TORONTO – If there's a Hollywood A-list that casting directors consult when they need a young girl in a lead role, Dakota Fanning (search) certainly is at the top. The 11-year-old star has become such a hot talent, she even manages to cross over to the A-list for young boy roles.
Fanning's part in the horse-racing family flick "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (search)" had been written for a boy. Then writer-director John Gatins caught Fanning in "Man on Fire" and rethought the gender of young Cale Crane, who teams with her dad (Kurt Russell (search)) to nurse an injured thoroughbred back to champion status.
"I was so impressed with her as I have been in the past and thought, she's the perfect age at this point, and what an opportunity it would be for this movie to take on a whole other level of complexity given what she does as an actor," Gatins said of Fanning.
"I think I even sent Dakota the script that had the word 'boy' in it" to describe Cale, Gatins said. "I told her, `I just wanted you to read the script and see if you might be interested.' It's rare air with Dakota, and I think everyone kind of realizes that."
Chatting with Fanning, though, there's no rare air. She's a giggly, smiley, fidgety sprite who's as sweetly adorable in person as she is on screen.
Given the precociousness she captures on film, you expect a little adult spouting about how the character resonated with an emotional truth that leapt off the page and demanded that she take the role.
In truth, Fanning just wanted a pony.
"I had never been around horses at all. That's why I wanted to do it," Fanning said in an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Dreamer" premiered.
Spending half her life as a professional actress, Fanning has been around some of the biggest names in the business, a roster of collaborators that would be the envy of actresses five times her age.
After a start in commercials and TV guest spots, Fanning shot to fame as the daughter of a retarded man (Sean Penn) in 2001's "I Am Sam," becoming the youngest nominee ever, at age 7, for the Screen Actors Guild awards.
Her leading men since then include Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," Denzel Washington in "Man on Fire," Robert De Niro in "Hide and Seek" and now Russell and Kris Kristofferson in "Dreamer."
Fanning co-starred with Mike Myers in "The Cat in the Hat," Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon in "Trapped" and Brittany Murphy in "Uptown Girls." She starred in Spielberg's alien-abduction TV miniseries "Taken," played Reese Witherspoon's character as a young girl in "Sweet Home Alabama" and was Glenn Close's daughter in a segment of the newly released "Nine Lives," an anthology film of short dramas about women.
Elisabeth Shue, who had co-starred with the young actress in "Hide and Seek," signed on to play her mother in "Dreamer" because she was eager to work with Fanning again.
"I was really so excited and thought, `If there's a part, I don't care what it is, I'm going to do it just because I love her so much,'" said Shue, describing Fanning as a brilliant natural performer who remains a bright, unaffected child despite the trappings of stardom.
"She is a little girl," Shue said. "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."
For Fanning, who recalls always playing little pretend scenes around her home in Georgia, film acting is the ultimate game of make-believe. She showed a flair for acting early on, and after a brief stint at a local playhouse, Fanning moved with her parents to Los Angeles.
Her mother accompanies her to sets, but Fanning said her parents are not actively involved in her film choices. The decisions are all hers.
"I have a feeling it's kind of like working with a horse that's too big for you to control yourself, too strong," said Kristofferson, who plays Fanning's grandfather in "Dreamer." "But you can just sort of guide it or aid it in living. I don't think it was anybody's idea but Dakota's to be who she is, and they supported her."
Fanning approaches acting with the energy of a child at play and no affectation, just a pragmatic desire to fill the character's shoes when the camera rolls.
To capture a sad mood in "I Am Sam," she thought about her goldfish that had recently died, but she is hardly a junior method actor referencing her own life for emotional experiences to embody what a character is going through.
"I think it's just when you're playing the character, just kind of into your character, you're kind of thinking and feeling what she's thinking and feeling at the time," Fanning said. "So if she's doing that, you're doing that."
In "Dreamer," Fanning dominates scene after scene, notably in a sequence in the family's horse stable with most of her co-stars, including Russell, Kristofferson and David Morse as the villain trying to buy back the injured thoroughbred by waving a fistful of dollars in Fanning's face.
The tiny Fanning goes toe-to-toe with the hulking Morse, mouthing off and knocking his character down to her size.
"That's my favorite scene, because we were all together," Fanning said. "Those are my favorite scenes, when we're all there having a good time, and it was a scene that we could really have fun with and be really mean and do different things. I think it's cool to do movies and do things that you wouldn't be able to do in real life, and that's a thing I wouldn't get to do in life, so that's what makes it fun."
Next up, Fanning gets to play with talking animals, starring as the main human character in a live-action version of "Charlotte's Web" due out next summer.
Fanning is home-schooled and has a teacher who accompanies her when she's shooting a movie. She said she plans to go to college, but that acting will remain her lifelong career.
Does Fanning ever feel she's missing out on her childhood?
"No, no. Never," Fanning said. "Not at all. I enjoy what I'm doing so much that that doesn't even bother me at all, because I feel like I wouldn't be as happy."