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Fri, Sep 21, 2012, 01:00

Now Is Good star Dakota Fanning has spent the last 13 years in the acting game, and has been described as “an old soul” by the likes of Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg. “There are some people who still think I’m six. Which is kind of strange,” she tells TARA BRADY

THERE SEEMS little point in attaching hackneyed phrases like “All Growed Up” to Dakota Fanning. We wouldn’t dream of being so condescending towards an old pro. At 18, Fanning can look back on 13 years in showbusiness and a constellation of co-stars including Sean Penn, Denzel Washington and Robert De Niro. Hollywood hardman Kurt Russell says she’s the best actor he’s ever worked with: period. Glenn Close, who shared an unbroken 10-minute emotional showdown with Fanning in Nine Lives has described her as an “old soul”. Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, both of whom worked with Fanning on War of the Worlds, use the exact same phrase.

We can see what they mean. Dressed in a neat, high waisted skirt, a teeny-print white blouse and high but chunky platform heels, Fanning casts a sensible, indeterminately aged silhouette. She might have come straight from campus; she might just as easily have come from the Southern Baptist church she attends with her family.

In conversation, too, she’s characterised by a sage levelheadedness, and is apt to say things like: “The minute you start thinking that you’re glamorous, someone will remind you that you aren’t”, or, “I try to never feel intimidated because it wastes time when you could be getting to know somebody.”

You have to remind yourself that’s she’s a teenager who likes to listen to Beyoncé.

“I guess I’ve always been mature for my age,” she says. “Sometimes I think we’re all born to do something and I think that I found my something early on. It makes life easier when you’re doing something that just clicks with you. And it clicked for me.” She’s been famous forever, but she’s happy to have avoided the kind of hysterical interest that’s trained on her Twilight Saga and Runaways colleague Kristen Stewart.

“I’ve always known I’m in the public eye to a certain extent, because people recognise you on the street and stuff like that. But I’ve been lucky to have a pretty private life as well.” What does she get recognised for most? “Everything. You’d be surprised. Some people know you from Charlotte’s Web. Some people know you from The Runaways.”

And some people still think she’s a kid. Last year, Fanning’s advertising campaign for a Marc Jacobs fragrance was banned for “sexualising children”. Fanning was 17 – an old nag by the standards of the modelling industry – at the time of the “sexually provocative” photo shoot.

“There are some people who still think I’m six. Which is kind of strange. But being an actor is all about transformation. At 18, you have opportunities suddenly to do things that you never did before. At every age there’s new material. You get to start over a lot.”

Fanning has been precocious from the get-go. The eldest child of former tennis pro Heather Joy and minor league baseball player Steven Fanning was reading at age two and selecting her own projects at five. By the time she was six, the family had left Atlanta, Georgia, for Los Angeles to facilitate Dakota’s blossoming career. By seven, she became the youngest person ever to make a Screen Actors Guild shortlist for her work in I Am Sam.

“The process hasn’t changed at all,” she insists. ” I have people around me who care about me and who’ll give their advice, but at the end of the day its up to me to choose. I’ve always been aware of what I’m doing. I’ve always read my own scripts. Right from the beginning.” But can she even remember the beginning? “Totally. Totally. I remember almost everything about every film I’ve made. I’m blessed with a really good memory. So each of the films mark different stages in my life. I remember this age because I was making that movie with this person in that place.” Her tastes, she admits, have changed but, broadly speaking, she’s still chasing the same kind of material as always.

“I think I’ve probably always liked stuff that was a little darker. I’m always drawn to dramas. I like true studies of people and relationships. My favourite movies are What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Blue Valentine. I like films that are honest about families and marriage. And I like the sense that a character has been built up to give a sense of their life.”

Sure enough, in practice, she’s long preferred stronger meat. Following on from PG kid-friendly roles in Charlotte’s Web and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, Fanning was still being touted as the new Shirley Temple when, in 2007, aged 13, she played a rape victim in Hounddog. Today, she’s in London to promote Now Is Good, a tremendously effective dying-young weepie in which Fanning plays Tess, a troubled Brighton teen in the final stages of leukemia.

Tess’s “bucket list” of things to do before she dies, including losing her virginity and drug-taking, has already generated a kerfuffle among louder moral guardians. Fanning, almost predictably, lobbied for the role.

“How could anyone say that there’s a wrong way to cope with something like this?” she says. “This is going to manifest itself in all sorts of different ways and, on top of that, she’s a girl who is annoyed with her dad, you know? And it’s such a beautiful story.” Did making the film affect her psychologically at all? Because the audience we saw the film with all required major make-up reapplications and improvised sleeve hankies.

“Lucky me. I get to leave all that stuff on screen. When you start at a young age, you have that wonderful spirit of a child.” She’s sounding like an old soul again, though her face stays cherubic and smiley.

“It’s just playing. It’s being in the moment. I notice sometimes that older people in their 30s who have children get real excited because they can play again. All we want to do as people is get back to being free and to play. I get to do that but in an acceptable outlet. That’s how I’ve always worked. I don’t do research. My research is reading the the script, letting my mind wander and picturing the movie.”

In Now is Good, Fanning turns in some of her best work as a girl who’s mad as hell with dad (Paddy Considine), mum (Olivia Williams) and most of the world. Her accent is flawless. You’d never guess she was born thousands of miles away from Skins alumnus and Now Is Good co-star Kaya Scodelario.

Did she keep the brogue between takes? “No. One of the things I love most about making movies is getting to know the people around you. I never stay in character or keep an accent between takes or anything like that. Because it would get in the way of getting to know people as me.”

She may not be method but she sure knows her part and loves talking through the contradictions of the role. Juggling Tess’s barely suppressed rage and the simultaneous romance with the boy-next-door (Jeremy Irvine) was, she says, an “amazing opportunity”.

“I really wanted this one because she’s maintaining a lot of emotions at once,” says the young actor. “The idea of letting those emotions through at just the right moment and at just the right intensity was the kind of challenge any actor would want to do. For me, that’s the exciting thing: getting to work hard.”

That’s something of a theme with Fanning. She credits her strong work ethic to watching her parents train for their respective sports.

“I love what I do. But I take what I do pretty seriously. I’ve always been professional.” Is she athletic, too? “I could be if I wanted to be. But it was clear early on that it was not what I enjoyed and my family let me choose my one path. I work out a lot. But I never went for team sports or anything like that. I like watching them with my family but not taking part. I’m one of life’s observers.”

As much as she admires Jodie Foster (“for obvious reasons“) and enjoys her part-time degree at NYU, she can’t imagine walking away from work for four years of college.

“I’m at the Gallatin School of Individualised Study, so you can create your own major,” she explains. “They’ve been very supportive. I can take time off campus. I can take work with me. I love the college experience, but I’m already doing what I really want to do. I don’t want to give that up.”

For the moment, she and sister Elle have temporarily relocated to Blighty: Elle for Sally Potter’s Ginger Rosa; Dakota for Now is Good and Emma Thompson’s Effie, a biopic charting the marriage of Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride.

“Well, the shopping here is spot on,” she laughs. “And I’ve had my share of fish and chips and chocolate.”

Now Is Good opens today

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