Elle Fanning Is Our November Cover Star

    check out the full cover story here

    by Kate Williams · October 15, 2015

    Photographed by Olivia Malone

    “I want a fairy garden!” says Elle Fanning, her hands moving through the air like butterflies. “Something magical!” We’re standing in the cooler at Fleurish, a DIY flower studio in Los Angeles, picking out blooms to make our own arrangements. Fall is taking its sweet time to arrive in these parts, but Fanning seems happy to accommodate the 90-plus-degree temps in white Birkenstocks, white denim culottes, and a tiny, vintage floral crop top. Deep in the chill of the refrigerator case, though, it’s more like mid-winter. The 17-year-old actress’s skin is starting to prick with goose bumps, but she’s absorbed in the task at hand, flitting around trying to take in all the textures and colors, from the same kind of flowers that grow in her garden at home (hydrangeas) to alien-looking thistles and ornamental kale.

    Though she originally had set her sights on a wild bouquet, she’s begun to rein it in, settling on green hydrangeas, hot-pink garden roses, pale-peach roses, and another pink flower that looks almost like a daisy. I ask our instructor what it is, and Fanning is delighted with the name. “Astro-mums?” she squeals. No, no, he corrects her—aster mums. “Oh,” she says, only slightly disappointed, “I thought like, astronaut.…"

    Fanning examines the fragrant assortment of polished pinks in her hand. “It’s very rose garden,” she says. And, yes, it is refined, but still magical, because everything Elle Fanning touches turns to pixie dust and spun gold. By the time she puts the finishing touches on her elegant, romantic bouquet—to which she adds a bit of last-minute whimsy with a spray of mini daisies—she’s beaming.

    As we leave the flower shop to grab a bite, she spies her driver (she recently got her license but is still too scared to drive alone—and in L.A., who could blame her?). “We made these floral arrangements!” she yells out to him, brandishing hers in the air like a trophy. 

     Click through the gallery to read the rest of Fanning's cover story.

    Photographed by Olive Malone

    Fanning first appeared on screen at age two, as a younger version of the character played by her older sister, Dakota, in I Am Sam. Since then, she has appeared in more than 30 films, an already staggering number that’s rapidly increasing. This year alone, she plays the title role in About Ray, a film about a transgender teen, alongside Susan Sarandon and Naomi Watts, and Bryan Cranston’s daughter in Trumbo, the story of a Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted as a communist. Both are high-profile projects with complex, grown-up roles that firmly establish her as an adult actress. To say that it’s a big year is an understatement. 

    But it’s an important time in more ways than one—she is, finally, a senior in high school. “We have the senior patio now,” she explains, as one of the perks of finally rising to the top of Campbell Hall. “Only seniors can go on it. Underclassmen are not allowed—they get kicked off. We see an underclassman and we’re like, ‘Go away.’ And we have senior prank day, which is always a surprise. We have to think of something good....”

    The question that always floats around Elle Fanning is “Well, is she normal?” The answer: Yes, but it’s a normalcy she’s worked for. “I was home-schooled, and it was only a short period of time, but I was like, ‘I have no friends,’” she explains. “My parents have known each other since second grade, and they’re still together. They didn’t start dating until college, but they always talk about their high school, and I was like, ‘I have to have that! I want to experience all the proms and be able to talk about that one kid everyone knew.’”

     

    Photographed by Olive Malone

    Dakota and Elle were both born in Georgia, to a tennis-playing mother and a baseball-playing dad, and the family has always been close—their mother traveled to movie sets with Dakota, and grandma went with Elle. “She’s the coolest lady ever,” says Fanning of her grandmother. “She’s young, only 67, and people think she’s my mom, because she has long, blonde hair and blue eyes. And she’s really Southern, so sometimes my accent will come out because of her.” 

    While the Fanning girls may be two of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, they are first and foremost sisters, and, as of late, friends. “We’re four years apart,” says Elle, “and when we were little we would fight all the time. I’m taller, so I would be the one beating her up” [a fact Dakota corroborated in NYLON’s May cover story]. A small smile suggests Elle may be contrite about bullying her sister. Or…maybe not. “It was funny,” she adds. “My sister’s more of an observer. She could look around here and then go home and tell you what everyone was wearing and how they acted. Me, I’m not thinking about their blue shirt, I’m more like, ‘Woooooo!’”

