In the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s twisty, dark thriller Neon Demon (in theaters today), Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old aspiring model, inspires both the adulation of industry heavyweights, and the murderous envy of an older model, played by Abbey Lee.
“When I first read the script I thought Sarah was a f—ing sociopath,” Lee, 28, said. “But [by the end] I actually found her to be really vulnerable.”
A former model of the moment herself, Lee worked closely with Refn and the cast to make sure the details and insider dynamics of the industry were accurately portrayed. “He wanted it to be true and real, and do the industry justice,” she explained.
Still, Lee was initially hesitant to take the role, fearing it could be “career suicide” for her as she makes the transition from modeling to acting (her first role was in 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road). “I knew it was a film that was going to get a lot of heat because of the director, so I thought, 'What if I don’t do a good job and it doesn’t work for me?' Then all of a sudden I’ve dug a grave.”
But Lee took the plunge with Refn, the notorious and controversial auteur behind 2011's Drive. After a successful reading with the director, she was called in for a "chemistry read" with Fanning. “I was terrified to think a 17-year-old [Fanning is now 18] could have such say in who got this role, but I had to please her.”
Their connection onscreen is palpable, which can in part be attributed to Refn's unique methods. “Before a scene, he would have you stand and stare at each other for a really long time, and do the same scene over and over, then slower and quieter so it becomes intimate,” Lee explained. And in addition to daily script changes, Refn put out a suggestion box for the crew to offer alternative endings to the film. “Any idea he had was not a done deal. So you either had to very cleverly convince him to give that scene back to you, or give him something better.”
As an actress, Lee will be the first to admit her modeling days come in handy—there's plenty of emotionally and physically trying experiences for her to draw upon while getting into character. There's one particular memory, from a rehearsal for a certain big-name designer’s runway show in Paris. “When you’re a high fashion model in the show circuit, by Paris [the last stop of the major fashion weeks] you are completely debilitated,” Lee said. “It was not humane what they do to girls during that period. I don’t care what anyone says about the fashion industry, it’s hard work. And those dumb videos where you see Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner jumping around a hotel room is bullshit. That’s not how it is at all.”
At the rehearsal, Lee was exhausted, emotionally broken down, and far too thin. The heels that the designer had given the girls kept snapping, causing the models to repeatedly fall down on the runway. After a walkthrough, the designer singled out Lee for no apparent reason, other than the fact that she was directly in front of him. “He pointed his little fat fingers at me and yelled at me for being drunk on the runway, and tried to make me prove to him that I could walk at all by making me walk in flats," Lee recalled. "He humiliated me. To this day I still regret that I didn’t tell the guy to f—ing stick it where the sun don’t shine.”
Clearly, moments like that have marked her, but Lee claims she has found perspective since then, which she attributes to age and experience. As for the advice she wishes she could have given to her 16-year-old self? “Try and love things for pure reasons, and find things to be passionate about. It’s hard for everyone, for me, it’s taken time to learn to love myself. It’s important to remember it doesn’t f—ing matter.”
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Produced by Biel Parklee.