Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst have a lot in common: they are both Blonde with a capital "B," immensely talented performers, and look equally fetching in lacy antebellum garb. They also share the rare distinction of being a muse to Sofia Coppola.
Both actresses have, in a way, grown up in front of Coppola's camera. Dunst, 35, was 16 when she first worked with Coppola on The Virgin Suicides; Fanning was only 11 when she was cast in Somewhere. And while I wouldn't go as far as to say they were discovered by the director — Dunst has been acting since she was 7 years old, while Fanning was creeping us out as a pyromaniac 8-year-old on Law & Order: SVU — the two actresses have left an indelible mark on Coppola's oeuvre, and she on them.
So, what makes a Sofia Coppola muse? (And, more importantly, can I be one, too?) After months of obsessing over this movie, so clearly plucked from the dark recesses of my own brain, I finally got to speak to Coppola about her relationship with Dunst and Fanning. What is it about them that, as a director, she finds so compelling?
"When I met Elle I was really like, 'I can’t wait to see what she grows up to be,'" Coppola said. "I just thought, she’s so talented that I knew she’d be interesting to see grow up. I can’t wait for her to have more complex roles when she’s older. Young actresses stand out and it’s fun to see who they turn into as adults."
The same feeling applies to Dunst, who has now starred in three Coppola movies and cameo'd in a fourth. (The Bling Ring, in which she played herself.) "I worked with her when she was 16, so now I know her as an adult," Coppola said. "With Elle, I stayed in touch with her over the years, but being on set with her this time, I was really impressed. Now she’s a more grown-up version, but she still has the same personality and the same unique sparkle that she always had. She still has her kid self, but we can talk about more adult things."
The Beguiled, which hits theaters June 30, is Coppola's seventh film, and Fanning's first credit as a legal adult. The movie, about a girl's school in the Civil War South that gets thrown into turmoil with the arrival of a wounded Union soldier, played by a humidly sexy Colin Farrell, also marks the first collaboration for Dunst and Fanning.
"You find actors that you connect with — I have that with them," she said. "Both of them have a great sense of humor and work on the same page. So, it helps a lot. They get what I want to do. They get my sensibility."
It makes perfect sense that this is the movie Coppola would choose to merge her two muses. If you track the progression of her films, they all tackle a specific aspect of womanhood. The Virgin Suicides (1999) dealt with girlhood sexuality; Lost in Translation (2003) depicted an alienation very specific to your 20s; Marie Antoinette (2006) was about a literal teenage queen; Somewhere (2010) explored the quiet loneliness of Hollywood childhoods; The Bling Ring (2013) was a frenzied deep dive into teenage consumerism. What makes The Beguiled so interesting is that it shows a range of female experience, from girlhood to middle age. The cast ranges from 13-year-old Addison Riecke to Nicole Kidman, who just turned 50. Add in 18-year-old Fanning and 35-year-old Dunst, and you have a full spectrum.
"This one I love because it was working with this group of women in all different stages that I could relate to," Coppola said. "This is what’s interesting to me — stories with interesting female characters."
The Beguiled is based on the 1960s novel by Thomas Cullinan, and has been adapted to the big screen once before, in a 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood. While that movie centered around the male perspective of the soldier arriving in a female environment, Coppola chose to focus on the women of the story. How did they survive this intrusion of their space? This is especially important given Coppola's recent triumph at the Cannes Film Festival, where she became the second woman to win Best Director in 71 years. Jury member Jessica Chastain made headlines when she called out films for not accurately representing women, largely due to the lack of female perspectives in filmmaking. "It was quite disturbing, to be honest,” she said. “There are some exceptions, I will say. But for the most part, I was surprised with the representation of female characters on screen in these films.”
In that context, a movie by a woman, about a group of strong women, takes on a new level of significance. It's also worth noting that the very idea of female artists having female muses is rarely discussed. How many times have we heard creative men sing the praises of the nubile young women who inspire them? This is not a Lolita situation, and that in itself is a small feminist victory.
That female sensibility is the magic pixie dust that makes every Coppola movie feel like it reflects my own average experience, while also projecting my mood board aspirations onto a big screen. Take Marie Antoinette, for example. While I cannot say that I personally identify with the Queen of France, who wakes to a crowd of courtiers ready to dress her in her choice of silks for the day, I can absolutely sympathize with the angst that comes from being a teenage girl searching for her place in the world.
To that end, Coppola likes to put her actresses in contradictory roles. In The Beguiled, Dunst's Edwina Morrow is so tightly laced you can practically hear her buttons popping from the strain to be free. Fanning, on the other hand, plays Alicia Simms, practically the textbook definition of a thirst trap. (Also worth mentioning is Nicole Kidman as a tough, horny matriarch school mistress — iconic.) In real life though, neither actress would fit those character descriptions.
"It was funny because [Elle]'s not like that at all. The character is really self-centered and always focused on being seductive," Coppola said.
"When I was writing it, I was picturing them."
The casting was no accident — the director wrote the screenplay with Dunst and Fanning in mind. "Right in the beginning when I thought about making my version, [I thought] 'Oh, Kirsten can play the teacher character, and now Elle’s old enough to play a young student.' Just kind of getting together women that I love. When I was writing it, I was picturing them. I always wanted to work with them again, so that was part of the appeal. Seeing them together was cool."
Apparently, the two actresses bonded on set, presumably over how awesome they both are. (Wouldn't you want to be friends with a Sofia Coppola muse?)
"Kirsten’s friendly with Dakota [Fanning], but they never spent time together," Coppola said. "It was the first movie [Elle] did on her own without going with a family member. She was on her own in New Orleans so we had to look out for her. Her and Kirsten got along well."
So well, in fact, that aside from a much publicized Girls Gone Wild: 1863 video, which showed Dunst and Fanning showing off their ankles (gasp!) while holding red Solo cups, the two also recreated an iconic shot from Lemonade, which makes sense since the film was shot in the same plantation house as Beyoncé's visual album.
"We both have a strong work ethic, and we don't take ourselves too seriously," Dunst said.
That willingness to play around is best illustrated by the case of the rumored topless Colin Farrell-posing-as-a-hot-gardener calendar, instigated by Dunst and Fanning one day during shooting. (If anyone has any information regarding the whereabouts of this vital piece of art, please send it my way!) Clearly, being a Sofia Coppola muse comes with major perks.
But the biggest perk of all is having her as a resource. On the set of The Beguiled, Coppola made sure to dole out directing advice to Kirsten Dunst, who is planning her own directorial debut with "The Bell Jar," an adaptation of Sylvia Plath's novel, ironically starring Dakota Fanning, Elle's sister.
"We talked about it a little bit and I would say 'Make sure you have a great script supervisor,' or 'To work with your editor is something really important on set.' When I was shooting and things came up, I would try to remind her of things that I was remembering or finding important. She'll do a great job!"
As for Dunst, she says the best advice Coppola's given her is simple: "Always follow your gut."
Maybe soon, the muse will become the master. And isn't that the most feminist story of all?
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