Dakota Fanning is 22 and, yes, she’s still playing high schoolers. But her role in “American Pastoral” is the kind only someone like Fanning could play: both naive and well beyond her years. Based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel, it casts her as Merry, a 16-year-old in 1968 who's gone from a well-behaved kid raised by loving, progressive parents (Ewan McGregor, who also directed, and Jennifer Connelly) to an antiwar activist who goes on the run after a bomb she planted in sleepy New Jersey accidentally kills someone. Though set almost 50 years in the past, it speaks to our own times, when the country is once again in danger of falling apart.
Fanning speaks to us about playing fiery, not overthinking things and doing Merry’s intense stutter.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the most abrasive you’ve ever been onscreen before.
I think so too, yeah. [Laughs] It was actually pretty freeing. On one hand it was difficult, because she jumps from one extreme to another: from quiet to loud, from not angry to super angry. To make those transitions feel natural and free and not fake and phony was kind of a challenge. But once you get there and find the rhythm of those emotions, there was something freeing about it. She’s somebody who thrives on making people feel uncomfortable. That can be kind of fun to do. [Laughs]
This streamlines a novel that’s non-linear and filled with descriptions. But Roth’s prose seems like it could be a goldmine for playing someone as complex as Merry. You can always check the book.
I read those descriptions, but I also like to stay with the script when I’m making a film. For me it’s just about the inner life of the character. I let the script guide me in terms of facts, and then it’s about the emotions that happen when you’re there and when you’re connecting with another actor. There’s no replacement for that. There’s no way I can understand the character until you actually experience that. I think about as much as I can, but I really wait for the moment when I’m in the scene with Ewan and we’re connecting. That’s really powerful.
Do you tend to concentrate on paring it down and not overthink it?
That’s really how you can sum me up. I try not to overthink about it at all. [Laughs]
Not overthinking it might be the best way to play Merry, who does something that’s indefensible but who the film, like the book, does not judge.
I didn’t feel the need to relate to her or completely understand her. But I didn’t want to judge her. I also didn’t want to make her typical. I didn’t want it to be the typical character who does something bad and then they repent and feel bad and admit they’re wrong. That’s not very Roth, and that’s not very Merry. She’s uncompromising and unapologetic.