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Jan 20, 2024
Elle Fanning’s Broadway Debut Was a Baptism by Fire

The star says goodbye to The Great and hello the Great White Way in the new family drama, Appropriate.

Elle Fanning is sitting in her dressing room at The Hayes Theater in New York City, struggling to communicate with a delivery man dropping off her dinner. It’s the smallest theater on Broadway, according to the actress, but her Postmates driver cannot seem to find her. She’s taken a pause on discussing her latest project—a role alongside Sarah Paulson and Corey Stoll in the new Broadway family drama, Appropriate—to wrangle the sushi order. Understandably, she’s a bit distracted.

In fact, there are a lot of things on Fanning’s mind when she sits down for a video call with W from her dressing room, which she shares with another Appropriate costar, Succession’s Natalie Gold. The 25-year-old is busy painting her nails black for the performance that evening. “I have to do my own hair and makeup,” she says between swipes. “They really trust you on Broadway.” This is just one of the many aspects of live theater Fanning has learned during her time working on Appropriate. Despite making her acting debut at just three years old as a younger version of her sister, Dakota Fanning, in the 2001 film I Am Sam, Fanning never got the opportunity to take her career onto the stage in the 22 years since.

Then, about eight months ago, the script for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s show came across her desk. Fanning immediately put it to the side, assuming her schedule wouldn’t allow for Broadway—she was, after all, fully booked with her Hulu show, The Great, plus her upcoming Timothée Chalamet-led Bob Dylan biopic, A Complete Unknown. “I was upset because it was so undeniably good,” she says of the script. “Just one of the best things I’d ever read.”

Jacobs-Jenkins’s play, which first debuted at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2013, is a classic dysfunctional family drama in the vein of Tennessee Williams and Tracy Letts. Appropriate tells the story of the three Lafayette siblings who descend on their father’s cluttered Arkansas plantation following his death. As the family cleans out the house, they discover some egregious items, forcing them to rethink everything they thought they knew about their father.

Watching the Lila Neugebauer-directed production, which officially opens on December 18, one can understand why Fanning felt disappointed at the idea of missing out on acting in the show. It’s a gripping two-and-a-half-hour drama that expertly explores themes of familial ties, buried trauma, and normalized racism. But when her schedule fell open—due in part to the recent cancellation of The Great—she was able to fulfill one of her dreams and get on stage. “It just slid in perfectly,” Fanning says of the show’s scheduled run. “I was like, ‘This is my time. Bring me to Broadway.’”

In Appropriate, Fanning plays River, an impressively positive, spiritual vegan who starts off the show by cleansing the stage with sage. River is engaged to the youngest Lafayette sibling, Franz (née Frank), portrayed by Michael Esper, who hasn’t talked to his siblings in a decade. On the insistence of River (and as part of his 12-step rehabilitation program), Franz returns with his young fiancée on his arm to reconnect with his siblings and make amends.

In many ways, Fanning’s River provides some lightness to the otherwise heavy subject matter in Appropriate. Her one-liners allow for some sitcom-adjacent laughter, and her repartee with Cassidy—Alyssa Emily Marvin’s cynical teenager—over the facts of life will make you consider seeing a shaman yourself.

“She can easily be written off, especially in the beginning,” Fanning says of her peace-loving character. But Fanning has found more layers in the role. “She honestly might be the most level-headed person in the play.” And there’s truth to that: at times, this outsider is the voice of reason among the dueling siblings, teaching characters twice her age about the importance of forgiveness, both for yourself and others. “The things she talks about are actually quite beautiful,” Fanning adds.

Fanning also has the pleasure of going toe-to-toe with Paulson’s callous Toni in the second act, speaking truth to the menacing character while Toni’s brothers cower under her dominance. “River challenges Toni in a way that other characters don’t,” Fanning says. “River’s just giving it to her and not backing down, where Toni is used to people being scared of her.”

Of course, off stage, the relationship between Paulson and Fanning is less fraught. Paulson helped Fanning prepare for her Broadway debut, from reminding her of the difference between upstage and downstage to reassuring the young star that, yes, everything will be audience-ready in time for previews. “We had a week left of rehearsals and I was genuinely so nervous,” Fanning says, asking Paulson how everything could possibly come together in such a short amount of time. “Sarah found that so funny because she’s like, ‘It just does.’ But I’m new to this process.” That’s also why Fanning was dubious when Neugebauer informed her they would have just four weeks of rehearsals before previews began. (“Apparently that’s normal,” Fanning says.) By the time the first preview rolled around on November 29, Fanning was “backstage and hearing the buzz of the audience,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, there are people out there.’ I just reminded myself, ‘You know this. You can do this. Have fun.’”

Of course, not every performance has been perfect. Fanning laughs as she thinks back to a recent moment when both she and Paulson broke character during a serious scene. “Sarah made a funny face, and the audience responded to her,” Fanning says. “Their laugh was so loud, it was so infectious, and I just broke.” But instances like that one prove the advantages of Broadway: “If something does go wrong, you get to do it again the next day,” Fanning says. “After you film a scene for a movie, you go to bed and think, ‘Oh no, I should have done that differently,’ but it’s over, there’s no turning back.”

For now, Fanning will remain in New York City, where she will star in eight shows a week until Appropriate closes on March 3, at which point she will begin production on James Mangold’s aforementioned A Complete Unknown. In it, Fanning plays Sylvie Russo, a university student and artist who had a brief relationship with Bob Dylan in the early ’60s. Also on her plate is a project based on Paris Hilton’s memoir, which the admitted The Simple Life fan bought the rights to along with her sister.

One project the actress will not be returning to is The Great, in which she portrayed Catherine the Great for three seasons ahead of its cancellation this past August. Of course, Fanning is sad to say goodbye to the strong-willed empress, but she is at least pleased with how the series concluded. “I was actually very satisfied with the way Catherine ended things,” she says. “My last line of the show is, ‘Destiny didn’t do it. I did it,’ which ties up the series so nicely.” It also helps that Fanning has received a Golden Globe nomination for her work on The Great, her third in three seasons. “It’s a nice, final huzzah to celebrate Catherine,” she says of the nomination, which she adds was unexpected. “I woke up the morning of the nominations and I didn’t know it was happening. I had so many texts and I was like, ‘This is either something really bad or really good.’”

Despite the arguably untimely cancellation, Fanning doesn’t think her moment with the Russian monarch is totally over. “Maybe when I’m in my 40s, we can explore another chapter of Catherine’s story,” she says. At the present, though, Fanning’s plate is full—with a buzzy Broadway show, an awards-bound biopic, some black nail polish—and, if she can find the deliveryman, a sushi dinner. [Source]

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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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