Dakota Fanning isn’t a little girl anymore. The 20-year-old actress' work in the past few years has launched her out of “child-star” territory and into some serious artistry. She did drugs and smooched Kristen Stewart in The Runaways, played an environmentalist who blows up a dam in Night Moves, and now loses her virginity on screen in Very Good Girls.

The film is the directorial debut from Oscar-winning writer Naomi Foner  (Running on Empty, Enlightened) and explores two best friends who are out to lose their V card the summer before college.  Lily (Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen) both end up falling for the same guy, David (Boyd Holbrook), an elusive artist in New York City.  As they become more involved with him, their sexual identities blossom as their friendship and family is tested.

Fanning spoke to us about what drew her to such a daring role, dealing with sensual scenes, and how she steers clear of judging the “bad” characters she plays.

You’re very brave with a lot of your characters. With this role, you strip naked and swim in the ocean in the opening scene. What makes you take on this type of work?
For this movie in particular, I just really loved the story and Naomi and wanted to be a part of it. It’s just the script and the character and that connection that you have. It’s exciting to challenge yourself as an actor. That’s what I enjoy about it.

Elizabeth Olsen plays your best friend. I totally believed your friendship with her. Did you guys meet before shooting? Hang out?
We did know each other beforehand. That helped the relationship. It was nice to do a movie about friendship with someone that you did know before. We went to the same high school and have a lot of mutual friends, though I can't say we’ve done any of the things that we’ve done in the movie.

You’re playing a girl that’s still a virgin, just graduating high school. Did you relate? You’re not far from her age.
For sure. When I read the script initially, I was experiencing a similar phase in my life. We filmed it about two years ago. I was 18. I graduated from high school when I was 17. I do think there are aspects of Lily that all girls can relate to.

You’ve done quite a few sensual scenes, even with Kristen Stewart in The Runaways. In this film, you have a few with Boyd Holbrook. How do you get comfortable with your co-stars?
You just kind of have to do it. It’s part of it. You know it’s just a really technical experience. Everything is planned out and you just sort of get on with it.

As the film progresses, you can see that Lily dives into that relationship with David because she’s avoiding the turmoil happening at home. How do you ground your character in those traumatic motivations?
I’m happy that you felt that way! With any character that I play, as we make the movie, it comes alive on its own. You sort of keep certain things in your mind as you’re filming. It’s an instinctual experience because everything’s filmed out of place.

What’s your process? Do you need hours alone to prep before an emotional scene?
Well there’s definitely no time for the hours alone, that’s for sure! I get asked this question a lot and I don’t know how to explain it. You’re there and you’re trying to feel what your character is feeling. You can surprise yourself with what comes out emotionally. I try and go with my natural instincts.

It’s easy to judge characters like Lily, thinking they’re selfish for putting their sexual needs before their family and friends. How do you steer clear of judging your character?
It’s really important to never judge any character that you play no matter how “bad” they might be. I know that deep inside, so I don’t find it difficult not to. Life is complicated and things happen when you don’t mean for them to. Things happen before you can stop it.

Working with Naomi must have been incredible.
Naomi is such a wonderful and a caring person. Obviously it was her first time directing, so it was really cool to get to experience that with her. When I met her for the first time, I really loved her and felt like she understood me.

You’ve got some scenes with Richard Dreyfuss, Demi Moore, and Peter Sarsgaard. Did Naomi give you guys a chance to play?
She was very open to pretty much anything. She had originally written the script to be set in the '60s or '70s and then she made it contemporary. The way something was worded, I could change it to make it sound more contemporary. It was collaborative.

Meredith Alloway is a contributing writer. She tweets here