Elle Fanning Grows Up in 'Ginger & Rosa'

Adventure Pictures

The younger sister of Dakota Fanning was just 13 years old when she took on the lead role in Sally Potter's powerful drama.

On the phone, Elle Fanning has the bubbly, youthful energy that you’d expect from any 14-year-old girl.

But Fanning is anything but ordinary.

The young star, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter from the set of her next film in South Africa, has been a working actress since she was two years old, having appeared in more than 20 projects throughout her 12-year career.

Fanning’s extremely mature skills as an actor are on full display in her first leading role in Ginger & Rosa, in which she plays a young British girl growing up in the 1960s in London.

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Fanning was just 12 years old when she read the script for Sally Potter’s coming-of-age drama, and 13 during the shoot.

“I had assumed she would be too young," says Potter. "When I met her and worked with her, she was just so perfect, and incredibly mature and professional for her calendar years. She just had the right quality of openness and vulnerability.”

Playing a 16-year-old girl named Ginger whose best friend ends up having a sexual relationship with her father, Fanning displays a wide range of emotions, from the giddy high of teen adventure to the deepest lows of broken-hearted disappointment in the ones you love. It was a role that challenged Fanning on many levels, from the deeply emotional story to her first time using an accent for a role and her first time changing her hair color -- going from her nearly-white, ethereal blond to a light red.

"I knew that I would be challenging myself, for sure, just because there are a lot of different emotions that Ginger goes through, and some that I have never even experienced," Fanning tells THR.

Born in Conyers, Georgia, as the younger sister of actress Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning nabbed her first film role at the age of two years and eight months, playing the younger version of Dakota’s character in Taken and I Am Sam. She continued to act from that time on, taking roles in Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Somewhere and We Bought a Zoo.

But at the same time, Fanning -- now a freshman in high school -- continued to go to regular school and have regular friends, which ended up being a key lesson for her when preparing for the role of Ginger, who builds an extremely close friendship with a girl named Rosa (played by Alice Englert).

FILM REVIEW: Ginger & Rosa

"I have a close friend who is basically my other half, so I knew how that went," she says. "Teenage girls' friendships are very particular. You basically have a secret language."

Fanning and Englert rehearsed for three weeks with Potter before the five-week shoot in London. For Potter. it was important that the two young actresses developed that specific teen-girl friendship onscreen.

In the film, Ginger not only is being challenged in her personal life, but also is preoccupied with the threats facing the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis. She’s consumed by fear that a bomb could end her life tomorrow.

"I guess for me, it's sort of thinking back to knowing that the whole world could blow up at any minute, just with the press of a button,” says Fanning, who spoke to her grandmother about that era during her research for the film.

The response to Ginger & Rosa, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and is being distributed by A24, has been warm, especially for Fanning’s work as the lead.

"On top of the entirely convincing accent and a chameleon quality so pronounced that it would be easy to believe that the actress onscreen is a terrific English unknown, Fanning exhibits an amazing range as a kid overwhelmed by the idea that humanity could be wiped out tomorrow, topped by the two-for-one betrayal by her father and closest friend," writes THR’s chief film critic Todd McCarthy.

Fanning says she was most surprised to see her older sister Dakota’s reaction to the film when it screened at the New York Film Festival in October.

"She hadn’t read the script, so she didn’t have any preconceived anything, and then after she saw it, she was really, really proud of me, so that made me feel really good, knowing that she approved," she says, adding that there has never been any competition between them, due in part to their four-year age gap.

The future looks bright for the 14-year-old star, who is currently working on the futuristic thriller Young Ones by Jake Paltrow and has already wrapped as Princess Aurora in the highly-anticipated Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie.

After high school, Fanning says she plans to continue working in film. "I want to always do movies. I love it so much," she says.

Potter has no doubts that the young starlet is on her way to a long career, describing her as "hard-working, skilled and yet unaffected."

"This is her first leading role, and, as we see, she can completely carry herself at the center of the story," she says. "I just hope that she gets lots and lots of interesting scripts and roles that will stretch her and take her in other directions."

Ginger & Rosa opens in limited release on Friday, March 15.

Email: Rebecca.Ford@thr.com; Twitter: @Beccamford