At 5, Fanning's mother Joy enrolls her in a local acting workshop near their Conyers, Ga., home, and shortly after, she books a Tide commercial. Sensing her promise, the Fannings – including father Steve, a former minor league shortstop, and younger sister Elle – relocate to L.A. The budding actress soon makes her TV debut in an episode of ER.
Fanning catches Hollywood's attention as Sean Penn's daughter in I Am Sam, a story about a man with a developmental disability fighting for custody of his child. The role earns Fanning a SAG Award nomination for best supporting actress. In 2002, she plays a young Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama and stars as Charlize Theron's daughter in Trapped.
Headlining her first film at age 9, Fanning plays a neurotic grade-schooler opposite Brittany Murphy's ditzy nanny in Uptown Girls. Though the movie tanks at the box office, the actress continues scoring high-profile roles, opposite Denzel Washington in 2004's Man on Fire and Robert De Niro in 2005's Hide and Seek. "Dakota is a wonderful, special, gifted actress," De Niro tells USA Today.
Fanning scores a blockbuster with her role as Tom Cruise's daughter in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. "Tom and I had a blast together," she tells PEOPLE. The alien adventure opens at No. 1, grossing more than $230 million at the box office. "Dakota is unaware of how talented she actually is," her director says.
Rounding out an ensemble cast that includes Julia Roberts and Oprah Winfrey, Fanning stars as farm girl Fern in a live-action adaptation of the beloved children's book Charlotte's Web. "It was a big responsibility, so I wanted to make sure my Fern would be a Fern people felt they knew," she tells The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Fanning joins the cast of The Twilight Saga as baddie Volturi vamp Jane in New Moon. "I read all four Twilight books in one week," she tells Teen Vogue. "It's such a phenomenon and I wanted to be able to be a part of that." The film, costarring Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner, grosses a record $258 million worldwide to become the third-largest debut on record.
"I want to act for the rest of my life – it's what I love – so I have to move forward with my career," Fanning tells Teen Vogue about maturing from child star to adult actress. "The choices that I make might not always please everyone, but I have to do what I feel is appropriate and right for the time." That April, she reteams with Stewart for the rock 'n' roll biopic The Runaways, playing frontwoman Cherie Currie opposite Stewart's Joan Jett.
In between shooting films, Fanning maintains a "normal life" away from Hollywood, attending an L.A. private school where she is a member of the varsity cheerleading team. "I started there in the ninth grade, and they were pretty receptive to me right away," she says. "I feel like no matter how old people are, they remember homecoming. They remember their senior prom. And I really wanted that."
The third Twilight film, Eclipse, rakes in more than $150 million during its first week at the box office. "It's so fun," Fanning says. "I've done a few movies with Kristen Stewart now, and she's become one of my best friends...The cast is also fun and so nice and [we] have really become very close." Luckily, there's still two more sequels in the works based on the final book, Breaking Dawn.
Fanning takes on the role of high school graduate after finishing her senior year at North Hollywood's Campbell Hall Episcopal High School, where she was crowned homecoming queen. Her family, including 13-year-old sister and fellow actress Elle, feted the 17-year-old at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. where the ceremony was held.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Everett; Everett; Andrew Cooper/Paramount; Paramount; Kimberley French/Summit; Courtesy Teen Vogue; Pacific Coast News; Jordan Strauss/WireImage