If you go into Kelly Reichardt's “Night Moves” cold, or knowing only that it's a drama about ecoterrorism from the director of “Meek's Cutoff” and “Wendy & Lucy,” you might wonder about her leading actress, a mousy, moon-faced brunette whose occasionally eerie stillness reflects both her character's implacable dedication to the cause and her failure to look beneath the surface of her beliefs. When I saw the movie at Toronto last fall, I didn't realize until the end credits I'd been watching Dakota Fanning the entire time. As she did with Michelle Williams, whom Fanning calls one of her favorite actresses, Reichardt peels away Fanning's youthful precocity to find an engrossing stillness underneath -- or rather, she got out of the way and let Fanning do it to herself.
At first, Reichardt thought Fanning was too young for the role, and in past, she's had trouble with actors used to more luxurious sets balking at Reichardt's all-hands-on-deck method. "People think they want to be in these films," Reichardt says, "and then they find out about the realities of living through them and it's either you hate it because there's no comforts and you're really in the mix or you love it. You either are in for it or you're not and Dakota was just so up for it. It's like all the agents talk and they make all these demands and then Dakota gets there and she's like, 'Where's the crew staying?' and I'm like, 'Well we're all living here in this crappy hotel off the expressway,' and she says 'I'll just stay there too,' as did Jesse [Eisenberg]. I would see her outside my window at night walking up the expressway to go to Taco Bell at night to get her dinner."
Fanning, who shot “I Am Sam” with Sean Penn when she was six and made a movie with Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg before she was in her teens, still has a toe in blockbuster moviemaking, but it seems as if her heart may be elsewhere. Fanning left before the end of the “Night Moves” production to make the premiere of the last “Twilight” movie, and Reichardt recalls her texting from the red carpet: "I wish I was with you guys!"
"I always wonder about actors when they stop doing small things for themselves," Reichardt adds. "What that does to you performance-wise to not be connected to the big black hole of bullshit. She's so young to have decided this, but she must have made a decision somewhere along the line that she was not going to be separated from that. You can't put a coat on her. You can't baby her in any way. She's just not interested in it."
Fanning is a student at NYU, where she is studying the role of female directors and the portrayal of women in film, but she's keeping a brisk professional pace as well, with four movies released in each of the last three years. Not everyone has noticed, but she’s on a creative tear. She's terrific and transformative in Amy Berg's crime thriller "Every Secret Thing," and is equally compelling in "The Motel Life" and "The Last of Robin Hood." Buzz is strong for her performance in “Very Good Girls” alongside Elizabeth Olsen and coming up is a project with Mexican auteur Gerardo Naranjo. All one needs to do is watch “Night Moves” to see how it fits in perfectly with coming-into-her-own narrative.
You've said that Michelle Williams' performance in “Wendy & Lucy” was what made you want to work with Kelly Reichardt. What about that performance grabbed you?
First of all, it's Kelly style. It's naturalistic and truly real. Sometimes I think people mistake "gritty" and "raw" and "edgy" for real, and not just being still and watching somebody playing with their dog. Some people are so afraid of silence they can't just sit there and be, and I'm not a person who's afraid of silence. Me being silent doesn't mean I'm sad or mad. I'm just sitting with myself for a minute. I enjoy that, and I think Kelly isn't afraid of that in movies. Filmmakers get really afraid of that, like "Oh no, I gotta do something to keep their attention." Well no, maybe you don't.
Michelle Williams told me the most important direction she got from Kelly Reichardt on that shoot was, "Less." She'd think she was doing almost nothing, and Kelly would still say, "Less."
I don't think Kelly had to tell me "Less," because I got the vibe immediately and was so excited about it. It was really my dream to do four-minute-long takes of driving in a car and looking out the window. It challenges you to tell a story without words, which is really what human beings do. We read body language. When your partner walks in the door you can immediately tell if they're happy or sad by their look. They don't have to say anything. That's human connection at the utmost level. So being able to do your best to translate that into a movie and be onscreen not saying anything and hoping that the audience is with you is a challenge, and amazing. I don't know that I did that, but that's what you try to do. I try to bring an aspect of just being to every things I play, but here all the stuff we're doing, we are really doing. When we're packing the bags of fertilizer, we were actually doing it. There was a lot of physical stuff that was going on, so you're kind of in that, and the rest, you could kind of shut your brain off and just live in the moment. That's what I like to watch, at least, and I think that's what makes the most interesting films
You've already got 15 years and three dozen movies' worth of experience. What films were the turning points for you?
My first movie was “I Am Sam,” which set the foundation for me. I was 6, and those are pretty formative years, still. Then, I did a movie with Steven Spielberg, “The War of the Worlds.” That was insane. Crazy. I did “The Runaways”: I was 15, it was my first time doing something that was biographical of a human that was still alive that was on set, that was a certain time in history. That was a band that meant something to people and people identified with, so that was a responsibility. And there are so many in between. I did a movie with Tony Scott, and I was in Mexico for five months and I had eight cameras rolling at some point every day, all day sometimes. It was a protected environment, but we were guerilla-style sometimes, and being able to work with Tony Scott was amazing. There are so many things I look back on, and I'm only 20. I'm super excited for the opportunities that might come my way.
The reception of “Hounddog” must have been a milestone as well, though not in a pleasant way: That movie was already controversial before anyone had seen it, and it got trashed by critics when it premiered at Sundance.
It did. It just made me realize how crazy things can be. That whole thing was based on a lie. It's so weird how the truth... well, it always prevails in the end, but there can be so much hurtful, damaging stuff that happens until people listen to the truth. That film was about a really sensitive, important thing, but it was also about how a person is not defined by their circumstances, and the adversity that they face. I do think that it was really irresponsible of people who did attack the film or attack what it was about or attack my family or attack me, because there was a 13-year-old girl somewhere who had something happen to her and she was feeling like it was all her fault, and an actor who playing a role was being attacked for portraying her situation like it was some terrible horrible thing. Unfortunately, that happens and that was why the movie was being made, and people didn't even realize that.
“Night Moves” opens in limited release this weekend May 30.