The word prodigy is thrown around Hollywood like a screen door in a hurricane, used as an encomium for acting’s “next big thing(s).”
In the curious case of Elle Fanning, however, the appellative is entirely deserved.
Since making her film debut at age 2, acting in a scene on a swing opposite Sean Penn in the 2001 drama I Am Sam, Fanning has worked with everyone from David Fincher to J.J. Abrams. Ginger & Rosa, in theaters March 15, marks the 14-year-old actress’s first leading role.
Fanning is Ginger, a young teenager in 1962 East London who spends her days playing hooky, smoking fags, and discussing radical politics and mod fashion with her best pal, Rosa (Alice Englert, filmmaker Jane Campion’s daughter). Ginger’s mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks) had her at a young age, leaving the young girl feeling simultaneously frustrated and guilty by her mother’s drab domesticity. Her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), on the other hand, is a charismatic pacifist writer who molds Ginger into a paranoid mini-activist, terrified by the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. When Roland moves out of the house, he embarks on an illicit tryst with the terribly young Rosa, ushering Ginger on the path toward mental breakdown.
Only 12 when she auditioned for the role—and 13 during shooting—Fanning was such a knockout performer that filmmaker Sally Potter (Orlando) modified the screenplay after meeting her, since it called for a 16-year-old in the title role.
“What attracted me to it was all the emotions that Ginger gets to go through because I knew it would be a challenge to portray those emotions—especially ones that I’ve never even felt before,” says Fanning. “I’ve never had to do an accent or change my hair color, so I was in a sense daring myself to go there and try new things.”
Despite her etherealness onscreen, Fanning comes off as a normal, giggly, gregarious teen in conversation—especially if you bring up her first screen kiss, which happened during the very last day of filming Ginger & Rosa. “It was nerve-wracking!” she laughs.
In order to prep for the role of Ginger, the actress spent three to four weeks rehearsing out in East London, and lived in an apartment building with the rest of the crew. While there, she read over the script and formed a strong bond with Englert, telling stories and crafting inside jokes in order to make their “very particular relationship” seem “unique and real.” Fanning also spent several months nailing an East London accent, combing through the script word for word with her dialect coach to the point where she found herself “thinking in that accent while filming,” she says.
And Fanning, who appears in nearly every scene of the film, has received critical raves for her performance, which trade publications like Variety and Indiewire argued is worthy of an Oscar nomination.
As it happens, there is a little Ginger in Fanning.
“I think everyone has a bit of a rebel in them,” says Fanning. “For me, I’ve always been very carefree. I’ll just run down the aisles and do whatever. I don’t look at what people think and that doesn’t matter to me as much, so I just do what I want to do.”
Fanning’s acting career began when she portrayed a younger version of her sister, Dakota, in the aforementioned I Am Sam. Roles soon followed opposite acting titans like Jeff Bridges (The Door in the Floor), Brad Pitt (Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and Joaquin Phoenix (Reservation Road). Slowly but surely, the younger Fanning rose out of her sister’s shadow, developing into a formidable—and singular—onscreen talent. Her turns as a movie star’s neglected daughter in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and as a young girl on the run from an alien in J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 earned her heaps of critical praise.
“I definitely started acting because I saw Dakota doing it, so in that way she sort of guided me,” says Fanning. “She doesn’t give me advice—when we talk, we don’t talk about movies—it’s just a mutual understanding we have. When I’m off on a movie set, she knows exactly what I’m going through.” She pauses, adding, “I feel like she’s older  than me—even though I’m a bit taller, have to get that in there—but there’s no competition between us.”
When the two Fanning girls were growing up, they had active imaginations, playing dress-up together and creating a coterie of imaginary characters with unique speech patterns. One recurring sketch involved an imaginary “fashion house”—think The Devil Wears Prada—with Elle playing the Anne Hathaway/assistant role, and Dakota as an icy designer, similar to Meryl Streep's editrix character in the film.
