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Dec 17, 2012
Elle Fanning: Away She Goes

At just 14, Elle Fanning has already fallen in and out of love, risen from the dead, and survived an alien invasion. Her performances are fraught with an increasingly heady mix of innocence and experience, and she’s just getting started. Kathryn Borel sits down with the ‘Ginger & Rosa’ star as she prepares for take off.

ELLE FANNING would make more sense if she’d walked into the lobby of the Sunset Tower Hotel with her face pointed toward her steel-capped boots, grim-mouthed and moping behind a flat sheet of blond hair. The characters she has recently played have had a tender, distinctly mid-’90s languidness that recall the combined agita of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Lisbon sisters and the tentative, bruising vulnerability of Angela Chase. Fanning is only 14 years old. Surely she’s experiencing some pubescent anguish.

But on the morning of our interview, Fanning makes her entrance as though she’s morning itself—cheery, optimistic, and with an airy lightness that reaches all corners of the room. She’s lithe and foal-limbed in a long rose floral dress that brushes the round tips of her sensible clogs. Her face is fresh-scrubbed, and possesses a luminous grin that seems almost physically impossible to invert. As she energetically shakes my hand, I find myself searching her clear eyes for some darkness or injury lingering deep inside, closer to her brain. But all I get is clarity and more clarity, the pure goodness of a person who so far has eluded the Bad Feelings brought on by the emotional shifts of adolescence.

Fanning plays the scarlet-haired titular character of her latest film, Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, in which she amply and astoundingly holds her own against Annette Bening, Oliver Platt, and Christina Hendricks. Ginger, a teenager growing up in 1962 London, is so brimming with existential angst, fear of The Bomb, and quiet rage aimed at her parents that in the final explosive scene of the movie, it seems she might actually crack open from unarticulated sadness. Her father (Alessandro Nivola) is fun, but he is also selfish and smug. He has thinly-concealed love affairs, and demands that Ginger call him by his first name. His permissiveness forces Ginger’s mother (Hendricks) to be the bad cop. They fight; they separate. Meanwhile, Ginger’s dearest friend Rosa (Alice Englert)—a girl with whom she shares the type of sticky intimacy that rarely exists outside of teendom—is drifting out of their secret world of matching smocks and infectious giggles.

When Ginger begins to cry at the unbearable lurching caused by all that flux, there are tears, real fat splashers. There is a terrible moment of silence, then comes the flood—hiccupping, wailing, slurping, and heaving. And then another breath, inhaled like someone is choking her. For a second it looks like Fanning might vomit. “I was so nervous about that scene,” says Fanning, who smiles gamely and winds her long hair into a tube. “It’s a monster—12 pages or something crazy like that. In the rehearsals before we’d even started shooting, Christina and I were like, Oh, that scene! And after each day, we’d say, We’re getting closer… When the day finally came, I felt like I was genuinely going to explode, and on the first take I literally just blew up. Maybe it was a combination of the nerves and also listening to the scene play out. Each time we did it, we’d start from the beginning. We filmed it in two days and afterwards, I felt so fresh. It totally got everything out of my body.”

It shouldn’t come as a complete shock that Fanning was able to pull off such a textured depiction of heartache, especially if we subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule that says the key to success is logging that much time focused on a specific task. Her resume is too long to list—she’s currently at 36 projects—which isn’t bad for a person who’s still two years away from her driver’s license.

At nearly 3 years of age, Fanning just so happened to be visiting the set of I Am Sam, in which her sister Dakota (four years Elle’s senior) played the daughter of Sean Penn’s character. The director, Jessie Nelson, needed a an actor to play a younger version of Dakota. “It was so random,” Fanning says. “They were like, ‘You look just like Dakota. Can you come and just swing on this swing with Sean Penn?’ And that was my first acting job.”

She has worked steadily since 2001, booking small but memorable parts in films like Babel, Reservation Road, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There is a hilarious scene in 2004’s The Door in the Floor when a tiny, pajama-clad Fanning walks in on her mother (played by Kim Basinger) in a nude, animal-style embrace with her much younger lover. Fanning begins screaming bloody murder, only to be told by an out-of-breath Basinger that everything is all right, that what she’s just witnessed is an act of love and not violence. She turns off the screams like you’d yank shut a faucet and, satisfied with the explanation, says, “Okay,” then spins on her heel and exits.

Fanning’s breakout roles came in a cluster right around the age of 12,a threshold many child actors fail to cross: they hit puberty, they get bored, directors stop casting them. Best-case scenario, they launch careers as pop or hip-hop musicians. Yet in 2010, Fanning appeared in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, an elegant, sparse film that relied heavily on the young actor’s superb ability to silently and searchingly react to Stephen Dorff ’s character—her father, an aging, narcissistic actor living in the storied Chateau Marmont. Against the superficial environs of Los Angeles, the Chateau, and her father’s Peter Pan life, the humanity of Fanning’s character stood out. The script had just 40 pages of dialogue, but when Fanning crinkled her nose, or widened her eyes to stare glumly off into the middle distance, she was saying everything.

