The untold truth of the Fanning sisters

By the time they reached their early-to-mid twenties, Dakota Fanning and younger sister Elle Fanning already had numerous critically acclaimed movies under their belts. They also managed to run the gauntlet of child stardom and come out unscathed, which is no small feat. The Fanning family left smalltown Georgia behind for a new life in Hollywood when first-born Dakota (just five-years-old at the time) started booking steady commercial work. By her own admission, Elle simply rode her sister's coattails at first, but she would soon prove herself a talented young actress in her own right.

The Fanning name is now well-established in Tinseltown, and according to Elle, she and Dakota are in Hollywood for the long haul. "My sister says that it's like we're still on this trip to LA and that one day soon we'll all go back to Georgia," she told The Guardian in 2017. "But it's been, like, 16 years now. And I say to her: 'Look, this is us, this is our life.' I say: 'Look, we are never going back.'" Life in front of the camera is all they've known, yet they don't court unnecessary attention, and that's one of the secrets to their success.

They've managed to mostly keep their private lives out of the press, but you can't grow up in Hollywood and expect to fly under the radar altogether. From a scene that sparked controversy for Dakota to Elle's mind-blowing DNA test results, this is the untold truth of the Fanning sisters.

They come from a family of athletes

The Fanning sisters come from an impressive stock, though it's a sporting one, not an acting one. Their mother, Heather Joy Arrington, went to college on a tennis scholarship and later turned pro, while their father, Steven Fanning, played minor league baseball. Their maternal grandfather, Rick Arrington, was a quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. "I have the sports drive," Elle told The Guardian. "It's in my blood; I can't help it. Actors and athletes are similar, I think. You set a goal for yourself; you're ready for a challenge. You prepare for the match or you're getting ready for the role. The adrenaline when you have a big scene to do is huge."

According to Dakota, she could hold her own on the tennis court from the age of two. The youngster was fully expected to follow in her mother's footsteps, but in the end her passion for acting won the family over. "I was being groomed to be a tennis player for sure," she told The Scotsman. "My grandparents and parents realised I had a natural athletic ability and if I was forced to do it, I could probably do well. But all I wanted was to play pretend." It took a little while, but Dakota's parents ultimately accepted that she was "going to be different" to the Fannings that had come before her.

Dakota was 'a little bit scary' as a child

Dakota Fanning soon graduated from commercial work to TV roles. All of a sudden she started popping up on numerous big shows, landing roles in everything from ER and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to Ally McBealMalcolm in the Middle, and even Family Guy. It was around this time that she auditioned for the role of Sean Penn's daughter in what would become her big break, I Am Sam. According to director Jessie Nelson, she blew the competition out of the water. "We'd seen a lot of girls for the role who couldn't really hit the emotional beats of the script," Nelson said. "And then Dakota walked in and I remember thinking, 'How does she know what she knows?'"

Fanning's wise-beyond-her-years aura helped her stand out among the child actors of her day, but it was also kind of creepy. War of the Worlds director Steven Spielberg called her "an old soul," and Fanning's unnervingly mature performance was one of the few highlights in tepid horror, Hide and Seek. The thing is, it wasn't really that much of a performance. "My parents never talked to me like I was a kid," she explained to The Scotsman. "Maybe that's why I've been seen as mature. … I think I was a little bit scary. But you know, I was my mum's first child. She thought it was normal."

They grew up in a million dollar mansion

The bright lights of Hollywood can be intimidating for newcomers, but Dakota Fanning took to Tinseltown like a duck to water, despite her young age. "We got there ten days before my sixth birthday," she recalled during her interview with The Scotsman. "It was the most fun thing ever. I felt completely at home." When her commercial work made a permanent move possible, the Fannings set up shop in Los Angeles. As commercial jobs became TV gigs and TV gigs became film roles, the cash started to pile up. According to The Seattle Times, the actress was a millionaire by the age of 12. "I know of course that I make money on movies [but] it's not what motivates me," she said.

While Dakota's parents were successful in their own right, it seems as though their daughter chipped in when it came to upgrading the family home. In 2003, the Fannings purchased a 3,582 square foot French country-style house in Studio City, shelling out a cool $1.325 million for the luxury pad. "Tucked away on a quiet, hillside cul-de-sac, the property is surrounded by oak trees with expansive views of the Hollywood Hills and beyond," Trulia revealed when the five-bed, four-bath home went up for sale in 2017. It was the end of an era for Dakota and Elle, whose parents finalized their divorce the following year.