“We set up this whole desk with a fake phone and my dad’s computer and I would have to get her coffee, but we were too young to drink coffee, so I’d put Coke in a mug,” she says, laughing hysterically. “[Dakota] was horrible! She would make me do crazy things!”
The two gals are similar, however, when it comes to balancing acting and schoolwork. Dakota graduated high school, where she was homecoming queen—“She had the tiara and everything!” exclaims her younger sis, giggling—and currently attends New York University. Elle has a teacher that travels with her while she’s shooting in various countries so she can keep up with her schoolwork, allowing her to slip right back into class when shooting has wrapped.
“My sister has inspired me to go to college,” says Fanning. “I don’t know where I want to go, but now that I’m a high-school freshman you hear about the juniors and seniors talking about where they’ve gotten in and wearing their school sweatshirts. I want to have a school sweatshirt that I wear!”
Yet another thing the two sisters have in common is their huge crush on Ryan Gosling.
“Yes, I have a huge crush on Ryan Gosling,” she says with a laugh. “Ides of March and Drive were on TV back to back recently during a filming break, and I was like, ‘Ryan all the time! This is great!’ My mom also got my sister and me Ryan Gosling coloring books for Christmas. We’ve been coloring him and making sure he looks pretty … not hard to do.”
When asked how the two have stayed so levelheaded and avoided the tabloid culture that chews up and spits out starlets by the handful, Fanning points to their athlete parents—Heather Joy, a former tennis pro, and Steven Fanning, a minor-league baseball player—who keep them grounded. She maintains a very “normal life” when she’s not filming, attending high school, going to ballet classes, and hanging out with friends.
The most trouble she’s gotten into with her parents, she says, is for “wearing something too crazy out.”
“It would definitely be something outrageous where they’d be embarrassed to see me walking next to them,” she says, laughing. “I have this Barbie swimsuit that I wear under things, and it has Barbie’s face all over it. It looks a little Nicki Minaj–ish. Sometimes, I go super granny and wear long, vintage dresses with crazy glasses. My parents accept it, but are sometimes like, ‘Oh, God, that’s what you’re gonna wear?’”
Despite the Barbie swimsuit and “super granny” mode, Fanning has become a fashion muse of sorts, displaying an elegance well beyond her 14 years. She’s pals with Kate and Laura Mulleavy—of Rodarte fame—and was recently featured in Vogue, as well as the cover of New York’'s Fashion Week issue. According to Fanning, her love of fashion is nothing new.
“I had a big dress-up bin and would always pull out clothes,” she says. “I had this tube scarf when I was little and I’d wear it as a dress, sliding my body in the middle of it. I would cut clothes up and ruin shirts and just experiment all the time. I used to hate jeans and never wear them, but I’m really into baggy jeans now. They can’t be skinny jeans—I would never wear skinny jeans—only baggy mom-jeans. I’m also into this Ralph Lauren western-cowboy look right now. I got this really cool cowboy hat in South Africa, and I want to get a big belt with a cowboy on the buckle.”
Fanning recently wrapped filming on Maleficent, a dark take on the Sleeping Beauty story from the perspective of the titular villainess, played by Angelina Jolie.
“She’s the coolest person ever,” says Fanning. “I remember meeting her for the first time in London and I ran up to her, and she gave me a big hug and said, ‘We’re going to have so much fun working together!’ She’s extremely motherly. I feel like if I needed to ask her something, I could. We’re that close.”
She’s currently filming Young Ones in South Africa. Directed by Jake Paltrow, it’s a futuristic thriller that also stars Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) and Michael Shannon. When asked whether she’ll be phoning up her Super 8 director, J.J. Abrams, for a role in his upcoming Star Wars sequel, Fanning chuckles.
“We’ll see!” she says. “I love J.J. so much and I’ll definitely go see it. But after shooting Young Ones, my plan is just to go back to my freshman year! I was in school for a month and just had to go to South Africa for a month, and now I’m excited to be headed back.”