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Apr 6, 2022
Elle Fanning On The Great, The Girl From Plainville…

From her early years of child stardom to her current status as a leading lady, ELLE FANNING has achieved more than many actors twice her age. She has flexed comedic muscles as an empress in The Great – which garnered her two Golden Globe nominations – launched a production company with her sister Dakota, and is now stepping into the role of a convicted criminal. Here, the actor talks to MARTHA HAYES about defying expectations and why she’s cautious of the pernicious power of social media

Elle Fanning is reminiscing about the mid-2000s, when she and her older sister Dakota would get mobbed walking around Universal Studios in Hollywood. “If one person saw Dakota [then a child star known for her roles in Uptown Girls and Charlotte’s Web], it was a spiral effect,” she shares over lunch at a Los Angeles deli close to her home in the Valley.

“I wasn’t getting recognized, but I was part of the madness. I’d be like, ‘Dakota! Dakota!’ to try and make it happen.” She rolls her eyes, visibly cringing at her seven-year-old self. “I was the worst.”

By the time she was 12, Fanning – who made her screen debut aged two playing a younger version of Dakota’s character in I Am Sam (2001) – had a dedicated fan base of her own, following her breakout roles in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi smash hit Super 8. In the past decade, she has gone on to cultivate a career many veteran actors only dream about, starring in multi-million-dollar blockbusters (such as Maleficent and its sequel) and working with respected art-house auteurs, such as Nicolas Winding Refn in psychological horror The Neon Demon.

Now Fanning is turning 25, it would be clichéd to call this stage of her career a ‘coming of age’ – nevertheless, she has certainly hit a new era. She can now play a mother; she can still play a schoolgirl. And this year she is doing both. The former is, of course, the role of Catherine, the 18th-century Empress of Russia in satirical drama The Great, which has been confirmed for a third series and for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. The latter is the lead in the true-crime drama The Girl from Plainville.

The eight-part series, based on an article by Esquire journalist Jesse Barron, is a chilling dramatization of the events leading up to the death of American teenager Conrad Roy in 2014 and the involuntary-manslaughter conviction of his girlfriend Michelle Carter, in what became known as the ‘texting suicide case’.

Fanning’s career-defining portrayal of Carter is unnervingly exact, down to an uncanny physical transformation. “At first I was like, ‘Is this something I want to do?’” she says of taking on the role. “I really had to think on that, because these are real peoples’ lives.” Her decision came down to the drama presenting an unbiased point of view of the case: “We’re not saying we know exactly what happened.” And it was for that reason she says it didn’t “feel appropriate” to meet Carter.

The show gives a unique exploration into the mental health of young people and the impact that social media can have. “It was a very intense place to live in that headspace. It felt very full-on,” Fanning says.

If she sounds particularly invested in the series, it’s partly because she is also an executive producer (as she is on The Great), having set up a production company, Lewellen Pictures – named after her family’s late dog – with Dakota during the pandemic.

“For so long I’ve wanted to go behind the scenes,” she shares. “In Hollywood right now, there are so many women – like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman – who are doing that, and when I’ve talked to [them], they’ve said, ‘Acquire your own material; find what you love and try to make it happen.’ We can break the mold of, ‘Am I going to get picked for this part?’ and tell our own stories.”

The business side has been a learning curve. “I’m a pretty social, confident person in general, but you have to learn to put on a different hat, which took some time,” she says, recalling a recent pitch meeting with executives. “I could feel a little bit of, ‘OK, this person’s so young; why are they telling me..?’ It’s like, ‘Yes, that’s true,’ but then I’m like, ‘You know what? I’ve been working since I was two.’ I’ve started to come into my own a little more and have learned not to apologize for my age.”

Fanning was born in Georgia but moved to Los Angeles aged two, when Dakota’s film career took off. She attended Campbell Hall school in Studio City, which she describes as a “normal high school”, albeit one with Hollywood offspring and actors like Modern Family star Ariel Winter in her class. “Facebook was the big thing, but I wasn’t allowed it growing up, and that’s where everyone would get invites to parties… I was the dork who’d be like, ‘Wait, is there a party?’, and I’d need to get the details texted to me.”

Having been home-schooled until she was nine, the actor – whose mother was a professional tennis player, and her father, a salesman (and former minor-league baseball player) – recalls her nerves about starting high school.

“I remember being like, ‘OK, I have to raise my hand and answer the question.’ I felt like I was in a movie, playing a character. But I’m happy I went to school. I would have been sad if I hadn’t had those milestones of prom and navigating the social terrain of high school.”

Just before the pandemic, Fanning was due to start filming on World War Two movie The Nightingale alongside Dakota. Whether or not the project will go ahead now remains uncertain, but one thing is for sure – the sisters’ first time appearing together on screen isn’t something they are taking lightly.

“It’s a very rare and special thing that we both do this,” she says. “We can’t have the first time over again, so we want it to be the right thing.”

In an industry that loves to pit women against each other, they are “very, very close, and we balance each other out in a very specific way,” explains Fanning, who is younger by four years and currently lives with their mother, while Dakota has her own place around the corner.

Fanning spoke to a psychic recently (“I’ll call them and… it’s like a silly thing, but I use a different name,” she says), who told her that the sisters are like yin and yang because Dakota is from the future and Elle is from the past. “She was like, ‘Your sister is an alien; she’s a little further along than everyone else.’ I’m from the past, which makes sense… I don’t really feel like I fit into this TikTok time, where everything is on display. I love the feeling of mystery.”

Fanning feels well aware of the pitfalls of social media. “I’ve felt myself going down a rabbit hole, when you’re hate-scrolling and comparing yourself to people on vacation and you’re like, ‘I should be doing more!’” On her own Instagram, she posts everything from hilarious behind-the-scenes snapshots to the details of her coveted red-carpet looks – “I’m taking more risks,” she says of the Gucci suit she wore to the SAG Awards. Today, she is in Gucci again – a cream cardigan – complemented by a white T-shirt and cream pants from The Row. “I always like to feel put together.”

Later this spring, she will head back to London to film season three of The Great. As former child actors, she and co-star Nicholas Hoult bonded instantly. And yes, they have as much fun on set filming those raucous scenes as you might imagine. “We don’t get the scripts far in advance,” she explains. “There was this cunnilingus scene in season two and I hadn’t read the script yet, but Nick thought I had. He texts me, ‘Clitty bitty,’ and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?!’ And he’s like, ‘Uh-oh, it’s kind of different if you haven’t read the scene!’”

Ultimately, and with the backing of her production company, the future for Fanning is all about taking control and keeping her career choices interesting and unexpected. “You don’t dictate your own success in this industry; it’s judged by other people, which I’ve had to wrap my head around because I’m a very independent person and I don’t want to be put into a box of what other people think I am.”

She picks up her leftovers as we say goodbye before she disappears into a blacked-out SUV. “I just want to run around freely.” [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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