Dakota Fanning is at war with her black Balenciaga buckle-strap ankle boots. “Oh God,” she says, pointing to the Band-Aids covering the telltale signs of abuse. “They killed my feet yesterday. With tights or socks they’re fine, but last night it was so warm that I took my tights off. Living in New York City, you have to wear comfortable shoes—which I’m really terrible at—or you’re not going to survive.” Still, her solution (wearing adhesive strips designed to resemble slabs of bacon) almost makes it worth it. It’s a quirky style statement, perfectly appropriate for a 20-year-old New York University student (which she is), if not necessarily an acclaimed Hollywood actress who could likely commission Alexander Wang himself to make custom bandages for her if she had the inclination.
Fanning has always—well, not from birth, but close—been embraced by the fashion in-crowd. Marc Jacobs cast her in his spring 2007 ad campaign when she was 12, looking like the luckiest little girl ever to raid her mother’s closet. (She was so tiny he had the whole collection custom-sized for her; she still has it today.) She attended her first fashion show (Miu Miu) at age 15 and maintains solid friendships with not only Jacobs (she also appeared in his Oh, Lola! fragrance ads in 2011) but also Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the sisters behind Rodarte. “Everybody would want to hang out with them,” says Fanning. “They’re so down-to-earth. They’re geniuses, really; I’m always fascinated by their inspirations.”
Given her insider’s vantage point, it’s not a surprise that Fanning gets fashion. But she’s not over-the-top obsessive about it. Right now, ensconced in a window seat at Café Cluny, a cozy spot in the West Village, she’s dressed well but simply: worn-in AG jeans, shiny Stubbs & Wootten black flats and a delicate white button-down shirt from the (inventively titled) brand Shirt by Shirt. Her bag is a quilted maroon Chanel mini, and the slightest coating of mascara is detectable on her doll-like blue eyes. Fanning may be able to rock a one-shouldered, red Roland Mouret jumpsuit, as she did for her Night Moves premiere just two evenings earlier, and know the ins and outs of shopping in London (“Selfridges and Liberty of London are great because everything is right there and it’s easy!”), but it’s believable when she says her everyday style is no-fuss classic. She stocks up on the items she loves—Acne jeans, Current/Elliott T-shirts—partly for convenience (“If you have a pair of jeans you love, why change them?” she wonders) and partly because she claims to be a terrible shopper. “The pressure of trying things on in the store freaks me out,” she admits. “I usually come back with things that don’t fit.” Her most treasured piece of clothing isn’t a designer piece but a T-shirt she got from the hospital gift shop the day her sister Elle was born. “It’s pink with big blue letters and says ‘I’m the Big Sister.’ I was so small and it was so big that it fit me forever. Now it would be like a crop top on me,” she says with a laugh, “which might be in fashion.”
Though she’s clearly downplaying her style prowess, the actress knows what works for her. “It’s easy to fall into what’s trendy,” she says. “I really want Birkenstocks, but everyone has white Birkenstocks. So it’s about trying to find the color that not everyone has. You can’t be a slave to what everyone else thinks looks good, because sometimes it doesn’t look good on you.”
Of course, being a celebrity, Fanning has to worry a little more about looking good than the rest of us. A bad fashion day isn’t as quickly overcome when paparazzi are snapping pictures. Thanks to the Internet, those photos live on forever. She doesn’t want to give in and dress for the cameras, but she doesn’t look forward to being caught with bedhead, either. “You see people being photographed at airports in runway outfits now!” she says with a mixture of awe and horror. “It’s like, ‘What are you doing? You’re going on a nine-hour flight!’ But that’s okay too, I guess. If you want to wear a runway look to get your coffee in the morning, good for you, I’m sort of inspired. But you shouldn’t feel like you have to do that.”
For the moment at least, Fanning is ready to leave the grand style statements to Elle, who’s following in her big sis’ footsteps, not only in terms of her acting career but also her fashion profile—at 16 she’s already been the face of a Miu Miu campaign. “She wears I don’t even know what,” says Fanning, acknowledging her sister’s out-of-the-box choices. When I mention that Elle has publicly admitted she’s into swiping pieces from her collection, she balks. “I’m not sure why she’d be interested in my clothes. They’re so boring compared to everything she wears—now I’m looking in her closet for a little treat when I go home.”
