For one still so young, Elle Fanning’s career has been prolific. Having only recently turned 18, Dakota’s younger sister has already racked up 30 movie credits, as well as nine TV appearances. She’s perhaps best known for playing the cherubic Sleeping Beauty opposite Angelina Jolie in Disney’s Maleficent (2014) – but Elle’s not just a Disney Princess. As she takes the lead in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest psychological plaything, The Neon Demon, we profile a talent with a big future.
Fanning is the latest in a stream of precociously talented young actresses, following in the footsteps of Chloë Grace Moretz, Hailee Steinfeld and, perhaps most notably, her sister Dakota. While it would be too simplistic to say that Elle is merely retreading the trail her older sister blazed in the mid-2000s, Dakota has undoubtedly been a key influence. Elle landed her first role playing the younger version of her sister’s character in I Am Sam, and she has freely acknowledged that although her sister hasn’t offered specific advice, the way in which Dakota has managed her career is an example for her to follow: “I’ve grown up with her [Dakota] starting out… I think that just her doing the choices that she’s picked, just watching her is the the advice.”
This implicit advice appears astute as, despite amassing an impressive array of onscreen credits in the last few years, Fanning is pretty much your average teenager. She played football, took singing lessons and did ballet. Even when Hollywood came calling, she took a break from filming The Neon Demon to attend prom night, and recently graduated from high school. She’s still pondering whether to go the college route like peers and her sister, but confesses: “I’m already doing what I want to do.”
Indeed, as Neon Demon hits cinemas, she already has four more features in post-production, including 20th Century Women, in which she stars alongside Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. Such illustrious company is quickly becoming the norm for Fanning, but there’s nothing to suggest she’s phased by it.
This quiet confidence is also reflected in the roles she has chosen. The old-fashioned femininity of Princess Aurora is contrasted with her role in About Ray (2015), in which she plays a teenager who decides to transition from female to male, a role which gave her pause for thought. “I never thought about saying no, but I was so afraid to touch it. What if I don’t do it right? I know transgender kids — I am honoured to help tell their story.”
Boldness is just one aspect which marks her out as unique. Stillness is another. In all of her roles, most notably as Alice Dainard in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011), she has brought a beguiling quality, which Abrams himself called an “other-speciesness”. He, along with Spielberg and both Coppolas, have her marked down as an Oscar winner-in-waiting.
The evidence in Super 8 is a case in point. For all the visual spectacle (and we know how much J.J. likes a good lens flare), it is Fanning’s performance which lingers longest in the mind. The gift of great actors is to convey deep seated emotional struggles, without needing to take refuge in the solace of dialogue. Fanning undoubtedly has this gift. She bewitches not just members of the ensemble cast, but also the audience itself. She even plays a convincing zombie.
If Super 8 was the world’s first glimpse of Fanning’s potential, Ginger & Rosa (2012) saw her come of age. Set in 1960s England, with the threat of nuclear war thick in the air, Fanning plays Ginger, a spirited redhead who attends Ban the Bomb meetings. Despite being younger than the age of the character she played, Fanning was subsequently described as showing a ‘nearly Streepian mixture of poise, intensity and technical precision.’ Once again, it is her powers of subtlety which drew particular praise, as she conveyed in masterly fashion ‘the inner life of a girl witnessing and undergoing tumultuous changes.’
To date, Fanning’s career has been on a steady upward trajectory. She has made very astute choices in the roles she’s taken. Never once has she regurgitated a performance or played safe, electing instead to explore and challenge the limits of her not-inconsiderable talent. There is no greater example of this than her new film about to hit cinemas – The Neon Demon, directed by one of the most provocative and visually imaginative directors around. In terms of statements, it’s a significant one. Elle Fanning is already a veteran of the movie business, but there’s plenty more to come.