see the full elle fanning cover story from our fall issue
She’s never had Facebook, her Instagram account is set to private and we don’t know a thing about her love life. Elle Fanning is one of the few young Hollywood stars to keep herself to herself. But far from quiet, she’s animated and charming, and she’s...
Elle wears Coat, jacket and trousers Dior. Sneakers Reebok.
Elle Fanning just woke up. A world away from the sparkling Hollywood situation you might naturally picture her in, when we call the 17-year-old she is walking around her LA backyard in her pajamas. Her sister Dakota is due home from college in New York this evening, so Elle and her parents are getting everything ready for her return, turning her room from storage back into her room. According to IMDb, Elle has ten different projects on the go right now. We ask how she's managing it all and she laughs in a way that can only mean she acknowledges how ridiculous her life is. "There's a lot of stuff," she confirms. "I think it's going to be a busy year."
Miraculously, this summer she's not filming anything, so she has enjoyed a more traditional school break for the first time that she can remember. "I'm seeing my friends all the time, going to the beach and just hanging out. And then, you know, doing photoshoots," she giggles; it's infectious. One of those shoots is her first i-D feature, something which took her away from her usual girly Rodarte style to a much more grown-up look. "I think it's my favorite shoot," she says. "It was really, really cool. It was exciting to do something grittier and just go for it." And it's safe to say that the feeling is mutual - i-D's Fashion Director, Alastair McKimm, who styled the shoot, commented: "Elle is amazing. We know her as an outstandingly talented actor but to see her collaborating with Collier on the images was really impressive. She's a cool, cool girl. And a great winker."
Talking of moving into grittier roles, this fall will see Elle go from playing sweet little girls in weird situations (Babel, aged 8; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, aged 10; Somewhere, aged 12; Super 8, aged 13, and so on) to taking on the lead role in About Ray, directed by Gaby Dellal. The story follows a New York teenager as he begins the process of transitioning from female to male, from Ramona to Ray, documenting the highs and lows that come with such a radical shift. We wonder what Elle's experience of the subject was like prior to filming. "At school I have transgender friends," she explains, "we have an LGBT club and a gay-straight alliance. My school is very accepting but I know there are a lot of places that aren't." Elle has attended the private Campbell Hall since she was nine and is about to enter her senior year, which she's super stoked about. "When the movie came along, I knew it was going to be the most challenging thing ever, but I wanted to do it, for my friends and… to educate people."
Such a topic really couldn't have come at a more relevant time. Working alongside Naomi Watts (Ray's mother) and Susan Sarandon (Ray's grandmother), Elle breaks new ground and takes on a role few actors, let alone teenage ones, have had the opportunity to do. But the inevitable backlash did follow. Dellal has spoken out about her reasons for casting the young veteran over a trans actor, and, aside from the mundane but very real fact that financing is so often dependent on the names attached to a project, she has also pointed out that Ray's character is still in the very early stages of transitioning, still in a female body, and still chasing the opportunity to start hormone treatment. Besides, what better way to capture the attention of a whole generation than by telling this important story through a young actor they've grown up with? "I just wanted to be able to do justice to the character," says Elle. "There are so many teens out there who are like Ray, who are struggling like he is." In preparation for the role, Elle had a number of Skype dates with transgender teens and was surprised at how open they were with her. "They were so courageous and brave. I don't think I would be able to tell my story to a stranger over a computer, you know? They were so accepting of every question I asked and really helped me to understand." She also spent a lot of time on transgender teen YouTube channels; watching, listening and learning from the online community as they vlog their way through their individual experiences of taking hormones and explaining everyday struggles.
While Elle is a self-confessed girly girl, Ray is a New York-raised grungy skate kid, and playing such a role called for lessons. "I'd never done it before and I felt like such a cool chick!" she says, beaming. "I definitely want to go back to the place where I learned and visit the guys there. They also taught the actors for Lords of Dogtown and they were super cool." But skating was the easy part… Elle had to get into Ray's mind. "Obviously it was so much more than just being a dude. There were so many complexities, including Ray simply wanting to be noticed as a boy. That's what he wants more than anything." She explains that the role truly made her feel like a different person, and remembers finding it hard to switch back to her own way of walking when they stopped shooting. As she made her way around New York during filming she found herself simply being more like Ray. Staying in costume during lunch breaks, she recounts a situation that really touched her: "I was looking at my menu and the waiter was like, 'What do you want to eat, sir?' and I squealed because I was so excited. I got a little taste of how Ray would feel if he was recognized as a boy." Did she ever experience any negative attention? "Another time, late at night, we went to Starbucks and there were these two big guys outside and they never said anything but they kept looking at me in a strange way. No one had ever looked at me like that before, so I was really curious. You have to wonder if they were thinking, 'Why do you look this way?'" Or maybe they were just wondering why Elle Fanning was dressed like a boy. Either way, her sensitivity is noted and appreciated.
