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Capone chats with Elle Fanning about THE NEON DEMON, THE BEGUILED, LIVE BY NIGHT and more!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

There are two facts about Elle Fanning that I discovered just before I interviewed her earlier this week that I want you to contemplate: she just turned 18 in April, and she just graduated from high school last week. She has been acting since she was 2 years old, beginning with her first role in I AM SAM, in which she played the two-year-old version of the character her older sister Dakota (who was six at the time) was playing. Since then, she’s had the type of acting career that most people three times her age would be jealous of.

Somehow managing to stay away from teen comedies and horror films, instead the younger Fanning built up a filmography that included such works as Wayne Wang’s BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE; Jeff Garlin’s I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH; Alejandro González Iñárritu’s BABEL; Tony Scott’s DEJA VU; John August’s THE NINES; Terry George’s RESERVATION ROAD; David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON; Sofia Coppola’s SOMEWHERE; J.J. Abrams’ SUPER 8; Cameron Crowe’s WE BOUGHT A ZOO; Francis Ford Coppola’s TWIXT; and Sally Potter’s GINGER & ROSA. In more recent years, she’s gone from extraordinary work in small indie films like LOW DOWN (opposite John Hawkes) to big-budget studio film like MALEFICENT, and everything in between, such as last year’s TRUMBO to the still unreleased ABOUT RAY, in which Fanning plays a transgender boy.

She also has an almost unreal line up of upcoming works either in the can or in pre-production, including HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (directed by John Cameron Mitchell, based on a short story by Neil Gaiman); A STORM IN THE STARS, from director Haifaa Al-Mansour (WADJDA), in which Fanning plays Mary Shelley; 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, co-starring Alia Shawkat and Greta Gerwig; LIVE BY NIGHT, a prohibition-era period piece written and directed by Ben Affleck from a novel by Dennis Lehanne; ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, directed by Miguel Arteta; and perhaps most intriguing, a remake of THE BEGUILED, a reunion with director Sofia Coppola, co-starring Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman.

As you can see, Elle Fanning does not deal in the frivolous. Even in her first foray into horror, THE NEON DEMON, she chooses an unconventional route by teaming with writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (DRIVE), who has constructed a horror film about beauty, set in the fashion world of Los Angeles. Fanning plays 16-year-old, budding young model Jesse, who is quickly becoming the talk of the modeling world among fashion’s power players, and it’s pissing off a lot of other (older) models who are beginning to wonder if their time has passed. The film co-stars an eclectic group of actors, including Jena Malone as Jesse’s make-up artist new friends, and Keanu Reeves as the nasty manager of the motel where Jesse is staying.

THE NEON DEMON is about power, violence, consumption, depravity, narcissism, and corruption of the innocent. It’s a film about shallow people, but it is far from a shallow film, and Fanning’s performance is easily the finest work she’s every done. It’s a divisive work that will either drill into your soul, or it will repulse you so much, you might hate it—or hate yourself for enjoying it as much as you do. I had a chance to sit down with Fanning, and walk through her groundbreaking performance in THE NEON DEMON, and talk a bit about a few things she has coming up. Please enjoy my conversation with Elle Fanning…

Capone: First of all, congratulations on graduating from high school last week.

Elle Fanning: Thank you so much. It’s so weird.

Capone: Did you actually go to the ceremony and do the whole cap-and-gown thing?

EF: Oh, yeah, because I go to a regular high school. It was the day before the L.A. premiere of the movie. We had it at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was really nice. Yeah, the whole cap and gown, the whole class, and I got my diploma.

Capone: I applaud you for making that a priority.

EF: [laughs] Thank you. It was a huge priority.

Capone: Did being a part of this film feel like a transition for you into something very different than what you’d done before?

EF: It’s interesting, because when I was filming the film, it didn’t feel like this big transition. More oddly enough, it feels like that now because I turned 18, I just graduated. It’s funny how the film lined up, because I was 16 when we started filming, and my character was 16 and so it was like “Alright, this makes sense.” Then on set, I turned 17, and in Cannes I had my prom. All these little monumental things in life that do make you “older” as a teenager, they happened during this movie.

