Dakota Fanning gives a lot of interviews, yet a great deal about her life off-screen remains a mystery. The 28-year-old actor and producer knows it, too. In fact, she embraces it: “I think people are starting to catch on.” She is someone who has lived her entire life in the limelight, winning Critics Choice Awards when most 7-year-olds were busy learning second-grade arithmetic, but Fanning has managed to do what most in her situation have tried and failed to—keep her private life, well, private. “There are [things that people don’t know]—1000%,” she says. Then again, that’s sort of been the point. “I can’t tell [you], because then my mystique is gonna be lost,” she adds.
Even so, Fanning, who is returning to the screen in Showtime’s new series The First Lady, didn’t come off the least bit guarded during our recent Zoom conversation. On the contrary, the actor was as open and relaxed as ever, perched in a bright-white spot in her Los Angeles home and looking every bit the movie star—maybe even ethereal—in a crisp button-down shirt. Her hair was slicked back in a low bun, and her wrist was decorated with a vintage gold watch. “I don’t know if people don’t think I’m fun, but I think I’m a lot less serious than people may assume,” Fanning says, noting how often her own personality is confused with those of the very serious characters she portrays on-screen. “I love to have fun, I love to make people laugh, [and] I don’t take myself too seriously.”
Everything she says is true. In the span of our 80-minute call, Fanning gushes about her dedication to reality television (“I watch all the Real Housewives, always have. I love them,” she says with a passion) as well as her die-hard fandom over Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton (“Don’t [even] get me started,” she says). She then goes into story mode about the time her laptop broke on the set of her forthcoming series Ripley in Italy and her ensuing downward spiral. Relatably, Fanning can’t wind down without her favorite not-guilty-to-her TV shows, especially after a long day of shooting. “If I enjoy something, I don’t know why I should feel that guilty about it,” she says. Thus, a quest to find an Apple store anywhere near the Amalfi Coast was underway.
Intensely dedicated to her craft, prone to Bravo binging and self-deprecation, and emanating the kind of confidence only someone who’s truly figured herself out can exude, Fanning isn’t an easy person to sum up. “I’m full of a lot of contradictions,” she says. “And there’s a very, very sweet spot in the middle of these contradictions, and that’s where I live.”
Contrary to her candidness, Fanning is adamant about the importance of keeping some things strictly to her inner circle, a group she prioritizes above everything else. “I like making sure that the people actually in my life really know who I am,” she says. “That’s important to me.” By remaining true to this mentality, she’s built up a formidable support system, including her family and lifelong friends as well as her team, who work closely with Fanning and her sister, Elle. “I’ve worked with most of these people since I was like 12 at this point and [my stylist Samantha McMillen] since I was 17,” she says. “So I’ve been very, very lucky [that] everyone around is in it for the long haul.”
Those priorities, which rarely waver from their designated order, are paramount to her ability to remain grounded in an industry that’s notorious for its destabilizing effects. “I make sure that my personal life is as important as my professional life, and those obligations, like going to my goddaughter’s first birthday party, are just as important to me as going to a premiere, if not more,” she says. It’s a life lesson that’s been ingrained in her from her mom, primarily through example. “Really making an effort to prioritize the people in life [is] something that I see my mom do every single day,” she says. “My grandfather passed away recently, her dad, and [his best friend since he was in high school] said about him, ‘If he had something and someone needed it, it was [theirs].’ And I see that in my mom so much.” By allowing their principles to guide her, both in her career and her life, Fanning says she can’t help but feel grounded.
“There’s also just something about me,” she adds, not in a self-righteous way. “Of course, it’s because of all of those people helping to shape me into the person that I am, but I also think it might just be my nature. I certainly get overwhelmed, and I’ve certainly made mistakes, and I’m certainly not perfect. All the clichés are true, like with anybody. But I am pretty together.” Having known nothing else in her life but a professional environment, where being late or disrespectful can cost millions of dollars to the company that’s hired her, has taught her that much—as has working with the crème de la crème in Hollywood. (I’m talking about Denzel Washington, Jennifer Hudson, Robert De Niro, and Kristen Stewart, and those are just a few of the standouts.) “Now, it’s just second nature,” she adds.
It helps that Fanning found ways to ensure that any resentment toward her career never festered, which can happen when you sacrifice a normal life for one in the entertainment industry. “I didn’t want to miss out on those memories,” she says of the kinds of experiences a kid, teenager, and eventual 20-something embark on when they’re not working 24/7. From the ages of 15 to 18, when she was playing Volturi guard member Jane in the Twilight movies, Fanning was also attending Campbell Hall Episcopal High School in North Hollywood, cheerleading at Friday-night football games, going to parties in outfits she now calls “so embarrassing,” and being crowned homecoming queen. In between months spent on the set of TNT’s The Alienist, shot in Budapest, Hungary, she worked on getting her degree in women’s studies at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. “I didn’t feel like [school] was something I wanted to sacrifice,” she says. “And I didn’t have to.”
Because of that, she also avoided the bitterness that many of us often felt about being forced to go to school day in and day out. “I loved every second of it. Like, I loved it,” she says with fervor. “People, when they start out when they’re younger, associate that with constant sacrifice of memories and childhood, and it just doesn’t have to be that way. And I don’t feel that way about my life. I got to partake in all the things I wanted to partake in.” Had her experience growing up turned out differently, though, Fanning still believes she wouldn’t harbor any regrets about the career she herself chose so many years prior. “I’m a super-literal person. I can’t change any of it. And I wouldn’t change any of it,” she says. For her, growing up the way she did was “wonderful.” Crazy and hectic, sure, but wonderful nonetheless. “And I’ve survived all that. I’m 28. I’ve made it through, and yeah, [I’m] over the hill,” she adds.
Don’t get that last part confused with a fear of aging. “I love getting older. I’m not scared [of it],” says Fanning. “I listen to so many podcasts with people who get interviewed, women of all ages, and people in their 30s are like, ‘Oh my god, my 30s are amazing.’ Then, someone in their 40s is like, ‘Oh, forget the 30s. My 40s are the best.’ And then, somebody in their 50s is like, ‘Wait till you turn 50.’” That’s how Fanning, too, chooses to approach life. “I’ve always just loved getting older and being able to look back [while] also [getting] excited for the next thing,” she says. “It doesn’t scare me too much.”
Aging is but one of the many beautiful things about womanhood, and it’s something that’s celebrated repeatedly in Fanning’s latest project, The First Lady. The series—starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt—provides an in-depth look at the lives of some of America’s most prolific First Ladies through their own lenses. Fanning plays Susan, the only daughter of Betty and President Gerald Ford, who, like her mother, was (and still is) a strong force, fighting for female education and rights. Susan and Betty Ford helped to form National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985, following the latter’s diagnosis and subsequent surgery, a radical mastectomy, that took place in 1974. The First Daughter went on to serve as a national spokesperson for breast cancer awareness, with her primary focus being to share the importance of early detection and testing, which, at the time of her mother’s diagnosis, was not nearly as common as it is today.
Their story, specifically their close mother-daughter bond, was one of the main reasons Fanning wanted to take on the project. “My relationship with my mom is, I think, the most foundational relationship in my life, and getting to show [Susan and Betty’s] relationship through the trials and tribulations and all of the changes and all of the hardships, I was really excited to do that,” she says. According to Fanning, one of the great examples of their relationship, as well as the relationship between the entire Ford family, was when Susan, a high school student at the time, held the Holton-Arms School senior prom inside the walls of the White House. It was the first and only time a prom was hosted there. (Indeed, the anecdote inspired the ’70s prom theme for our cover shoot with Fanning.) “I think it goes to show that family really did come first … especially for Betty. She made that happen for her daughter,” Fanning tells me. “Betty Ford was a really incredible, incredible woman, so [I was] excited to bring her story to a new generation.”
