Interviewing one of Hollywood's major players can be nerve-racking. Especially when you have a million things you want to ask, but you've been given only 20 minutes and you know the studio publicist is about to interrupt the conversation so the big-deal movie star can run off and catch a plane.
Still, it's hard to get too upset when the patient and polite-despite-PR-burnout voice on the other end of the phone belongs to 11-year-old Dakota Fanning, America's sweetheart and the pie-eyed star of "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" (see review on Page 44). She also happens to be, according to the July 29 Entertainment Weekly, the most powerful actress in Hollywood. That's thanks to a $3 million-per-movie-and-rising salary, combined with the fact that her career-to-date box office numbers, since debuting in 2001's "Tomcats," are higher than those of -- wait for it -- Julia Roberts.
Still, there are no hard feelings on Julia's part, insists Fanning, who describes her co-star in the upcoming animated version of "Charlotte's Web" as "just sooo nice."
Come to think of it, that's pretty much how Fanning describes everyone she has ever worked with, a list that includes some real heavy hitters. Ask her who'd make the better real-life father -- "Dreamer's" Kurt Russell, "War of the Worlds' " Tom Cruise or "I Am Sam's" Sean Penn -- and Fanning replies that "they'd all make great dads." (Of course they would. Good answer.) Still, I can't help thinking that Russell, himself a former child actor, might be angling for a special place in Fanning's heart, after buying his co-star a horse named Goldie as a parting gift for her work on DreamWorks' fact-based drama about a third-generation horse farmer (Fanning) who nurses an injured thoroughbred racer back to health.
Although Fanning had to learn to ride for the movie, she says the filmmakers substituted a stunt rider for one of the film's most intense scenes, in which her character, Cale Crane, is carried off at full gallop by a spooked equine. "No, they wouldn't let me do it," she says, "because Cale's not wearing a helmet in that scene." Oh, right. You've got to protect your assets, don't you, especially when they're as pricey as Fanning. You wouldn't want your three million dollar baby to lose a couple of teeth -- or worse -- in the middle of a shoot.
Losing teeth. That's something that any grown-up actress -- say, for example, Fanning's idol, child-star-turned-actress/director/producer Jodie Foster -- rarely has to think about. See, Fanning's still at that age where dropping a baby tooth in the middle of a close-up is not out of the question, which could wreak havoc on continuity.
"Oh, I've had all my teeth pulled," Fanning says matter-of-factly.
What? All of them? "No, only eight of them so far," she reassures a startled interviewer, explaining that they weren't taken out all at once, but a couple at a time, beginning at age 9, and with months between procedures. "It wasn't so bad," she says. The only time she had to have a replacement made, she says, was during "War of the Worlds," when the gap left by a lost tooth required a removable prosthetic tooth known as a "flipper," something Fanning says her dentist, whom she identifies as Dr. Smith, invented.
Other than that, the actress says, there's little that sets her apart from the adults she works with on the set. "Probably the only other thing," she says, "is that I've always had to have a teacher with me." Privately tutored by a woman named Jan, Fanning says that her favorite subject is history, that she thinks she might eventually go to a "regular" high school and that she "definitely" wants to go to college. Although she's studying ancient history at the moment, the seventh-grader says that the 1800s hold a particular appeal -- especially to someone whose contemporary roles have prevented her from ever wearing anything other than "normal clothes" -- and that she would love to play dress-up in a period piece some day.
For the time being, she plans to satisfy that jones by wearing a Scarlett O'Hara costume this Halloween ("Gone With the Wind" being one of her favorite movies). It's nice to hear that she's not too grown up to go trick-or-treating, even if, at times, she does come across as preternaturally poised.
Surprisingly, Fanning says that she has seen every one of her films, even the ultra-violent, R-rated "Man on Fire" and the ultra-intense "War of the Worlds" (which was so scary my 46-year-old neighbor walked out in the middle of it). Well, almost every one of them. She has yet to watch "Tomcats" -- probably a good call, that -- but not because of the film's R rating ("After all," she says, "I already read the script") or its lousy reviews ("They're just someone else's opinion"). Rather, it has to do with the fact that her single scene in the gross-out sex comedy, in which she got to utter the memorable line "Mommy, Mommy!" and then run off camera, was so small.
Not much about Fanning feels small these days. Even her oft-reported technique for summoning tears while filming sad scenes (during which she used to force herself to think about the death of her pet goldfish, Flounder) has been put aside, along with other childish things, as she becomes more and more, well, grown up in the way she goes about her chosen profession.
"I just think about what my character is going through," Fanning says of her acting technique, "and about what she would be feeling at the time. I don't think about my goldfish anymore. Besides, I was only, like, 6 then."