There’s something dangerous about expectations. They open the door for disappointments, stifle surprises and limit experiences. In the case of Dakota Fanning, expectations dogged her transition from child star to adult actress.
It’s not that people set the bar too high for her; it’s that they want to keep it low. At 22, why hasn’t she gone off the rails yet, as some child actors do? She fields this question in interview after interview.
“I never know how to answer that question,” Fanning said. “Like, ‘Why are you not horrible and crazy?’ I don’t know! I’m not perfect, by any means. I’ve definitely made mistakes or had times where I felt crazy or have done crazy things, for sure, but I guess I’ve just done them where no one has seen me do them.”
Some have tried to offer her an explanation. In a recent Town & Country feature, writer Mickey Rapkin suggested Fanning’s stability “may be because she was always actually a tiny adult.” But Fanning rejects that theory and isn’t interested in reasoning out her personality.
“I don’t feel that way. I don’t. No. I’ve always felt like a little bit of a contradiction, I’ve always felt very young and old at the same time. Mature and, not immature, but I sort of have a young spirit, I think,” she said. “It always just was the way that I was. I wasn’t trying to be mature. That’s why it’s always so hard to talk about—how do you talk about a way that you are? I don’t know how to do that. But I never felt like I had to be anything other than the age that I was.”
Fanning used to think, maybe, that playing dark characters provided her with an outlet to explore bad behavior without engaging in it herself, but even that doesn’t hold up for her anymore.
“I definitely do get to explore darker things through the roles that I play, but they’re not the darker things Dakota experiences, you know?” she said. “Those things are still things I have to figure out in my own way, in my own time.”
It’s hard to imagine a darker outlet for her than Merry Levov, the character Fanning plays in “American Pastoral,” out Friday. Based on Phillip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer-winning novel, the film centers on a family living an idyllic life until the Vietnam War turns the teenage daughter into a domestic terrorist. Once a sweet girl, Merry’s horror at the injustice of the war hardens into fury at the privileged life she and her parents lead.
“If Merry had grown up in a time of less turmoil, I don’t know if she would still be as rageful as she is. But I never felt the need to figure that out,” Fanning said. “She’s a very unapologetic character, and I didn’t want to try to figure her out too much. I wanted to accept her as she was written and go there in as violent a way as she is. And I’m always hesitant to say that I can relate or understand, because I don’t.”
Indeed, it’s hard to understand Merry. “You’re not anti-war, you’re anti-everything,” her mother, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), accuses early in the film, and it certainly seems that way. Dawn and Merry’s father, Swede (Ewan McGregor, who also directs), are destroyed by the actions of their daughter, but “American Pastoral” suggests that in addition to raging against the war, Merry is raging against her parents’ expectations.
“As a parent, you have this child that’s a part of you,” Fanning said. “You made this child, and when you watch them grow up and become something that you never expected them to be or to do something bad, or to get into trouble or be so radically different than you, I can’t imagine what that would feel like. The child you expected to have, you don’t have them. That’s a very deep pain.”
Fanning may not relate to Merry, but she’s eager for Hollywood to make room for more complex female roles like her. A senior at New York University, studying women in film, she’s frustrated by the fact that in Hollywood films women are routinely stripped down to basic functions.
“That a woman of a certain age always has to play a mother—that, for example. Why? Why?” she said. “Or if you’re young and playing this girlfriend to the guy role, you have to look a certain way. Why? There are all different kinds of people in the world and all sorts of women, but I think sometimes we put these very general expectations onto the female characters in film, and I think that it doesn’t reflect the world around us.”
That’s a primary reason Fanning is expanding her presence in Hollywood. She’s producing a film version of “The Bell Jar,” which she’ll star in and Kirsten Dunst will direct. The work is another thing that comes with preconceived notions she’s looking to upend.
“I think people have an idea of what ‘The Bell Jar’ is, and that it’s dark and depressing and sad, and while there are those elements to certain parts of the story, there’s also irony and weird humor to it,” Fanning said. “I think there’s a lot to explore, and sometimes people write it off as ‘Oh, that’s depressing,’ but it’s really not.”
But Fanning is over people’s expectations—they’re never true to life anyway. That was Roth’s point nearly 20 years ago in the novel, and the sentiment has translated to McGregor’s adaptation.
“I don’t know if we do ever really know [Merry],” Fanning said. “And I think that is what the movie’s about. Not her specifically, but in general. Do we ever really know anyone? Is that possible? I’m not sure.”
If Fanning has always felt like a contradiction—a complication that didn’t fit the narrative—then bomb building aside, she might have something in common with Merry Levov after all. [Source]