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Elle Fanning is a gifted actress who is already a widely respected veteran at the age of just 24. She is the younger of two sisters — Dakota is four years older — who both made tremendous impressions as child performers en route to impressive careers as young adults, with no major personal bumps along the way. Of her work on the big screen, she is perhaps best known for 2010’s Somewhere and 2017’s The Beguiled, both directed by Sofia Coppola. But she has also starred in films big and small under the direction of, among others, Francis Ford Coppola, J.J. Abrams, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David Fincher, Cameron Crowe, Sally Potter, Jay Roach, Mike Mills, Nicolas Winding Refn, John Cameron Mitchell, Tony Scott, Terry George, Ben Affleck and Woody Allen.
This year, Fanning played substantial parts on and executive produced two TV programs, both for Hulu, and both of which could bring her Emmy nominations to go with four prior Critics Choice Award noms, two Golden Globe Award noms, one Spirit Award nom and one SAG Award nom. The first is The Great, a comedy series on which she portrays Catherine the Great, who arrived at the Russian court of Emperor Peter III with a twinkly eyed vision of life as his wife, mother of his heir and reformer of an empire, only to get a rude awakening. And the second is The Girl From Plainville, a limited series on which she portrays Michelle Carter, a high school student in Massachusetts who encouraged her own boyfriend to kill himself, and then, after he did so in 2014, wound up on trial for involuntary manslaughter.
During a recent episode of THR’s Awards Chatter podcast, Fanning reflected on all of the above and more. You can listen to the full conversation or read excerpts of it below.
Where you were born and raised, what did your folks do for living?
I was born in Decatur, Georgia. My mom played tennis in college. My dad was a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals. And my mom’s dad was a quarterback in the NFL for the Eagles. Everyone was very sports-affiliated.
When you were still a baby, your family left the South and moved to L.A. What brought that about?
Basically, my sister was put in a lot of activities. My mom wanted her to find her thing. She tried out soccer, she played the violin for a bit, and one of the activities was this play camp. My sister was five, and she has a photographic memory, so she could memorize all of the lines and was just kind of this wonder child. They told my mom that she might do good at commercials, or print, or get a movie, who knows, so you should go to New York or L.A. My aunt, my mom’s sister, already lived in L.A., so my mom was like, “We can go visit your aunt and see how this works.” So my mom and my sister went to L.A., my dad and I stayed in Georgia, and my sister ended up getting 10 commercials in a week. My mom called my dad and was like, “We’re not coming back to Georgia for a while.” And so I flew out to L.A. and we never went back.
How did you wind up alongside your sister in your first movie, I Am Sam, in 2001?
I would come to the set a lot because my mom had to take care of both of us, so Jessie Nelson, the director, knew me. I was 2, I think, and they needed a little girl for a flashback scene. They’re like, “Oh, let’s just use Elle! Is that OK?” And my mom was like, “Fine. She obviously looks like Dakota.” So they put me in a little costume and I had to swing on a swing with Sean Penn and sleep in the grass. That was my big debut.
You and Dakota both, of course, continued to appear in larger parts over the next few years. Let’s just pause for a moment to note: Neither of you ever took an acting lesson?
No, we didn’t do any formal training or anything like that, so basically our whole learning experience was working with big actors and directors, on the spot.
You could throw any kid into that situation and most of them are going to sink, not swim. What do you think it is about you guys? Because right out of the gate, you both were great.
It’s weird. We had had a lot of practice even before being on film sets because all we wanted to do was play. When I was a baby, my sister was so happy that she had a little sister — she was like, “Oh, finally I have a real-life doll!” Every toy, we wanted the toys to be real. And we would put little scenes on. We did not want people watching us do our acting, but we would just be together and kind of come up with these scenarios. My sister would tell me, “OK, you’re this.” I was always the husband or the assistant, and she would manipulate me into these situations, and I would be like, “OK, I’m taking on this character.” And that was our introduction, in a way. When we were on set, we were like, “This is like the little things we do at home, so we want to try to make it as real as possible and feel like we’re in that moment.”
Can you pinpoint the moment when you decided, “I don’t just accept that I am an actor, but I embrace that I am an actor?” In other words, that you really took ownership of that?
That’s interesting. I think I always owned it, but I guess I realized it with Ginger & Rosa. That part was a marking point, more so that I felt like I had grown up. When you’re 13, it’s a very vulnerable age, but I felt like I was in such safe hands with Sally Potter, and it was the first time I had to really transform myself — I dyed my hair red and had an English accent and just did not feel like Elle — and there was a moment of feeling, “Oh, this is what acting is. When people talk about it, this is what they’re striving towards. To not feel like themselves, to create a whole other character.” And that movie, I felt like, “I don’t feel like myself.” And I liked the feeling of that.
Another moment like that for you, I’ve heard, came three years earlier, when you were playing a girl, in a movie called Phoebe in Wonderland, who was dealing with OCD and Tourette’s.
I think I was 9 when we filmed that — I was younger and couldn’t articulate it as easily as I could when I was a little older — but yes, it was a very similar thing. After I met with children who had Tourette’s, I realized that sometimes when you do films you have a responsibility to others to tell their story correctly — to get it right — and so there was an added weight of that, of realizing, “This is kind of not for you, this is for a community of people.” And I remember that there was one scene with Patricia Clarkson in that movie — it was the first time, and I’ve had this a lot since — where I was crying from listening to her and watching her act, and I remember thinking, “This is mind-blowing. Oh my God, this is acting.”