Getting to work alongside Pfeiffer again—whom Fanning previously worked with in I Am Sam, her major debut into film—was only a bonus. “I worked with Michelle on my first film, literally 20 years ago to the day. I spent my birthday on the set of I Am Sam, and I turned 7. And I turned 27 working with Michelle again on The First Lady,” says Fanning. “So it felt very right.”
The final push she needed to take on the project was its inherent difference from most productions about America’s highest power, which so often hail from the male POV. Aaron Cooley’s The First Lady, directed by Susanne Bier, takes the opposite approach, narrating a tale of politics from the female perspective. “We haven’t seen a lot of stories where the First Lady is at the front and center, so obviously, that [was] intriguing about this project,” says Fanning. But a different outlook isn’t the only reason why seeing these stories from the eyes of First Ladies is so overdue. “Women have to be all things: They’re wives, they’re mothers, they’re First Ladies [in this instance], and they’re trying to focus on their career,” she explains. “[This project] is such a metaphor for what women feel. They kind of have to do everything. And obviously, when you’re the First Lady, it’s on such a magnified scale, and the world is watching you and judging you. You’re having to look a certain way and dress a certain way but also be serious, [but] not too [serious]. It seems impossible. I think all women can relate to that struggle.”
It’s the same with working. As a woman, there’s an inherent pressure to continue raising the bar, even when you’re Dakota Fanning, who’s been doing so without fail for decades now. For Fanning, taking the road most traveled was never an option in her career. Rather, her goal has always been to challenge herself. “Usually when something feels really scary and overwhelming and you’re like, ‘Ergh,’ it means you probably should do that project,” she says, even when the project is completely out of her comfort zone.
That feeling has never been more apparent than when she made her directorial debut in 2021, directing a short film for Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales, a series that essentially gives women free reign to create as they please. “It was the most stressful two days of my life,” she says of creating Hello Apartment, starring Eve Hewson and Tom Sturridge. “When I’m acting, you still have challenging moments, and you have things that you’re nervous for, but deep down, I know I’m going to get to the other side of it.” Having acted for as long as she has, Fanning says there’s a muscle that just naturally gets activated when she’s in front of the camera, no matter the level of difficulty or fear involved with a scene. She also always has the director to lean on. “When you’re the director and all the responsibility is falling on you, I didn’t have that muscle to rely on—that muscle that’s supposed to keep me going,” she says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do it.’” In the end, it was that fundamental drive to keep moving forward and growing in her work that drove Fanning to the finish line. Upon arrival, she was met with an intense sense of accomplishment that differed from any feeling brought on by acting. In her words, it was “euphoria.”
Fanning feels a similar sensation when she’s working with her sister on projects for Lewellen Pictures, the production company they founded together in 2021. “How do you keep pushing yourself?” she asks, repeating my question back to me. “I think by doing new things and by taking on new roles within the entertainment industry, by starting this company, by developing projects, and going through the sometimes slow journey that the development process can take and having that patience.” For her, as with so many women, there’s always a new challenge to tackle, all while she’s spinning dozens of other plates. When she’s not prioritizing her own happiness—be it by watching the latest season of Drive to Survive or taking one of her nightly baths, which she cannot go a day without—she’s focusing on the relationships with her family, her friends, her co-workers, and her trusted team, which she covets more than anything else. Then, there’s the bit about her career, which, in over 20 years, has never sat stagnant.
It’s all of these things and more that make Fanning the force she is in Hollywood. But because of her success, she’s had to keep some things to herself in order to hold on to those special moments that are just hers. For most of her 28 years, she’s given much of herself over to viewers, pumping out character after character for as long as she can remember. And it’s all so we can watch these people and be entertained, at times getting so immersed in each one that it’s as if we know them personally. But what about the real people behind them?
After speaking with Fanning at length, part of me feels like I do know her—the real her away from any persona she plays on-screen. Then again, our conversation also allowed me to realize something that, although seemingly obvious, is far from the norm in the entertainment industry. Perhaps the mysterious side of Dakota Fanning that she’s spent decades protecting is best kept that way, a mystery. [Source]