You're officially old: Dakota Fanning is playing pregnant women now. In "The Benefactor" the onetime child star, now 21, stars as young Olivia, who reconnects with the wealthy but troubled man (Richard Gere) who was responsible for the accidental death of her parents (Cheryl Hines and Dylan Baker).
“The stomach was weighted, so you felt some semblance of what it feels like to have something that’s not normal on your body,” Fanning tells us. “But if I said in an interview that I totally know what it’s like to be pregnant now, they would say, ‘No, you don’t,’ and they would be right. I have no idea. I was strapping it on and taking it off every day, so it’s not the same.”
She says she didn’t do a ton of research into that aspect of her performance, but then, she’s often admitted she’s not a stickler for prep work. Kelly Reichardt, her director on “Night Moves,” once said she sent a package of research papers to her before the film, which she ignored.
“It’s not that I don’t prepare; I just prepare in my own way,” she says. “I’m not someone who thinks about what the life was for the character before the script starts. I use my own imagination and daydream. It’s different for everybody. Some people can only do it one way, and this is the way that works for me.” (She also admits she did read some of what Reichardt sent her.)
Fanning has been doing a string of indies of late, including "The Last of Robin Hood," "Very Good Girls" and "Effie." But this career move hasn’t been on purpose.
“I’ve never planned anything. It’s always been on a case-by-case basis,” she says of her career. She’ll happily do a big budget film, long as she likes the role and the people. “I’m not a snob. I don’t really know how to do anything else.”
Still, Fanning has been juggling acting with modeling, but also with academia. She goes to NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, working on a major of her own devising that she describes as basically Cinema Studies but with a strong emphasis on women and gender. She wound up doing an independent study on Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s, which was a strong time for female roles.
“The female characters were so complicated and not always likable,” Fanning explains. “They were vulnerable and mean and nice and feminine and not feminine. They were really fully developed characters. They were allowed to not always be The Girl or be sexy or beautiful or sweet or nice. They were allowed to be normal people.”
Fanning is reluctant to make any “sweeping statements” about Hollywood’s treatment of women today, except to offer that it’s getting better but still has issues. She says she’d like to one day get into producing, and maybe even directing.
“As an actor, sometimes you have to wait for other people to believe in you, to choose you,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t want to wait for that. Sometimes you already know something about yourself that other people don’t know.”
One thing Fanning is sure of is living in New York over Los Angeles.
“When you’re an actor your life is consumed by what you do,” Fanning explains. “But you also have to have boundaries. Where I choose to live is about what makes Dakota happy, not what’s best for my career. I think about that enough.”
Bonus: How Fanning keeps things small
A lot of Fanning's recent performances are withdrawn, bordering on minimalist. You can still sense a deep well of feeling in everything she says, as well as what’s on her face and in her body language.
“Every day we communicate like that,” she says of her approach. “We communicate with our body, with our face. A loved one can walk in the room and we know something is wrong before they’ve said anything. Sometimes people think in a movie, ‘I have to make everything very clear!’ For some characters that’s what they require. But it’s important to trust that how you communicate in every day life will translate on film.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge