Southern Elle

Fri, Aug 5, 2011, 01:00

Elle Fanning – the star of JJ Abrams new flick Super 8– likes fried food, “hang-out football” and swears she never talks to her sister, Dakota, about work. TARA BRADYreports

‘OH, HI THERE. It’s so nice to meet you.” The willowy, luminously blonde teenager leaps to her feet in a cloud of floating white fabric and adolescent enthusiasm. At 13, Elle Fanning is Hollywood’s fastest rising star and, factoring in older sister Dakota, part of a grander Hollywood dynasty.

But the Fanning kids are not particularly Hollywood. Born in Georgia and raised Southern Baptist, Elle’s German and Irish bloodlines are sporty, not high tone. Mother Joy was a tennis pro, dad played baseball with the St Louis Cardinals, granddad is Rick Arrington, a quarterback with Philadelphia Eagles during the 1970s, auntie Jill is a sideline reporter for ESPN.

“And I’m the ballet one,” laughs the teen. “Five times a week. I can’t stop.” Is she even old enough to go en pointe? “I’ve been en pointe for two years; can you believe it? My teacher allowed me to go early because I just kept working at strengthening my ankles. I’m definitely sporty: more so than Dakota. I play volleyball too. I’m tall so it’s easier.”

She can’t remember much about Georgia but there’s a residual song of the south in her voice. “We moved out to LA when I was really little,” she sayss. “My mom and my sister went first because Dakota was getting movie work. And the rest of us followed. And people can still hear it a little in me. I think it’s from my grandma who goes with me on all my movies; she has a real southern accent. My mom has it too. And we definitely make really good fried food in my family.”

Her first acting jobs are similarly hazy recollections. She followed her child star sibling Dakota into the business when the director of I Am Samcast the two-year-old Elle as the younger version of her sister’s character.

“I was just there and I do look like my sister and that was that,” she says. “I don’t remember much of it, only flashes. But I remember I was up for it because I got to swing on a swing. I didn’t even know there was a camera rolling.”

By three, she had appeared opposite Sean Penn and Jeff Bridges; by six, she was forging a career independently of her headlining sibling. While Dakota landed plum Shirley Temple placements in Charlotte’s Weband The Cat in the Hat, Elle veered into indie territory and early arthouse credibility. The list of directors she has worked with is humbling: Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher and Sofia Coppola have all given Elle Fanning instruction from behind the camera.

“It’s fun to see how different people work,” notes Elle. “David Fincher is so paged into the details. ‘No, that’s got to go that side’. He likes everything to be perfect and detailed. Sophia is really sweet but raw in the way she directs. Half the time we’d forget we were even shooting a movie.

“With JJ his mind is working in his mind all the time. You can see him over in the corner composing the score in his head.” JJ is JJ Abrams, the creator of TV sensations Lostand Fringeand the director behind 2009’s Star Trekreboot. This summer’s Super 8,Abrams’ attempt to resurrect old-school Spielberg family entertainment, features Elle and a mess of boys in a sci-fi extravaganza pitched somewhere between ETand The Goonies. “I always cry at ET,” says Elle. “Anything with an alien or an animal. This is a little different because it’s a first love story too. I think my generation needs a movie like this. We need a new ET. And I loved making it.

“There were six kids, seven if you count JJ, and I was the only girl. I got to play hang-out football.”

Did she live up to the standards of football expected in a Fanning? “Oh yeah. I scored a touchdown. After that everybody wanted me on their team.”

There’s an endearing incongruity about the younger Ms Fanning. One minute she’s excitedly recounting the last minute dash to find Dakota a prom dress, the next she’s casually talking about Francis Ford Coppola, who cast her in multiple roles in his upcoming Twixt. “But you only think these people are intimidating,” she ventures. “And when you meet them, it’s not Sofia Coppola. It’s just Sofia. I went down to Napa and filmed that entire movie on the Coppola vineyard. He’s like my big Italian grandfather now. He had me making pasta with him.”

Away from movies, Elle loves school and prizes normality. “I did my English final this morning before I came here,” she says. “I have to keep up. Sending us to a regular school was the best decision for us. I have a tutor on set who helps, and keeps in touch with my teachers. You definitely have to work a little harder to keep up with your class, but it’s worth it. I want my friends. I want stories from school I can tell my kids. I want my senior prom.”

What’s her favourite subject? “Science,” she says without hesitation. “I feel, like, because I do dance and acting and music I want to be really studious at school. So I’m a science nerd I guess. It’s fun because when you’re doing movies there’s not really a wrong way or a right way. With science and ballet there are only rights and wrongs.”

She says her school chums are wise enough to her career that they’ll “all head out to Super 8in a big group” but have enough LA weariness to not pay too much heed to her glittering career.

She’s still not old enough to watch many of her films but she is, she assures us, old enough to start calling the shots. “Now I’m older I can read the scripts myself,” she says. “If somebody says ‘oh you should look at this one’. And right after you read it you’ll feel a spark if it’s right. It won’t matter if you don’t get the part, you just know you have to try. If you have to talk about a project or consider its virtues, it’s probably not right for you.”

She laughs at the idea that people would ever recognise her on the street before they’d spot Dakota and swears there is no professional rivalry between them.

“It’s funny,” she giggles. “Everybody asks me. But when we’re at home we’re just at home. We’re not thinking about movies. It’s certainly fun that we both have a grasp of movie lingo and how people talk on set. But she doesn’t give me advice. She’s my older sister and I look up to her, so she influences me that way. But we never talk about work.”

So they never fight? “Are you kidding? We’re sisters. We definitely fight. We just don’t really mean it.”

Super 8is on general release