Dakota Fanning picked the place. A little Mexican restaurant called Casa Vega, on Ventura Boulevard, in the San Fernando Valley.
“It’s the greatest restaurant ever. I usually get a chicken enchilada and a beef taco, or two beef tacos, but I get beef and cheese. I’m very simple. I don’t get the sour cream like most people. My dad had a burrito last time. A lot of people, like my uncle, get an appetizer that’s pretty big, I guess Mexican pizza.”
Dakota is 12 years. On-screen, in movies such as Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story and War of the Worlds, she’s striking, but in person she has a normal appearance, with nothing sophisticated or racy about her look or manner. At Casa Vega she ordered the tacos and a regular Coke. Her agent, Cindy Osbrink, and her mother, Joy Fanning, were seated a couple of tables away.
Dakota made her debut at the age of four, in a small playhouse in her hometown of Conyers Georgia, a leafy city 25 miles from Atlanta. Two years later, she was working with Sean Penn. Now she makes a reported $3 million per film. That’s as close to a Cinderella story as it gets.
“It was just this one-week thing,” she says of her first performance, “and we did the play in front of our parents at the end of the week. I was the little blue fish who wanted one of his scales, and the rainbow fish yelled at me. I used to play around the house and do things like that, so it didn’t feel any different from when I did it by myself at home. It still feels like I’m playacting at home, but in front of a camera. The head of the playhouse talked to my mom and said l should get an agent in Atlanta. I got a Tide commeicial and then I did a Georgia Lottery commercial with Ray Charles. l sat on the piano with him while he played ‘Georgia on My Mind.’ l said, ‘Is that Beethoven?’ And he said, “That’s pure Charles, little lady. What do you know about Beethoven?”‘
She didn’t imitate Ray Charles, exactly, but she did morph into him for a moment there. It was a little scary.
Dakota has braces on four teeth. She’s home-schooled. Or, rather, she spends her school days at her teacher’s house when not taking classes with the same teacher between scenes on movie sets. She knits for fun and has lately been working on a scarf for her eight-year-old sister, Elle Fanning, a fellow actress, who starred in Because of Winn-Dixie. Like almost everyone else of her generation, she’s well versed in Harry Potter. She says she can’t wait for the next one.
“My dad stands in line till midnight the day it comes out. l cried when Dumbledore died. It was so sad. Some people think he’s not dead. Some people think he had a deal with Snape. I don’t know, it’s so weird. There are so many weird theories.”
Another of her favorite books, Charlotte’s Web, is the basis of her next movie. It’s a combination of live action, computer-generated imagery, and animatronics. Dakota, playing farm girl Fern Arable, is the lead live performer. Oscar winners and nominees Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey. Kathy Bates, Robert Redford, and Thomas Haden Church gave voice to the animals. Paramount Pictures teamed with Walden Media (The Chronicles of Narnia) to make it. and will release it, with blockbuster fanfare, just before Christmas.
For Dakota a movie set is a schoolhouse, playground, and summer camp combined. “I had my birthday on Hide and Seek,” the 2005 horror thriller she made with Robert De Niro. “My 10th birthday. Nobody would tell me happy birthday until it was technically after my birth time, because I was born at, like, 10 in the morning, I think. And everybody was like, ‘Happy-oh, it’s not 10 yet’ We were at Silvercup Studios in Queens. Bob De Niro gave me a surprise party at lunch.”
“Everybody calls him Bob. I’ve never heard anybody call him Robert. They brought in my favorite restaurant. It’s Panda Express. It’s, like, fast-food Chinese, but good. They don’t have one in New York City, so they brought it in special from New Jersey, and they had cupcakes that spelled out ‘Happy Birthday, Dakota.’ I walked into lunch, and they had all these pamphlets with pandas on them. Do you know the scene where Bob is in the yellow bloody raincoat? I turned around and there were all these Panda Express people with their spoons, ready to give me chicken and stuff, and I turn around, and Bob’s in this bloody raincoat, like, ‘Happy birthday.'”
For an instant, she’s De Niro.
Spencer Tracy famously said actors get paid not to act but to wait around on movie sets, but Dakota doesn’t mind any part of the process.
“I can always find something to do. l can sit behind the monitors or go to the grip truck and chat with the grips or, you know, talk to Transportation. I can hijack golf carts with people. You have to love the acting, the waiting, talking to the grips, talking to the ‘transpo’ captain, talking to the P.A .’s. And I truly love that.”
What’s a grip, anyway?
“Grips bring, like, C-stands to put up the lights and the wires. I didn’t know what a dolly grip was. And I realized they hook the camera onto this train thing. They have stools for the focus man and camera guy. and then the dolly grip pushes the dolly along the track. It’s a super hard job. You have to start at the right mark, start at the right time, and end it at precisely the exact green-tape mark.”
Dakota has had a charmed run so far. She hit her first patch of scandalous press last summer, soon after she had filmed a rape scene for an independent movie, produced by and co-starring Robin Wright Penn, tentatively titled Hounddog. Her publicist said the scene was not untoward, and told me that the actress would not take questions about it. “I don’t really know when that’s coming out.” Dakota says of the film.
It’s impossible to predict which child actor will emerge unscathed from the business. For every Ron Howard or Jodie Foster, there are seemingly 10 Danny Bonaduces. Given Dakota’s enthusiasm, not only for acting but for filmmaking itself, it seems as though she may continue to have success without losing herself along the way. Asked if she would like to direct movies when she grows up-a trick pulled off by Howard and Foster-she replies, unequivocally, “I would.”
Her next acting job will be in The Secret Life of Bees, if all goes according to plan. “I think I’m going to do that next summer. It’s something that I definitely want to do and I’m attached to do it. Maybe the beginning of next year, maybe next summer. I want to do one at the beginning of next year and not wait eight or nine months. That would be a little long for me. I’d miss the grips.”