In ‘Alienist,’ Dakota Fanning breaks 1890s rules for women

Daniel Bruhl, from left, Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans cast members in the TNT series "The Alienist" pose for a portrait during the 2018 Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour at the Langham Hotel on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
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AP Television Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dakota Fanning was unfazed by being on her own for six months in Budapest or the dark nature of the TV series that brought her there, TNT’s adaptation of “The Alienist,” Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel.

The young actress said creating a life in Europe proved an exciting and “transformative” time, one that allowed her to disconnect from routine demands and “lean into the experience” and her role.

She clearly doesn’t shy away from work. On-screen for most of her 23 years, Fanning has compiled a deep list of TV and movie credits that veteran performers would boast about, including “War of the Worlds” and the “Twilight” franchise. At age 7, Fanning became the youngest-ever individual Screen Actors Guild Award nominee for her supporting role in “I Am Sam.” She’s a presenter at this Sunday’s SAG ceremony.

In “The Alienist,” set among the grandeur and poverty of the Gilded Age in 1890s New York, Fanning plays Sara, an ambitious woman who joins with a psychologist — or alienist, in the parlance of the day — played by Daniel Bruhl; a newspaper illustrator (Luke Evans); and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) to find a serial killer targeting boy prostitutes.

She discussed the series (debuting Monday at 9 p.m. Eastern) and how she approaches acting in a recent interview.

The Associated Press: Your character is a secretary who aspires to be a police detective, an unusual goal for that period. Is she a young woman out of sync with her time?

Fanning: She’s almost not supposed to be born in the period she was. That’s what I loved about the character and why I wanted to do it. We get to see her balance her desire to advance herself in society, and not just by getting married to a rich man. But at the same time, she is a young woman and we get to see her blossoming sexuality and femininity, and how she has to balance that with being taken seriously and being heard. … She inhabits a very hostile workplace in the police department, and we see how it affects her when she’s alone and with other people.

AP: Workplace struggles for women aren’t just part of a bygone era, with the current sexual misconduct crisis a reminder. Were you struck by the parallel?

Fanning: It has struck me for sure, and it has for a long time. Unfortunately this has been going on for a while, and it is confusing why we can’t keep these conversations going. We feel like things change for a while and they go back to the way they were. This story has really proved that to me. I want people to be talking about it always and forever until it does change. It is pretty crazy to watch this part of the show and read a modern-day story that’s pretty similar.

AP: Starting out as a child actress, how did you develop the ability to analyze the characters you play?

Fanning: I’ve always felt intuitive about acting and the process of what I do. … When I was little, it was always that I wanted to be natural: How would a person react, not an actor? You want people to get lost in your performance and believe that you’ve really experienced what you’re experiencing on-screen. It’s still intuitive but I’m sure that muscle has been trained as I continue to do this.

AP: What are the advantages and challenges of a period drama?

Fanning: The costumes. They are very restrictive. It’s a very tight corset all day, every day. And because it takes multiple people to get them on you, you realize what it must have been like for women in that time. You couldn’t do anything for yourself, you couldn’t get dressed or take your clothes off. … But the thing I love about it is the costumes, because they completely transform you, and they give you this immediate pathway into a different posture and a different way to sit, and immediately transport you to that time.