David Fincher. J.J. Abrams. Sofia Coppola. If there’s one thing many of the top filmmakers in Hollywood can agree on, it’s this: Elle Fanning is freakishly talented. And every one of them seems to cough up the same anecdotes on the sprightly blonde. She’ll knock a tense, dramatic sob-scene right out of the park, and as soon as they yell, “CUT!” Fanning will wipe away the tears and scamper off giggling.
Whenever you interview Elle, the silence between each question and answer is punctuated by that infectious giggle—reminding you that, her beguilingly mature screen presence notwithstanding, Dakota’s younger sis is just like any other 16-year-old girl.
In Maleficent, Disney’s $180 million 3D reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, Fanning plays Aurora—a princess caught in the middle of a battle between the peace-seeking moors, led by the titular horned “villainess” (Angelina Jolie), and the warmongering humans, led by King Stefan (Sharlto Copley). To protect the mystical fairyland from human colonization, Maleficent places a curse on the princess, sending her into an eternal sleep on her 16th birthday. The only thing that can wake her is, of course, “true love’s kiss.”
The Daily Beast spoke with Elle Fanning about working with Brangelina, her keen fashion sense, and much more.
How were you cast as Aurora/Sleeping Beauty? This is a pretty iconic character.
I know, it’s so exciting! I heard there was going to be a Maleficent movie and the director, Robert Stromberg, asked to meet with me. So I met with him and Linda Woolverton, who wrote Beauty and the Beast, and they literally offered me the part and handed me the script. It happened really fast.
So you didn’t have to test with Angelina Jolie?
No, I didn’t. The first time I met her we were already in rehearsals and getting everything ready with the costumes. I was so nervous meeting her. We were in Pinewood Studios and I didn’t know I was going to meet her that day, and then I heard the crew whispering, “She’s here! She’s here!” and I thought, “Oh gosh… I guess I’m going to meet her!” So I turned the corner and there she was. She’s a hugger, so we immediately went in for a huge hug and she shook my shoulders and said, “We’re going to have so much fun working together!” and we really did. It’s nice because those nerves after you meet her fade away and you realize she’s just a girl.
"She had her kids on set a lot and you’d look over and see her holding her twins on each hip while she’s all done-up in the horns and cloak."
And Angelina and Brad’s daughter, Vivienne, features in the film as well.
She is. She plays the younger version of Sleeping Beauty in a scene that’s very funny because Maleficent has to be very rude to her, but she isn’t fazed and just smiles right back at her. She calls her “beasty,” which is Maleficent’s nickname for her.
Was the whole Jolie-Pitt clan hanging out all the time on set?
It’s funny because they were. She had her kids on set a lot and you’d look over and see her holding her twins on each hip while she’s all done-up in the horns and cloak, and they were running around a lot because they liked to play on the sets. Brad came around a bit, too. I saw him a few times.
It’s a pretty interesting coincidence that you’re starring in this huge blockbuster now with Angelina, considering one of your earliest roles was playing Brad’s daughter in Babel.
It is! I was so young… I was maybe 6 when I did Babel. It’s funny because I’ve done two movies with Brad technically, but in Babel, even though he played my Dad, I was in Mexico and he was in Morocco, so we had no scenes together. And then in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it was so effects-heavy that I never worked with him there either. We’ve done movies but have never done scenes together!
Angelina got started pretty young, too. Did she give you any career advice?
We didn’t have a sit-down talk about the industry, but from just observing her, she was so specific with her character when it comes to all the details—costume, etc.—and I really took that with me. The character and movie will live with you forever, so you want to make sure it’s the best it can be—especially with an iconic character like Sleeping Beauty.
My favorite Disney movie, I think, is The Little Mermaid. Do you have favorites?
Of the Disney princesses Sleeping Beauty was my favorite because I looked like her the most, so I’d always gravitate towards her items at the toy store. But I also love Dumbo. I love Dumbo. It’s so sad, and I like to cry.
You’ve done a bit of green screen acting before, but Maleficent really looks like it was shot almost entirely in front of green screen.
It was on a different level, for sure. Super 8 had a few green screen scenes, but in them we were interacting with other humans. In this, you’re interacting with little tennis balls that were supposed to be fairies. I had to do all this body scanning as well where you’d stand on this turntable that would slowly spin you and they’d scan you inch-by-inch for every costume or hair change for effects purposes, and you had to stand incredibly still.
In Maleficent, Aurora’s curse kicks in on her 16th birthday. And you recently turned 16. Did you have a crazy Sweet Sixteen party?
Was it MTV-worthy? [Laughs] I just had a dinner, and we did it a couple of months early because I wanted my sister [Dakota] to be there, which really made my birthday go on for a couple of months. It was a girly dinner with lots of flowers at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
You and your sister, Dakota, just seem naturally gifted when it comes to acting. Have you ever wondered where it comes from?
I know, ’cause I come from a huge sports family, so it’s odd that this happened. Growing up, my sister started first and my mom picked up on the fact that she would dress up all the time and put on shows, and she’d perform at a little playhouse in Georgia. From there, people told her, “You need to go to L.A. or New York!” so she went out to L.A. and got I Am Sam, and that’s where everything started. I played her at a younger age in that movie, so it was my first film, too. It’s funny how it happened, but we both fell in love with acting and still love it so much. To me, it doesn’t feel like working. All the research and collaborating you have to do in putting together your look and character, and putting on different masks is fascinating to me.
You’ve also managed to have separate lives outside of Hollywood. A lot of kids just move to L.A. when they’re young and that’s all they know. How do you strike a balance between the “real world” and Tinseltown?
I was home-schooled by my grandma until third grade, and then I told her I wanted to go to a regular school, so I still go to the same school I’ve been going to since I was in fourth grade—now I’m a sophomore—and I’m so glad I did. If you do one movie a year it’s three months out of your life, and for the rest of the time I’m at home doing homework. You need to have that balance and separate the two things.
You’re only 16, but seem to have a very strong fashion sense. When I was 16, I was just wearing jeans and ripped T-shirts. Where does your fashion sense come from?
I think my fashion sense comes from my mom, mostly. She’s very stylish and always told us, “The way you dress is how you want to portray yourself, because it’s what people see the first time they meet you, so what do you want to look like, and what do you want to be?” Fashion is also something fun to experiment with, which I’ve really taken to heart. I love trying on different things and making new discoveries. You can reinvent yourself every morning.
What are some fashion trends you’re high on… and not so high on?
It’s tough. Summer’s coming up and I know it’s going to be so hot here in L.A., so you have to make sure you have very many little dresses and skirts, because you can’t sport jackets or layers. But I prefer to layer with a cute jacket because the more accents and layers you put into an outfit, the more of a sense of self it gives it. The accessories—necklaces, rings, and sandals—will also definitely come into play.