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She’s a Keeper 

Thursday, Oct 20 2005
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Photo by Joe LedererShe is 11 years old and has already amassed a résumé that is doubtless the envy of many in the industry. She has shared top billing with Sean Penn, Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro and Tom Cruise. Twice, she has been cast by Steven Spielberg. This year alone, she is the star of four feature films and one direct-to-video animated feature. Yet in a business where many a bright young face is here today and gone tomorrow — the victim of overexposure or, perchance, merely the onset of puberty (calling Haley Joel Osment) — Dakota Fanning’s welcome hasn’t been the least bit overstayed. More than ever, in her two most recent projects — Nine Lives (which opened last week) and Dreamer (which opens today) — Fanning commands the screen with a natural authority and full-bodied sense of character that elude most of her contemporaries (and a good many performers several times her age). Not since Jennifer Connelly and Diane Lane first appeared on the scene has the career of a child “star” looked this promising. “I always try to pick roles that aren’t just different from each other, but different from me,” says Fanning as she curls herself into a spacious armchair in a suite at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel. “That’s my favorite part about acting. I like to do things I wouldn’t get to do in my normal life, and be different people that I’ll never be.” To put it mildly. Recently, Fanning has gone toe-to-toe with Washington amid the violent pyrotechnics of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, given audiences the heebie-jeebies as De Niro’s sullen and possibly psychotic daughter in Hide and Seek, and fled (in the company of Cruise) from the alien invasion of War of the Worlds. Now she’s come to the Toronto Film Festival to promote Dreamer, a formula underdog (or, more to the point, underhorse) picture in which she plays the daughter of an embattled horse trainer (Kurt Russell) who attempts to rehabilitate a badly injured filly. It’s tame stuff by the standards of Fanning’s recent work — and her first picture in a while that kids her own age can actually see. Still, with its surprisingly hard-nosed depiction of the decline of American farm culture, Dreamer stands at a distance from the bubblegum ephemera that regularly pass as “family entertainment.” So it remains as difficult to imagine Fanning surrendering herself to the likes of a Herbie: Fully Loaded or New York Minute as it is to picture Hilary Duff doing Ibsen.As Fanning and I chat, the extraordinary thing about the encounter is how utterly ordinary it is. Despite her youth, the actress isn’t surrounded by relatives and handlers who do her talking for her. Only her longtime agent, Cindy Osbrink, is present in the room, but says nothing, save for a brief intervention to relocate Fanning’s glass of milk from its precarious perch on a table’s edge. Of course, as Fanning goes on to explain, Osbrink does more than just run food-spillage interference; along with Fanning’s mother, Joy, she provides the first line of defense where incoming offers are concerned. But the point is clear: On screen and off, Fanning can more than hold her own.A native of Conyers, Georgia, Hannah Dakota Fanning began acting in a community children’s playhouse, the director of which suggested that Joy Fanning get her daughter an agent. That agent, in turn, proposed that the family consider relocating to California. They did, marking the moment, Fanning says, at which she went from thinking about acting as a mere hobby to considering it as a career. Work in commercials and television series followed, and before long she was cast in her breakthrough role, as daughter to a mentally handicapped Sean Penn in I Am Sam (2001). At the tender age of 8, Fanning became the youngest performer ever nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award. She’s been busy ever since, but as demanding as her schedule may seem, Fanning makes it sound like there’s nothing to it. “I’ve had this whole summer off,” she tells me, “and even when I am working, it’s easy to balance things out. When I say acting is my number-one priority, that doesn’t mean that it’s all I do.”So, as Fanning looks forward to getting back in front of the cameras, she also has some longer-term goals in mind. She’s sure she’ll go to college when the time comes, though she doesn’t foresee taking a Jodie Foster–style sabbatical to do so. “I’ll probably do acting at the same time,” she says. Then, after a considered pause, “I don’t think I’d be able to not do it for that long.”

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