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Dec 16, 2021
Elle Fanning is What Makes ‘The Great’ Great

A former child star, Elle Fanning is now taking on a variety of hefty roles—from Empress to alleged murderer-by-text. The actress talks about leading the hit Hulu series The Great, launching a production company with her sister, and more as she fronts L’OFFICIEL’s Winter 2021 global issue.

Even un-made-up, on Zoom, at some ungodly hour in the morning on her one day off that week, Elle Fanning appears to actually be glowing. A steadily-working actor since before she was three years old, at 23 Fanning should, by all accounts, be an absolute menace. And yet, there’s nothing arch or knowing in her manner, no thunderous ego or terrifying riptide of emotional damage to contend with when I meet her virtually in early October. She is among the brightest stars of her generation of performers, and she is kind, loose, funny—in other words, utterly charming. And yes, she has the delicate bone structure of a Disney princess, which she has, in fact, played twice (in Maleficent and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil): truly, it should be very easy to hate her. The only problem? She’s so nice.

Part of this preternatural ease within the Hollywood firmament may be attributed to her upbringing, which was amidst a family of professional athletes. The Fannings prized practice, she says; they understood performance. And her older sister, Dakota—also a child star, whom Elle began her acting career playing a younger version of in scenes for films like I Am Sam, and with whom Elle recently founded a production company—of course went first. Maybe it’s because she grew up on movie sets, says Tony McNamara, the celebrated writer who helms Hulu’s The Great, in which Fanning reprises her role this November as Catherine the Great, a fictionalized version of Russia’s 18th-century Empress. She has a good eye and great instincts, he says, and that’s not always the case. “She makes it look pretty effortless, but it’s a difficult pitch to get to as an actor,” McNamara says of the role, which requires everything from comic pratfalls and raunchy love scenes to handling various disembodied heads. McNamara calls her range “astonishing” and says, “There isn’t much I couldn’t imagine her doing in her career if she wants to. She’s the full package.”

For Fanning, part of the appeal in playing an iconic female leader was getting real. Catherine the Great is not “always the bravest or the strongest, and I think that’s why I was drawn to [her] in the first place,” Fanning says. “You see these feminist stories, and it’s like ‘We’re gonna show a girl on screen and she’s just brave all the time!’ That’s not real life; that’s not showing what a woman is. We can be annoying, and we can be wrong. And yes, she’s powerful, and she’s great, and she’s all those other things, but she has to learn how to contain it in a way that’s going to be productive.” In other words, she has to grow up, which is something Elle Fanning knows a thing or two about doing gracefully in public. “When you’re a child actor you’re normally used as the eyes of the viewer, the moral center of the scene. You’re just watching things happen,” Fanning says. But these days, all eyes are on her.

Here, Fanning speaks with L’OFFICIEL about her next projects, her aspirations beyond acting, and the 70,000 photos she has saved on her phone.

ALESSANDRA CODINHA: We’re here to talk about season two of The Great, but you’re in Savannah right now filming The Girl from Plainville, a Hulu series about the 2015 case in which your character, Michelle Carter, was accused of convincing her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to commit suicide via text. So: how are you with dramatic tone shifts?

ELLE FANNING: It’s been intense! It really could not be more different from The Great, which is dark too, but a satire, and a much lighter set. But I think I’ve always tried to do that, to surprise people with my choices and with the characters I play. It’s a challenge. In my family, it’s all sports backgrounds. Everyone in my family was an athlete. Everyone. My dad played professional baseball, my mom played tennis in college, and my grandfather was a quarterback in the NFL. I think that athleticism is in my blood, that how my family approaches life is very much from an athlete’s point of view. You have to put in the work and the dedication. I feel like when I’m teetering on “I’m so freaked out” or “I’m so scared” about something, that’s when I do my best. It almost feels like you’re pumping yourself up for a race before you do a scene; that’s the mindset. You’re like a racehorse and the gun goes off and you’re like, Okay, let’s do this! I thrive on that feeling.

AC: Tell me about your and Dakota’s new production company, Lewellen Pictures. Are there certain projects you especially want to do together? Are you focusing on female-led projects?

EF: With Lewellen Pictures—named for our late little doggy, Lewellen, she was 14—I’m glad that I have the opportunity to produce a bit and read scripts and maybe not even be in them, just help get them made. We’re interested in seeing different points of view, and shining lights on stories that we can’t be in. We’ve acquired a couple of books.

