“I already have one of these in my refrigerator,” concedes Fanning, referring to Milk Bar’s trademark birthday cake, which we will be making shortly. About a week and a half before our class, Fanning became a freshly minted 21-yearold, and blew out the candles atop this same confection. But she seems pretty unconcerned about overdoing it, and there’s no harm in keeping the birthday vibes alive. “At home I have all these giant balloons that my mom sent me—still floating,” she adds. These days, home is a bright, feminine Manhattan abode decorated with Ladurée macaron boxes and a Hello Kitty Christmas stocking—a holiday holdout too cute to pack away. “I also have this thing that my sister, Elle, gave me that I love—it’s these stacked-up old cans, but at the top there’s a doll’s head and these little arms,” she explains very matter-of-factly as she scoops a generous spoonful of icing and smears it over a freshly cut cake round.
Fanning’s been on the East Coast for over three years now, since she began attending New York University part-time. At this point, she considers herself a true New Yorker, but as one of the most recognizable faces in young Hollywood, she takes her fair share of cross-country trips. And with the recent release of Effie Gray, a period drama in which she plays the titular character, she’s likely been spending even more quality time in L.A. than usual. Still, she’s around here enough to have made friends with some of NYC’s notoriously eccentric characters: “There’s a man on my corner who thinks I’m an Olsen. He’ll yell, ‘Hey Olsen!’ at me. It’s really funny,” says Fanning. “I also once had a guy walk right in front of me going like this,” she says, breaking into rapid-fire, speed-bag air punches. She laughs, mushing down a layer of cake soaked in vanilla milk. “I usually have an issue with wet bread products—like, I’ll never make French toast,” she notes, scrunching up her nose. This time, though, she’ll let it fly.
Despite her newfound Big Apple chops, Fanning is a Georgia-born Southern girl by origin. When she was about six, her clan decamped to California so she could give Hollywood a real go. “I think my family always thought, ‘Oh, we live in Georgia and we’re just in L.A. trying out this acting thing,’” she explains later, after we’ve relocated to Roebling Tea Room, a nearby brunch spot, for some food sans frosting. “Then years went by, and my mom was still saying that, and it became, like, ‘Actually I think we live here now. I think it’s happening.’”
The almost-accidental child star isn’t an entirely uncommon narrative, but in this case it makes sense—Fanning’s mother and father had no real stake in the industry. On the contrary, they were caught up in a different game entirely (and, well, literally): Both were athletes, her mom a college tennis player and her dad a minor-league baseball player. So, naturally, at first they had Fanning dabbling in sports, including a brief stint on an impeccably named soccer team, The Spice Girls, but they ultimately deemed such outdoor exploits an unsuitable path. “I’m super pale, and my mom was like, ‘You would get so red! I’d be so worried about the sunscreen. You were just not made for that!’” recalls Fanning.
So after participating in a summer workshop at a local community theater, she booked her first paid acting gig—a Tide commercial—at the age of five through an agency in Atlanta. “I remember the director called me ‘hero girl,’ and my mom and I were like, ‘Oh, that’s so sweet!’ It wasn’t until years later that I realized they were just saying, like, ‘the main one.’ Say this were a prop in a movie,” she says, grabbing her water and taking a quick swig. “It would be the ‘hero cup.’ Devastating!” she quips. Live and learn.
On-set mistranslations aside, Fanning’s early and meteoric rise was certainly remarkable, if not heroic. A brief Dakota Fanning primer for the uninitiated: Her first major film role was that of Lucy Diamond Dawson, the seven-year-old daughter of a developmentally disabled man played by Sean Penn, in 2001’s I Am Sam, a performance that earned her a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination (and a place in history as the youngest-ever nominee). The following year, she starred in the dramedy Uptown Girls as the hyper-sophisticated foil to the late Brittany Murphy’s free-spirited woman-child. By age 10 she’d appeared opposite Denzel Washington in the kidnapping thriller Man on Fire, and at 11 alongside Tom Cruise in the alien sci-fi film War of the Worlds. At 14 she held the lead role in The Secret Life of Bees. And those are just the more notable examples. Audiences were universally impressed by this tiny towheaded girl’s uncanny ability to deliver a nuanced performance. She became the exemplar of a talented child actor.
“Oh my god, I want to hug you—I’ve heard so much about you!” says Fanning suddenly, taking a break from her bowl of “mock brains” (which, it turns out, are just scrambled eggs with kale and Gruyère—no gray matter) to embrace a woman at the restaurant who’s stopped by to say hello. “Her mom works at my dermatologist’s office in L.A.,” explains Fanning later, genuinely enthused by the chance run-in. “For years I’ve always heard about her daughter, but we’ve never met. That’s amazing!”