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April 05, 2018

Exceeding Expectations

Dakota Fanning does things her own way.

Melissa Byers
  • Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard in TNT's The Alienist

  • Fanning with Luke Evans as John Moore in TNT's The Alienist

  • TNT
  • TNT
  • TNT
  • Fanning with Daniel Brühl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler in TNT's The Alienist

  • TNT

Expectations can create difficulties.

When a book is made into a movie or series, it faces the expectations of fans of that book. When a child actor becomes famous, he or she will face expectations - good or bad - based on child actors who have come before them.

In her latest role, Dakota Fanning faces both sets of expectations without batting an eye.

Starring as Sara Howard in the TNT limited series adaptation of Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Fanning had no idea going in of the popularity of the book.

"I hadn't read the book. I hadn't read the book, but getting the first three scripts was my first introduction to the story, that I just ... I just couldn't love it more, and as I got involved with the project, talking to other people, telling them what I was going to be doing, I met so many fans of the book. It has such a fan base, such a following, and so many people really loved it when it came out, and it's stuck with them all these years.

"So it's always exciting to get to make something that already has a group of people who are really excited about it and waiting for it."

The story, set in the 19th century in New York, concerns a series of murders and the hunt for the serial killer. The title comes from the main character, what we now would call a profiler. At the time, it was thought that anyone who committed such crimes was somehow alienated from his true nature, and therefore, those who studied such people were called "Alienists."

Fanning plays the first female employee of the New York Police Department, working for commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty). Rounding out the main cast is Daniel Brühl as the Alienist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and Luke Evans as illustrator John Moore.

The character is unexpected in a number of ways. Fanning says, "I think that it is very rare to see a character like Sara in stories that are set in 1896. We see her as someone who's really pushing the barriers of what was possible for a female in that time, in a very explicit way, not in a way that's alluded to, or assumed, or metaphorical. It's literal.

"We see her coming up against laws that she has to kick down, and just getting to see her evolution from beginning to end. And I thought that was a rare character to see. So I loved that.

"And I loved, also, as an actor, such a wonderful thing that I love to do is getting to see kind of conflicting things happening in a person. So I think we get to see this strength that she feels she has to portray to the outside world because if she shows any vulnerability it's going to be seen as a weakness. And so then we see her vulnerability that she feels comfortable sharing in private.

"And we get to see the balance of those two emotions, or those two aspects of her personality, and also getting to see her also just be a young woman who's kind of still growing and still learning, and coming into her own, and having to do that under such a microscope. All of that was exciting to me."

That excitement is part of what draws her to any role. She says, "I kind of just go with my gut on that most of the time. It's just usually a deep-seated feeling, for whatever reason, whether it's a writer, director, or the character, or the other actors. There's always something for me that makes me go, 'Oh. Well, I want to be the person to do this.'

"And also, I think doing something different from what I feel I've done before is probably the most important. An aspect that's always there through all of the decisions I've ever made is wanting to portray myself for my ability in a different way, a new challenge."

A professional actor since the age of five, Fanning has managed to defy what has become almost an expectation. if not a cliché of child actors, having not only escaped the troubles of some of her peers, but also to continue working steadily from child to teen to adult roles with hardly a break in between. Naturally, she has been asked innumerable times how she did it, and her answer is always the same.

"God, I don't know. I don't know. I'm asked that question without fail, and I still don't have the best answer for it because I just have continued doing what I love to do, and I guess not thought about it in too methodical of a way. When I was 13, I wasn't thinking, 'Oh. I'm in a transitional period now.' I didn't recognize it.

"The only reason I did recognize it was because I would be asked that question, and then I would say a form of what I'm saying now, which is kind of, 'I try not to think about it too much because then it would fill you with anxiety, and then you'd be making decisions out of fear and anxiety rather than intuition, and love, or want.'

"I always wanted to be making decisions, not in some strategical way. I just always tried to stay who I was, and that was it."

A project she has recently chosen out of love is her decision to try directing. She directed her first short film, Hello Apartment, in association with Miu Miu Women's Tales. She thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

"Well, it was wonderful. I directed that short film in November. It's premiered and out, and it's out in the world. And it was such a wonderful experience. It was really hard, something I've always wanted to do, but it's one of those things that's so easy to say you want to do it. But then you find yourself actually doing it, and it was like, 'Aw," scary, so scary.'

"But I felt, when it was finished and I had been through the post-production part of making a film, and when the premier was happening. It was about to be screened for people, family and people I respect, and admire, it was all so worth it. And start to finish, it was an incredible experience, and I'm so looking forward to having more of those.

"It's such a luxury. And also, the Miu Miu Women's Tales project that I made the short film for, I was so lucky, I didn't have any requirements. It was just support. It was literally you can kind of tell whatever story you want to tell. The only requirement is that you use Miu Miu clothing. What a luxury to be able to just tell any kind of story, do anything I wanted to do. I know that that's not the norm, but I was very fortunate."

She does have a few goals in mind for her future, though.

"Well, I've worked with Fran McDormand as a producer, but I've never worked with her as an actor. I would love that. I worked with Glenn Close when I was younger, but I would love to work with her again. And Annette Bening. Those are three women that I would love to work with.

"When I look back on my work experiences, I've worked with some amazing female actors, but quite a few more male actors, in my career. And so I've made it a goal that I want to work with more female actors."

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