Dakota Fanning has long since made her move from precocious, wide-eyed child actor to dramatic lead, taking on roles as varied as cold-hearted franchise villain, co-founder of punk band The Runaways, and headstrong radicals in both American Pastoral and Night Moves. But Fanning has also explored the wider industry; in addition to studying the portrayal of women in film and culture at NYU, she recently made her first foray into directing with the short film “Hello, Apartment.” She’s also starring in not one but two TV series that are about as different as can be: There’s TNT’s The Alienist, a period drama based on Caleb Carr’s crime novel, and gen:LOCK, the Rooster Teeth-produced animated series set at the end of the world—and the start of one in which the few survivors battle it out in mecha suits.
The A.V. Club spoke with Fanning about bringing humanity to tech-fueled stories, making sure her characters hold their own in male-dominated settings, and why she grew up thinking working with women directors was the norm.
The A.V. Club: For anyone who isn’t already watching gen:LOCK or maybe doesn’t know a ton about anime/animation in general, what would you say is its greatest appeal?
Dakota Fanning: Gen:LOCK is the name of the crazy technology, which Michael B. Jordan’s character is the first to test out, but even though it literally saves his life, we go into all the negative things that can be caused by that technology, too. I think that even though it has a technologically advanced, postapocalyptic vibe, it’s actually super relatable. We really have made this great world and story, so even though it’s set in a world that looks very different from the one that we’re living in, what anchors all of it is the relationships between characters. The human emotions are so recognizable and relatable—that’s something we were very focused on. The style of voice-over that [creator, writer, and director Gray Haddock] wanted is one that’s realistic and natural; we wanted it to feel like we were all acting in a live-action film.
Of course, I got to do a lot of battle cries and sounds. [Laughs.] It’s the usual stuff you have to do when you’re doing animation. But most of the dialogue, whether it was between [Fanning’s character] Miranda and Chase [Jordan’s character] or anyone else, is just really grounded. That’s something that doesn’t change with technology, in real life and on our show.
AVC: Voice-over work is generally a solo experience, but did you guys ever have a chance to meet up? I mean, gen:LOCK has an amazing cast: In addition to yourself and Michael, you’ve got David Tennant and Maisie Williams and Asia Kate Dillon.
DF: Yeah, that is the sad part about voice-over is that you usually never meet the person you’re acting with! I have met Michael a few times, and he’s such a great guy—so nice and charming. I actually saw him recently, and he was like, “I’ve been hearing your voice so much, it’s in my head!” and I was telling him the same thing. [Laughs.] But yeah, everybody in the cast is so great, and I hope we’ll get to all meet one day.
AVC: How do you see Miranda’s arc developing over the course of this season? What do you find most exciting about her story?
DF: Well, she’s such a badass character, you know, a fighter pilot and a leader. In gen:LOCK, there’s no differentiation between the female and male characters—they’re all equally as tough and cool and just human. I think early on that a lot of Miranda’s story is about her relationship with Chase, and the mourning she goes through in that relationship. Then he basically rises from the grave, you know, and she has to deal with him coming back. There’s the shock of that and guilt of having moved on, but she never forgot about him. Now they’re trying to figure out what their relationship is. She’s just processing a lot right now. Miranda’s on multiple journeys, on and away from the battlefield—they’re trying to save the world! But the emotional journey is the one that really stands out for me.
AVC: Gen:LOCK is one of many shows and movies that’s set in a post-apocalyptic world. Do you have any thoughts on all this dystopian storytelling?
DF: I think people just have a lot of fear of these bleak futures actually happening, and I think a way to deal with that fear is to create stories about it. And I think that for me, with this particular postapocalyptic story, what you see that endures no matter how far the world around you has crumbled is the human spirit. Our friendships, our relationships, our feelings—we hold onto all of them. I think that, no matter what, all of those good things will continue to exist. I don’t know, but for me, there’s something really comforting about that, that those things can never really be destroyed or taken away.
AVC: You’ve described Miranda as being very human but also very badass. How does someone like Sara Howard [Fanning’s character in The Alienist] compare? And what can we expect from her in [upcoming limited series] The Angel Of Darkness?
DF: Well, when we met Sara in the first season, she was a secretary in this really kind of male-dominated world, but she had aspirations of being more than a secretary. In this next go-around, you’re going to see her very empowered from the beginning, which I’m very excited about. Sara always saw herself as equal to Laszlo [Daniel Brühl] and John [Luke Evans], and by the end of the first season, they also see her as an equal. But getting to that level of respect—that was Sara’s journey in The Alienist. In The Angel Of Darkness, though, she’s starting from a more empowered place, and I’m excited see how much further she can go, and kind of how much higher she can rise.
AVC: Have you started filming yet?
DF: No, but I’m really looking forward to it, because of the magnitude of the sets and the level of the production design and the costumes. It’s been done so well, it’s kind of like time travel; it really feels like you’re in 1896. But also, this is my first time re-experiencing a character and a world. I’ve never done that before. But I did one limited series, and now I’m doing another one. I think it’ll be really interesting to see how it feels to go back and step into the same-ish shoes again.
AVC: What was it like going from that male-dominated setting to the set of Ocean’s 8 and an all-woman ensemble?
DF: I was only there for one day, but it was very exciting to just have been there for one day. It’s funny, because I tell everyone, if you blink, you’ll miss me! But I was happy to be a blink in that film. I’m a big fan of the Ocean’s franchise in general, and the all-woman cast and those incredible women. As soon as I heard about that film, you know, before it was even an option to be a “blink” in the movie, I was very excited for it. And then I totally jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it in any way, which was very fun. Such a fun film. In the lead-up to it, I didn’t want to spoil anything, but everyone kept asking me about it. And I was like, “I’m really not sure I’m even in this film!” Still, it was great to be a part of it. I’m obviously a huge fan of all of those actresses.
AVC: One of your upcoming films, The Bell Jar, is also a woman-led production: Kirsten Dunst is directing, and she’s also writing the screenplay with Nellie Kim. That Sylvia Plath book is such a significant one for women. What inspired you to adapt it?
DF: I think that just being a young woman and having been in this industry for almost my whole life, it’s something I’m very invested in.
AVC: Has there been any movement on that particular production?
DF: I can’t talk about it at the moment. I’m so sorry!
AVC: Okay, well, you recently made your directorial debut [with the short film “Hello, Apartment”]. There’s a lot of discussion right now about how opportunities for women directors are still very limited, and how things like the 4% Challenge are trying to change that. What are your thoughts on actors taking those matters into their own hands and trying to push the needle?
DF: I think it’s all so wonderful and only positivity can come from those things. I’ve been very fortunate; when I look back on a lot of my projects, I’ve worked with a lot of female directors, and I’m delighted about that. The first movie I ever did was I Am Sam, which was directed by Jessie Nelson. For me, at 6 years old, I thought, “This is the norm.” I didn’t see it any differently. I’ve loved working with all types of directors, and I love my experiences working with female directors. I think that ultimately, we need to have lots of different individuals telling all different types of stories. It’s important to see all of these experiences brought to the screen.