I meet Elle Fanning in a London hotel restaurant, where she jumps up to hug me the minute I arrive. It is noon on Sunday, “so should we order breakfast or lunch?” she asks the waiter, who is just as uncertain. He says she probably knows the menu better than he does by now, given that she’s been living here for six months while filming Hulu’s forthcoming show The Great, about Catherine the Great. I tell her I want this interview to be a natural conversation rather than a recitation of a list of questions. “Oh, good,” she says, her blond hair falling onto the straps of her babydoll petticoat dress, a smudge of last night’s mascara under one eye. “Interviews terrify me! No matter how comfortable you feel or how lovely the person, it’s still like, what I say is gonna be out there forever.”
Fanning began her career at age two, playing the younger version of her elder sister, Dakota Fanning, in various screen productions. By the age of four, she was winning her own parts, such as a cheeky preschooler in the Eddie Murphy film Daddy Day Care. (I rewatched it recently; you can already see the talent in the wide-eyed, imaginative kid who seems to be following the script intuitively.) By 2005, she was playing the child of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett’s characters in Babel, reuniting with the pair three years later in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Her grandmother homeschooled her and chaperoned her on film and TV sets. (Her mom did the same with Dakota.) Yet in Fanning’s mind, she tells me, she was still simply playing. At home, initially in Georgia until the family moved to L.A. for the girls’ work, she and Dakota were “always dressing up and having these elaborate fantasies that we would play out,” so she hadn’t fully understood this was also a career. When Fanning was nine and cast as a girl with Tourette’s syndrome in Phoebe in Wonderland, she was taken by the director to meet children with the same condition for research. Something clicked, and she could almost see her future. “I realized, Oh, this is a job, and I’m telling someone’s story, and there is a responsibility of getting it right,” says Fanning.
She is such easy company, with a certain bubbly innocence. You can see why Disney cast her as Princess Aurora against Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. It’s a role she first took on at age 14, but she’s 21 now, and after doing last fall’s sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, she and Jolie are on different terms. “Angelina’s and my relationship definitely changed. She didn’t have to look at me as a kid; she didn’t have to censor what she could talk about.” She laughs. “That was exciting, to have that relationship.”
Fanning might have grown up, but she isn’t sure that her face has. “I look at photos, and I looked the same when I was 11. I’m told I have a very period face. I don’t know what that means. I probably will be 35 and people will still go, Awww! My sister feels that way too because people feel like they’ve known you since you were the six-year-old kid in the film.” It can be frustrating, she says, “because you’re like, you don’t know me.” And yet she admits she can still be that child at times. She has never owned a car (she has a license but doesn’t drive), she lives at home with her mom and grandmother, who expect “Southern manners, Southern hospitality, being gracious,” and she brings her childhood pillow with her everywhere—in the car to the set every morning, on the plane.
The process of growing up is hard for anyone, but for Fanning the teenage years were compounded by living a double life. Some of the time, having given up homeschooling in fourth grade (“I got to the point where I wanted friends my own age”), she would be at a private high school in the Valley, where she found that her eccentric, vintage fashion sense was not welcomed by the other kids. “My mom would let me wear whatever I wanted. I went to a lot of thrift stores and would mix it together, but in high school that’s not the coolest thing.” She attempted to change her look for her classmates: “I tried to wear skinny jeans and a tank top or to look sexy for a bar mitzvah. It just was not me. It didn’t even look good.” So she stuck to secondhand Marilyn Monroe–type halter-neck bathing suits worn under a skirt. “Some people are repulsed by that smell of vintage clothes, but I love it. I think it’s because I’m a very nostalgic person and I daydream a lot. I feel I was possibly born in the wrong era—those old movies, Grace Kelly, so gorgeous, you know,” she says dreamily.
High school was difficult for other reasons, which are relevant to Fanning’s movie All the Bright Places, out this month on Netflix and based on the best-selling YA novel of the same name by Jennifer Niven. Fanning not only costars in it, she is also a producer of the touching, painful movie about two adolescents beset by psychological darkness who fall in love. Suicide is a big topic. “Depression and mental illness in young people is so real, and it’s something people don’t want to talk about and want to shy away from. It has to be out there for people to see it, to get help, to not keep it hidden.”
The film’s director, Brett Haley, tells me, “Elle is, frankly, the best actor of her generation. I say that with all seriousness. She’s also such a gifted technical actor, a film actor. She understands the medium better than almost anyone I’ve ever worked with, and she’s 21 years old. Really great actors are like emotional athletes; she knows how to break up her emotional energy.”