    “Elle is like a gangly, enthusiastic colt, bounding out of rooms, laughing, and full of fun,” says Sarandon, who plays Ray’s grandmother in the upcoming film. “Then, when it’s time to be in character, she settles down with super-sharp focus and is fierce. She invested so much in Ray and his quest for authenticity that it grounds the film. I can’t imagine anyone else in the part.” (Fanning is equally enthusiastic about Sarandon. “Susan is like a legend, you know?” she says. “She’s so hot!”)

    Sarandon’s appraisal is spot-on, as Fanning somehow balances the grace of a ballerina with the exuberance of a clown. There’s a barely visible tomboy lurking beneath her girly-girl exterior, and a backbone that makes it easy to imagine her kicking a few sophomores off the senior patio. 

    Photographed by Olive Malone

    Part of her preparation for the role included talking with transgender teens. “They opened up to me in the most incredible way—I’m just a stranger who’s doing a movie, but they told me their different journeys and even little details like what chest-binder brand is the best one, like, ‘They all suck, but this one’s all right.’ They were so helpful in that way.”

    Gesturing at her crop top, she adds, “Obviously, I wasn’t dressed like this. I would go to lunch, and I wouldn’t change, so I looked like Ray. The waiter would come over, like, ‘Oh, are you done eating, sir?’ The actor in me was like, ‘Yeah!’ Then I thought, ‘Whoa, actually if that happened to Ray, he would be so excited that someone just saw him for himself.’” 

    Fanning’s take on the role has been widely praised—even while the film has been criticized as a missed opportunity to hire a trans actor. She hopes that the movie will help create more opportunities for trans actors in the future. “They should be able to play my part, you know? It should be equal opportunity.”

    Photographed by Olive Malone

    In Trumbo, Fanning plays a more traditional role—a teenager going head-to-head with her absent, if well-meaning, father—though it’s still intense. “There are a lot of fights between Nikki and her dad,” says Fanning. “And I did these scenes with Bryan where I was nervous, but he’s just so funny and warm. Bryan tells a joke and you’re all in. I think everyone wants to be his friend—he’s one of those.”

    Though Fanning may not realize it, she is also one of those; the kind of actor who earns admiration and makes friends wherever she goes—friends and admirers in high places at that. J.J. Abrams, who directed her in 2011’s Super 8, calls her “inherently, eerily brilliant.” “She has a preternatural ability to access authentic emotion like few actresses of any generation,” he says, and adds that she is also very humble: “When has someone so talented been so truly modest?”

    Sofia Coppola, who worked with Fanning on 2010’s Somewhere, echoes Abrams’s sentiments. “She always makes me laugh; she just gets it,” says Coppola. “She never seemed like a mini adult, always a real girl. She loves girly things and is fun, and she’s a great combination of sophisticated but still a kid. I think she’s the real deal, and I look forward to her work as she goes into adult roles.”

    This balance between maturity and youthfulness shows itself in her concerns. She meticulously manages her schedule and reviews it nightly before bed, but also worries about what she’s going to wear to school. “You’re on my calendar right now,” she says, “NYLON interview, 2 p.m. I have color-coordinated pens, and I’ll sit there and cross things off and make sure everything, even my toothbrush, is set up for the next day. At school we have a uniform, but Friday is free dress, so the whole week you’re thinking about what you’re going to wear because that’s the one day people can see your style. If I don’t have it Thursday night, then Friday morning is just not going to come together.”

     

    Photographed by Olive Malone

    Fanning is a fidgeter, and throughout flower arranging and lunch, the black polish on her nails—left over from the previous day’s shoot—has slowly disappeared. “I used to bite my nails awful, but this is pretty good—seeing the white,” she says, holding them out to me to show that they have grown past her fingertips. “But before you saw me, my nails were not chipped, and now they’re chipped.” Today, like most days, she’s not wearing any makeup. “When I go to school, I’ll wear mascara and a little bit of blush, and then sometimes, I’ll just go in and put on red lipstick, and then wipe it off!” she says, laughing. “But it’s fun to do it up!”