So I do think of this movie as a special one in particular because so many things happened at the time, and it is a very different film than I’ve ever done. People say “darker,” yes, but I feel like I have done films that where I play all different types of characters, characters who are not always innocent or happy. People think of MALEFICENT, but that was just one movie. I think because of the genre of it, the way that we filmed it—it’s such a stylistic film, it’s unique in that way and I do think that maybe people will see me in a different light, of course.

Capone: A lot of younger actors start out in horror films. Not only did you not do that, but in this instance, you’ve taken a very unconventional approach to horror with Nicolas. “I’m going to do a horror movie now, but it’s going to be unlike anything that’s been done before.”

EF: A Nic Refn horror movie, yeah. I was already a huge fan of Nic’s films. Movies like THE NEON DEMON are movies that I like to watch, which I think is unexpected. I hadn’t read the script and I didn’t know the story, but I just knew that Nic Refn was doing a film in the fashion world about a teenage model where the girl was the lead, which is so different for him, obviously. He’s the king of blood and violence and total masculinity.

Capone: Not only is the lead a woman, but most of the main cast.

EF: Yeah, women. So it was just surprising and so exciting, and he asked me to come meet with him in L.A. at his house. I walked in and there were princess clothes everywhere, and “Let It Go” was playing, because he has these two little girls and his wife. So I realized he’s surrounded by total femininity. So he explained the story to me, and from right then there was this friendship that we created. It was a connection. I don’t know, it was like a spiritual connection. I read the script, and we started working on the script more because it took this other path. Because the way he films, he films in chronological order, which I had never done. So things were constantly changing, all the time. You were just going by your instincts. I had never felt that power before.

Capone: How did you respond to that by-the-seat-of-your-pants-style of filmmaking?

EF: Obviously, he has his vision that’s very particular. The themes were already set up. The structure, everything is there, but then he allows for this creative bubble. I daydream a lot and think about things, but you don’t necessarily always get to express those thoughts or images, because you don’t film in chronological order, so you’re tied down to things, or the director is just very, very much about “You can’t change anything, and this is how it’s going to be.” But with Nic, yes, he’s a strong authority, but you felt like it was such a team collaboration with us, that you’re on this ride, which I love. Now I’m like “I don’t want to do a movie any other way.” I think that the spontaneousness, that adrenaline, I love the rush of it. So you can get like addicted to it, which I found. It was fantastic. I think for this movie, it worked very, very well.

Capone: Do you remember specific instances of things that you added to the character or suggestions you made that weren’t there originally that made it into the film?

EF: Oh, yeah. It was all the time. I could probably pick out little things in every scene, really. I would come to set in the morning, and he’d be like, “So what do you want to do?” It gave me this power—where do you want to stand? He would take what you said and integrate it into what he thinks. But it’s also like, I’m from Georgia, and I moved to L.A., so we made Jesse from Georgia. That’s just like a little thing. Even certain ways…like the way we talk as a teenager. I would be like, “I would never say that” or “I would never wear that,” and he’d be like, “Okay, great. We won’t do that.”

Capone: I remember hearing Ryan Gosling talk about when Nic first pitched him DRIVE, and it ended up being a pitch of something that never was actually in the film at all.

EF: Oh, yeah. I heard that.

Capone: You said you didn’t read the script before you met with him, so what was his description of the film in that initial meeting?

EF: It was basically “It’s a horror film about beauty,” because it’s not a fashion film at all. It’s not even a critique on the fashion world. It’s about beauty, and the fashion industry is a beautiful world, so set it there. So he asked me when I met him for the first time, “Do you think you’re beautiful?” That’s such an uncomfortable question.

Capone: That’s a weighty question.

EF: I know, and that question summarizes our movie, because it’s such a taboo, because you think “If I answer, I seem like a narcissist,” which is what Jesse becomes, but then there’s a side to it where society wants you to love yourself. They want you to say you’re beautiful. You should think you’re beautiful, but there’s a fine line there.

But it’s interesting, because I think my generation is more comfortable with answering the question and saying yes. In the Instagram world that we live in with social media, you’re constantly taking selfies of yourself or comparing yourself to other people. My friends have apps where you can make yourself skinny. It’s insane. It’s scary. That’s what’s terrifying, because we’re looking at these photos. A big theme in the film is death and beauty. The opening shot, that’s what it is. That summarizes it. It’s like you’re looking at these photos that are dead. They’re lifeless pixels, and that’s what’s beautiful. So when people see a normal human in the flesh, they don’t know how to respond almost.

