"I think she's a very great talent."
To have those words uttered about you by a renowned actress with an Oscar on her shelf, surely one has to possess formidable skills. But to have Catherine Zeta-Jones offer up that opinion of you when you're only 11 years old, you'd better possess an equally great self-discipline to keep such praise from going to your head.
"It's very difficult to find a child actor who has the focus, the ability and the professionalism to sustain a career, and to come out on the other end and continue doing this as a profession," Zeta-Jones recently said of Dakota Fanning, whom she rates as one of her favorite young Hollywood actresses. "Jodie Foster is the only one who jumps to my mind."
"I'd like to be Dakota Fanning when I get young," Foster said, smiling at the comparison. A two-time Oscar winner herself, the "Flightplan" star began acting at the age of two and received her first nomination for "Taxi Driver" at 13. "I do see a lot of similarities — and maybe that sounds pretentious, because she's so cute and she's so good."
Is Fanning, returning to theaters in the horseracing family drama, "Dreamer," the most talented child actor in the world? Is she the most powerful actress in Hollywood? Or is she really (as some have jokingly whispered) a mature, deceptive, tiny woman masquerading as a little girl?
For her part, Fanning insisted that she's just another kid.
"I don't think of myself that way," she said, dangling her feet halfway between the carpeted floor and the edge of her director's chair. "I just love to do movies. I enjoy what I'm doing and I'm so happy that people enjoy them. I just try and make movies the best that they possibly can be."
"I went to see 'Man on Fire' with my wife, and I looked at her and said, 'What about Dakota Fanning?' recalled the "Dreamer" writer/director John Gatins of the hurdles he had to clear in order to land the heavily in-demand pre-teen. "And my wife was like, 'Good luck!' When I went to see [Dakota], I realized that everybody had left and it was just me and her in the room. And Dakota was sitting at her agent's desk, and she could barely see over the desk. I'm sitting there, and I'm talking and suddenly I realized that I was the one who was being interviewed."
Ultimately, Gatins was shocked that he was able to lure to his based-on-a-true-story film an actress who had worked opposite names like De Niro, Penn, Tom Cruise and Denzel. At the end of the day, he said, it came down to one simple stereotype: little girls love horses.
"Yes, she is the greatest actor working today and she is phenomenal and so gifted," the first-time director laughed. "But she's still a 10-year-old girl on my movie set. So when she saw the horses, she and her sister were just over the moon."
"My sister and I like 'SpongeBob,' " the wide-eyed Fanning giggled, offering her fans and tongue-in-cheek doubters more proof that she really is just a little kid. "He's funny; he's like a sponge."
When she isn't petting a pony or visiting her animated friends in Bikini Bottom, however, Fanning (and a managerial team that includes her parents) is taking power meetings with the sort of Hollywood players that many of her co-stars can't even get to return phone calls.
"I wanna get tight with her," the character actor Luis Guzmán ("The Limey," "The Count of Monte Christo") half-jokingly confided, citing the influence he hoped to gain by working on "Dreamer."
Some may say that a person's power can be measured by the magnitude of the gifts they receive. And although she is still five years away from getting her driver's license, Fanning can already ride to the set in style.
"I went to her mom and dad and told her what I really wanted to do was get [Fanning] a horse," remembered co-star Kurt Russell. "I wanted to make sure that was okay with them — it was a big commitment for the whole family. But I've seen her with the horse and it's a great thing."
As always, Fanning was appreciative while handling the moment with aplomb beyond her years: she named the horse Goldie, after Russell's longtime partner, Goldie Hawn. To further return the favor, Fanning kept her new friend hip with the younger demographic by taking him on an unlikely date.
"Dakota took Kurt to see 'Napoleon Dynamite,' because she wouldn't stop talking about 'Napoleon Dynamite,' and she was making Kurt laugh," Gatins recalled. "He was finally like, 'I've got to see this movie.' They went on this movie date, and the funny thing about it is — Dakota told me the story the next day — she said that Kurt picked her up and she got into the back seat of his SUV.
"[Russell] said, 'What are you doing?' " Gatins laughed. "And [Fanning] said, 'I'm a kid, I sit in the back seat.' "
"With Dakota, you see someone who will act as long as they want to, because she sees things as they are," Russell offered, citing a comprehension of the Hollywood system that he remembers having lacked while making goofy kid movies like "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" when he was a child actor. "When I was 10 years old, there were times when it was extremely frustrating, because a director wanted you to behave in a certain [childish] way that had nothing to do with being a human being. It was like creating some Hollywood kid version of something. [Dakota] doesn't go there."
"There's a kind of intensity that she has, and a real focus," added Foster who, along with Russell, offer rare contemporary examples of stars who went on to greater success after trading schoolbooks and bicycles for summer homes and Blackberries. "I can glean from her personality that she's going to have a very long career and is going to be a very centered person. You just look at her and go, wow, this kid has really got it together, and it's just so nice to see."
So, is she an incredibly well-disciplined actress who has Hollywood groveling at her feet, or is she just a normal kid? To find the answer, one simply has to ask Dakota Fanning what her favorite toy is.
"I collect dolls," Fanning said, bubbling over with enthusiasm and sounding exactly like any other kid asked about some of her favorite things. "I collect Madame Alexander dolls — they're these little dolls and some are based on movies, and some are, like, nursery-rhyme dolls, and I have, like, 50 of them.
"But they're put-on-the-shelf, look-at type dolls," she added, reverentially.
Why bother taking them out of the package? All of Hollywood, after all, appears to have become Dakota Fanning's toy box.
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