Dakota Fanning first won our hearts in 2001, when, as a 7-year-old actress, she starred alongside Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Sixteen years have passed since then, and the 23-year-old has blossomed into one of Hollywood's most sought after talents, appearing in over 20 films. She's played Cherry Currie (The Runaways), a vampire queen (The Twilight Saga), and a 1960s radical (American Pastoral), and you can soon catch her acting alongside Rihanna, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, and Sarah Paulson in the upcoming Ocean's Eight. She'll also be solving crimes as Sarah Howard, a Gilded Age secretary who is determined to become New York's first female police detective in TNT's The Alienist.
But you have never seen her quite like this before.
Fanning stars in Neill Blomkamp's latest short film, Zygote, about the two lone survivors of an attack by an unknown and terrifying creature in an Arctic mine. Fanning's character, Barklay, is charged with shepherding her superior to safety — but there's way more to her than meets the eye. Don't let its short run-time fool you — 20 minutes is more than enough for you to start fearing for your life.
The film is part of an anthology series launched by Blomkamp's studio, Oats Studios, which bills itself as a experimental filmmaking "lab." Each short is released on YouTube, but viewers also have the opportunity to pay $4.99 to download any of the assets involved in the production — from the dailies to the mock-up of the monster — to make projects of their own.
We spoke to Fanning about how working on the short film, learning to fire a gun, and what it was like playing an action hero for the first time.
Refinery29: What drew you to this particular project? How did you come to be involved?
Dakota Fanning: "I did a BMW commercial a few years ago — Neill Blomkamp made one and I was in it with Clive Owen, so I worked with him on that project and gotten to know him a bit, so he asked me if I wanted a part of an experimental short film for his studios, and I did! I loved the idea and the concept, and loved working with Neill, I think he's so talented. And so getting to be a part of one of his projects was really exciting to me."
Are you a sci-fi fan?
"I am! Neill is obviously such an expert on sci-fi and special effects and all of that, and I feel like I learned a lot working on the project about what is possible, especially within the science fiction genre, just how far you're able to take these concepts that people think of. That was something I was really excited to learn about through being a part of Zygote."
I was reading the comments, and a lot of people were surprised to see you appear in a project like that. What would you say to them? As a woman, it's rare to see fully-fledged characters in sci-fi movies.
"As an actor, it's always exciting to do something different, or that people don't expect, or that even you didn't think you would be interested in. It's a short film obviously, so it's only 20 minutes, but you get to see sort of the evolution happen of her inferiority at the beginning and then she becomes kind of badass towards the end. I haven't gotten to play a lot of traditionally badass action-y characters, so that was really cool. I think having a female being at the center of any kind of genre is something I'm interested in being a part of, and especially in this. I love Sigourney Weaver in Alien, and we had a moment in the short film that kind of felt like one of the scenes in that film. It was exciting to be part of that world."
You’ve been acting in Hollywood since you were a kid — is it ever hard to distance yourself from the image people may have of you because of that?
"That's something that I've come to terms with. I started so young, when I was 6 years old. I'm 23 now, so a lot of time has passed in many ways — ways that you can see, and ways that you can't. I've come to accept that. A lot of people, if they're a fan of a certain film that I did, they see me as that person. I don't let it bother me. I've just always focused on my own personal growth as an actress and a person, and just stayed through to that. I think it's never good to be influenced by what other people want or expect from you in general. That would feel false."
I love that scene where your character has to learn to fire a gun. Did you have go through special training for any of the action scenes?
"There was not a lot of time, so I was kind of thrown that very heavy gun. Of course there were people there who showed me how to work it, but it was all happening on the day. And Neill actually had designed that himself, so it was a completely made-up design. It was SUPER heavy and super temperamental. But also very challenging to do — exciting in a way because there were only so many times you could fire it. But no, there wasn't any kind of extensive training, I kind of had to just learn on the fly."
Will we ever find out what happens to Barklay?
"I don't know! I guess I'll wait for Neill's next email. That would be cool, though."
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