I was so young on set seeing all these people make films, I just always had this feeling of, That’s the next step! I want to do that one day. I wanna be one of them! What do they see, and how do they put it together? I want to direct so badly.

AC: By the way, I didn’t mean to suggest that you had to focus on female-led projects.

EF: Oh, I know! You know, I’ve worked with actors who are much older than me and they’ve never worked with a female director before. And I was like, you’ve gone this long and not?! Basically my first—not first, but my big breakout role—was Somewhere when I was 11, directed by Sofia Coppola. That was a small intimate film in feeling, but that was a big film, and it’s Sofia Coppola—she only does a few films. So it was a big deal to get that part and be one of “her girls,” you know. And it was a female-driven set! She was in charge. Seeing that as an 11 year old imprints on you, because she’s the woman in charge and everyone’s respecting her. Seeing someone in that position now, it’s not unusual to me. I started out with her and I’ve worked with a lot of female directors since that.

AC: You started strong!

EF: It was a strong start. She’s what you can hope for, or dream of, as a director: that someone can see your film and immediately know it’s you.

AC: She does have a chokehold on a whole aesthetic, that blend of music and fashion literacy especially. Speaking of which, does fashion play an important role in your life?

EF: It actually really does! I’ve felt free to express myself through clothes since I was young, and to try on different styles and not necessarily just go with the trends. I don’t love trends. I see them, and I look out for them, but I’m not going to just wear it because it’s trending. I’ve always had a great respect for clothes and for designers and I think that stemmed from my mom, who’s very chic. She used to take me to thrift stores, and allowed me to mix things like Victorian blouses into my wardrobe and wear them to school. And I was 11 going on red carpets and stuff, inevitably thinking, What am I going to wear, how am I going to present myself, how do I want people to see me that represents my inside but is going to be displayed on my body? And that can be ever-changing. At least I think it is ever-changing for me. I also was embraced by the fashion community, whereas high school and junior high people aren’t going to respect your Opening Ceremony x Rodarte pants. They’re just not.

AC: Not even in LA?

EF: Not even in LA! I wore them like, “You don’t know what these are!” And they were like, “No, we don’t; they’re hideous.” But I knew. And I think because I had gone to shows and I had met Kate and Laura [Mulleavy] from Rodarte, and they took me under their wing, I felt not as embarrassed. I think having that fashion world back you and validate you, that’s all anyone can ever ask for. But there were days when you’re like, “Oh god, should I just wear the skinny jeans and the t-shirt? Do it just because?” And, of course, there were days that I did!

AC: Look, that’s allowed.

EF: Right? That is allowed. Now fashion is just fun. Red carpets are so fun for me. I miss them! I used to spend so much time looking up inspiration for hair and makeup. On blogs, Tumblr, whatever. They’re all over my computer, just like, hundreds of pictures of Sylvie Vartan. Now I’m constantly taking screenshots off Instagram. I have 70,000 photos saved on my phone.

AC: I’m glad you mentioned social media—I recently listened to One Click, the podcast you narrated last spring. It really gets into the dangers of diet culture and how it preys on people’s online insecurities, in the case of DNP [2,4-Dinitrophenol, a chemical used to make explosives in WWI munitions factories, now being sold online as a diet pill] with really awful, lethal results.

EF: I’d never done a podcast before; I narrated it with Jessica Wapner, who wrote the initial January 2020 article [“The Deadly Internet Diet Drug That Cooks People Alive,” which was published in the Daily Beast]. I’m 23, and a lot of the victims who were preyed upon were around my age. And we’ve all experienced that awful feeling of comparing yourself to other people. Social media really is a weapon.

AC: We’ve just seen the Facebook whistleblower come out and talk about studies showing that Instagram makes body issues worse for teen girls. It’s appalling, but I also felt like it was kind of obvious to anyone who has ever used the app, like of course it makes us all feel bad about ourselves! Which in itself is also pretty appalling.

EF: I know. Like, we all could have told you that. The sick thing is that we all still use it! I do! I’m on it all the time. And it’s not all bad; there is a fun side. But it is addicting. It is. And you don’t know what is real or not. It is crazy what people can do to their faces. That tiny nose, the cat eye lift. You can drag the cursor to make your lips bigger or smaller. And young girls are looking at that like, “Okay, they made a filter for my face to look like that, so that’s obviously the ideal, so if you don’t have that, go do a bunch of surgery.” I’m not an overly made up or filtered person. I always prefer a natural look. But hey, if you want to do the other, too, that’s fine! You have to be comfortable in the world. It’s more important to stop comparing, because you’re never going to look like that person, and maybe they don’t even look like that.

