How Dakota Fanning Defied The Child Star Curse

by Rachel Simon

According to the cliche, when a child star reaches 18, their next few years look like this: some "serious" acting attempts, risqué projects meant to dissolve their former images (see: Selena Gomez with Spring Breakers, Miley Cyrus with... everything); interviews and defensive statements made about these changes, typically taking the form of "I don't want to be a role model," or "my fans will just have to grow up with me;" controversies, scandals, and arrests, with drunken nights out and nude photoshoots; plenty of apologies, ordered by publicists and stated in solemnity. And most of all, the public, media and consumers alike, gleefully watching these stars make one screw-up after another, forming a not-so-quiet chorus of "did anyone not expect this to happen?" Even for actors who manage to make it through (Natalie Portman, Neil Patrick Harris...), it's not without some residual frustration — just ask Dakota Fanning, who may have had higher expectations placed on her than any of her former-child-star counterparts, and knows what it's like to have people wanting you to fail.

"People talked to me about that literally from the time I was so little, and it was just like, oh, so, you’re waiting for me to make a terrible mistake," Fanning, who turns 22 next month, tells Bustle. "But I’m not going to. I don’t want to. I never had that instinct."

Due to her on-screen persona as a precocious, wide-eyed child who clearly knew more about maturity than her adult counterparts, Fanning never seemed like someone who'd fall into scandal and controversy once she reached 18, but that hardly mattered; she was a child star, and so people assumed she'd screw up. If she had, the consequences would've been dire. The wise, responsible Dakota Fanning, caught drinking at a club like Justin Bieber? The gifted young star of Uptown Girls and War of the Worlds, rebelling against her image by posing naked like Britney Spears? The media would never have forgiven her — even if they would've enjoyed every second of watching her fall.

Yet the actor made it through her teens without any major blunder; the closest she got was a Marc Jacobs ad showing the then-17-year-old with a perfume bottle between her legs. The photo caused a stir, but was quickly forgotten; in an interview with Glamour a few years later, Fanning laughed it off, asking those who deemed the ad too sexual, "Why are you making it about that, you creep?" By and large, the star stayed free of controversy; she even went to college, the telltale sign that a former child star isn't going to fly off the rails. But even people like Saoirse Ronan or Abigail Breslin still get their childhood decisions attached to their names, despite their efforts in building careers that have outlasted their teens, and Fanning is no exception. Says the actor, "You have to wait for people, sometimes, to believe in you."

And even as she proves, with a movie resume a mile long and a degree in sight, that naysayers' pessimism couldn't be more unfounded, the fascination that people had with her as a child — their curiosity over her decisions, her temperament, her stability — hasn't left.

"They love it, don’t they?" Fanning says dryly. "I’ve had to just accept that people are always going to be fascinated by that transition, from a child actor to adult. I've heard it so much... But I get it, it’s fine. It’s a part of my life, and one of the best parts of my life is being able to do what I love from such a young age."

Besides, she adds with a laugh, "I’ve never worried about that. It would drive you crazy, I think, if you did... you can’t please everybody."

Still, she's been careful in picking projects, purposely choosing roles that are starkly different than her most memorable works. There was The Last of Robin Hood, featuring the actor as a 15-year-old sleeping with Errol Flynn; Effie Grey , as the titular character caught in a love triangle; and most recently, The Benefactor , out Jan. 15, a drama starring Fanning as an adult orphan, pregnant with her first child. Although the adult material in most of these films didn't cause much drama — Fanning did, after all, star in the deeply dark Man on Fire when she was nine and play a rape victim in Hounddog at 12 — The Benefactor did, due to paparazzi photos of Fanning sporting a prosthetic belly pasted in tabloids under "Dakota Fanning Pregnant?!" headlines across the country.

"When they took my photo, I thought, 'oh…,'" she says, sounding disappointed. "I didn’t even think that someone would think that it was real."

People figured out the truth quickly, of course, but the collective freak-out over her grown-up attire may have quelled Fanning's own excitement over getting to play such a mature character. Says the star, "I was honestly the most excited about that part of it, getting to wear the stomach and do the whole thing."

Having to balance your own ambitions with the public's claim on you comes with the territory of moving out of child stardom, even if one does it as gracefully as Fanning has. She understands that people still view her as the big-eyed child star of films like Charlotte's Web and I Am Sam, but she's also an adult looking to establish a serious career. She cites Jodie Foster as an example of someone whose path she'd like to follow, and the similarities between the two are obvious; although they've never met in person, they have "corresponded through letters," and the director once wrote Fanning a note that she re-reads when having "a low moment." Says the actor, "I totally admire her. I'm inspired by her career and her ability to act and direct and be a mother and also be private."

Like her sister, Elle ("she's just copying me," Fanning jokes), she wants to one day direct and develop her own projects, but for now, acting is her focus. She tries not to plan too heavily (in a manner that calls up her childhood persona, she says "it’d be impossible to try to make up some strategy, because there are so many factors that are totally out of your control"), but she's ambitious, with a clear direction for her career in mind; although genres may vary, her main focus, she emphasizes, is always choosing roles that are decidedly not "boring."

Keeping her work life alive hasn't been easy; still in college, as her graduation was delayed due to film commitments, Fanning admits she has struggled to maintain schoolwork while acting. She recalls how making a movie first semester and coming home late to piles of reading was "a wake-up call" in time management, but she figured it out quickly, perhaps due to the fact that, she says, "I’ve balanced school and work since I was six years old."

And by now, as graduation nears, she seems to have it down pat; her IMDB lists four movies in the works, in addition to this month's release of The Benefactor, and she's in the middle of filming one as we speak. It's hectic, no doubt, but it's what Fanning says she has always wanted, and while she plays down her achievements ("There’ve been times when you get overwhelmed... but no more than what anyone feels in their balancing their school and work," she says), it's clear she's proud of what she's done.

And why shouldn't she be? Her own protestations aside, Fanning's recent years could set the standard for a teen's journey into adulthood, actor or otherwise. Not all of her projects have been as successful as others (the poor-reviewed Very Good Girls, or in another sense, the films in The Twilight Saga) but they've been bold choices, proving that both Fanning's immense skill and desire to challenge herself have only improved with age. The Benefactor, her latest, is a fascinating drama dealing with grief and addiction, and while Fanning's screen-time is relatively short, she makes one of the film's strongest impressions. Her next movies, a musical drama called Viena and the Fantomes, a Western called Brimstone, and an adaptation of Philip Roth's American Pastoral , are set to reveal even more sides to her talent, and will undoubtedly push her child star image even further into the past. No one will totally forget Fanning's early work anytime soon, nor should they, but it might no longer be her defining characteristic as an actor, either.

In the meantime, she's not concerned about her audience's reactions, the viewers who might be uncomfortable with seeing her in such adult roles. "Telling good stories, that’s what’s important to me," she says. "So I think somebody who was a true fan of mine would go on that journey and be fine with that."

And if not? Then they're missing out; she's compelling at any age, but Dakota Fanning, the burgeoning adult, is already proving to be her most interesting self yet.

Images: Giphy; Samuel Goldwyn Films