Dakota Fanning was one of the biggest child stars of the ’00s – and, quite possibly, of all time. Moreover, in 2001, aged just eight, she became the youngest person ever to receive a nomination for a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award – a record she still holds to this day. But as she grew towards adulthood, the big blockbuster roles everybody knew her for seemed to dry up. Now, in fact, she’s in her early twenties and seems to have almost completely vanished from our screens, both big and small. So, where did she go?
Despite the fact that both she and her sister are actresses, though, Dakota Fanning wasn’t born into a showbiz family. Rather, it was a sporting one. Her mother was a professional tennis player, for instance, while her father played baseball in the minor leagues. Meanwhile, her grandfather, Rick Arrington, was even once a Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. Dakota, however, wanted to go into show business.
“Even before I started working — when I was two, three, four, five — I was an exceptionally mature child,” Fanning told Town & Country in 2014. And she was also a child who had a clear idea of what she wanted to do with her life. Indeed, at the tender age of five, and with only small-town theater work and commercials under her belt, she asked to move to Los Angeles.
Her parents took her seriously, however. And as a result, they agreed to briefly move away from their hometown of Conyers, Georgia, stay with an aunt and see what their daughter could achieve. “My mom and I were able to have conversations like, ‘Do you want to go to California and go to auditions for commercials and TV shows? Is that something you want to do?’” Fanning said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a try.’”
As it turned out, though, the Fannings did more than just give it a try. By 2000, in fact, young Dakota had landed her first major guest role on television – that of a leukemia patient in the hospital drama show ER. And from there, more TV roles followed in the likes of Spin City, CSI and The Practice. She even played the younger versions of Ellen DeGeneres and the character Ally McBeal on screen.
But 2001 saw her nab a role which made her a star – Lucy in the film I Am Sam. Indeed, her performance as the daughter of a man living with developmental disabilities, played by Hollywood heavyweight Sean Penn, won rave reviews. And with that, not only did she become the youngest person ever to be nominated for a SAG Award, but she also went on to win multiple other honors for the part.
Naturally, Hollywood immediately sat up and took notice. What’s more, none other than Steven Spielberg gave her her next starring role, in his high-profile sci-fi series Taken. Dakota’s little sister Elle was also along for the ride, playing the younger version of her character. After that, several movie roles followed for the elder Fanning, including those in Trapped and Sweet Home Alabama.
Over the next few years, moreover, Dakota got to work with some huge Hollywood names. She appeared with Denzel Washington in Man on Fire, Kurt Russell in Dreamer and Robert De Niro in Hide and Seek, for example. And according to those in the know, she out-acted all of them. In his review for Man on Fire, critic Roger Ebert even described the pre-teen Fanning as “a pro at only ten years old.”
Then in 2005, at the height of her fame, she teamed up with Steven Spielberg once more for War of the Worlds. Once again, she won rave reviews and praise. Next, without a break in filming, Fanning shot Charlotte’s Web, an adaptation of the classic children’s book. After that came something much more controversial, however.
At the beginning of 2007, concerns started to build around Hounddog, a new film starring the then 12-year-old. In the movie, her character was raped, leaving many people appalled. And, though the scene wasn’t explicit, there was a huge outcry. At one point, religious activists even called for there to be an investigation into child abuse on Hounddog’s set.
But both the film’s director, Deborah Kampmeier, and Fanning herself insisted that no harm had been done by making a movie about the effects of rape. “I’m going to be a freshman in high school in September,” Fanning told Reuters in 2007, “and I think it would be irresponsible of my parents not to let me know of things that happen and to try not to get yourself in uncomfortable situations.”
Fanning was also angry that the controversy over the movie had spread to involve her own mom, who had consistently looked out for her. “I can let other things go, but when people start to talk about my mother, like, that’s really bad in my opinion,” she said. “That’s an attack, and that’s not fair. They hadn’t seen the movie.” Mature words from a person so young.
Gradually, though, the uproar over Hounddog died down, and Fanning began to take on other roles as she became a teenager. Over the next couple of years, for example, she starred in The Secret Life of Bees, Push, Coraline and the Twilight movies, among others. And although her films didn’t always receive good reviews, they were making her rich. Before she was even an adult, in fact, she was a millionaire.
As the ’00s started to draw to a close, however, Dakota’s sister, Elle, began to slowly rise to stardom as well. And her acting in movies like Reservation Road instantly had people comparing her to her sister. “No small number of Hollywood casting agents must be cursing her parents, Steve and Joy Fanning, for not being more fruitful. They stopped at these two gifted girls,” The New York Times wrote in 2010.
But as Elle came further and further into the limelight, Dakota seemed to back away from it. In June 2011, meanwhile, she graduated from high school – she was also the homecoming queen – and enrolled in college. She chose women’s studies as her major. And in between filming the Twilight movies and other fare, she wrote essays about the portrayal of women in film – something she arguably knew a bit about.
After Dakota reached adulthood, moreover, it seemed that more and more people were expecting her to go the stereotypical ex-child star route by using drugs or being embroiled in scandals. Instead, though, Fanning continued to be a smart-beyond-her-years young woman. And apart from a minor fuss when she was 17 over a “sexualized” perfume ad, she was rarely associated with anything negative in the media.
Even her personal relationships seemed to go quite under the radar. People were undoubtedly interested when she started dating model Jamie Strachan, who was 13 years older than her, and equally interested when she quietly split from him, but she did nothing to fan the flames. And at the end of 2016, gossip websites reported that she’d begun seeing an old high school sweetheart; for a while, though, he had no identity beyond “mystery man.”
Then, in a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Fanning admitted that she disliked being as famous as she was. “I don’t remember much of a time when people didn’t know who I was,” she said. “But you grow up and think about things differently, and you realize how strange fame is. If I can achieve it, I don’t want anyone to know anything about me.”
And Fanning had gotten good, it seemed, at never allowing the press to know too much about her. Perhaps this wasn’t even necessarily the after-effects of fame – just a part of her personality. “I was raised by very traditional southern parents with southern manners. You don’t air your dirty laundry to people that aren’t your family or your friends,” she told Town & Country.
So, if Dakota Fanning has retreated from the spotlight, it’s likely her own doing. Indeed, perhaps she just wants to act without the downside of the intense fame she previously experienced as a youngster. And as she’s got lots of notable projects coming up – the much-anticipated Ocean’s Eight included – her fans will see her again soon. They’ll likely spot her on the big screen rather than anywhere else, though.