Capone: Was it weird being in a movie where they’re not just telling you that you’re beautiful, they’re telling you that you’ve got something that goes beyond that. You’re like the new “It” girl. They’re laying it on pretty thick. How long did it take to get used to it?

EF: I know, right? Obviously, of course it’s just a film and it’s a very exaggerated version, and it’s also about, yes it’s her physicality, but all the girls are gorgeous, but it’s also about that fairytale virgin pureness that’s also equally as enticing. I can relate to being the youngest person. I started acting when I was very young, so I understand that youth aura thing, where you’re the youngest person in the room, and they look at you in a way that’s like “What are you? What is your intention?” And you’re naive to it. So I could relate to that. But also it’s crazy to think of “the thing” that she might possess. But Jesse, I don’t look at her as a human; she’s more of a creature. She’s like the poison, actually. She’s not a victim at all. We said she’s like Dorothy in Oz, but if Dorothy were evil.

Capone: You mentioned earlier something about the roles you’ve chosen over the years, and looking over the films that you’ve done, you’ve done a great job not repeated yourself. Has that been by design?

EF: I really like the challenge of acting. I would never want to do something that’s easy. I would never chose something that’s easy, really. Both of my parents are athletes. I don’t know if it’s a…not a competitive side, but a very disciplined side to me. And I guess I go with the things that I personally connect to, with characters that have substance. I also like going from one movie that’s this way to the next that’s totally, totally different. I think the movie I did before THE NEON DEMON was ABOUT RAY, which hasn’t come out yet, in which I play a transgender boy, and now I'm in the fashion industry. How opposite those are from each other is very exciting.

Capone: I do want to talk about a couple of things you’ve got coming up. I’m really intrigued that you’re doing THE BEGUILED with Sofia Coppola.

EF: Yeah, yeah.

Capone: That’s one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies.

EF: Really?! That’s so funny.

Capone: It’s so weird and so creepy. Do you know yet what her take on it is going to be?

EF: I think Sofia is still working on it, but I’m very excited to do it with Kirsten Dunst, who is a friend, and Sofia is obviously a friend. She’s like a older sister to me in a way, because I did SOMEWHERE when I was 11 with her. We’ve always been looking for something else to do with each other. And then I did another movie with Nicole Kidman, which should be coming out next year, and she’s in it as well.

Capone: She’s a great choice for the head mistress.

EF: Yeah, Sofia with all her blondes [laughs].

Capone: The other one they made an announcement about either yesterday or today—LIVE BY NIGHT, the Ben Affleck film, which they’re now releasing much earlier, presumably for Oscar consideration. Tell me what you do in that one. I know it’s a Dennis Lehane book again.

EF: It is based on the book, LIVE BY NIGHT. Ben wrote it, he directed it, he’s staring in it. The whole experience of that was a very special experience. I want to direct, so seeing him be an actor and directing was very inspiring. As for the film itself, the character I play—again, very, very different. I play Loretta Figgis. She becomes a heroine addict, then she comes back, then she’s a preacher at a revival tent. It’s set in the ’20s during Prohibition. I can’t wait. I haven’t seen it yet.

Capone: Sienna Miller’s in that too, right?

EF: She is. We don’t have any scenes together, but yeah. Zoe Saldana’s in it as well.

Capone: I talked to her awhile ago, and it just occurred to me when you said it was a Prohibition-era film, that I talked to her about it. And the last one I want to ask you about is the one you made with John Cameron Mitchell.

EF: Yeah, that’s with Nicole.

Capone: Right. The Neil Gaiman story is so great.

EF: Yeah. And John is so cool. It’s like a punk, alien “Romeo and Juliet” kind of. It’s really cool.

Capone: Alright, I will see you tonight [Fanning, Refn and I did a Q&A screening for THE NEON DEMON later that night]. And hopefully you won't get a similar response to what happened at Cannes [where some audience members booed the film].

EF: Yeah, well that was good and bad, because then we got a 17-minute standing ovation.

Capone: Isn’t getting booed at Cannes a badge of honor?

EF: I know. I heard that PULP FICTION got booed at Cannes too. It’s so crazy. It’s true.

Capone: And Nicolas probably loves it.

EF: Oh, loves it. Thanks. See you later.

-- Steve Prokopy
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