In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an alien touring the galaxy (Elle Fanning) leaves her group and meets two young inhabitants of a brave new world – 1970s (prime punk era) Croydon, in South London. The film is directed by John Cameron Mitchell, of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus fame, and adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 2006 short story. In Elle’s words, the film is “A love story. It’s like a punk-alien Romeo and Juliet.” Aside from Fanning, the film stars Alex Sharp (To the Bone), Ruth Wilson (Luther) and Nicole Kidman – Elle’s idol. “I always dreamed of meeting Nicole,” she says, “She was one of those actresses that I really admired and respected. I was fascinated with her. She chooses so many different characters. She’s not afraid – she just goes for it.”
Kidman gave Elle some welcome advice about staying afloat in the cut-throat world of Hollywood. “Nicole was like, ‘You need to find your tribe, and surround yourself with people that support you. Especially in this business, people can love you for the wrong reasons. You need to make sure that you protect yourself and have people around you that are really supportive’.”
So far, this is exactly what Elle is doing. “I still live at home with my parents,” Elle muses. “My family is full of strong women. My grandmother lives with us, and my aunt, and my cousin and her daughter. We’re just a bunch of ladies. And my sister (Dakota Fanning) is so supportive. It was very strange for my family when my sister and I chose to act. My parents wanted us to be tennis players. We didn’t live in L.A, we lived in Georgia, and it was my sister who was originally like ‘I want to be an actress.’ Then after she started, I was like ‘Okay, me too.’ I wanted to try it, and once you start – if you love that world of just dressing up and playing pretend – it’s the best thing. You can’t really get enough of it, and you miss it when you’re not acting. You’re always like ‘what’s the next character going to be?’”
Being surrounded by strong women at home seems to have rubbed off on Elle’s film career – her last three films have been directed by female directors. “There was Sofia Coppola with The Beguiled,” she says, “Then I did a Melanie Laurent film [upcoming Galveston], and then I did one with Reed Morano [upcoming I Think We’re Alone Now]. I don’t necessarily think about the gender, I just loved the stories, and they happened to be directed by amazing female directors.” Elle admits that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the help of Sofia Coppola. “I feel like I might not even be here if it wasn’t for the film Somewhere [Elle’s first film with Coppola]. Somewhere was the first movie that people really saw me in. I was 11 at the time, and Sofia and I have kept in touch ever since then.” After Somewhere, Sofia and Elle were on the lookout for the next film they could do together – and the opportunity presented itself with The Beguiled.
“I got an email from Sofia saying that she had this idea, and that Kirsten [Dunst] was already signed on. Sofia said it was based off this movie that Clint Eastwood did a while ago, and she said ‘I’m going to make you the bad girl!’.” In the film, which is set during the American Civil War, a wounded Union soldier (Corporal McBurney, played by Colin Farrell) is taken in by a group of women at a girls’ school in Virginia. Elle plays Alicia, a hormonal, bored and sexually charged teenager intent on seducing the Corporal. Let’s just say things don’t end well.
Elle’s character in The Beguiled is just one example of her determination to choose complex and daring roles. “When you do films,” Elle remarks, “You have these experiences and you expand as a person. I care about how I’m growing as an actress and as a woman, and I want to choose films that are going to teach me something – that are going to make an impact on the world, even if it’s like The Neon Demon [best scene – Elle felates a knife held by Keanu Reeves]. I’ve had some people say ‘That’s my favourite film ever!’, and others say they thought it was absolutely horrible. So, it’s like, you know what? That’s just the way it is. And I like it that way, because you’ve made an impact on someone, and it’s memorable. I want to do movies that people are going to remember, movies that stand out from the crowd.”
At just 19 years old, Elle already has over 25 films under her belt. She started acting at 18 months old (when she played a younger version of her sister in the film I Am Sam) – but the first time she remembers really connecting with her character was in Ginger and Rosa, when she was 13. “In that film, I realised what it was like to not feel like myself. I lost myself in the character in a great way. I had an accent, I had red hair – that movie just meant a lot. I had my first kiss in that film. Like my first real kiss ever! I was bright red. Yeah, I definitely grew up a lot.”
Another film that Elle holds close to her heart is Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, which is the story of a teenage boy and the three women who attempt to raise him into a caring and intelligent man. The film is set in Southern California in 1979, and Fanning plays Julie, the boy’s best friend and a young woman trying to navigate her burgeoning adulthood. “I love that film, and I love Mike Mills,” Elle says, “We became really close. I just love to call him and talk to him. He’s so soulful, and you can see it in his films.”
Elle’s determination to grow as a woman and artist through her films has kept her away from roles that are more typical for actresses her age. For example, she has never played a high school student in a teen movie – until now (if an extra-terrestrial being in the form of a high school student counts). “I’ve never had a movie where I’m just a high school student walking through the school halls. And it’s not necessarily that I’m against that, but I just haven’t really gravitated towards roles like that, until this film. I thought How to Talk to Girls at Parties was really funny, and it’s something that I’d never really done.”
We thought we’d finish our interview with the most important question of all – how exactly does one talk to girls at parties? “I would say no weird pick-up lines,” Elle answers. “I think your eyes just need to meet. There’s not really any words that need to be said. A little mystery is always good.”
How to Talk to Girls at Parties plays at the Adelaide Film Festival. 20th Century Women is on DVD and digital from September 13, 2017