The truth about Dakota's controversial scene

By 2008, Dakota Fanning was on a roll. She'd proven herself as a legitimate actress sharing the screen with Hollywood big-hitters Denzel Washington (Man on Fire), Robert De Niro (Hide and Seek) and Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds), and was reportedly already commanding a fee of $4 million a picture. It wasn't all smooth sailing for the young star, however. Around this time, she took the biggest risk of her burgeoning career, agreeing to take part in a rape scene for the movie Hounddog. It was a risk that didn't pay off.

Hounddog, the story of a precocious girl growing up in 1950s Alabama, was torn apart by critics. "Despite a noble effort from Dakota Fanning, Hounddog is overwrought, cliche-ridden and downright exploitative," reads the Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, where the film scored a measly 15 percent. Time Out New York also noted that Fanning's "willingness to please" appeared to have been "grossly exploited," and before long both the filmmakers and the actress' parents were coming in for some major criticism.

Fanning stood her ground, however, dismissing the uproar as a load of fuss over nothing. "It's a movie and it's called acting," she told The Telegraph, adding, "What drew me to it was that my character shows people that you can overcome adversity in life and it doesn't define you. I wanted to do the film because I thought it might help one person that has happened to."

They're direct descendants of British royalty

The union of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle created a direct link between the British monarchy and Hollywood in 2018, but the former Suits star isn't the only actress related to royalty. In 2014, family historians from Ancestry.com looked into Elle Fanning's lineage, and the results were shocking — it was discovered that the Maleficent star was the 22nd great-granddaughter of King Edward III, and a cousin of Kate Middleton. The young actress played Princess Aurora in the live-action Disney flick, and according to Ancestry.com's Michelle Ercanbrack, she's basically a princess in real life, too. "Generation after generation, the lines we looked at pieced back directly to King Edward III proving that Elle is a direct descendant of royalty," Ercanbrack told People. "You can consider her a long-lost princess. This connection is so unique and rare."

Despite this rare connection, the Fannings aren't even the most royal sisters working in Tinseltown today. A study conducted by FindMyPast.com revealed that Hilary Duff is actually America's "most royal" celebrity (via CBS). She and her sister Haylie Duff are "most closely related" to Queen Elizabeth II.

Those aren't their real names

The names Dakota and Elle Fanning are now known all over the world, but what a lot of people don't know about the famous sisters is that they don't use their real names — or, at least, their given names. As per Southern tradition (Elle assumes), both girls go by their middle names. "I just never went by Mary, like ever … although, it was awkward in school when they were calling roll call because they'd go, 'Mary? Mary?'" Elle told Glamour of her actual first name. She continued, "My mom goes by her middle name … [Dakota's] first name is Hannah. It's possibly a Southern thing, I don't know. But since my mom goes by her middle name, we go by our middle names too."

The Fanning sisters come from a Southern Baptist family, and their heritage remained a big part of their lives even after they left Georgia behind. "I was raised by very traditional Southern parents with Southern manners," Dakota told Town & Country. "You don't air your dirty laundry to people that aren't your family or your friends. Why would I ever want to portray myself as anything other than together?" Having their grandmother (who is "a complete Southern belle, very thick accent," Elle told The Guardian) living with them in Hollywood no doubt kept the girls on their toes when it came to staying true to their roots.

Do they ever fight?

The truth about sisters is that sometimes they can find each other extremely irritating, and no amount of fame or money changes that. The Fannings have both of those things, but they still went through regular sister stuff growing up. "There are a few years where you're both experiencing such different things; age nine and 13 — nothing in common; 12 and 16 — we didn't know what to do with each other," Dakota told Marie Claire. "Now as [Elle's] getting older and I'm getting older we're getting closer … and that's really lovely."

So does that mean they no longer fight, since they're all grown up? When Elle sat down with The Independent to promote the 2016 gangster flick Live by Night, she admitted that tempers still flare on occasion. "We're sisters, so of course we do have our moments as you know, like if I steal any of her clothes, that's not good," Elle said. "But I really look up to her, I mean she's my big sister. Since she did movies first, I started out because of her, so she led the way to that."

The real reason they haven't worked together in years

The Fanning sisters have worked together before, but not since they both came of age. Elle played the 2-year-old version of Dakota's character in I Am Sam (2002) and the 3-year-old version of her big sister's character in Steven Spielberg mini-series, Taken (2003)When Disney dubbed the Studio Ghibli classic My Neighbor Totoro for English-speaking audiences in 2005, it brought in Dakota and Elle to voice sisters Satsuki and Mei, the critically acclaimed anime's main characters. 

