At 23 years old, Dakota Fanning is a Hollywood veteran. She’s been acting for 18 years, since she was five. Her first job was a Tide commercial. She’s done blockbusters like “War of the Worlds” and played evil Jane Volturi in the “Twilight” movies. Nowadays she mostly does indies. (She will be in the star-studded “Ocean’s Eight,” and she’s producing and starring in Kirsten Dunst’s film of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”) But even now, so long into her career, she’s trying new things.
So it goes in “Brimstone,” a brutal, epic Western, in which she plays a mute frontierwoman who’s mysteriously pursued by a scarred, murderous preacher played by Guy Pearce.
“I knew there were challenges to it that I was excited about,” Fanning tells us. “You want to push yourself to do something different. It was a lot of fun to push myself.”
The challenges were many: Filming in Berlin, Austria and Hungary during the dead of winter. Riding horses up muddy hills. Learning sign language. And playing a character who spends most of the film unable to speak, communicating only with facial reactions.
“That was what I was most excited about,” she admits. Over the last handful of years, Fanning has been drawn to quiet, withdrawn characters; see her turns in “The Last of Robin Hood,” “Effie Gray” and “Every Secret Thing.” (That hasn’t always been the case: In “American Pastoral,” she had to deal with a severe speech impediment.) To her, dialogue isn’t the most interesting part of acting.
“In real life we convey more things with our body language and our facial expressions and the vibes we give out,” she explains. “That speaks so much louder than the words we’re saying. It’s not often you get to explore that in movies, but it’s such a huge part of communication in general.”
Indeed, our chat with Fanning takes place over the phone, meaning I can’t see what she’s doing. “We might have a completely different conversation if we were in person,” she says. You would be able to see that I talk with my hands a lot. I’m always partly talking to the air with my hands.”
One thing that wasn’t new for Fanning was doing a period film. She argues that sometimes it’s trickier to make a film set in the present.
“Sometimes when you make a movie set in the time when you yourself live, it’s more of a struggle to figure out how that character is different from you,” Fanning explains. “You bring too much of yourself into it, or you bring your own biases sometimes. When you make a film set in a completely different era, where you don’t recognize the clothes or the environment you’re in, you feel different than you usually do. It’s easier to put yourself in a different headspace or a different way of thinking.”
Clothes help. “It’s always striking how confining and constrictive old clothing is,” she says. Indeed, she had to wear a corset. She’s done it before, and she had to do it again for part of “Brimstone.” But it’s never fun.
“When you’re wearing a corset, you move differently, you speak differently,” she says. “This was my second time wearing one, so I was a little used to it. But the sweet relief of taking it off at the end of the day is never lost on me.”
She also had to use a gun — also not her first time. “I’m not the biggest fan of that, to be honest,” Fanning says. “The precautions they have to take on films when there’s guns involved, it’s serious business. Even though there are blanks in there, blanks can really injure people. When they say cut, I hand it off. I don’t want to have it in my hands for any longer than I have to. I don’t look forward to those scenes because they just make me nervous.”
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