Audiences have been watching Dakota Fanning since she was just a little girl. She began her career at age six with TV guest roles and moved right into films with a supporting nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for the 2002 Sean Penn film “I Am Sam.” She followed with “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Uptown Girls,” “Man on Fire,” “War of the Worlds,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “The Runaways” and “American Pastoral.”
She know is seen on the TNT limited series “The Alienist” as Sara Howard, the secretary to the police commissioner who lives in the dark world of the seedier side of New York City in the late 19th century. Fanning recently joined us for a video chat, which you can watch above. Read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Dakota, “The Alienist” airing now on TNT. Tell us about when you first got this script, what attracted you to such a dark-type project?
Dakota Fanning: Well I was introduced to the story through the first three scripts. I read the first three episodes and I was drawn to the character that I play, of course, Sara Howard. She’s the first female to work for the New York Police Department, and I was just thrilled at the opportunity to show such a pioneer, kind of groundbreaking character for 1896. We didn’t get to see women in those positions very often so I loved that aspect of the story. There is darkness, of course. I think I tend to be drawn to darker subject matter in general. I loved getting to see the world of New York during this time and the corruption and the different areas of the city and who lived where and the dynamics of people trying to cohabitate in a very changing world. One of my favorite things when I first read it was the birth of forensics and science and psychology that we kind of see throughout the series. Sara had a line in Episode 2, saying, “Isn’t it surmised that people’s fingerprints do not change over the course of their lifetime?” And I read that and was like, “Oh my god, of course. There would’ve been a time where people didn’t realize that.” It’s hard to imagine in today’s day and age of DNA and fingerprints and all that stuff that, of course there was someone who had to discover that and people learning about those methods and using those methods and applying them to, in this case, crime and crime-solving. I was fascinated by that aspect of it. I knew I would be as a viewer and then, of course, as an actor in the story.
GD: Well as you mentioned, she’s a woman in a man’s world and really first of her kind doing what she’s doing. I catch little subtle nods to current day in terms of women in a man’s world in different professions and so forth. Is that something about the role that you really liked?
DF: I did, and we filmed this from March to September of 2017 so we were filming it a little bit before it was as relevant of a conversation as it is I think particularly right now. But now knowing that that conversation is happening in 2018 and then seeing these situations that Sara’s facing that are set in 1896, it’s kind of disappointing to say that they’re relevant and timely and using those words. I’ve met so many young women who have been watching the show who latch onto that and who, you’re able to gain a perspective of how history kind of repeats itself and that these situations, we haven’t found a way to completely solve them ‘cause they’re still happening in a very similar way to 1896, so I think that’s it’s been cause for positive conversation and it’s just by chance that this story… People have been trying to make this story for so long, whether it be a film or now we have this limited series platform so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s all lining up this way. I think that it was always meant to be.
GD: All of your characters have to deal with some gruesome things that happened to other characters. I’m sure shooting some on those days you really have to prepare for that mentally and emotionally. How do you do that and how do you get rid of that when you go home at the end of the day?
DF: Yeah, for me, I think I’ve kind of been able to trace it back to starting so young as an actor that the lines between what was real and what was pretend were very clear. They were always made very clear to me, so I think that I carried that throughout my life and throughout my work of being able to completely shut off the moment they say cut, I’m back to myself and I see that this corpse is not a real corpse. It’s like rubber and blood that you can eat and whatever. I see behind that movie magic kind of facade. So I’m lucky that I’ve never brought any sort of heaviness or darkness home with me. I’ve always been able to separate that. But I think that’s also due to the people that you work with as well. I think that especially me and Luke [Evans] and Daniel [Brühl], we had a very healthy perspective and we had such a great dynamic amongst the three of us and so much love for each other, we were able to get each other through that.
GD: Well let’s talk about them for just a moment. Daniel’s character to your character, really anybody else that he encounters is very cold and not sympathetic really at all. What’s it like working with a character like that and then how is he different in real life?
DF: Well, I just can’t say enough about the friendship between the three of us. I’m literally in a group chat that they’re together right now trying to make plans to meet up for dinner and I’m getting all their messages ‘cause we’re in this group chat that we created in Budapest! So our friendship has lasted and deepened since the day we met and they’re really dear lifelong friends and I’m so thrilled about that. And then as actors, I just so loved working with both of them and Sara has such a different and important dynamic with each one. I think that Sara is intimidating to Dr. Kreizler and I think that they have a dynamic that you see throughout the series change and they have growing pains at a certain point and you see that even though Dr. Kreizler is such a progressive character in the story and he believes in ideas and theories that are not accepted in this time, there’s sometimes still he’s threatened by the notion of a woman standing up to him or a woman being right and him being wrong. We still kind of see that, so I love getting to have those moments with Daniel as Dr. Kreizler but as a human being he couldn’t be more lovely and he’s not cold. He’s very warm and just the best. And then Luke is the life of the party, the definition of fun and he’s the guy that bursts into song when they say cut, makes up a song about our surroundings. That’s who he is.
