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May 23, 2022
Falling Into a Trance With Elle Fanning

The actor, who has been working since she was two, taps into new powers on two TV shows: season two of The Great and limited series The Girl From Plainville.

In both The Girl From Plainville and The Great, there are moments when a close-up of Elle Fanning’s face takes up the entire frame, her blue eyes staring directly into the camera, emotion rippling through her face as her character comes to a shocking realization. In season two of The Great, it’s when Catherine discovers that her husband, Peter, slept with her mother and then accidentally killed her. In Plainville, it’s when her character, Michelle Carter, is convicted of involuntary manslaughter for using text messages to pressure her boyfriend to commit suicide.

“Now that I’m thinking about it, cameras are always really, really close to my face,” says Fanning with a laugh during our conversation for Little Gold Men. “You kind of have to drown everything out when you’re doing those scenes…. You have to put on blinders, and you’re just like in this trance with the camera. I kind of enjoy those moments.”

It’s not just those brief moments that depend wholly on Fanning—both series only work, and work well, because of the performances that Fanning is able to deliver as the lead. “I think they mark a really special moment in my career,” says the 24-year-old actor, who has been working since two years old, first playing the younger version of her sister Dakota Fanning’s characters in the film I Am Sam and the miniseries Taken. “In child acting, those roles are designed to be observant. I was very conscious of that when I was younger, and I was kind of envious of the other actors that I would work with because they’re getting to be wild and experiment…. These two roles have allowed me to get to take action in a real way—and take action in my career.”

Fanning’s notable career mostly revolved around film as she grew up, but since signing on to The Great, TV has become the priority. Though that means she has less time to shoot movies, it’s a sacrifice she’s happy to make for what felt like a unique opportunity, even if it was for the small (streaming) screen. “I feel like these shows have given me a challenge that no movies that I’ve come across lately have held,” she says. “These characters couldn’t be better in the sense of challenging me.”

In The Great, Fanning plays an outlandish version of the famous Russian ruler Catherine the Great, who overthrows her husband (played by Nicholas Hoult) to rule Russia and attempt to bring it into a new era of education and enlightenment. Through most of the second season, which hit Hulu in November, her character is pregnant, forced to rule a nation while also keeping her troublesome husband in line and dealing with odd pregnancy cravings for dirt and rusty nails. “With Catherine, I felt like my acting muscle—wherever that is or whatever that is or how stupid it sounds—it really grew and I became less embarrassed,” she says. “I really had become a little bit more uninhibited.”

It’s a daring role that demands Fanning commit to some pretty wild story lines, from raunchy sex scenes to deadpan comedic dialogue. Catherine’s pregnancy in the second season added another layer for her to play with, though she was careful to treat it in a way that felt right for the character: “I felt like Catherine isn’t a very maternal person, so I was very aware of not touching my bump too much.”

The Girl From Plainville also takes storytelling risks that could have gone very wrong if it weren’t for Fanning’s ability to handle them. The show bounces through time, showing her character Carter’s trial and then going back to the budding relationship between her and boyfriend Conrad Roy, which—other than a few meetups—took place mostly over text. In order to show the texts, which were so pivotal to the story, the creators decided to have Fanning and Colton Ryan, who plays Roy, act them out opposite each other. “I wondered how this was going to be cinematic. Texting is so boring. I thought, if I have to watch another show with people texting or the bubbles popping up—I can’t do that. That’s not filmmaking to me,” she says. “I was pleasantly surprised when they came up with this device of having us both in the room together.”

As Fanning notes, the texts are taken verbatim from real life, and she and Ryan were given guidelines for their physicality (for example, they weren’t allowed to touch each other in those scenes). “He’d be playing one emotion, I’d be playing another, or interpreting his words in a different way,” she says.

Fanning was also tasked with capturing Carter’s obsession with Glee and the fantasy world she sometimes lived in. In the first episode, we see Fanning as Carter reciting word-for-word a speech Lea Michele’s character gives on the show after her boyfriend dies, and there are even a couple musical numbers in the eight-episode series. On the show, Carter is essentially a chameleon, oftentimes acting differently in front of her family versus her friends versus when she’s alone. “While Elle is playing each of these versions of Michelle, she also has to ground them in one body, one voice, and to find the singular identity that contains all these other ones,” says Liz Hannah, who cocreated the series with Patrick Macmanus. “For my money, there’s no one else who could do what she did.”

Fanning, who is also a producer on the show, spent a lot of time with Hannah and Macmanus debating how to end this story. “You don’t want to tie a ribbon around it and neatly package it away because that’s not what happened,” says Fanning. But you also need to give audiences an ending that feels satisfying. And so, the finale, which aired on May 3, includes an exploration of what could have happened if Carter had not encouraged Conrad to end his life. “It just seemed fitting, there was no other way to get inside of Michelle’s head,” says Fanning, adding that they in the end chose not to show the final phone call that went on between Carter and Roy. “That just did not feel right because no one was there. We don’t know.”

Plainville may be wrapped up now, but there’s no rest for Fanning, who will return to production on The Great (she’s just read the first script for season three) this month. She says she hopes to find another transformational role based on a real person in the near future, but for now she’s not putting too much pressure on her next step beyond The Great. “You can’t come up with the thing that’s going to be next, like with The Great and Plainville, I would’ve never thought that that’s what it would have been for me.” [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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