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Apr 11, 2023
Elle Fanning: a fashion fairy-tale

A star since childhood, Elle Fanning has captivated audiences with her charm, wit and grace. Now, she returns to our screens with her spirited portrayal of Catherine the Great

“I’ve been learning adulthood,” says Elle Fanning of the latest chapter of her life. It’s an education the world has been witnessing, quietly optimistic that this seemingly self-possessed young woman has managed to avoid the so-called ‘curse of the child actor’. After all, Fanning first appeared on the silver screen aged two, playing a younger version of her sister Dakota’s character in I Am Sam and, ever since, her life has unfolded with the film rolling. She had her very first kiss on-camera in Ginger & Rosa; instead of going to university, she says her ‘college’ experience came from shooting with Sofia Coppola, who directed her in Somewhere and The Beguiled and became a mentor. “I’ve been busy working out all those ‘adult’ things,” the actress explains. “How to live on my own, who I am.”

Over the past few years, Fanning has become perhaps best known for her role as the Russian Empress Catherine II in Hulu’s hit comedy The Great, which puts a novel spin on the story of a bewildered teenage bridge who develops into a radical ruler. Written by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, it burst onto our screens in 2020, recounting the early years of Catherine’s marriage to the monstrous Peter III (a perfectly cast Nicholas Hoult). Winter Palace power struggles, seductions and chaotic attempts to solve the country’s problems are relayed with highly stylised, pitch-black comedic brio, gleeful gaudiness and gore – a combination that has left audiences delightedly slack-jawed and critics proffering five-star reviews. The show’s popularity – and multiple Emmy nominations – confirmed Fanning’s status as a household name, and prompted the studio to bring back the drama for a second, and now third, series, which airs later this year.

Today, Fanning is fresh-faced, with her sunshine-yellow hair scraped back in a bun and the relaxed glow of someone off work and at ease – she is about to go and play tennis with Dakota, to whom she’s extremely close. While all she can reveal about season three is that it’s bigger and better than ever, featuring the signature high jinks and high treason, she is effusive about her character, in whose mind she clearly spends a lot of time, on- and off-camera.

“When I was first cast, Tony told me there was really no need to do any research, because the story is not tied to historic fact,” says Fanning. “But I did do some, because before I stepped into her shoes, the only thing I knew about Catherine the Great was the rumour she’d had sex with a horse – which actually feels like one of the earliest forms of slut-shaming. So, partly, I wanted to reclaim her name a bit – to bring to the fore how progressive she was in championing science and female education, being an engine behind the Russian Enlightenment, separating church and state.” While Fanning believes her Catherine has a good heart, she is pleased that the character is far from perfect.

“I still hear, ‘Catherine the Great? What a badass!’ But…” she says, leaning back in her chair and smiling affectionately, “I don’t know how accurate that is. She takes risks, but she has to work herself up to it. She’s powerful, but not always the most powerful person in the room. She can be both scheming and naive. She’s a girl and a woman.” Fanning pauses; she knows how that feels. “I’ve been playing Catherine in such formative years of my life. I’ve grown as a woman alongside her.”

Taking on this character and project has shaped Fanning’s craft, too. Many of her finest performances have been sobering, such as her portrayal of a dementia sufferer’s daughter in 2020’s The Roads Not Taken, or a psychologically manipulated model in The Neon Demon from 2016. With The Great, however, Fanning was thrown into a comic role, and has cultivated a delivery and physicality that is entirely her own. “I hadn’t really done much [comedy], and was very scared at the start,” she says. “But I’m not embarrassed any more: you just have to try, no matter how outrageous something is.” She exhibits the whole spectrum of comedic skills, from bawdy slap-stick to wordplay; hardest, perhaps, to get right are the constant switch-backs of a script that veers from farce to pathos and back again. “It’s an extremely specific style that takes a while to get used to,” she says. “We tread a very thin tightrope between tragedy and laughs.”

The Great’s Russian court appears sumptuous on the outside, but inside it is a place of conflict, ambition and sexual politics, where intelligent women fight against their relegation to decorative assets. I ask Fanning whether this is familiar ground for someone who has grown up in the world of Hollywood, and she laughs drily. “Obviously, they have glamour in common, but firstly, it’s so not Cannes and red carpets all the time,” she says. “There are a lot of 12-hour days, to start with.” In happy contrast to the palace’s backstabbing culture, she has generally found film sets to be collegiate places, and the movie industry a world where she has largely been granted autonomy. “It’s always been about navigating my own path,” she says.

This modus operandi has stood her in good stead, as a girl, teenager and now young woman working in an industry where she is surrounded by older, often male, bosses and co-stars. Yet it is only recently that she has gained confidence at work. “These days, I feel like my voice matters,” she says. “For a while, I’d be like, ‘Oh well, I’m young, people don’t necessarily want to listen to me, they probably know more anyway.’ But there comes a point when you register that you’ve been doing this for 20 years. I may not always have the answer, but I’ve realised that sometimes you do have to have a little bit of that Catherine ego and say, ‘Listen to me!'”

