At 14, Elle Fanning is already a seasoned actor. In “Ginger & Rosa,” her 17th feature film, she plays Ginger, a young girl trying to cope with the turmoil of relationships and geopolitics in early 1960s London. She spoke by phone from Cape Town, South Africa.
You told director Sally Potter that you felt like you grew up during “Ginger & Rosa.” What did you mean by that?
I first read the script when I was 12, and I auditioned when I was 12, which was much younger than the age Sally had initially written in the script. And after she wanted me to do it, she erased the age and said, “That doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about that.” That was nice, and I filmed it when I was 13. During that time I felt like in a weird way I wasn’t myself just because I had the accent and the red hair. And then when I got home and had my blond hair back and was talking in my American accent, it sort of snapped me back, and I’m like, “Oh, wow, I think I’ve matured!”
Did you know much about the ‘60s before making this film?
Not that much. Like the ‘60s I knew were like the Twiggy ‘60s, like little baby doll dresses and the eyeliner. I knew the glamorized ‘60s, I guess. I didn’t know this side of it, especially since our film is not quite into the ‘60s yet, it’s still coming out of the ‘50s. You especially see that in Christina [Hendricks]'s character, because she’s still the ‘50s housewife and me and Alice [Englert, who plays Rosa], we’re becoming more like the rebellious ‘60s that you think of.
Speaking of Christina’s character, did you have any sense of how much harder it was for women then, before making the film?
I guess I didn’t. That was something I realized along the way, that it was a man’s world back then. They were supposed to do dishes and you’re supposed to cook the food and that’s your role. And now, it’s not like that at all.
Does that feel like a long time ago to you?
Yeah, yeah. It does.
How old were you when you learned how to behave like a professional and how did you learn?
It definitely came from my parents [tennis pro Heather Joy and Steven J. Fanning, a former professional baseball player]. They’re athletes, so they know discipline because they were really good at their sports. So I guess discipline helps in movies as well. And yeah, they would always teach us what to do. There’s not like a moment when the light bulb went off, like I’m a professional.
You were less than 3 when you had your first film role. When did you realize this was something you wanted to do?
Yeah, because I was 2 when I did “I Am Sam,” and that was like a coincidence. I was just on set one day, and the director was like “You look like Dakota [Elle’s sister, who was in the film]. Be in a flashback scene.” I got to swing on a swing with Sean Penn. And then after that I did “Door in the Floor,” when I was 4. And I remember that experience being just so fun. Because when you’re 4, you want to do things that are fun and that was. That project definitely opened my eyes to that because there were so many cool people.
How did you learn your lines? Most 4-year-olds don’t read yet.
How did I? I don’t even remember.
What’s your life like? You started out being home-schooled and now you’re at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood.
I went in there when I was in fourth grade, and now I’m a freshman in high school. I’m in school most of the year. When I’m on set I have a teacher that goes with me to do all the tests and homework and then send it back, so that when I do go home, I slip right in with all my other classmates.
Have you ever studied acting?
No. I have a big imagination, I guess, and pretending and making believe, that’s what I love. And coming up with all the little details and mannerisms of the character.
I do take ballet, like very strictly. And I take voice lessons too, but I take ballet every day except for Sunday.
What do you like to do for fun?
Me and my friends, we go to the movies a lot, but we see like funny movies. We go to the Grove, we go to fun places like Disneyland and the beach. We go up to Carmel sometimes, just normal things, I guess.
How are your films chosen?
Scripts come in, and I read them. I guess they’re approved by someone, but I read them, and it’s my decision if I want to do it or not. You want to have an initial reaction, just an urge that you have to be this person.
You’ve worked with some great directors, like David Fincher and Francis Ford and Sofia Coppola. Is that one of the factors in your decision?
For sure. Sometimes it’s just based solely on the story, but with “Super 8,” I hadn’t read the script at all. That was a complete secret and all the kids were cast before reading the script. That was just knowing that J.J. [Abrams] is like the best guy ever.
How was it working with Angelina Jolie on Disney’s upcoming fantasy film “Maleficent”?
We definitely got super close while filming. She’s the coolest person, she’s so motherly. We had a lot of fun together, and she’s gorgeous. She looks so cool as Maleficent. They gave her these cheekbones and the horns. They’re terrifying, but so pretty at the same time.
What’s going on in South Africa?
Jake Paltrow wrote it, and he’s directing it — it’s called “Young Ones.” It’s sort of the future, but it’s not a futuristic feature. It’s more like realistic, like if we keep up doing what we’re doing to our world, this is what’s going to happen. So there’s like no water, it’s very hard for everyone.
Why did your parents put you and Dakota in movies instead of sports?
They wanted us to be in sports. They tried. And I’m very sporty. My mom saw my sister acting around the house and coming up with crazy characters, so she put her in a little playhouse acting place in Georgia, because that’s where we were born. Then they said my sister should get an agent and move to L.A. or New York, and so my mom and my sister moved out to L.A. My sister got a lot of commercials, and then she got “I Am Sam,” and my sister started loving it, and then my dad and me moved out and I saw my sister doing it and I wanted to do it too.
You’ve been in Vogue and on the cover of New York Magazine’s spring fashion issue. Do you have a favorite designer?
Yeah, I love clothes, but a lot of the clothes I wear are vintage. I guess if we were talking about nice designers, I love Rodarte. Those girls, I’m really close to them. They’re like my friends, Kate and Laura [Mulleavy]. And then Marc Jacobs, we have a close relationship too because my sister did the campaign [for his Lola fragrance].
I’ve read you like fashions but not trends, like skinny jeans.
I hate skinny jeans. I won’t wear them. I’ll only wear like mom jeans, the ones that are really baggy or high-waisted. They have to be different. For a while I refused to wear jeans at all. It’s good to be unique to yourself and try to put things together that you wouldn’t really expect, do something that’s different.