In The Alienist, Dakota Fanning—Elle’s older sister—stars as a police secretary in the late 1890s helping her male colleagues search for one of New York City’s first serial killers. The TNT series begins January 22. Then January 26, in the movie Please Stand By, Fanning, 23, will play Wendy, a young autistic woman who runs away to enter a writing contest with a Star Trek script she’s written.
What drew you to The Alienist?
Getting to see the birth of psychology and forensics. It wasn’t actually that long ago that people didn’t know about
fingerprints and things.
Your character, Sara, is conflicted about how feminine she can be in a man’s world.
Sara is coming into her femininity and sexuality. She’s someone who’s trying to be taken seriously. She’s constantly trying to prove herself, but she is confident in herself and in her own intelligence.
For a scene in Please Stand By, you had to learn how to talk Klingon.
Yeah, it was so funny. I laughed really hard doing that scene with Patton Oswalt. We had a teacher that recorded all the lines for us so that we could say them phonetically.
You are juggling college simultaneously with your acting career.
I’ve taken at least one class every semester since the beginning. I do a lot of independent studies. I’m just soldiering on and I should be done soon.
In Please Stand By, how did you prepare to play Wendy?
Meeting one person [with autism] means you’ve met one person. Every person on the spectrum has different traits. It gave me this sense of freedom that I could create Wendy and I didn’t have to model her on anything.
Were you a fan of Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist?
I wasn’t familiar with the novel, but when I was officially doing it and started talking about it to other people, nearly everyone I mentioned it to was, “Oh, I loved that book. Oh, I read that book. I’m such a fan.” So it really surprised me. Now, of course, I see what a following the book has. So that’s really cool to be a part of something that people already like.
Give a little more background on Sara Howard. She’s really an independent woman for her time.
She definitely comes from privilege, but she’s also an orphan, so she’s had this lonely life in a very grand surrounding. I think she has a desire to have a more powerful position than her peers, so she starts working for the police commissioner [Teddy Roosevelt] who was a friend of her father’s, even though she’s determined that that’s not the reason that she got the job.
The Alienist is set in New York City in 1896, but you filmed in Budapest. Is it because Budapest has areas that still resemble New York in that time period?
It sort of does. There are so many reasons, financial and otherwise, why we filmed there, but actually there’s a whole back lot that’s downtown New York. It was incredible. We had a lot of sets on stages, but then we did film a fair amount in buildings that already existed. I think because Hungary has such a complicated history, there are a lot of grand buildings that are still there and we got to use those.
I know it sounds crazy to film something that’s supposed to be in New York in Budapest, but I’m so happy that we did. I really loved that city a lot. It grew to become home to me. I joke that whoever is in charge of making films and television in Budapest should hire me to tell everybody how great it is because I feel like I do anyway.
This is a really dark tale of a turn-of-the-century serial killer back before we had the term serial killer. But is there an aspect of the story still relevant today?
I think it’s getting to see New York City in that time period and getting to see the different neighborhoods and the immigrants from different countries with everyone struggling to coexist. We always talk about how New York is such a melting pot. I think that this really shows that it is and the struggles that come with that.
What appealed to you about Please Stand By?
The script was super well written and very detailed. A lot of Wendy’s personality traits and quirks were already written in there. I’m so lucky to have been able to work with a script that had so much detail. Also, Ben Lewin, the director, had done so much research and had met people, so he introduced me to the people that he had become friends with. That was, of course, really helpful.
What really works in Please Stand By is the whole Star Trek connection, the piece that Wendy is writing; how Spock doesn’t have emotions and Wendy’s not in touch with her feelings.
We see her love of Star Trek and we see her using a character that we’re also familiar with, a story that we’re all familiar with, and we see her use that as a way into her own emotions and into society. I was touched by that. I’m not involved with Star Trek, but it shows the power that people have when you make something that people become fans of.
This is not necessarily a real example, but I’m sure a Wendy exists out there somewhere in the world. I was really moved by the notion of taking a character like Spock, who is seen as cold, and turning that on its head and seeing him as somebody who is isolated from their emotions and can’t find a way to access them. I think that’s what Wendy sees him as.
The other challenge had to be working with Pete, the dog. He’s in a lot of the scenes and is a big part of the story.
You know what? The dog’s real name was Blaster and I loved working with him. He’s so sweet and so cute. Then, it’s challenging because dogs have a mind of their own sometimes.
Do you think people have preconceived notions of who you are because we’ve watched you grow up?
I’m sure that they do. It’s not something that I think about in my own life, but sometimes when I’m doing press, I think about it because I sometimes get asked that question. I’m sure that people do. But what can you do about it? I don’t know. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I think it bothered me a little bit when I was younger, but it doesn’t really bother me so much anymore because I can’t help it.
You’re working with Kirsten Dunst as a producer on the adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar? Does being behind the scenes appeal to you as well as being on camera?
I definitely want to direct and want to find my own material and be a part of making things that way too.
It gives you more control of your career, right?
I think that you do have a little bit more control. Some people don’t have an interest in doing that, but for me it was very natural that I wanted to do it. You’re always trying to grow and change and learn new things, so I need to change it up to keep learning.
Your sister, Elle, is also an actress. Do you two share tips about the business, or do you keep that separate?
Of course things come up. I know what she’s doing or thinking about doing and vice versa. It ends there just naturally. It’s not like we make some conscious effort not to talk about it. I think that we’re both so different that we don’t like to influence one another. I want her to make her own decisions. I feel like sometimes people think we don’t talk about it. It’s not that dramatic. It’s just that we have other things to talk about too, that are more interesting.
You began acting so young, and kids don’t go to acting class, really. Have you studied technique since then, or are you an instinctual actress?
I’ve never taken an acting class, so I suppose I am instinctual. I did start so young and I hadn’t taken any classes and just never did. I felt like it was something that was more instinctual to me.
I would think with some of the people you’ve worked with, just watching them work is a master class.
That’s so true. I’ve gotten to work with so many amazing actors and, exactly, I got a class on the job. [Source]