Dakota and Elle have kept their work lives separate in the years since, though it's not necessarily because they don't want to work together. During an appearance on BBC's The One Show, Dakota said that teaming up with Elle on a movie "is something we've always talked about wanting to do," but people keep trying to cast them as on-screen siblings. "We also don't really want to play sisters," Dakota said. "People try to get us to play sisters all the time, but that seems, like, expected. We want to do something kind of different." 

Could that something different be co-directing? Not according to Elle. When she sat down with i-D magazine for a cover interview, Elle said that she would "love to direct one day," just not with Dakota. "Oh, my God, we'd get in so many arguments! We'd be like the Coen Brothers or something, we'd be bickering all the time. I don't know if I could do it."

Elle refused to watch Dakota's Friends episode

Acting is a competitive business, and when you have a similarly aged sister with the exact same blonde hair and blue eyes as you do, conflicts of interest are bound to arise. While they didn't go for the exact same part, both Fanning girls auditioned to be on Friends, but only one of them was successful. Dakota appeared in a season 10 episode of the ever-popular sitcom as Mackenzie, the little girl living in the house that Monica and Chandler buy out in Westchester County. She shared some memorable scenes with Matt LeBlanc's Joey, though her sister Elle refused to watch the episode when it aired.

Speaking to Net-A-PorterElle explained that she was still holding a stubborn grudge against the show for turning her down when she went up for a role. "I had an [audition] to be on Friends once, I might be remembering this wrong but I think I was gonna be one of Phoebe's triplets," she said. "I auditioned for it but I didn't get it and I was like, 'I'm boycotting the show, I'm never watching this again.' Then my sister was on it and I refused to watch the episode. I was like, 'I am not watching this!'"

They're incredibly private people

Dakota Fanning claimed that keeping your "dirty laundry" out of the public eye was a Southern thing in her Town & Country interview, but the Fanning sisters are private even by traditional Southern standards. When she spoke to The Guardianshe said that she couldn't remember not being a "known person," and the older she's gotten, the more guarded she's become. "You grow up and think about things differently, and you realize how strange fame is," Dakota said. "If I can achieve it, I don't want anyone to know anything about me … Why do we need to know everything about everyone?" The Once Upon a Time in Hollywood star is reluctant to discuss money, politics, and relationships, Marie Claire reported. "I think there's something cool about being a little mysterious, which is hard to do nowadays," Dakota told the mag. 

Elle is equally as private, it seems. The actress told namesake magazine Elle that she doesn't have lots of friends. "I see people who have many friends and get really jealous," she said. "I have a good core of three or four friends who are really close to me." The Neon Demon star echoed her sister's sentiments about leaving an element of mystery. "With old movie stars, all you saw were rare interviews where they only shared what they wanted to — that's what made them so interesting."

Elle wanted to be a pop star

She happily followed her older sister into acting, but there have been times when Elle Fanning thought about career alternatives. It turns out Elle can sing, a skill she put to good use in 2018 musical drama, Teen SpiritDuring her promotion of the movie (in which she plays a shy, down-on-her-luck girl with dreams of pop stardom) the actress revealed why she was essentially perfect for the role. "Singing is something that I loved doing when I was young, and I still do, but it was a dream of mine when I was really little that maybe I'd be a pop star one day," Elle told PopSugar. "I was that kid dancing around and singing at the top of my lungs all the time. So I did imagine myself being on stage one day."

This wasn't the first time Elle admitted to dreaming about doing something other than acting. "I go to ballet, like, five days a week and I love it so much, but that's the hardest thing I'll ever do in my life, no doubt," she told Scarlett Johansson for Interview magazine in 2014. "You're good or bad, and that's it. That would be hard to pursue as a career, but in my dream that would be the thing." 

Surviving and thriving post-child stardom

Child stars have always had a tendency to crash and burn, but the Fanning sisters made the whole thing look easy. According to Dakota, surviving and thriving post-child stardom isn't really as difficult as it's made out to be. "It always cracks me up when people talk about how I haven't gone off the rails — which I have not, by any means — but you know, I'm a normal person," she told Marie Claire. The actress defended the reputation of child stars when she spoke with Freddie Highmore for Variety, revealing that acting "added so much" to her childhood and gave her some unforgettable experiences. "It does kind of hurt me a little bit when people try and somehow turn it into a negative, and I don't like it," she said.

According to VogueElle also finds it tiresome when people ask her about the pitfalls of growing up in the industry. The actress told the magazine that she's still enjoying acting to the fullest as an adult. "You have responsibilities at eighteen that you didn't have before, but you still feel like a little kid," she said. 

When it comes to growing up Hollywood, the Fanning sisters are clearly an exception to the rule.