She was achingly good the following year in Super 8, directed by J. J. Abrams. Playing Alice, the daughter of another semi-deadbeat dad, she seemed to symbolize all that’s conflicted about growing up: clad in a frayed denim jacket, she steals her father’s muscle car to help a bunch of younger film nerds realize their dream of shooting a sci-fi short. Alice was still enough of a kid to want to play make believe, but old enough to know that her troubled home life required her to prematurely take on the mantle of “grown-up.” That same year, Fanning starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s thriller Twixt, and worked with Scarlett Johansson and Matt Damon in Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo. “Everybody was surprised that with all her immediate success, she was still very much her age,” Crowe says. “Elle was filled with excitement for life, not just career. She’d just as happily sing a goofy song as talk about the high-profile film she’d just signed on for. She’s filled with life, in all its reckless, beautiful glory. It’s always there, right on the surface of her face.”

It’s certainly there when she talks about Maleficent, the adaptation of Sleeping Beauty she recently finished shooting. If you were to plot Fanning’s ascension on the Y-axis, it’s the natural next step: the director is first-time filmmaker Robert Stromberg, who won an Oscar for his art direction of Avatar, and she’s starring opposite Angelina Jolie. She’s never been involved in a project with so much CGI, or so much Angelina Jolie, and was clearly overjoyed to have been granted access to both. “It was just crazy, otherworldly. Angelina Jolie!” She cuts herself off and gasps. “I remember meeting her for the first time, and she gave me a big hug and said, ‘We’re going to have so much fun!’ And I was just like, Yay! She’s touching my body!”

Though the characters she embodies on set are generally sad, conflicted, or, in Maleficent, asleep, Fanning says one of the tricks to choosing a project is making sure there’s pleasure in the job. Even when she was too young to choose, she always had a conversation with her parents about whether or not it was going to be fun. It was a simple criterion, but a logical one if you’re suddenly raising two actor-daughters. Preceding Elle and Dakota, there’s no history of dramatic performance in the Fanning lineage. Her parents are both accomplished athletes: Joy played competitive tennis in college and Steve was a minor-league shortstop.

Fanning arrived to the interview accompanied by her mom, a woman with striking, angular features, softened by kind eyes and an easy laugh. Joy waved goodbye to Fanning as we walked into the adjacent room to talk, calling out, “Have fun!” There was not the faintest trace of the prototypical micro-managing stage parent. “You have to think it’s fun. That’s why I like to do it, you know. If you’re not having fun playing the character or with the people, what’s the point? The role definitely has to be something connected to me, and that reaches out to me. But also I want to make sure everyone’s supportive of it, obviously. My family makes sure it’s something I really want to do.”

It’s possible that the family manages to keep it fun by keeping it compartmentalized. Fanning was home-schooled for two years when she was younger, but now attends a high school in North Hollywood that seems to have an impressive, yet grounded student body. (Fanning says there’s one other actor there, and a girl who sometimes travels for tennis tournaments. Dakota graduated two years ago.) It also accommodates her shooting schedule, though she’s quick to put that in context. “When I’m doing movies, it’s only a couple months out of the year. We took five weeks to film Ginger & Rosa, and then I had a whole year to just be at home, back in the routine again, going to school, ballet after school—a whole normal thing. You can’t just be talking about your movie all the time.” She’s a straight-A student with a knack for science, and she talks about her acting career with the exact same verve as when she launches into a short, animated monologue about the history paper she has to write on Fulvia Flacca Bambula, the Roman aristocrat who was famously married to Mark Antony. “Can you believe that name?” she says, sounding it out a few more times for good measure, delighting in the distinct shape of each of the syllables: “FULL-vee-ah! FLAKKA! Bam-BOOL-ah!”

When confronted with the question of how she makes characters feel so lived in, Fanning says she puts little dabs of her personality into each of them, just enough to make her feel comfortable. It’s a fine answer to a stupid question. The problem with asking anyone who has such a deep and natural ability to analyze the individual components of what they do is that it can suck the magic out of the act. Cameron Crowe has a different explanation.“Where does it come from?” he asks. “Upbringing. Her sister. Loving literature. Understanding people. Elle has a journalist’s sense of detail, a poet’s sense of depth, and a 14-year-old girl’s sense of wonder.” Crowe says that during the shoot, he’d often walk up to find several of the older actors casually discussing her, marveling at the qualities she’d developed at such a young age. “We all felt like we were watching a rocket ship filled with creativity, lifting off for a long flight.” [Source]

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