AC: Have you ever had any major on-screen transformations?

EF: I’ve changed my hair a lot. It’s been brown, red, and I do pink sometimes. During Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, that was a wig—my real hair underneath was pink. When I wear wigs I’ll normally dye it a color just for fun. For the second season of The Great, Catherine is pregnant, so I have a prosthetic belly.

AC: The Great really is great. It’s smart and dirty—that’s really hard to pull off.

EF: I think it’s because it’s not vulgar; it’s not frat boy humor, you know? It’s sophisticated, a little elevated. I’d never read a script like this in my life! It’s so up my alley. I have a very dark sense of humor. I don’t think people know that about me. I very much push the boundaries of weird. The weirder the better. My sister is always like, “You are a freak.”

AC: Really? I mean that’s something that I feel like lots of sisters say to each other, but you seem like the antithesis of weird.

EF: I’m giggly and smiley and I’m very outgoing—I’m an Aries, whatever that means—but I really love dark, twisted things. I saw Yorgos [Lanthimos]’ movie Dogtooth in junior high, and it was my favorite film ever. And I was like, if I could be in a film like that, my dream would be fulfilled. It’s not even just the darkness of it; it’s the psychology. I hate a cliché. I hate a cliché. Look, clichés are clichés because they work. But any way that you can make it weirder is better. I saw so much opportunity with what Tony McNamara created [with The Great] to be able to do bonkers, unfathomable things.

AC: What’s the most interesting thing to you about Catherine this season?

EF: I think with Catherine coming in first as the outsider, you’re viewing all this craziness from her eyes, but in Season 2 she’s no longer on the outside. She’s at the top, and she’s in power, and once you’ve got the power, you know, what do you do? She’s realizing that she has to become a little bit ruthless. The relationship with Peter [III, Nicholas Hoult’s character] is so complicated, too, I think because of Nick. He plays this awful character that you’re supposed to hate, but he’s very charming and you love him. He balances that line.

AC: You and Nicholas Hoult have great chemistry.

EF: I think we’re very similar—our backgrounds and the trajectory to our careers. He was also a child actor, with About a Boy, and we kind of look at acting with the same approach to the work. We have that comfort level together. You don’t always get that! We’re like, let’s be like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling; we’ll just do things together all the time!

AC: You’ve done Disney princess with Maleficent, iconic historical Empress in The Great, teen murder convict in The Girl from Plainville, and I just heard that you’re going to play Ali MacGraw in Francis and the Godfather…are there any roles left that you’re like, God, will someone please ask me to do that?

EF: I think playing real people, I haven’t done much, but now I’m getting a taste of it. I’m really enjoying emulating a person who we have videos of the way they talk and the way they move. I’m enticed by that. It’s a delicate balance…you don’t want to be a caricature, and you can’t worry if you don’t look exactly like them or sound exactly like them. You can’t really think about that; it has to be on your mind, but you have to let it go and just play the truth of it. I do dream about playing Grace Kelly. I have thought about that. I would have to be older though.

L’OFFICIEL Winter 2021 will hit newsstands on December 15, 2021 and is available to order online here. [Source]

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Current Projects
The Great (TV Series)

Role: Catherine
Release Date: 2020
A royal woman living in rural Austria during the seventeenth century is forced to choose between her own personal happiness and the future of Russia, when she marries an Emperor.

The Nightingale

Role: Isabelle
Release Date: 2023
The lives of two sisters living in France are torn apart at the onset of World War II. Based on Kristin Hannah's novel 'The Nightingale'.

Francis and the Godfather

Role: Ali MacGraw
Release Date: 202?
Young director Francis Ford Coppola faces off against producer Robert Evans during the production of 'The Godfather.'


Role: Stratten
Release Date: 202?
The founder of the all-male strip club, Chippendales, becomes suspicious of the New York choreographer he hired to help turn it into a highly-successful enterprise.

I Am Sybil

Role: Mason
Release Date: 202?
Examines the circumstances surrounding the case of Sybil, one of the first well-known instances of dissociative identity disorder which raised issues of identity and mental health in the public eye.


Role: Unknown
Release Date: 202?
Follows a young man suffering from epilepsy who plots the murders of his dysfunctional family.

A Complete Unknown

Role: Sylvie Russo
Release Date: 202?
A young Bob Dylan shakes up the folk music scene when he plugs in his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
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