"To me, being transgender is no big deal. Whatever - be who you want. I've always felt that way, but this role came along and now I feel it on a personal level. We really just need to accept everyone." We are living in incredibly exciting times for change, with transgender individuals ruling proudly over social media, the runways, TV, music and film. Trans issues are firmly in the public eye and this can only be a good thing. Elle has particular admiration for Jazz Jennings, the 14-year-old female trans activist, TV star and role model, with whom she presented an award last year and describes as being, "so, so cool." Caitlyn Jenner, too: "I was so excited about her Vanity Fair cover," she says. "And the feedback she's getting online is amazing. It was really brave of her to come out in her 60s and to be herself, it just shows that it's never too late." Elle believes that this is the start of a new wave of acceptance and hopefully, a new way of being. "I think that my kids, and people further into the future, will look back on today and remember people like Caitlyn Jenner, Jazz Jennings and Laverne Cox, who were the first to really bring it into the mainstream in this way."
Elle is one of the few young actors who doesn't document her private life on the internet. It's impressive and seems to be doing the trick as she still has just that — a (relatively) private life. Sure, we've spotted her in the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame — papped out and about in LA, with the captions "Fresh-faced Elle Fanning adds girly glamour to her laid-back ensemble with a designer handbag as she heads to salon appointment", "So 70s! Make-up free Elle Fanning keeps cool in a denim dress" and our favorite, "She's just like us! Elle Fanning has got a craving as she heads to Taco Bell with her mom" - but aside from that drivel, pieced together from nothing because she doesn't give the media a helping hand with their scandalous stories, Elle has retained her privacy. She's never had Facebook, and while she has a private Instagram account for friends and family, she finds it weird that there are fake ones with tens of thousands of fans. Her friends are trying to convince her to go public (think of the followers!) but she finds the concept unattractive. "Will a piece of me go away if I touch that button that makes it public? Who knows?" she says, laughing. "But it just seems like such a hard job. People always have witty captions and great photos and mine does not look like that, at all. Oh, the pressure of being cool…"
Elle Fanning is grounded. Seriously. Massive props to her parents for raising her so right. Despite her unconventional lifestyle, she doesn't feel like she's missing out on anything and feels true to her 17 years. As Annette Bening once told her, "They're movies. There'll always be another movie, but there won't be another high school dance." That's not to say that she doesn't appreciate the perks of her job. "I get to go to a lot of places and experience a lot of things and meet a lot of people. And from a young age I've been around adults on set, so I'm a super social person," she says. "I'll talk to anybody." With her impeccable social skills plus her newfound talent for skateboarding, she's bound to go far. Surely, though, there are significant hints of magical Hollywood lifestyle in her world? "Each time I'm asked to do a photo shoot or go on the red carpet, I'm just as excited as the very first time I was asked because it's like a new adventure. But other times, when I'm at home, like today… nothing's very sparkly about today," she says, laughing.
If a year passes and Elle hasn't done a movie, she starts to get antsy. She yearns to have a character to focus on and spend her free time daydreaming about. "I really hope that I can be an actor forever. That's what I really want to do," she says. In particular, she wants to make a movie with her sister in which they don't play sisters. "And I'd love to direct one day. That would be very exciting." We suggest she kills two birds with one stone and co-direct with Dakota. "No! Oh, my God, we'd get in so many arguments! We'd be like the Cohen Brothers or something… we'd be bickering all the time. I don't know if I could do it." Maybe she could squeeze an extra project in somewhere between filming 20th Century Women with Greta Gerwig and The Neon Demon with Christina Hendricks, Jena Malone and Abbey Lee. Maybe she could also fulfill her dreams of using the skills she learned shooting friends in photography class and document her life on film in preparation for the show she will "maybe one day" put on.
Elle has big goals and we don't doubt for a second that she'll achieve them. With a star that never stops rising, it seems her success has been charted and set. She is the new youth: well-informed, educated in freedom and equality, aware of the draining effect of social media, and enthusiastic about passing on her knowledge. She doesn't get caught up in trying to be cool and she is cool for exactly that reason. If she could give her younger self a warning, what would it be? "Things are going to get super exciting and intense, but hold on for the ride because you can do it… and it's going to be fun."
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Text Francesca Dunn
Photography Collier Schorr
Fashion Director Alastair McKimm
Hair Holli Smith at Total Management using Bumble and bumble
Make-up Lisa Storey at The Wall Group using Chanel AW 2015 and Chanel Body Excellence
Nail technician Ashlie Johnson at The Wall Group using Chanel le Vernis
Set Design Peter Klein at Frank Reps
Digital technician Jon Ervin
Photography assistantce Ram Gibson, Cris-Ian Garcia
Styling assistance Lauren Davis, Katelyn Gray, Sydney Rose Thomas, Isa Kriegeskotte
Hair assistance Nathan Nguyen
Prop assistance Maxim Jezek, Sean Fabi
Production Connect the Dots Inc. Wes Olson, Jane Oh, Cassandra Bickman