ELLE FANNING would make more sense if she’d walked into the lobby of the Sunset Tower Hotel with her face pointed toward her steel-capped boots, grim-mouthed and moping behind a flat sheet of blond hair. The characters she has recently played have had a tender, distinctly mid-’90s languidness that recall the combined agita of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Lisbon sisters and the tentative, bruising vulnerability of Angela Chase. Fanning is only 14 years old. Surely she’s experiencing some pubescent anguish.
But on the morning of our interview, Fanning makes her entrance as though she’s morning itself—cheery, optimistic, and with an airy lightness that reaches all corners of the room. She’s lithe and foal-limbed in a long rose floral dress that brushes the round tips of her sensible clogs. Her face is fresh-scrubbed, and possesses a luminous grin that seems almost physically impossible to invert. As she energetically shakes my hand, I find myself searching her clear eyes for some darkness or injury lingering deep inside, closer to her brain. But all I get is clarity and more clarity, the pure goodness of a person who so far has eluded the Bad Feelings brought on by the emotional shifts of adolescence.
Fanning plays the scarlet-haired titular character of her latest film, Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, in which she amply and astoundingly holds her own against Annette Bening, Oliver Platt, and Christina Hendricks. Ginger, a teenager growing up in 1962 London, is so brimming with existential angst, fear of The Bomb, and quiet rage aimed at her parents that in the final explosive scene of the movie, it seems she might actually crack open from unarticulated sadness. Her father (Alessandro Nivola) is fun, but he is also selfish and smug. He has thinly-concealed love affairs, and demands that Ginger call him by his first name. His permissiveness forces Ginger’s mother (Hendricks) to be the bad cop. They fight; they separate. Meanwhile, Ginger’s dearest friend Rosa (Alice Englert)—a girl with whom she shares the type of sticky intimacy that rarely exists outside of teendom—is drifting out of their secret world of matching smocks and infectious giggles.
When Ginger begins to cry at the unbearable lurching caused by all that flux, there are tears, real fat splashers. There is a terrible moment of silence, then comes the flood—hiccupping, wailing, slurping, and heaving. And then another breath, inhaled like someone is choking her. For a second it looks like Fanning might vomit. “I was so nervous about that scene,” says Fanning, who smiles gamely and winds her long hair into a tube. “It’s a monster—12 pages or something crazy like that. In the rehearsals before we’d even started shooting, Christina and I were like, Oh, that scene! And after each day, we’d say, We’re getting closer… When the day finally came, I felt like I was genuinely going to explode, and on the first take I literally just blew up. Maybe it was a combination of the nerves and also listening to the scene play out. Each time we did it, we’d start from the beginning. We filmed it in two days and afterwards, I felt so fresh. It totally got everything out of my body.”
It shouldn’t come as a complete shock that Fanning was able to pull off such a textured depiction of heartache, especially if we subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule that says the key to success is logging that much time focused on a specific task. Her resume is too long to list—she’s currently at 36 projects—which isn’t bad for a person who’s still two years away from her driver’s license.
At nearly 3 years of age, Fanning just so happened to be visiting the set of I Am Sam, in which her sister Dakota (four years Elle’s senior) played the daughter of Sean Penn’s character. The director, Jessie Nelson, needed a an actor to play a younger version of Dakota. “It was so random,” Fanning says. “They were like, ‘You look just like Dakota. Can you come and just swing on this swing with Sean Penn?’ And that was my first acting job.”
She has worked steadily since 2001, booking small but memorable parts in films like Babel, Reservation Road, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There is a hilarious scene in 2004’s The Door in the Floor when a tiny, pajama-clad Fanning walks in on her mother (played by Kim Basinger) in a nude, animal-style embrace with her much younger lover. Fanning begins screaming bloody murder, only to be told by an out-of-breath Basinger that everything is all right, that what she’s just witnessed is an act of love and not violence. She turns off the screams like you’d yank shut a faucet and, satisfied with the explanation, says, “Okay,” then spins on her heel and exits.
Fanning’s breakout roles came in a cluster right around the age of 12,a threshold many child actors fail to cross: they hit puberty, they get bored, directors stop casting them. Best-case scenario, they launch careers as pop or hip-hop musicians. Yet in 2010, Fanning appeared in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, an elegant, sparse film that relied heavily on the young actor’s superb ability to silently and searchingly react to Stephen Dorff ’s character—her father, an aging, narcissistic actor living in the storied Chateau Marmont. Against the superficial environs of Los Angeles, the Chateau, and her father’s Peter Pan life, the humanity of Fanning’s character stood out. The script had just 40 pages of dialogue, but when Fanning crinkled her nose, or widened her eyes to stare glumly off into the middle distance, she was saying everything.