Young, sweet and with a face so innocent it could rival that of a newborn baby, 18-year-old Elle Fanning is an unlikely choice for Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film, Neon Demon. For the uninitiated, Winding Refn is the man behind Drive – the movie in which Ryan Gosling was a man of even fewer words than normal – and as far as filmmakers go, he has a taste for violence that could rival Tarantino’s. In this area, Neon Demon excels itself; the gore is frankly horrifying. Necrophilia and cannibalism both feature. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Why then, I wondered, did Fanning want to take on the role? When I meet Fanning in London's Soho, she sits cross-legged and dressed in floral pinks, makeup artists fussing around her. Fanning, unfazed, is articulate, smiley and polite, a ray of light to be around. “I knew Neon Demon would be violent and that my character does go to a very dark place,” she says, with a nervous laugh. “I guess I am a little squeamish but it was fine. I think the blood in this film is very glamorous and beautiful. It’s stylised in a pretty way... it’s not icky.” Neon Demon is a film about the modelling industry – a world Fanning is familiar with after starring in campaigns for Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs. In it, Fanning plays a hopeful young model, 16-year-old Jesse, who has moved to L.A. to hit the big time. If you think this sounds like a familiar plot line, hold out for what happens next: she befriends a group of vapid models who turn out to be evil, flesh-eating monsters. A pretty transparent allegory for the real fashion industry, then. Fanning takes the lead role, with model Abbey Lee Kershaw, Christina Hendricks and Jena Malone playing the women who want to take her down.
Fanning says she first caught Winding Refn’s films when she was in South Africa for work – “There were only two channels on the TV and one was all in Afrikaans and the other one played movies; they only played Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Drive, which I loved.” When she got back home to California, she “heard he [Refn] was making a movie set in the fashion world, with models and girls as the lead” and thought it sounded so different to his usual “ultra-masculine” style that she couldn’t contain her interest. “I went to his house and there were princess clothes everywhere because he has daughters, and I realised: ‘This is why he wants to make this movie’”. No stranger to role playing, Fanning tells me that, from a young age, she would spend her days “dressing up around the house and putting on characters”. This is, she thinks, how she always knew that acting was what she wanted to do. Her parents were both sportspeople – dad minor league baseball, mum tennis professional – so by her own admission, acting was something that was “foreign” to her. Luckily, though, she had older sister Dakota Fanning’s footsteps to follow in; “When my sister started acting I knew I wanted to try it too,” she tells me. Elle Fanning played the role of the younger version of her sister in Steven Spielberg’s extra-terrestrial TV series Taken when she was just four years old, before going on to catch what was arguably her big break in the film Super 8 in 2011, when she was 13. The film, directed by JJ Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, is a sci-fi thriller set in 1979, and was a commercial success. Since then, Fanning has played a broad range of roles – from Ginger in British auteur Sally Potter’s indie flick Ginger & Rosa, through to a part in blockbuster Maleficent alongside Angelina Jolie. When asked whether she’s keen to continue doing indie films, or take the more mainstream, Hollywood route, Fanning is on the fence. “I think it’s about a balance of both,” she says, citing Nicole Kidman as a role model she looks up to in that respect (and “as a fellow tall girl!”). She continues: “When films come to you, you’re drawn to the character or the story of it rather than thinking ‘this film is this or that’. I just like playing different roles, and I like experiences – so I want to experience everything. I enjoyed doing Maleficent as much as I enjoyed doing Neon Demon.”
For someone who’s been thrown into the worlds of acting and modelling from such a young age, Fanning maintains that she is a “very private person”. She only recently got a public Instagram account, she explains; “I had a private Instagram for a while with just my friends and now public it’s like ‘woah!’ It was the first thing I’ve done that is out there to the world.” She says she enjoys it though, “You don’t have to share things that you don’t want to!” When asked why she likes to keep out of the public eye, Fanning says she thinks it might be down to her parents. They home schooled her until she was nine, back in Conyers, Georgia, where she grew up. After that, however, she wanted to go to a “regular high school”, and her parents conceded. Maybe this is what has kept her so grounded. Only sometimes do her two worlds – the private and the public – collide. This year, for example, shortly after turning 18, Fanning found that her senior prom fell on the same day as the Neon Demon premiere. What did she do? “I went to Cannes,” she says, laughing. “But my prom date came out to meet me and we had prom night there!” Prom or premiere, indie or mainstream – it seems Elle Fanning has the ingenuity to do it all. Neon Demon is out in cinemas Friday 8th of July.