Around the same time, you were cast in Somewhere, the 2010 film directed by Sofia Coppola, with whom you reunited seven years later for The Beguiled. You’ve described your relationship with her as a very important one for you. Was it just that as a young girl in the business, it was cool that the person in charge was a young woman, or something else?
I’m sure that’s part of it. She’s more like the creative aunt who you want to see you and love you. She is so unafraid to be herself, and every film that she makes, people can look at and know it’s Sofia — she has a mark on everything she does. I was 11 when I first worked with her, and I’m sure it was like it was for Kirsten [Dunst], too, with The Virgin Suicides. Both of us were really lucky to have Sofia at those moments because she was going to take care of you.
In J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, which was a big hit in 2011, there’s a great scene in which you are playing somebody who’s playing somebody — your character is supposed to be a great actress performing in a scene for these guys — and it just blew away me and so many others. Do you remember the scene I’m talking about?
I was 12, but I totally remember. I’ve been thinking about that scene a lot lately because I think it really prepared me for one of the scenes in Plainville, weirdly. We had our 10-year anniversary not too long ago for Super 8, and J.J. was saying how he had talked to me about the difference of Alice, my character, crying and being upset in the movie that the kids are making versus her real emotion, because I have a big emotional scene later on. He was like, “There’s a difference in those two emotions. It’s not coming from the same place.” That was such a great thing to say, because it just clicked for me. And weirdly, with Plainville, there’s a scene like that, very meta, where I’m performing “Make You Feel My Love,” emulating Glee, and people are responding to that scene much like they did with Super 8 back then.
Before people saw you in Plainville, they saw you in The Great, which is great, and totally unlike anything we’ve ever seen you do before. You had never really done TV this extensively. You’d never really done comedy in a major way. And I don’t think you’d ever played a character who dealt with this level of “grown-up subject matter” — politics, sex and everything in-between.
I think I was 20 when we shot the pilot. A bit before that, Tony McNamara, our showrunner, sent me a movie script of this, based off a play that he had put on in Australia; basically, the first season of the show was the play that he had put on years ago, and he’d always had this script that he wanted to do for the screen. Obviously, Tony wrote The Favourite, but that movie hadn’t come out yet when I read this script, so I had nothing to compare the humor to. So I was really taking a “risk,” but it was the best script I’d ever read, hands down. I was like, “Ooh, people are going to be really surprised to see that I can go there and want to go there.” Like, the weirder, the better, in a lot of ways. After years of being a child actor, where I was always the observer, I wanted to be the person that finally got to take the reins, being flamboyant and bizarre and having an opportunity to show that side of myself.
Your co-star on The Great, Nicholas Hoult, was also a child actor. Did you two already know each other before this project? Did you have to test opposite each other? Because if you two weren’t great together, the show wouldn’t work.
Weirdly, we had done a little indie film — Tony had never seen it — called Young Ones [released in 2014]. I was 14, and I was also pregnant with his child in that, and he was a mean husband to me in that, too! But Tony just somehow knew. Nick and challenge each other, we work in a similar way and we just get each other.
Your other big project this season is The Girl From Plainville. You’ve previously played numerous people who really lived, but not necessarily people who are still alive, and certainly not people who have gotten in trouble for things that they’ve done.
Yeah, it was new territory. I was tentative, honestly, to sign on to the project. I didn’t know if it was going to be told in the right way — it could have been done really poorly and without sensitivity — and I didn’t want to romanticize or sensationalize this case when these families are alive and a young man’s life is gone, so it was something I had to deliberate on for a while. But ultimately, we all agreed that we wanted to provide an unbiased perspective and show what the media didn’t; they painted it very one-dimensionally. It was a real challenge of how to calibrate a character like that. You don’t have to agree with what she did or think it’s OK, but you do have to have understanding in order to play her; you can’t really judge a character that you’re playing because then it’s not going to be fleshed out properly. And I think there’s a moment where you have to remove yourself from the public figure and just create kind of another being. I never spoke with her, we weren’t there and we don’t know the 100 percent truth, so at some point you kind of have to create your own fantasy and own reality, which is what the show’s about.
Well, I will say that in addition to you, some people who really deserve a lot of acknowledgment for their work on this show are your hair and makeup people, because you are made to look exactly like her.
Todd, who did our prosthetics head piece, changed my hairline — that’s the only prosthetics I had. But everything else was really done with colors. I was tan, and had different wigs, and it was very eerie. Getting that transformation right was important to the show because she really became such a shell of a human being, especially during the court case. And obviously the eyebrows were very big — we had a lot of hair and makeup tests with eyebrow shape and skin tone. But I’d never done that kind of thing. And I really want to do that more.
One of many things the pandemic derailed was the opportunity for us to get to see you and Dakota in a movie together as adults for the first time. It was reported that you two were going to costar in a movie called The Nightingale.
We were about to leave to film that and then lockdown happened. I mean, everything was set up to go. So that was definitely a bummer. But we are going to work together. I mean, that’s a dream of ours that we will fulfill. It just has to be right — the right project and the right timing.
Transcript lightly edited for length and clarity.
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