Celebrity is child's play

SPOTLIGHT

Spotlight: Dakota Fanning

October 21, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Aworking actress since age 6, she's appeared alongside Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise and, most recently, Kurt Russell. In fact, she's appearing in four movies this year alone and is the subject of serious Oscar talk for her role in War of the Worlds. She travels the world, gets glammed-up for high-profile movie premieres, is the subject of flattering profiles in newspapers and magazines.

Not a bad life for an 11-year-old. Yet Dakota Fanning insists it's not a big deal.

"I just do what I love and have a normal life," Dakota says over the phone from Indianapolis, where she's doing press interviews on behalf of Dreamer, a family drama about fathers, daughters and racehorses that opens nationwide today. "I go to school at my teacher's house, I have piano lessons on Mondays and Fridays, and voice lessons, and Spanish lessons. Then I go home and swim and do all those things.

"I don't know if people think" that's very glamorous, she says, sounding like a young girl who finds all the attention amusing and maybe a little perplexing.

But, actress or not, Dakota Fanning is no ordinary 11-year-old. Audiences and critics have embraced her as the finest young actor of her day (assuming the mantle left behind by Haley Joel Osment, now 16 but an Oscar nominee at 10 for The Sixth Sense). She received a Screen Actors Guild award nomination (for I Am Sam) at age 7, making her the youngest nominee in the awards' 11-year history. And Fanning's adult co-stars can't say enough good things about her, praising her poise, her naturalness, even her attitude on the set.

"Dakota is unaware how talented she actually is," Steven Spielberg, who directed Fanning in War of the Worlds, told the New York Daily News. "During filming, she quickly understands each scene or situation, measures it against how she'd really react, and acts the truth every time."

Adds Elisabeth Shue, who plays Fanning's mother in Dreamer, "She is a little girl. Her playful spirit is very much alive when she's not working. Even when she is working, she comes and she runs and hugs everybody in the morning, and her beautiful smile just sort of forces everybody, pushes them, to open up to the day."

The object of all this adulation sure sounds unaffected by it all, giggling over the phone, insisting that everything about acting and making movies is fun - even press tours, which she labels "really fun" - and deftly parrying questions about her favorite co-star. "I loved them all so much," she says emphatically. "I don't think I could ever pick a favorite."

Still, she admits to a soft spot for Russell, who plays her father in Dreamer. Not because the one-time child actor gave her tips about succeeding. "We didn't really talk too much about acting," she says.

No, Russell worked his way into Fanning's heart via more traditional methods. He gave her a really cool gift - a horse. They named it Goldie, no doubt after Russell's longtime partner, Goldie Hawn.

"We just enjoyed each other's company," Fanning says of Russell. "He's someone I love like he's my uncle or something."

A native of Georgia, Fanning started acting in local stage productions in her hometown of Conyers. Recognizing her talent, the head of the playhouse suggested that Fanning's parents get her an agent. The agent recommended the family head for Los Angeles, which they did five years ago. The young actress was featured in several commercials, then showed up in episodes of ER and Ally McBeal. In 2001, she acted opposite Penn in I Am Sam, playing the daughter of a mentally challenged man who fights for the right to raise her himself.

The accolades quickly followed; in addition to the SAG nomination, she won an award from the Broadcast Film Critics Association as the year's best young actor or actress. Since then, she's played a kidnap victim in Man On Fire, opposite Washington; a spoiled rich kid in the comedy Uptown Girls, co-starring Brittany Murphy; a young girl traumatized by the death of her mother in Hide and Seek, with De Niro as her father; and Cruise's daughter in War of the Worlds, where not even a bunch of 100-foot-tall alien robots could upstage her.

That's an impressive resume for someone so young, but Fanning believes it's only the beginning. Not surprisingly, given that all kids love to pretend, she wants to continue acting. "I enjoy it so much," she says, "getting to be different people and doing different things that I wouldn't get to do in my normal life."

At 11, she knows she's still got a lot of learning to do. She can't wait to get started.

"I get to learn from these actors and get to do what I love to do," Fanning says. "I think I've learned something from everyone."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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