The Darling Girl
She is an instinctive actor, a playful model, a red-carpet revelation and, as she’s proving in a new film, a seriously impressive singer. But there’s something else about ELLE FANNING, something that makes her almost magically irresistible. JENNIFER DICKINSON meets her to explore the allure
The story of Sleeping Beauty has many variations – some of them rather unsavory, if truth be told (Giambattista Basile, the author of the original tale, was no Walt Disney, let’s put it that way) – but in one of the more PG versions, Princess Aurora is bestowed with magical gifts by the good fairies who managed to secure an invite to her christening. Beauty, predictably, is one of them, but more cheeringly so are courage, sweetness and musicality. It’s the combination of these qualities that makes Elle Fanning’s role in Maleficent, as the fated heroine, one of the best pieces of casting Hollywood has ever seen.
The actress, 20, is not here today to talk about Maleficent or its sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which, it has just been announced, will be released in October of this year (of course we asked – more on that later). But the similarity between her own character and that of her most blockbuster performance is remarkable. Aurora brings life and light back to hearts that seemed permanently darkened; Fanning brings laughter and enthusiasm to a bitterly cold, rain-embattled outdoor fashion shoot of mostly swimwear and shorts. Experiencing it is akin to one of those CGI moments where dormant buds suddenly burst into bloom – she is the sunshine that coaxes you out to bask and thrive in its rays. Ridiculous, yes, but true.
“Dakota and I would play these elaborate SCENES around the house. Like birthing scenes… I would be the BABY, coming out… Crazy stuff like that. That was how we PLAYED”
So, beautiful and sweet are covered and, as you are about to discover, musicality also gets a resounding yes. Fanning’s latest project is a modern retelling of a fairy tale, though you might not recognize Cinderella in Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit, the story of put upon, Adidas-wearing, introverted Violet, who follows her deepest desires and enters a televised singing contest. Minghella (son of Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella) had been working on the project, his debut, for over a decade, and was looking for a Polish singer-actor to play Violet. So when Fanning’s team got in touch to say, “Hey, would you consider auditioning Elle?” he must have felt a bit side-swiped, smiles the actress. “I wasn’t on anybody’s radar about getting this part. I saw a press release announcing that Max had written it and was directing, and I’m always looking for movies where I’d be able to sing, because people don’t really know that I can,” says Fanning. “But I always loved singing growing up. It was either, be a pop star or an actress. When I was a little kid, I would put on these shows and dance to The Pussycat Dolls, Gwen Stefani, Fergie…”
Performances were a regular occurrence in the Fanning household. Elle and her older sister (and fellow actress), Dakota, would often disappear into a world of make-believe. “My sister and I would play these elaborate scenes around the house. Like birthing scenes… I would be the baby, coming out… Crazy stuff like that. We were doing it for ourselves; we weren’t, like, ‘Oh, Mom and Dad, sit down and we’re gonna perform for you.’ That was how we played,” she says. Music, though, was something the younger sibling did solo. “I would dance and sing constantly. My sister would yell at me to shut up ’cause I was singing all the time, too loud… I had this hyper, like, ‘Whoo, I gotta go-go-go’ personality, you know? I still do.”
“My sister would yell at me to shut up ’cause I was SINGING all the time… I had this HYPER personality. I STILL do”
Her ‘go-go-go’ nature goes some way to explaining Fanning’s seriously over-achieving résumé. The actress, who turns 21 on April 9, has racked up 60 acting credits to date, with five of those releasing in the next 12 months. She operates something of a mental check list when it comes to picking projects, ticking off ambitions and challenges as she goes. “I try to pick films where people don’t really associate me with that [genre], films that let me try to conquer [something new],” she says. She recently wrapped a pilot for TV series The Great, a period drama/dark comedy where she plays Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, and which constitutes a triple win: her first TV series, first real comedy, and an executive producer credit (though technically she now has three of those). “That’s my new tick: comedy. I mean, I don’t know, I think my friends would say that I’m funny,” she laughs.