GD: As an actress when you’re on a project like this that’s so lavish in its production design and costumes, how does that help you get into the role and how did that environment of it being such high production values help you?
DF: It just helps you so much, I think. I haven’t worked on a production that was this kind of detailed and having actual sets and the costumes, there was nothing that was sort of make believe. Everything was there. Yes, okay, the building of the Williamsburg Bridge, that had to be CGI, but all those buildings and all the props and everything that we were coming into contact with was real from the period and it’s so helpful as an actor. I think that was the thing that we felt so lucky, that everyone wanted to make it as beautiful and rich and detailed as they could from the costumes to the sets to the props to every aspect of it. First and foremost was the authenticity of the period and yeah, as an actor it completely puts you into the character’s headspace. It’s the closest thing to time travel that you can experience (laughs).
GD: All of your career really has been in film until this project. Is there really a line anymore between film and television in terms of production values and scripts and who you get to work with?
DF: I don’t think so. I think it’s been maybe permanently blurred (laughs). I think that the core of making something for film and television is the same. You know what I mean? You’re telling a story, you’re playing characters, you’re trying to connect with people through a screen to make people feel something, to entertain. That doesn’t change whether it’s a film or whether it’s a TV series, limited series, whatever it is. That’s what actors are trying to do. So that doesn’t ever change but I think that what’s been so exciting about being a part of “The Alienist” is the amount of people that it’s been able to reach. A lot of the times you make a film and it comes out and it’s in a couple of theaters, like one in New York, one in L.A. and it’s only there for these certain dates and you either see it or you don’t and sometimes it’s on demand later, sometimes it’s not. It’s hard for people to find it and that can feel disappointing when you put so much effort into something and you feel like it can get lost just by chance. And so one of the best things about being part of “The Alienist” for me is, the doormen in my building are watching it, the people that I’m seeing at a restaurant, they’re watching. It’s so accessible to people. They know where to find it, there’s a particular time that it comes on, you can record it, watch it later, you can watch it that night, whatever. It’s reached so many more people than a film that I’ve done in a while and that’s been so gratifying and exciting and you feel like all this hard work that so many people put into it pays off through the amount of people that it gets to touch and I’ve loved the experience of talking to people who are watching the show and meeting them by chance has been really, really lovely.
GD: A couple questions to end with, we’re an awards website so I think this is gonna be the kind of project that really comes on strong with Emmy voters here in a few months. You were one of the youngest nominees ever at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. What do you remember about that particular night and experience?
DF: I remember so much. It was my first time ever attending an award show of that magnitude and then being nominated, I was nominated with actresses that I admired so much and I remember I was in a category with Cameron Diaz, and Cameron Diaz was the end-all be-all to me. I was a little girl and I kind of looked up to her, she was blonde, I was blonde. I don’t know, I saw something of myself in her and I remember I got to meet her and it was so exciting and thrilling. I believe I’m still the youngest nominee, so I love that little fact. I got to go back, I was at the SAG Awards this past one, I got to present, and I don’t know, it’s always fun. The room kind of looks the same to me as it did when I was six (laughs).
GD: Well they always say that’s one of the best ones for an actor.
DF: Well it’s your peers, yeah, totally. I think to be recognized by other actors and your peers is always a nice thing. So it’s a room full of supportive people.
GD: And we’re just coming off Oscar season. I can still remember for the past 12 or 14 years they release the list of people that get invited to join the Academy and you were one of the youngest people invited to join the Academy. So you’ve been voting quite a while now.
DF: I have been voting quite a while, yes I have. I remember I read that I was going to be asked to be in the Academy on my Yahoo homepage when I was checking my email when I was a little girl, and I called my mom, and I was like, “this can’t be true.” It wasn’t even on my radar that it was a possibility for me, so that was very exciting, and again, group of people I’m proud to be a part of, people who love celebrating movies and making movies.
GD: Well I always love asking this when I’ve got an Oscar voter in front of me. Not that you have to give specifics but when you’ve got an acting category in front of you and you’re thinking about those four in a given year, what’s going through your mind? What types of roles and performances tend to get your attention?
DF: God, it’s such a hard thing because can there ever be a “Best Actor”? I don’t know. You know what I mean? There can be something that just touches me in a different way ‘cause it’s a feeling or a story that I recognize or that I connect with in a specific way. I think it’s just about an instinct and a connection. Like I said, I think as an actor that’s what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to make a connection with a human being through the screen, to touch somebody, to make them feel something and so whatever makes me feel something is usually what I vote for, I guess.
GD: Well those Emmy voters might be touched and feeling something off of “The Alienist.” Maybe we’ll see you on the Emmy red carpet in a few weeks.
DF: That’s very nice, thank you (laughs).
Be sure to make your Emmy predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their TV shows and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on July 12. And join in the fun debate over the 2018 Emmys taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our television forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.