There are those actresses, who shall remain unnamed, who are more famous for their fashion than for their work. But Fanning has never been one of them—and she’s acutely aware that it’s not her job to be stylish. “I do think that actresses are expected to be models as well,” she says. “You really are. And it’s not the same. I’ve felt nervous on photo shoots, like, ‘I’m just an actor!’ I’ve definitely had times when I’ve wanted to say, ‘This was made for a child. This will not fit me.’ ” To calm her nerves, she does what she does best: slips into character. “Sometimes you just have to pretend to be acting. It’s a matter of figuring out the vibe of the shoot and playing dress-up. Then it can be really fun.”
Fanning’s extracurricular fashion opportunities—like traveling to Dubai for the Chanel cruise show—have always come as the result of her career. At eight, she was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for her performance in I Am Sam, competing alongside veterans including Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Sure, she was a child star—she appeared in Charlotte’s Web and The Cat in the Hat—but not of the Hannah Montana variety. “I never wanted my face on a bedspread,” Fanning says.
Now old enough to vote, if not to legally drink, Fanning has appeared in more than 35 movies and TV shows. In her current film, The Last of Robin Hood, out September 5, she plays a teen actress of middling (at best) talent whose slippery stage mother (Susan Sarandon) looks the other way when she embarks on an affair with a legendary screen star approximately three times her age (Kevin Kline, as a smarmy but charming Errol Flynn). Her strength in meaty roles, from Robin Hood to her recent portrayal of an ecoterrorist in Night Moves, has solidified her place in the “serious actress” category.
Maybe even in the “too serious actress” category. If you’ve read a profile of Fanning in the past decade, chances are it’s included the P-word. “I have this whole thing with that word, precocious,” says Fanning, rolling her eyes. “I guess it’s not a negative, but when I was younger, especially, I was labeled that, and I was just being who I was! Do you know what I mean? Like, ‘Oh, you’re so mature,’ when I’m just normal.”
Evidence of Fanning’s normality abounds. She may go off on how much she loved her “The Novel and Society in Victorian Britain” course (in NYU’s individualized-studies-based Gallatin program, where she’s studying the role of women in film), but she’s equally enthusiastic about her Hello Kitty and Kid Robot collections.
She can hold her own on a trip to Africa with Bill Clinton (she visited AIDS and malaria clinics in 2013 with the former President) but nurses a serious Real Housewives habit. “Why do I watch? I don’t know, I don’t know,” she says, holding her face in her hands in mock shame. Her favorite edition, perhaps because she grew up in Los Angeles (her family relocated from Georgia so that she could pursue acting), is The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. “I mean, Lisa Vanderpump? I love her,” says a giddy Fanning. “Lisa. Van. Der. Pump—that’s the best name I’ve ever heard.”
And, like approximately every person on the planet, Fanning has been known to enjoy funny animal videos. “Before Game of Thrones we had 30 minutes and it was like, ‘Yeah, let’s just put on this weird video of a dog getting a massage from a cat,’ ” she says. “Like, ‘Let’s watch these cute pets and then see somebody get their penis chopped off on Game of Thrones!’ ”
If you detected Fanning’s use of the collective “we” in the paragraph above, yes, the actress has a boyfriend. (He’s a normal, non-celeb guy.) Considering her parents met in second grade and have been married for 25 years, she’s set the bar high. “I can’t help but be a little bit romantic, for sure,” she admits. “I’ve seen my mom and dad, and then I’ve seen other people have so many empty relationships. Wouldn’t you just rather wait for the person you really want to share your experiences with?”
As much as is possible for a young celebrity living in the age of TMZ, Fanning tries to keep her private life private. A millennial with a baby boomer’s suspicion of social media, she doesn’t tweet or Facebook or pin or Instagram. “It’s a hole that I just don’t want to dive into,” she says. “I don’t want to know all these things about people. It’s like the mystery of life has been removed!” Considering she’s maintained a public profile since she was in single digits, Fanning doesn’t sound so much like an old fogey as a person who simply needs a break from being known.
But not—and she’s crystal clear on this—from acting. “There’s an inner happiness in me, no matter where I am, when I’m working,” she says. When I ask her about the best part of her job, she tells me a story about shooting a scene for an upcoming movie in unbearable temperatures on a snowy mountaintop. “When they said, ‘Cut,’ it took me about five seconds to realize I was freezing. It’s so weird, but when I was in those takes, I wasn’t cold.
“I’ve never questioned being an actor,” Fanning continues, as the waiter drops off our check. “I think there’s more to that than that it’s all that I know. Acting is all I know, but it’s also all I really want to know. If at the end of the day there’s no other job you would rather do, you’re in the right place.”
Mystery of life solved.