    True to what Coppola had said, Fanning is very girly, but she’s also in the midst of a style evolution. “I used to wear long, flowy dresses, like very Virgin Suicides-esque, but now I’m into this Annie Hall look,” she says. “I did a shoot with the Rodarte girls, and in a weird way, it made me fall in love with pants.” 

    She also fell for the spooky stories that the Rodarte sisters—Kate and Laura Mulleavy—shared during the shoot. “They were telling me about this crazy place called the Mystery Spot near Santa Cruz where they grew up. There’s no gravity! The trees grow in spirals because they don’t know which way to grow, and a ball will roll the opposite way, and no one knows why. It’s insane,” she says. “I really want to go there.” 

    Though Fanning admits to watching scary movies with hands over her eyes, she finds herself drawn to things that are weird and slightly dark. “For a long time, I was convinced there was a witch living in my room, because there was this shadow that looked like one, but I was fine with it. She wasn’t mean.” She shrugs. “Even in animated Disney movies, there’s always something dark and scary, and that’s what’s most intriguing. In The Wizard of Oz, the witch was terrifying, but also fascinating. It’s the unknown, not the good girl. With roles, it’s the same way. You want to be an interesting character, a strong character, and not just....” She trails off.

    The princess, I offer.

    “Yeah,” she says. “Exactly.” 

    Photographed by Olive Malone

    She has, actually, done her fair share of playing the princess, most literally in Maleficent, opposite Angelina Jolie who played the kind of witch you wouldn’t want living in your room. “I was nervous to meet her. Just her name!” she says of Jolie. “But she was a huge help right away. Her kids were pretty much always on set, and she was always walking around with the twins on her hip, while she was in costume with the horns and everything. And everyone was calling her Angie!” Fanning leans forward, still shocked. “I was like, ‘What are you doing? Calling her Angie?’ I have to call her by her full name!” 

    Fanning hasn’t yet played a witch, but she will soon play an alien in How to Talk to Girls at Parties, adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story. “I think about them,” she says of extraterrestrials. “I don’t think we’re the only thing in millions of galaxies. Maybe we’ll never meet them, maybe we’ll never know about them, but there has to be something, right? I think so.

    It might seem silly to say this, but talking with Elle Fanning is a lot of fun. In our two hours together, we hardly mention movies. I mean to ask what it was like to work with Brad Pitt, or about her friendship with Scarlett Johansson, but instead get carried away discussing quotidian things, because she approaches everything with a sense of curiosity and un-self-conscious enthusiasm that’s contagious.

    For example, her favorite subject in school is science: “I imagine things a lot, and with science, there are a lot of the things you can’t see, so you have to imagine it to memorize or figure it out,” she says. “That’s exciting to me—because it’s unknown, you have to create it.”

    She prefers the nighttime to the day—“I can definitely stay up really late. The world seems so much bigger when it’s nighttime”—and wants to visit Paris again, though not for fashion shows like her last trip there. “My ballet teacher used to live there and she would talk about how they would be coming back from a night out and would steal croissants and eat them at 3 a.m.,” she says. “That just sounds amazing! I want that.”

    Photographed by Olive Malone

    It’s a pretty cosmopolitan dream for someone who also admits to having “three essential sleeping devices”: a stuffed cocker spaniel named Jessie (“He’s a Ty stuffed animal but not a Beanie Baby, just normal stuffed-animal size”); a bunny named Mr. Purple, which Dakota sewed back up for her when the stuffing fell out; and Waffle, a blue blanket that is made up of “that waffle-y material.” But it also speaks to Fanning’s idiosyncratic spirit: full of adventure but fiercely unwilling to hand over her youth to an industry that too often forces kids to grow up too quickly. 

    Sadly, our conversation comes to a close when her driver returns to pick her up. It’s time for Fanning to go. After all, it’s a Sunday night in Los Angeles, and one of Hollywood’s A-list actresses has a very important thing to tend to: her economics homework. 

    NYLON's November issue hits newsstands October 27. 
     
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