Indeed, Fanning always takes something away from the individuals she plays. “Through tapping into a character, I deal with traumas and emotions of my own. When I come out of a project, I’ve always grown,” she says. She happily confesses to having a temper, so depicting female rage appeals, though so too does enacting personalities that have nothing at all in common with her own. In last year’s true-crime series The Girl from Plainville, Fanning made a striking transformation into Michelle Carter, the American teenager who sent her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, text messages encouraging him to end his own life, which he did. “It terrifies me, doing something like that,” Fanning says, her brow furrowed. “But being scared, that’s where I like to live.” Hence, she threw herself at the task of depicting pregnancy (and a public-spectacle childbirth) in The Great. “I was obsessed with it. I had a bespoke bump with boobs moulded onto me that went all the way up to my neck. The costume team told me that this is pretty accurately what my body will look like when I’m pregnant… which did feel quite crazy,” she says, laughing. “I loved the way it looked. It made me want to do it, to be pregnant.” (The experience was elevated, no doubt, by her regal 18th-century maternity wear: fur collars and a cropped corset top – “very Rihanna with child”.)

Fanning maintains a childlike curiosity and enthusiasm for acting, which she combines with a level of diligent professionalism that belies her years. She grew up in a sporty household – her mother and father were, respectively, tennis and baseball pros who moved the family to Los Angeles when the girls were very young, to facilitate Dakota’s budding career. “My parents instilled the importance of dedication in us – work hard for what you want, always show up on time, reinvigorate yourself constantly,” says Fanning.

“When preparing for a scene, I get pumped up like before a match, like you’re going out there to try to win something.” In a demonstration of unwavering commitment, for the new series, she insisted on completing a scene involving a game of badminton with an un-cast broken wrist, an injury incurred at a roller disco Hoult had organised a couple of days before. (The backstage camaraderie on The Great sounds terrific. They shoot in east London, meaning Hackney residents shopping at their local Tesco regularly cross paths with a host of bejewelled creatures from 1700s Russia, chatting and buying snacks together between takes.)

Indeed, the collaborative side of film-making is important to Fanning: her own positive treatment on set as a child means she wants to pay it forward. “The crew and cast’s experience matters – being nice, and getting close to the people you work with enriches your own experience as much as theirs,” she says. “It’s essential, actually – because, honestly, sometimes you do a movie that audiences might never see and, unlike a match score, the result is totally subjective anyway. So your memories of making it are all that’s going to stay with you.”

Although she’s naturally charming, Fanning says that she has learnt the value of good on-set manners from peers including Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman, who took her under their wing on The Beguiled when she was 18. They remain inspirational to her as actresses, joining Kate Winslet, whose straight-talking Fanning loves, and Katharine Hepburn, whose comic delivery has been an inspiration.

All these women are at least a generation above her, which is partly inevitable for a former child star, but also reflects the fact that Fanning is a self-diagnosed “old soul”. “I’m very nostalgic, I don’t feel like I necessarily belong in today…” she says. “I am comfortable in antique stores, and in London, because it has so much history.” Indeed, a psychic she spoke to once told Fanning that she was from the past, while her sister Dakota was “an alien from the future”. “It makes sense,” she adds, laughing.

There are many sides to Fanning: the agent of her own trajectory, but also a dreamer who believes in horoscopes and speaks to spiritualists; a sporty ‘doer’ who thrives on a bit of rough-and-tumble, yet is also a darling of the fashion and beauty worlds – she attended her first Met Gala at 13, opened Miu Miu’s autumn/winter 2018 show and is currently the face of Paco Rabanne’s fragrance Fame. This month, she turns 25, and has decisions to make about how to spend the next few years. “I do sense I’m in another transformation phase right now… sometimes you can just feel you’re growing another layer.”

In terms of her career, this means experimentation, both in front of and behind the camera (she is an executive producer on The Great). “I haven’t always gone for certain things, but that’s changing,” she says. “Maybe if I want to direct something, or try something else, I can make it happen – there’s no time like the present to turn your ideas into something tangible.” The Fanning sisters have set up a production company, Lewellen Pictures (after their late, beloved family dog). So far, their projects have included a gripping documentary podcast series about DNP, the deadly internet diet drug, and there is a World War II big-screen drama in the pipeline.

As she has never performed in theatre, Fanning also has a mind to tread the boards, and daydreams about what she might like to be doing in 10 years’ time. “I’d love to play Grace Kelly in something. And to have kids.” She is currently single, having recently come out of a long-term relationship with the actor Max Minghella. “But I’m a hopeless romantic. I believe in love at first sight,” she says. “Call me crazy, but I believe in those things. I feel that it’s my destiny.”

This combination of focused strategy with faith in serendipity and the occasional flight of fancy seems a winning formula, especially when matched, in Fanning’s case, by an unstinting gusto for whatever challenges her career throws at her. Had she spent time in the 18th-century Russian court, you get the impression she would have navigated her way to the top beautifully – and probably had rather a ball along the way.

Season 3 of ‘The Great’ is available to stream on Hulu in the US on 12 May and on Lionsgate+ in the UK later this year. The May issue of Harper’s Bazaar is on sale from 6 April. [Source]

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The Great (TV Series)

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Release Date: 2020
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