E! News/October 20, 2016
In 2002, an 8-year-old girl made history when she became the youngest actress to be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award. That girl was Dakota Fanning.
The accolade was in honor of her performance in I Am Sam, the first major film role in Fanning’s early career. As the only daughter of a man with a developmental disability, played by Oscar winner Sean Penn, the elementary school-age girl had successfully captivated audiences, landed a major nomination and cemented her name in Hollywood—all before reaching double digits.
Not far away, a 6-year-old budding actress was starring alongside Mel Gibson in a film about faith in the face of aliens—M. Night Shyamalan‘s Signs. That girl was Abigail Breslin.
The former child stars of the early 2000s forged ahead almost in synchrony as they each landed the sole child role in virtually every feature film that called for one.
For Fanning, that meant Reese Witherspoon‘s Sweet Home Alabama, next to Brittany Murphy in Uptown Girls and Man on Fire with none other than Denzel Washington.
Breslin’s roles were equally memorable. She was the precocious, lovable Olive Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine, a performance that garnered her a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination and her first Oscar nod, making her the fourth youngest actress to earn one to this day. Still, a close-knit home life kept her booming career from clouding her mind.
“My family has been really important in keeping me normal. [Growing up] when I wrapped on set and [would] go home it was always a set-free zone. We couldn’t talk about work, we just talked about real normal life things,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I think that helped a lot at keeping me from being weird. I mean I am, but they tried!”
While most child actors drift out of the limelight by their pre-teen years, Fanning and Breslin’s star power held steady while they continued to land more mature roles and commit to their craft.
Dakota went darker, appearing in Hide and Seek and holding her own against legend Robert DeNiro followed by War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise, garnering even director Steven Spielberg‘s stamp of approval.
Meawhile, Breslin was in the world of romantic comedies with No Reservations and Definitely, Maybe—blockbuster successes with critical acclaim aimed at the 12-year-old.
As they steadily became full-fledged teenagers, they worked every year without noticeable gaps, smoothing the contrast between the young girls the world had first met and the young women that they had turned into.
For Breslin, it was “natural.” “You know I’ve been really lucky that I’ve gotten to do such awesome characters and be in such great movies, so I just feel lucky,” she told E! News in 2013 of her career to date.
However, for Fanning, the transition still doesn’t feel so seamless.
“I’ve made my peace with the fact that there will be some people who, for the rest of my life, will believe I’m, like, 9 years old. I have this joke that I’m literally going to be 35, married, and pregnant and people are still going to say, ‘Oh my god, you grew up so fast! I can’t believe it!’ And yeah, sometimes when you’re 21 years old and people are still saying that, you just want to rip your hair out. But I’m OK with it,” she told Nylon in 2015. “I know who I am.”
A new generation of theatergoers knows who they are, too, particularly because Fanning and Breslin avoided trouble, enrolled in college, kept focused on the task at hand and took on fresh roles relevant to where they were in their lives.
Breslin has since appeared as the misunderstood daughter in the Oscar-nominated August: Osage County, joined the forces of Fox’s Scream Queens and secured the lead of Baby in the TV remake of Dirty Dancing. Fanning’s recent jobs included a college-bound woman losing her virginity in Very Good Girls and a daughter with an interest in radical politics in the upcoming American Pastoral. In summary, nearly a decade later, their evolving careers are still showing no signs of slowing down.
While they’ve kept the drama on the television screen and out of their personal lives, Fanning does maintain that she wasn’t a perfect angel—she just knew how to act on the job.
“I handled myself the best that I could and was professional, but I was also a kid. I think that people who knew me then knew I was also exactly how kids are supposed to be,” Fanning continued to Nylon. “I’ve found that anybody who takes what they’re doing seriously or seems to be a caring person gets called an old soul.”