Unlike most actresses I interview, Elle Fanning is someone I’ve met before. During my time working at Rodarte, I spent time with the young teen on the set of photo shoots (like one lensed by Bill Owens), short videos, and fittings for red carpet appearances as she was carving out a path to become A-list star. On set, I would chat with Elle, and with her mother or grandmother, who always accompanied her to the projects she was filming. You could immediately sense how grounded, and very outside the Hollywood norm, they all were. This was perhaps best summed up when one day I received a box filled with a vintage vanity set (an elegant mirror, soapbox, and comb in retro pastel shades) and a handwritten note from Fanning—a rare and thoughtful gesture, especially from someone who didn’t yet have her driver’s license.
Fast-forward to 2019. It’s been at least five years since I’ve worked with Fanning, and her fame has only catapulted. She’s played Princess Aurora opposite Angelina Joie in Maleficent (with an upcoming sequel scheduled for release in October), starred in her second film directed by Sofia Coppola, and has been signed as the face of Miu Miu and L’Oréal.
As I arrive to meet with Fanning, I don’t expect the actress to recall our time working together years earlier, but as she walked in, she turned to give me a hug and one thing is immediately clear—she’s unlike most celebrities I’ve met.
We’re sitting in a room at the Four Seasons, a Beverly Hills hotel backdropped by a palm tree–lined street, where vintage Mercedes convertibles line the valet station and a statue of Marilyn Monroe (fittingly, one of the actress's Hollywood idols) greet guests at the entrance, and Fanning is dressed in a black puffy-sleeved Co dress cascading to her ankles, with pointed black heels, winged eyeliner, and blonde hair sweeping past her shoulders. She is a day away from the L.A. premiere of Teen Spirit and a week from her 21st birthday, and brimming with anticipation for what lies ahead.
When pressed to give us a clue about her red carpet look for the Teen Spirit premiere the next day, Fanning looks down at the dress she’s wearing, and then to me with a glimmer in her eye. “Well, it’s not black,” she says. Though she holds back any hints, she confesses it will be a departure from the looks she wore on the red carpet as a teen. “It’s been fun to experiment with things that maybe I couldn’t wear when I was younger,” she grins.
We continue to chat about fashion, which, for Fanning has always been a point of passion. Rather than feeling pressure when stepping onto a red carpet, she admits that it has always been a welcoming environment that allowed her to develop her aesthetic. “The red carpet was always a very accepting place for me,” she says. “That was a place where I got to experiment with my fashion.”
Ultimately, I spot the look Fanning wears to the premiere the next day: a frothy bubblegum pink lace Rodarte dress from Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s fall 2019 collection worn with a bowed headband in a matching shade. It’s exactly what I could have guessed Fanning would wear.
Photo: Paley Fairman; Styling: Co dress
Fanning’s starring role as Violet Valenski in Teen Spirit, a film produced by La La Land’s Fred Berger, isn’t one she was approached with. Unlike many of the films she has worked on before, this is a project she pursued. I didn’t realize Fanning could sing (really, actually sing) until I sat in a theater for a screening of the film—and it turns out the producers didn’t either.
“I have always wanted to be able to sing in a film because growing up I sang at school all the time,” she says. “Even with this part, I was not on the radar for them to even cast me… I saw a press release about the film and that's when I was like, ‘What is this movie about a girl who tries out for a singing competition?’ So I was the one who had to kind of chase after it and Max [Mingehlla] then was like, ‘Okay. We'll send you the script.’”
We continue to discuss music, performances she saw growing up, and how that translated to the big screen. “My first concert I ever went to was Gwen Stefani when I was nine and in Budapest,” says Fanning, “I think Gwen Stefani would definitely be an idol for Violet.” Leading up to shoot days, other musicians inspired her as well, and she prepared for the film by studying performances of pop artists like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande. “I tried to take from a lot of different artists just as Violet would try to emulate,” she says.
But it’s the parallels between Dua Lipa and her character that strike her most, and ultimately inspire her performance. Violet, a music hopeful who enters a televised singing contest, is the daughter of a Polish immigrant living in a small British town. Fanning explains she’s a lot like Lipa: “Dua’s from England and from a small town there,” she notes, going on to explain that with parents originally from Kosovo, the pop star has a shared background as the child of immigrants. “Funny enough they have a lot of similarities.”
But it wasn’t just singing that drew Fanning to the film—she also felt connected with the character. As Fanning has crossed the divide from teen to adult herself, it’s important to her to play the part of a strong young woman who goes after what she wants, a person that kids can look up to. "I just loved Violet and her character and what she stood for. And she’s a very uncompromising character. She is who she is. I think that's such a great message for young people these days.”
Photo: Paley Fairman; Styling: Co dress
Teen Spirit is released on April 12, 2019.