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Apr 2, 2024
Dakota Fanning On Stepping Into Gwyneth Paltrow’s Shoes For Netflix’s Darker, Thornier Ripley

In 1999’s The Talented Mr Ripley, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Marge Sherwood is, in many ways, the eyes of the audience – sweet and somewhat naive, she welcomes Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) into the idyllic life she’s built with her boyfriend Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) in ’50s southern Italy, before the former secretly murders the latter, adopts his identity and sets off on a grand tour on his dime. When she later catches up with him, she’s deeply suspicious, but there’s still a certain fragility to her – desperate though she is to bring him to justice, she knows there’s little she can actually do.

Now in Ripley, Steven Zaillian’s icy, eight-part Netflix retelling of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 classic – the latest in a long line of adaptations for stage and screen – Dakota Fanning is inheriting that part from Paltrow. She still, at times, acts as the viewer’s eyes and ears, but that is where the resemblance ends. This new iteration of Marge is, in a sense, the antithesis of Paltrow’s sunny, floral-midi-skirt-clad hostess – dressed in trousers and oversized white shirts (and filmed in an atmospheric black and white, as opposed to the original film’s ravishing pastels), she’s steely, watchful and shrewd, someone who seems to recognise Tom (Andrew Scott) for the opportunist he is from the get go.
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She’s also unapologetically ambitious, penning a book on Atrani, the sleepy Amalfi Coast town where she and Dickie (Johnny Flynn) have ended up. While her affluent boyfriend spends his days parading around his palatial villa, she takes photographs and edits drafts in a charming but ramshackle one-room apartment, filled with knitting supplies, wild flowers and candid snapshots. It’s clear that she doesn’t come from money or, at least, from as much money as Dickie does, and isn’t from his crowd of New York sophisticates – we hear she’s from Minnesota and, at one point, she resents being seen as “a small town hick”. The picture we get of Marge in these scenes – someone who is spiky, slippery and frequently unreadable – is so much richer and more complex than anything we’ve been afforded before.

It’s a remarkable performance from Fanning – still, impassive, cold and cryptic – which ranks among the 30-year-old actor’s best. And that’s really saying something: she’s been working for almost two and a half decades, having started out as a child actor, playing a younger version of Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal, a baby-faced Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, the exuberant lead in Charlotte’s Web, and Tom Cruise’s daughter in War of the Worlds. With I Am Sam, she became the youngest SAG nominee in history aged seven and scooped a Critics’ Choice Award, giving a shockingly articulate acceptance speech as she was lifted up to the microphone by Orlando Bloom.

Then came the Twilight franchise, after which the Georgia native graduated to more adult roles in the likes of The Runaways and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In Ripley, she commands the screen with the ease of a veteran – it serves as both a reminder of her enduring star power as well as evidence of her evolution as an actor.

Ahead of the show’s release on 4 April, Fanning discusses Marge’s own opportunism, her chic and understated costumes, and the equally dark projects she’s delving into next.

I heard that Steven Zaillian wanted you for Ripley because he loved you in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Is that right?

That’s what I heard. He saw that and then wanted to chat with me about this. I was obviously familiar with this story and the character of Marge, and so I read the scripts and they were truly some of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Steve is so brilliant, and his vision for the show… I didn’t really even think about it. I just said, “Yes, I’ll do whatever he wants.” It was a dream to be a part of.

What about the scripts captured you the most?

His writing is so nuanced, and the scripts are brilliant in that they’re actually very simple. They leave a lot of space for the actor, and especially the actors who are not playing Tom Ripley, to figure out their role in the story. A lot of the time, the characters are saying one thing, but there’s so much more underneath, and the intention behind what they’re saying is sometimes the complete opposite of what is being said. So as an actor, I knew it would be a great challenge to modulate a performance based on what’s not said, and I was really excited by that. Steve and I created a great dialogue between us and figured out who Marge is, what she knows, when she knows it, when she’s suspicious of Tom and when she believes him. Then we did some takes where you kind of flip that on its head and see what happens.

This is a real character study at its core, but it’s also a cat-and-mouse game and I felt lucky to be playing a character who does go toe to toe with Tom. He’s so skilled at what he does and most of the characters are in the dark about who he really is and what he’s doing. Marge is certainly in the dark too, to an extent, but she also knows that there’s something off and isn’t afraid to tap into that. Andrew and I relished getting to explore that rivalry.

I read that you, Andrew and Johnny didn’t rewatch the 1999 film. Did you feel the pressure of remaking something that has such an incredible legacy, or does Ripley just feel too different to be comparable?

I’m a massive fan of that film and watching the series, it felt completely different. Ripley is based on the novel very faithfully. I revisit the film because I love it, but I didn’t find it helpful in terms of playing Marge or stepping into this world because the vibe of this is entirely separate. It’s in black and white so, right off the bat, that changes things.

