Dakota Fanning has grown up on our screens – and her latest role is her darkest yet, writes
Dakota Fanning appeared on screen for the first time at the age of five, playing a car-crash survivor on ER. Nineteen years later, she has somehow emerged unscathed from a childhood and adolescence lit up by the glare of stardom. When she meets the Irish Examiner in Rome she is friendly, lacking a Hollywood aura or air of privilege.
“I don’t live my life or make my decisions to be a role model for the masses,” she says, asked whether she feels it is important to set an example for fans, but also for her younger sister Elle, herself a successful actress.
“I try to be a good example for my sister and be a person my family would be proud of.”
She’s in Italy promoting her new prestige TV show, the thrillingly creepy Netflix drama The Alienist. Set in Gilded Age New York, The Alienist delivers shocks and goose-bumps by the brimful.
Yet it is perhaps most noteworthy for featuring a powerhouse turn by Fanning as female policewoman Sara Howard, a glass-ceiling shatterer standing up to entrenched prejudice and violent misogyny. In the age of Me Too, it’s a performance sure to resonate and attests to Fanning’s strength and subtlety before the camera. She conveys multitudes with each stifled glare and repressed shudder.
“Especially at this time it’s important to see strong female characters,” she tells a press conference the previous day. “Because this show is set so long ago… it is unique to have a strong female character portrayed in that time period.
“There were so many things women weren’t allowed do by society. This character really is an example of that. It is always helpful for present generations to learn from the past. You see right away the adversity she faces in the workplace and among her male peers and counterparts. That’s a big part of the series.” In a hotel suite around the corner from the Trevi Fountain Fanning wears a simple blue frock that mirrors her blazingly bright eyes. It’s a busy year for the 24-year-old — after The Alienist she appears in the ensemble caper Ocean’s 8, a remake of the 2001 Steven Soderbergh film featuring an all-female crew (including Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway). After that she will play the lead in an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s loosely autobiographical The Bell Jar – to be directed by Kirsten Dunst, another child actress turned adult star.
“That project will be so different from this one, though [there will be] a common exploration of being a woman,” she says. “With Sara — as you watch, you realise it’s not just about the murder investigation. It’s about past traumas — how we have to sort through the experiences of our childhood.”
Sara, we learn, has a dark family secret which has informed her decision to join the police. She is loosely based on a real-life person, Isabella Goodwin: the first female detective in New York described by contemporaries as “ indomitable and fearless quality that was something like a shining armour”.
“I love getting to play the first female to work for the New York Police Department,” says Fanning. “I don’t know if I learned something that I didn’t necessarily know before. However, to time travel to 1896 to see what life would be for for anyone, especially women, was interesting and intriguing.”
It’s a dark, demanding role — Sara is on the trail of a killer of boy prostitutes — and the latest in a series of gruelling parts for the actress, whose recent films include gritty western Brimstone and Ewan McGregor’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.
“I don’t think my real life has anything to do with the characters I’ve ever played,” she says. “I’m not trying to prove anything or explore anything I don’t have. I definitely like darker material. I’m more drawn to that — to me it feels an obvious challenge.” Fanning was born in Conyers, Georgia, 24 miles east of Atlanta, and her accent retains trace levels of a Southern twang. Her mother was former professional tennis player; her father had a career in minor-league baseball before finding work as an electronics salesman.
She came to widespread attention in 2001 when she starred opposite Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Her sensitive performance in an over-the-top, frenetically cloying film (about a mentally challenged man fighting for custody of his daughter) led her to become the youngest ever person nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award.
I Am Sam also caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who recommended her for Taken, the sci-fi drama of which he was executive producer. She went on to portray Tom Cruise’s daughter in Spielberg’s War of the World’s (2005) and was cast as a vampire in the Twilight Saga.
In The Alienist Sara is joined in her hunt for the killer by Daniel Brühl’s pioneering criminal profiler, Dr Laszlo Kreizler (the psychologist or “alienist” of the title), and dashing newspaper man John Moore (Luke Evans). The most impressive character is 19th century New York itself — a muck-strewn purgatory of yawning social divides, teeming with racism, sexism and populist politics. The present days parallels are clear.
“It is very interesting,” says Evans. “To shoot something that is a fictional crime drama… yet the disparity between rich and poor, the class system, the exploitation. They are still massively relevant today. It is quite a good thing if it starts a conversation.”
“To explore a crazy melting pot and probably the most frequented city in the world was fascinating,” adds Brühl. “To explore that — to go from the Vanderbilts and the Roosevelts to the rotten tenements where the immigrants lived…”
Fanning, for her part, believes that, though the message of the series is important, it isn’t crucial to enjoying it. You can watch The Alienist as a thriller — or as a commentary on how little America has changed between then and now. The choice is yours.
“I don’t mind what people take away from it,” she says. “If they enjoy it — if they are connected to those issues… that’s great. I’ve talked to people who think it is entertaining and just get lost in the world. It’s really up to the viewer. ”
Attuning herself to the bleak and visceral material was, she says, a challenge. By the end of the seven month shoot in Budapest — where a replica Manhattan was painstakingly assembled at a reported cost of $50 million — she felt she had truly pushed herself. That isn’t necessarily the case with lighter pieces, where acting often doesn’t feel like work at all.
“When I do something darker I feel I’ve expended energy on it,” she says. “It feels like work. At the end of the day we’re lucky to do what we do.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like work. When you do something darker it definitely feels as if it is.”
The Alienist is on Netflix now