One thing is immediately clear — Elle Fanning, 19, an actress best known for playing a Disney princess, whose performances are often described as dreamy and ethereal, is even more animated in person than she is in her films. “I know that I’m a very high-energy person,” she admits. “You would think that I would be cast like that because that’s my personality. But I guess with the roles I choose, it’s more fun to play people who aren’t like yourself.”
We are sitting in Aroma Coffee and Tea in Studio City, a sunny, Hollywood-adjacent café where film scripts are out in plain sight, and Fanning is dressed in pinstriped pants and a smocked crop top that she bought yesterday, with Chanel chain sandals, a Miu Miu purse, a rose quartz iPhone, and a Liberty-print headband. She is about ten minutes from home, two weeks from her 20th birthday, and everything you hope she will be: bright, present and instantly likeable, with venti levels of cheeriness.
“I’m a HIGH-energy person. You’d think I’d be CAST like that, but it’s MORE fun to play people who aren’t like yourself”
It’s been a year since we last saw her in Sofia Coppola’s feminist Civil War-era drama, The Beguiled. Since that time, she still hasn’t tested for her driver’s license (her mother will pick her up after the interview), and she still treats her self-diagnosed temper with boxing (“My left hook is very good”). She has never had a Facebook account – a rare blessing in light of recent privacy issues – but is a little further into her foray on Instagram, which she held off joining publicly until she was 18. “Sometimes writing the captions stresses me out because you do get judged in the comments,” she confesses about posting to her two million followers. In other news, it seems the world is making strides in differentiating her from her older sister and fellow actor Dakota, 24. “I haven’t been mistaken for her in a while, which is pretty cool, because it definitely used to happen all the time,” she says, laughing.
This summer, Fanning will be reprising her role as Disney’s live-action Sleeping Beauty in the sequel to 2014’s hugely successful Maleficent. Otherwise, what has she been up to? “It’s honestly been a lot of fashion stuff,” she admits. It’s familiar territory for Fanning, who was 13 when she attended her first Met Gala (as a guest of Valentino) and sat front row at her first show (Chanel Couture). She’s known for enduring relationships with designers like Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte and for managing to look editorial-ready even in her most unassuming moments. The “fashion stuff” included making her runway debut opening and closing for Miu Miu during the Paris FW18 collections. “Afterwards, I felt really euphoric,” recalls the actress. “I’m so glad they asked me to do it! But I was very, very nervous. I do get nervous for things, before a big scene or anything. I like the feeling before a scene when you scare yourself so much that it’s like: ‘I am so scared right now but I live for the challenge.’”
“People might not think that I have a WILD side. With child actors, people sometimes think, ‘Ooh, EVIL wild side!’ No, it’s not. It’s JUST being a teenager”
That challenge can take many forms. In her latest film, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, from writer-actor-director John Cameron Mitchell (of Girls and Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame), Fanning stars alongside Nicole Kidman as a rebellious alien from a restrictive space colony who meets a suburban malcontent and takes a romantic tour of the late ’70s London punk scene. Naturally, it required Fanning, who had limited exposure to the subculture, to perform a live punk number in front of a packed club. “All of the extras were real punks that were John’s friends. I was terrified,” she laughs. “John just wanted to get me out of my shell. He’s like, ‘Okay, spit on them!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God!’ But eventually we were literally spitting on each other. And when I jumped on his friend, Donna, he was like, ‘Jump on Donna and make out with her! Make out with as many people as you can in the crowd!’ And I’m like, okay! Anything for John! When do you get to really let yourself loose like that? I was like, I’m just going to go for it… People might not think that I have that side. It’s a wild side but a healthy wild side,” she says. “With child actors, people sometimes think, ‘Ooh, evil wild side!’ No, it’s not. It’s just being a teenager.”
Filmmakers know to court her for precisely that capacity for experimentation. “I think people know that I am pretty adventurous,” she says. “I mean, sometimes you do seek out things. But The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological horror about an aspiring model and How to Talk to Girls… were sent to me. If I get an email from my manager, and they’re like, ‘I don’t know, this one’s a little weird and a little crazy,’ I read it right away.” And yet, whatever the subject matter, Fanning always manages to be a genuinely appealing onscreen presence.
“If I was going to SCHOOL right now, I would be terrified. Nobody deserves to be SCARED in their own classroom. But it’s so great to see young VOICES finally being heard”
It’s fun to watch Fanning walk the line between that endearing youthful wholesomeness and the other; like how she doesn’t want to miss an episode of Riverdale, but would really love to work with director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose bizarrely subversive Dogtooth is one of her favorite films. Even Maleficent — which is Fanning’s only major Hollywood release to date — had a twist, subverting the fairy tale’s ‘true love’s kiss’ to tell a story of mother-daughter love and an embattled woman (Angelina Jolie) waging war on her abusers. “That came out before everything that is being talked about now,” Fanning observes of the Time’s Up movement. “It was weirdly before its time.” She goes on: “The Women’s Marches, and the talk about feminism and all that’s going on, it’s very powerful, especially in the industry right now. It’s also very special to be a young woman and have examples of older women who are in Hollywood, or in this world, that I now get to look up to. I feel like I have big shoes to fill.”
“I grew up in a HOUSEHOLD where, if you want your voice to be heard, you have to be LOUDER. I feel like I’m a STRONGER woman because of it”
We discuss politics, and being a young person in the public eye, and the responsibility that comes with that, to often take a position on issues, and it seems clear that Fanning is still finding her voice. “You can tell when someone is passionate about something, and when someone’s not,” she says. “If you want to speak up about something, you need to do your research and believe in what you’re saying. Don’t just say it because of the masses.” She talks about the recent shootings in Parkland, Florida: “With those students, I can’t even imagine what they’re going through. If I was going to school right now, I would be terrified. Nobody deserves to be scared in their own classroom. But it’s so great to see young voices finally being heard.” She admires actresses like Rowan Blanchard for being outspoken: “She’s such a cool young girl. She’s basically my age but such an old soul. I think it’s important to have examples of strong young women to look up to in the entertainment industry.”
One subject she, like much of Hollywood, is publicly negotiating is Woody Allen, whose upcoming film, A Rainy Day in New York, she shot last year. When I ask about Allen in light of abuse allegations that have recently resurfaced, Fanning answers hesitantly, saying that she and her co-star Selena Gomez have talked about it and that she had no intention of hurting anyone in making the film, and that she – along with her sister Dakota – made a financial donation to a relevant charity.
In another, less controversial, upcoming project, the historical drama Mary Shelley, from Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour, Fanning stars as the novelist who wrote Frankenstein, depicting her years as a young woman determining her own voice. It’s a lovely parallel. “I live with my mom and my grandmother, and I have a sister, and my mom’s sister has a daughter. It’s generations of women who are very fierce and not afraid to speak their minds. I grew up in a household where, if you want your voice to be heard, you have to be louder, and I feel like I’m a stronger woman because of it,” Fanning says. “Of course, I’m still finding myself. But I’m almost there.”
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is out May 11 (UK); May 18 (US). Mary Shelley is out May 25 (US); July 6 (US)
Join The Fanning Club
Elle Fanning has been acting since she was two years old, but what does she really think about watching herself on screen? And what happened when she met Beyoncé? Press play now to find out in this exclusive video
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.