, the Fannings settled there. Dakota landed a Tide commercial by age 5, appeared on “E.R.” in 2000 and made her major screen debut in 2001’s “I Am Sam.” Her turn as the normally intelligent daughter of a man with mental retardation (Penn) immediately seized the studios’ attention.
The stakes have risen considerably. While her support team stashes away her millions until she is of age, she shoulders more and more responsibility for selling a movie to the public. “I think she is aware,” Winick says.
Dakota greets the subject of ticket-take with a verbal shrug, insisting she just hopes people will go see her films.
“I know of course that I make money on movies — it’s not what motivates me to do movies,” she says. “I don’t pay attention to that. I’ve never been talked to about it, and I don’t want to be yet.”
Her Southern accent emerges along with unfailing optimism. But don’t mess with this pint-sized thespian. Comedian Kathy Griffin angered the Fanning camp when she joked during the Golden Globes that Dakota was in rehab. The reverberations climbed to the top of the showbiz food chain, with Spielberg demanding an apology on behalf of the family.
Perhaps the absurd and obviously untrue shtick hit a nerve because of so many child-actor casualties before her. To hear Dakota tell it, she’s just another kid.
“I’m not always making movies,” adds the young star. “It’s only sometimes one a year, and I’m always doing other things as well. I’m traveling, doing piano lessons, Spanish lessons. I’m not always on the set.”
When the cameras roll, it never feels like work, she explains. But she looks forward to calling the shots. “One day in the future,” says Dakota, “I’d love to direct.”