Nearly 13, movie veteran Fanning is no screen brat

Hartford Courant

In "Charlotte's Web," Dakota Fanning's farm girl grabs an ax from her father as he is about to slaughter a runt piglet. "I will not let you kill him," her Fern declares.

Fanning's first take of the scene wowed director Gary Winick, who told his charge it was better than Meryl Streep. But this was a children's movie. He asked her to do it again.

"The next take, she was a 10," Winick recalls. "She totally simplified it and got it to be innocent and instinctual."

That is Fanning, the technician and the natural. To some, she is the total acting prodigy package. With the same blue eyes, blond hair and spritely appeal, she is perhaps the Jodie Foster of her generation or just a few heavyweight roles away.

Fanning already has held her own with costars Robert De Niro ("Hide and Seek"), Tom Cruise ("War of the Worlds"), Denzel Washington ("Man on Fire") and Sean Penn ("I Am Sam").

She is doing her part to restore the good name of child actors, often recognized for off-screen troubles more than on-screen talent.

"I don't really know about other child actors and the mistakes that they make," she says. "I can't really think for anyone else but myself. I do movies."

Fanning, who turns 13 in February, is able to mix kid-friendly and thriller fare with smart indies. The trick will be to sustain momentum. She says the roles will grow with her.

"I don't think of myself as famous," she says in a recent phone conversation. "I just enjoy what I do. I love that people give me the opportunity to be in their movies."

If her next venture is any indication, she is willing to take the transition head-on. In the small-budget "Hounddog," which premiered at Sundance, she appears in a rape scene.

"I'm an actress," she says. "I'm playing someone different than myself. When they say 'cut,' it's all over."

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