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The San Diego Union-Tribune

'Hide and Seek' star Fanning, at 10, already owns acting chops


February 4, 2005

Dakota Fanning is a slight girl with big blue eyes and a gummy grin, but don't let that fool you. Movie after movie, the 10-year-old actress holds her own against Hollywood heavyweights, stealing scenes right out from under their famous feet.

Dakota and Robert De Niro star in the new thriller "Hide and Seek," about a little girl with a dangerous imaginary friend. The film is centered on Dakota's character the way "The Sixth Sense" revolved around Haley Joel Osment – without a solid performance, the frights wouldn't seem believable.

"I just put myself in her position when we're filming," Dakota said in her slight Georgia drawl, speaking from Los Angeles, where she was filming "War of the Worlds" with Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg. "She's kind of walking the line between the good child and the bad child. She's trying to cope with the losses in her life, and all the different things going on are very troubling for her."

Besides De Niro, Dakota has worked with an impressive list of actors: Sean Penn in "I Am Sam," Denzel Washington in "Man on Fire," Brittany Murphy in "Uptown Girls," Mike Myers in "The Cat in the Hat."

It's funny to hear a 10-year-old say she's "always wanted to be an actress" – she turns 11 Feb. 23 – and it's inherently strange asking a kid about acting methods – especially when it seems most child actors are coached by their parents. But "Hide and Seek" director John Polson said Dakota walked on set with her own notes and ideas about Emily, and that made a difference.

"I wasn't dealing with a parent; I was dealing with an actor," he said. "I never felt like her parents had any unhealthy interest in her work, and that makes it much easier for me as a director."

Polson said he auditioned about 60 children for Emily, but most had brought ready-made performances that he could not direct. "She is capable of things she shouldn't be capable of doing at that age," he said.

Dakota's performance in "Hide and Seek" has a sort of old-soul quality to it. Wearing a dark wig and even darker circles under her eyes, she is mesmerizing and commanding one moment, vulnerable and childlike the next.

She went to see the film with co-star Elisabeth Shue, and "we were screaming in the theater. We were laughing at how scared we got," Dakota said.

In real life, Dakota is polite and smart: She learned to read at 2 years old and just finished a series on the Holocaust. She is tutored and home-schooled, and it's clear from her diction she's constantly surrounded by adults. She's already quite a pro at her stock answers to reporters: "Acting is what I love to do. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I don't think of it as work. It's really fun for me. And home-schooling works out perfectly."

She was born Hannah Dakota Fanning in Conyers, Ga. Her mother, Joy, is a stay-at-home mom, and her dad, Steve, is a former minor-league shortstop who works as an electrician. Her little sister Elle also acts (she co-starred with Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger last year in "The Door in the Floor"). Dakota acted in a playhouse in Georgia, and the director suggested to Joy Fanning that she take her daughter to Los Angeles for TV pilot season.

They never left.

Some of Dakota's comments make her seem more like 30 than 10. Her favorite movie is "Gone With the Wind" (she dressed up as Scarlett O'Hara for Halloween), and her role models are Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep, "not just because they're great actresses, but because they are amazing people."

She's gotten a taste of the downside of celebrity recently, when comic Kathy Griffin told celebrities walking the Golden Globes red carpet that Dakota had entered rehab. E! Networks apologized, but it still stings.

"I learned that it can be very hurtful to talk about others. You know, I read a quote by Oprah Winfrey where she said, 'Turn your wounds into wisdom.' It's not nice to spread rumors."

Still, Dakota has a difficult road ahead of her, namely adolescence. Many lauded child stars aren't able to transition into serious adult actors. But Polson says Dakota has the right combination of talent and personality for a long career.

"I'm pleased with the film, but really she's a very special girl, and nothing is more important than protecting that, protecting her," he said. "But if anyone has a shot, it's her."

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