Elle Fanning Keeps You Guessing

The Emmy-nominated star of The Great talks growing up on-screen and her deep love of Paris Hilton.

Elle Fanning as Paris Hilton from ‘The Simple Life.’
Elle Fanning as Paris Hilton from ‘The Simple Life.’

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

At just 24 years old, Elle Fanning has had a career that would strike envy in the hearts of even the most seasoned actors. Her film credits boast a who’s who of top directors, among them David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), J.J. Abrams (Super 8), Mike Mills (20th Century Women), and Sofia Coppola (Somewhere and The Beguiled). Now, Fanning is conquering television with her Emmy-nominated turn as The Great’s Catherine the Great—a part created by The Favourite’s cowriter Tony McNamara and Fanning’s first leading role on TV. Determined not to be typecast, Fanning followed up the second season of the dark comedy with The Girl From Plainville, Hulu’s limited series in which she transformed into Michelle Carter, the real-life teenager at the center of the texting-suicide case of Conrad Roy. “With each project, I have to go from one drastic thing to the next,” she says. “I want people to expect the unexpected from me, in the words of Big Brother.” It’s an approach that’s proven to be particularly fruitful—so much so, it’s almost easy to forget that she got her start as a toddler, playing a younger version of her sister Dakota’s character in 2001’s I Am Sam. Here, she discusses coming of age on-screen and her respect for one of reality TV’s most iconic duos.

Your sister introduced you to The Simple Life, right?

Right, though every two years or so, I’ll watch the show again. I love Nicole Richie. I love Paris Hilton. I've gotten to meet Paris a couple times, and she is the nicest and coolest. It was so fascinating hearing in Paris’s documentary how she put on this persona for the reality show. It’s quite clever. My sister and I would watch it and act out the scenes. I would normally be Nicole Richie, and she would be Paris. We would say “That’s hot” and “Loves it.” Finally, I get to dress up as Paris and have the dog, because Dakota always had the Chihuahua

You’ve been working for over two decades now. Have you ever felt boxed in by the child actor label?

It’s maybe not so much about the child actor label. As an actor in general, no matter what age, people want to put you in a box and describe the types of roles you should be doing or what you're capable of. That can be hard when you're a child, because you haven't learned your limitations yet. But that really fueled my fire, because I would always try to make the daring choice, to challenge myself and really push the boundaries. Like with The Great and The Girl From Plainville, I had two weeks between those shows, and they are polar opposites. It was such a challenge, going from one set that's a satire comedy to this very raw, real-life-drama, true-crime story.

Speaking of The Great, can you walk through the process of how it came to be?

I did the pilot when I was 20, and now I’m 24. The Favourite hadn’t even come out yet when I read the script for The Great, so I had nothing to compare it to, tonally or comedically. Still, I quickly realized it was the best script I had ever read. [Tony McNamara’s] writing is so genius, so particular and specific. The humor is very much my humor. And I got to come on as a producer, as well.

Elle Fanning as Paris Hilton from ‘The Simple Life.”

Are there ways in which playing Catherine has rubbed off on you personally?

Catherine is different from me, but she's also a part of me. I've never really gotten to come back and play a character again while they're growing and learning. There was something so special with that, because I felt like I had grown and my acting muscles had expanded. I have become less embarrassed and less inhibited as an actor. I've learned so much about myself playing Catherine, and getting to be a producer and being in rooms I wouldn't normally be in. I've become much more opinionated through her, watching how she rules. Sometimes she's right, sometimes she's wrong, but the messiness of her is also why I love her.

Do you think that you'll take on more comedy in the future?

I hope so. Comedy used to scare me and used to be something I thought I wasn’t capable of. My friends would say I have a very specific sense of humor, but I think I’m funny. It’s different, though, when you tell a joke on a show and have to hit a punch line. That was something I had to slowly learn. Nicholas Hoult is so comedically gifted, and he worked with Tony before on The Favourite, so he helped me along.

Before you got the role on The Girl From Plainville, were you a true-crime fan?

My family are big true-crime fans—my mom and sister probably more so than me, to be honest. Whenever there's a new documentary out, we tend to watch and follow those stories. I was 19 when this court case was happening, and I remember seeing Michelle Carter's face on magazines in grocery stores. The media painted the case in a very one-dimensional way, and they definitely villainized her. Not that I agree with what she did, of course. I think Conrad [Roy] was just made to be the victim, which he very much is, but we didn't get to learn about who he was. He just became the boy who committed suicide, and she was labeled as this manipulative black widow. We wanted to make sure that if we were going to tell the story, we actually had a point of view to tell and that we were raising awareness in some way. But the weight of knowing that you're playing a real person was heavy.

What was it like to enter into the mind of someone like that?

I struggled a bit in the beginning to try to find a way in, because I’ve never met her. I didn't feel like it was appropriate to reach out or talk to her. At first, I started thinking about the physicality of her. We have the courtroom footage from YouTube, but that's only one sliver of her life. Her fascination with pop culture—The Fault in Our Stars and Glee—was something that drew me in. I could start to understand her, because there’s nothing in the world more dramatic than a teenage girl.

We also had access to all the text messages between them. They met only a handful of times, so their relationship is all in the texts. Of course, a lot of those messages are extremely dark and intense, but there are other elements that are silly and remind you of that high school, first-love, butterflies feeling. They’re playing word games and telling each other their deepest, darkest secrets. But a lot of emotions get lost in translation over text, and our show really plays with the blurred lines of fantasy and reality, especially in a technological world.

Does being an executive producer change any part of your acting process?

It does a bit. I’ve been on sets from a young age, and I’ve seen other people making the decisions. I’ve always had a fascination with getting a peek behind the scenes and figuring out how things are made. I've wanted to have more of a say for a while. It does add an extra layer of passion, because you get to see the process more, and I was in the editing room a lot, especially with The Girl From Plainville. I could do that for hours and hours, talking to the editors, looking at all the different takes, and figuring out how the puzzle pieces all go together.

Of course, I’m still learning, but I've learned to speak up [more]. I often think, I’m young; they don't need to be listening to me, but then I remind myself, You know what? I’ve been doing this since I was 2, technically. So, I've been on a lot of film sets, and I have seen a lot of things. I’m allowed to make my opinion known at times. I’ve gotten more confident about that.