“She’s just got this supernatural talent that effortlessly flows out of her,” echoes Nicole Kidman, her costar in The Beguiled (2017) and How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018). “She has such a well of emotions that she can use; it just sits at her fingertips. Her skin flushes, her eyes light up, her voice changes, her body moves in such a way. She’s sort of like Leonardo DiCaprio, where she’s just had extraordinary talent since the moment she was born. I think she’s been raised with an immense amount of love, which has given her a unique self-confidence. She’s so easy to talk to and be around—and when I see her, I smother her with kisses because she’s so yummy!”
She first read All the Bright Places when she was 16, having been told the author had her in mind to play Violet, a girl who doesn’t know how to go on living after her sister dies. “At that age, I was experiencing first love and, like, relationships and just how impactful it is on your life. That never goes away for people. That first love is so intense and sets up so many things in your life. And also,” she says, pausing, “not to get into it too much, but it was also...not the best...It was kind of a tumultuous relationship. Which can also be very romantic for young people as well. Everything’s so dramatic at that age, so intensified, when you’re young and still developing in a school setting, which is literally the harshest place in the world.”
I get the feeling that high school scared Fanning far more than any film set. She talks about it like she’s still trying to get away from it and from her peer group. Whereas she’s taken with “the grittiness of acting. Let’s just get as dirty as possible. I love the blood. You come home and you’ve got bruises on your body. You’re like, Ahhh, I really worked hard today. I like that feeling. Like I really did something. Because I’m someone who can think about things too much and freeze up.” The red carpet, which would scare others, similarly thrills her. “From a young age, I knew every model’s name on the runway. I was totally looking in magazines, like, That looks good.” And so “the red carpet is a fun place for me. I don’t get anxiety. It’s a creative space where I get to be 100 percent me, not a character. It’s kind of like my soul coming out.” No surprise that she’s been a face of Miu Miu’s fragrance and is currently a face of L’Oréal Paris.
Fanning is clearly a visual, aesthetic person. After every film she makes, she paints a picture of her character and gives it to the director. Instagram is her only social media. “Twitter scares me! Oh my God, Twitter is so intense. Instagram I do enjoy; I have a private account and a public account [3.7 million followers]. I do think there are dangers that I totally fall into, of looking down that rabbit hole, comparing yourself to everybody else and seeing, Oh, their life, that vacation. I try to keep it light and tell fans about movies that are coming out or about a photo shoot. That can get really intense too. People can say they don’t read any comments, but...” She does a disbelieving face, eyebrow raised. “Mmm, yeah, you do! I do! Of course you look! ‘Oh, your ankles look huge.’ What the heck?! It is bizarre, like, who is this person?” She says she ends up feeling bad for the trolls, wondering about their lives. Surely they’re simply jealous of someone who, instead of going to college or scraping by, is currently playing the empress of Russia, with her husband, Peter III, portrayed by Nicholas Hoult. She’s coproducing The Great (created and written by The Favourite cowriter Tony McNamara) too and says it’s “a dark comedy, so fun. Wacky and raunchy and really out there. But I had to go in the rooms and pitch to all of the different studios or streaming companies before we got Hulu. That was daunting. All these guys staring at you.” She’s gotten more confidence, trusts herself more since becoming the youngest juror at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019.
I want to know if all this producing is leading to her directing. “I hope so,” she admits. “Now that I’ve gotten older, I’m much more interested in developing projects and reading material, producing it, maybe not being in it but just getting it made. I really want to direct. I think doing it from such a young age, I learned on the job. I didn’t go to acting school or have formal training or anything; I just watched the crew. So the way the sets work, it fascinates me.” She thinks about this. “But then I’m like, aaargh, oh God. The pressure of it.”
Fanning has worked with a lot of female directors, including Sofia Coppola, “and I will continue to do so because of just how important that is.” She was surprised to discover, when working with Sally Potter on the family drama Molly, out in March, that it was the first time the lead actor, Javier Bardem, had ever been directed by a woman. Still, there’s a bit more acting for now, especially since Kidman advised her not to feel too restricted and to take as many opportunities as she can and to make mistakes if necessary. “Because a lot of people are all, ‘You have to be so delicate. You have to choose this,’ and Nicole is like, ‘It’s OK, you’re young! Freedom!’”
I tell her I can’t wait to see her direct.
“Cool. We’ll be back at this hotel, and I’ll be 35,” she says. “And I will,” she adds, pointing at her beaming, apple-cheeked baby face, “look like this.”
This article originally appears in the February 2020 issue of Marie Claire.
Photographer: Thomas Whiteside / Fashion Editor: J. Errico / Hair: Halley Brisker using L'Oréal at The Wall Group / Makeup: Erin Ayanian Monroe for Cloutier Remix / Manicure: Loui-Marie Ebanks at Jaq Management / Production: Mint Productions