Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“I feel like sometimes people try to define who I am. But I’m 22, and this is when I actually define who I am.”
Dakota Fanning has been in the spotlight since she was a young girl. Over the years since, we’ve watched her turn into a mature young woman and an actress who takes welcomed risks. She’s a genuine talent who shows a side we’ve never been privy to – a very angry one – in director Ewan McGregor’s AMERICAN PASTORAL. In the drama, she plays rebellious rabble-rousing teen Merry Levov, who goes missing at the same time she’s accused of a heinous crime in her suburban hometown.
Fanning was looking forward to channeling her inner rage monster and playing someone who doesn’t expect redemption.
“I had a while to think about it. She’s a challenging character. She is difficult to understand, maybe impossible to understand. It’s rare when you get to play a character that almost never redeems itself. They’re committed to their beliefs and that’s that. I kind of liked getting to play someone who was unapologetic. Sometimes you talk about a character and say, ‘Oh, I can relate to this’ or ‘I can relate to that.’ But this is one of those times where I always hesitate to say that. I can’t relate to too much about he. I was interested in that and interested in the challenge that comes with playing a character like Merry. She’s sort one of a kind. Different from anything I’ve ever done, for sure.”
She was also able to emerge from Merry’s angry fits rather easily.
“Maybe this has something to do with having started out at a younger age—I’ve never had that issue of anything sticking with me. I just don’t think about it. You’re very sort of in it when you’re working but you’re not yourself. Things have definitely stuck with me in a way where I’ve been, like, tired or you feel, sometimes, emotionally drained. But it’s never haunted my dreams after. This film I definitely gave it everything I have. But that’s always a good feeling. I kind of welcome the drained feeling because it means you’ve given your all and worked hard.”
The role also called for Fanning to stutter – homework she picked up easily.
“I didn’t work with anybody. Ewan and I talked about it and he sent me some videos he had found and I found my own videos of people (stuttering) and I just watched those and kind of figured it out. I realized that everyone just sounded different and it affected them in a different way. So that kind of frees you from a lot. You feel more freedom to create your own, to create Merry’s sound. It could be unique to her. I tried to make it not technical because I didn’t want it to feel forced. It wasn’t like I’d stutter on only Fs and Cs. I tried to make it not technical. It was interesting because even though it was constraining, it also was freeing at the same time. I was about to let her use that to go wild. It added another layer to Merry.”
Merry weilds her rebellious activism and attitude like a sharp dagger – specifically towards her parents.
“I don’t see the stutter as the reason why she did the things she did. When we meet her at 16 – when I start playing her – she kind of uses the stutter as a source of power. She uses it as a weapon against her parents to make them uncomfortable. It no longer sort of pains her. Probably the most straightforward reasoning why she does something is because she was growing up in such a turbulent time where, on every form of media that was around then, you’re just seeing violence and despair and fighting and all of this chaos, and it’s such a contradiction to her life growing up, which was sort of this idyllic, perfect bubble.”
The themes of AMERICAN PASTORAL are about people being lumped in a certain box and trying to break out. Fanning could relate to this, growing up in the spotlight.
“We all have to an extent. For me, people have a certain idea of the kind of person I am just because I’ve done this for such a long time but I’m still so young. I feel like sometimes people try to define who I am. But I’m 22, and this is when I actually define who I am. For sure I’ve felt that way but I’ve also let go of worrying about that a long time ago.”
Fanning also doesn’t let that kind of thinking limit the roles she chooses.
“I don’t try to box myself in and say, ‘Oh, I need to be doing this.’ I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to choose one path – at least I don’t want to. I want to be able to do all different things and surprise myself and surprise other people. Sometimes people have preconceived ideas of who you are and what you do and what you can do because they feel like they know me. So sometimes I think it works a little bit in reverse. But, again, I don’t care.”
AMERICAN PASTORAL opens today in limited release and wide on Oct. 28.
- Interview: Ewan McGregor unwinds the challenges of time and a character’s metamorphosis in AMERICAN PASTORAL
- Interview: Jennifer Connelly creates a dynamic character in AMERICAN PASTORAL
Header Photo: Dakota Fanning in AMERICAN PASTORAL. Courtesy of Lionsgate.