It looks so gorgeous, but in a very different way from the original film. I wanted to ask you specifically about Marge’s house, too. Compared to Dickie’s villa, it’s surprisingly modest. What does that setting tell us about her?

I loved all the details on that set, and it informed the relationship between Marge and Tom. Tom is fascinated with privilege and wealth, and the lack of appreciation he sees in these wealthy people when it comes to their relationship with art, travel and culture. According to him, they don’t know what to do with all that, whereas he does. So, that idea of class is super present in Ripley and what’s interesting about Marge is that she probably comes from a more similar background to Tom than Dickie, and that informs their rivalry.

There’s also her knitting – I love that Marge is a knitter. I am as well. You see her messy basket of yarn and needles on that set. Steve is a details man and he arranged those knitting needles exactly how he wanted them. I’m not exaggerating [laughs]. Everything on that set had a purpose. It’s a bit of a mess and Tom is sort of disgusted by it. She’s working on her book, and her photos and her writing – everything’s artfully displayed. The interior was partly filmed on a soundstage, but that house was also in Atrani, the little town we filmed in on the Amalfi Coast. That was special, too – getting to actually be in those extraordinary places.

Marge’s ambition is also front and centre in this retelling. Was that important to you?

I loved that. Marge has some ulterior motives as well. She’s kind of using this situation that she’s found herself in to her benefit a little bit, too. I think she genuinely does love Dickie and is invested in him in a pure way, but you do see a little bit of her opportunism come out as well. And once again, that similarity to Tom really pisses him off. She’s getting in his way and marching on what he sees as his territory.

And coming back to this beautiful Italian setting, did you, Andrew and Johnny get to have any downtime when the cameras weren’t rolling?

It was wonderful, but complicated because you’re in these beautiful places where people dream of going on their holiday, but you’re working and it was during Covid and it was challenging, so your brain doesn’t know what mode to switch into. But, we definitely found time to have some great meals and wine together. We played cards at Johnny’s and had our Italian lessons together. He had this great house in Capri when we were filming there and one day, we had a barbecue. Andrew and Johnny are two of the loveliest people I’ve ever worked with. It’s so important when you’re working on something like this which is so all-encompassing that you find time to bring light and laughter and play into it as well. Andrew, Johnny and I were able to lighten up the challenging days. I couldn’t have done it without them and I’m in awe of their performances.

What proved the most challenging?

There were practical things – we travelled a lot and set up shop in lots of new locations. We still had to take Covid tests and there was the stress of, “What if I have Covid and can’t get home for Christmas?” And it was quite intense. Every scene, no matter how big or small, had equal importance so there was never a day when you’re like [mimics falling asleep]. That’s an extraordinary way to work, but it can get heavy at certain moments. It’s a lot of time away from home and I was the lonely American whose family hadn’t travelled internationally since the beginning of the pandemic and so no one wanted to come see me because they didn’t want to get me sick [laughs]. But, I made the best of it.

I’d also love to ask you about the costumes. The Talented Mr Ripley is one of the most stylish films ever made, but Ripley takes a much more subdued approach. What does Marge’s less feminine and more pared back style in this series say about her?

With Marge, we start with lighter layers and then, by the time we get to Venice, it’s coats and sweaters and everything is black and navy. It’s kind of like her armour in which to battle Tom. But, if I had to pick one favourite piece, it’s probably Marge’s swimsuit. It’s grey plaid and old fashioned, and it’s really unglamorous but there’s actually something very chic about it in its simplicity. We wanted to make sure the costumes felt natural, wrinkled and a little bit oversized, to show that Marge wants to be taken seriously. She’s focused on practicality, and I think that speaks to what kind of woman she is in this time period.

She definitely feels ahead of her time. Finally, now that the show is about to come out, have you given much thought to why this particular story has been retold so many times? Why are we so endlessly fascinated by Tom Ripley?

I’m still trying to figure it out. As a society, we have this general fascination with grifters and con artists, but with Ripley, there are just so many layers to him. This is an exploration of people and what they’re capable of; of the haves and have nots, and how circumstances can change people. And especially in this telling, you get a real deep dive and a bigger window into this character than we’ve seen in the past. Andrew’s brought something completely different to the part that no one’s ever seen before.

And you have quite a few similarly dark projects coming up after this. Can you talk me through them?

I’ve got The Watchers coming out this summer, which is directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan, the daughter of M Night Shyamalan who’s a producer on it. I had a great time filming it in Dublin last year – it has this supernatural Shyamalan vibe. And then I have the Netflix mystery series The Perfect Couple, directed by Susanne Bier, with Nicole Kidman. It’s a true ensemble piece and a big family story, and we got to film on Cape Cod. It felt like summer camp. And I’m filming the horror movie Vicious at the moment – TBD, but it’s been great so far.

Ripley will be on Netflix from 4 April. [Source]

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