The former child star, who is now 24 and garnering career-best notices for her work on a Hulu comedy series and limited series, reflects on growing up in the industry alongside Dakota, when she took ownership of her career and what led her to projects on the small screen.
Elle Fanning is a gifted actress who is already a widely respected veteran at the age of just 24. She is the younger of two sisters — Dakota is four years older — who both made tremendous impressions as child performers en route to impressive careers as young adults, with no major personal bumps along the way. Of her work on the big screen, she is perhaps best known for 2010’s Somewhere and 2017’s The Beguiled, both directed by Sofia Coppola. But she has also starred in films big and small under the direction of, among others, Francis Ford Coppola, J.J. Abrams, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David Fincher, Cameron Crowe, Sally Potter, Jay Roach, Mike Mills, Nicolas Winding Refn, John Cameron Mitchell, Tony Scott, Terry George, Ben Affleck and Woody Allen.
This year, Fanning played substantial parts on and executive produced two TV programs, both for Hulu, and both of which could bring her Emmy nominations to go with four prior Critics Choice Award noms, two Golden Globe Award noms, one Spirit Award nom and one SAG Award nom. The first is The Great, a comedy series on which she portrays Catherine the Great, who arrived at the Russian court of Emperor Peter III with a twinkly eyed vision of life as his wife, mother of his heir and reformer of an empire, only to get a rude awakening. And the second is The Girl From Plainville, a limited series on which she portrays Michelle Carter, a high school student in Massachusetts who encouraged her own boyfriend to kill himself, and then, after he did so in 2014, wound up on trial for involuntary manslaughter.
During a recent episode of THR’s Awards Chatter podcast, Fanning reflected on all of the above and more. You can listen to the full conversation or read excerpts of it below.
Where you were born and raised, what did your folks do for living?
I was born in Decatur, Georgia. My mom played tennis in college. My dad was a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals. And my mom’s dad was a quarterback in the NFL for the Eagles. Everyone was very sports-affiliated.
When you were still a baby, your family left the South and moved to L.A. What brought that about?
Basically, my sister was put in a lot of activities. My mom wanted her to find her thing. She tried out soccer, she played the violin for a bit, and one of the activities was this play camp. My sister was five, and she has a photographic memory, so she could memorize all of the lines and was just kind of this wonder child. They told my mom that she might do good at commercials, or print, or get a movie, who knows, so you should go to New York or L.A. My aunt, my mom’s sister, already lived in L.A., so my mom was like, “We can go visit your aunt and see how this works.” So my mom and my sister went to L.A., my dad and I stayed in Georgia, and my sister ended up getting 10 commercials in a week. My mom called my dad and was like, “We’re not coming back to Georgia for a while.” And so I flew out to L.A. and we never went back.
How did you wind up alongside your sister in your first movie, I Am Sam, in 2001?
I would come to the set a lot because my mom had to take care of both of us, so Jessie Nelson, the director, knew me. I was 2, I think, and they needed a little girl for a flashback scene. They’re like, “Oh, let’s just use Elle! Is that OK?” And my mom was like, “Fine. She obviously looks like Dakota.” So they put me in a little costume and I had to swing on a swing with Sean Penn and sleep in the grass. That was my big debut.
You and Dakota both, of course, continued to appear in larger parts over the next few years. Let’s just pause for a moment to note: Neither of you ever took an acting lesson?
No, we didn’t do any formal training or anything like that, so basically our whole learning experience was working with big actors and directors, on the spot.