Teen Spirit’s Violet was a different kind of challenge, and one that Fanning desperately wanted to succeed at. When you ask her what she wants to achieve over the next 20 years, children (“I definitely hope I’m a mother, I really want a lot of kids), acting, directing and a house in London all feature, as does setting up a production company with her sister, named after their Southern grandmother (“We call her Gaba, so it could be Gaba Productions”). But an album of her own is high up on the list. “The fourth album might buy the house in London,” she jokes.
It’s not a pie-in-the-sky dream. Fanning’s voice is good, so much so that you’ll scour the final credits, checking to see if it really could have been her, crooning cover versions of songs originally recorded by the likes of Robyn and Sigrid. She nails the character (as she does in every one of her on-screen outings): an awkward, bruised young woman. “I was really interested in having Violet be a leading lady that isn’t necessarily the most likeable at times. She doesn’t smile all the time, she has a harsh exterior… I was excited to show that type of girl on screen because I think it’s easy to make the shy girl who’s in her shell and then she blossoms. That’s not our story; she had to find it in herself.”
The actress approaches roles, she says, like gearing up for a race. “I look at doing a scene as a sport. I’m gonna stay hydrated, I’m gonna get fueled up. I’m disciplined that way.” That mindset might have something to do with Fanning’s parents, Heather and Steven, who were both athletes. Her mother and father can definitely take credit for raising daughters who can not only withstand Hollywood’s particular school of hard knocks, but come out of it as happy, healthy, even wholesome individuals. Fanning filmed her first proper role at the age of three and says her work “taught me a lot about how to handle disappointments and not getting the job. It still happens. It’s a constant confidence check and you have to somehow find the strength to pull it together and still want to do this.”
“I auditioned to be on Friends. I think I was gonna be one of Phoebe’s TRIPLETS…but I didn’t get it. Then DAKOTA was on it and I REFUSED to watch the episode”
One of the first big disappointments she was dealt came courtesy of a certain long-running TV show. Fanning is happily recounting the tale of when she walked her first runway (another tick), opening the show for Miu Miu in Paris last year, when she stumbles onto the story of an early rejection. “I used to walk runways when I was little, like pretend. I also went out for, I think it was a Guess Kids commercial, but I didn’t get it. I was so upset. A few things like that happened when I was little. 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.” Didn’t they call one of the girl triplets Chandler? “Oh yeah…maybe that was me. 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 [Dakota appeared in the final series] and I refused to watch the episode.” She laughs. “I was like, ‘I am not watching this!’”
“I want AURORA to be a character that [girls] can look up to. There’s nothing wrong with LOVING your feminine side. I think as women we should really love that PART of us”
Luckily, Fanning has the kind of personality that finds it impossible to hold a grudge, and the sisters are each other’s biggest supporters, keen to find an opportunity to act together soon (pending tick). They also share a stylist, Samantha McMillen, who has helped guide them to the status of red-carpet royalty. It helps that fashion is something Elle loves. “Every red-carpet moment, just go for it. Why not just use it as an experience to wear something and have that moment, you know? I’m always looking at the shows, and I send looks to Samantha and she tries to get them or is inspired by them because with each movie we take inspiration from the character or the vibe of the film. We’re already thinking about Maleficent…”
Well, since she brought it up, what can we expect from the return of one of Disney’s greatest love stories? “I hope it’s what the fans are looking for. The mother-daughter relationship that Maleficent and Aurora have, that’s really…played on,” she demurs. What she will reveal though, is a little something about Aurora’s wardrobe – and personality.
“I want Aurora to be a character that [girls] can look up to, who’s strong and all that. But Angelina [Jolie] and I were talking about this: Maleficent, of course, has the dark side, and Aurora is the one who loves pink and is the light and she’s not afraid to be feminine. I think it’s beautiful that I get to represent [someone] who is strong in her beliefs, but is also unwavering in staying true to herself. I wear dresses the whole time throughout the film… I don’t have a moment where I burst into armor, you know what I mean? There’s nothing wrong with loving your feminine side. I think as women we should really love that part of us.” Someone strong in her beliefs, unwavering in staying true to herself? Told you the casting was good.
Teen Spirit is out April 5