The Great’s Elle Fanning On Fame, Feminism And Finding Herself

“I’ve been working as a kid for so long, but I do feel like I’m honestly just coming into my own now.”

Oh my God, it’s four in the morning?” marie claire’s October cover star, Elle Fanning gasps. “That’s insane. Surely we can pick a better time to talk?” 

“It’s fine,” I assure her. “Australian journalists are used to waking up at the crack of dawn for interviews with international stars.”

“Oh no, I’m so sorry. We need to make this quick! You have to get back to bed,” she insists. Even in our line of work, it’s not every day a Hollywood A-lister concerns themselves with your sleep schedule. However, Elle’s manners show the telltale signs of a Southern upbringing, even if her sunny Californian accent has no hint of a Southern drawl.

Elle Fanning
(Credit: Paco Rabanne.)

The actor and latest ambassador for Paco Rabanne’s new fragrance ‘Fame’ is chatting to marie claire from London, where she’s currently filming the third season of her hit television series The Great. It’s 9pm for her after a long day on set, her Chinese takeaway is waiting on the table until she completes our interview, and yet Elle is beaming.

I can’t actually see her—we’ve gone old school with a phone call rather than the “new normal” Zoom interview—but she’s one of those people who talks with such excitement and joy, you can hear her ear-to-ear smile as she speaks. And rightly so. The 24-year-old actor has plenty to smile about. 

It’s been quite the year for Elle, who gained widespread critical acclaim for her surprising turn playing an uncharacteristically dark role in The Girl from Plainville, while also picking up an Emmy nomination for The Great.

News of the nomination came to her via her co-star Nicholas Hoult, who also received a nod for his work as Peter.

“I normally don’t bring my phone to set, but coincidentally I did that day and in between takes, Nicholas called me right as the news broke and asked if we’d heard. It was so special to be surrounded by the whole crew. A big announcement was made, and we had champagne after work. It was perfect.”

Fans of the show know many “huzzahs!” would have been exchanged. 

Elle Fanning
(Credit: Paco Rabanne.)

The odds of transitioning from child star to a celebrated and successful actor well into your twenties are slim. To do it unscathed—and without even a whiff of a scandal—is almost unheard of. But then along came Elle. 

The actor got her start playing a younger version of her big sister Dakota’s character in the 2001 film I Am Sam. She was barely three at the time. Her next role swiftly followed, again playing a younger version of her sister, before she went on to forge a career for herself.  

Today, she has a jaw-dropping 66 acting credits to her name, a number that surprises even her when mentioned.

“Wow, I mean, that’s insane! Though, I’ve been working as a kid for so long, so it makes sense,” she rationalises. “But I do feel like I’m honestly just coming into my own now.” 

Elle is at ease talking about her childhood career and quite pragmatic about the work she did.

“I’ve been fortunate to play great characters, but when you’re a kid in movies, sometimes you’re just the kid in it. You’re being the observer, almost [like] the eyes of the audience … you watch the adults get to be bizarre and have all the fun.” 

Elle Fanning
(Credit: Paco Robanne.)

If “bizarre and fun” was the brief for Elle’s venture into acting as an adult, she has certainly found it with The Great, a rollicking take on Catherine the Great’s rise to the Russian throne. Three seasons in, Elle has become well-acquainted with the Russian ruler she portrays but always makes a point of stressing they play hard and fast with history, never letting the facts get in the way of a good time.

“We pride ourselves on being loosely based on history. We definitely don’t hold ourselves to the history books. One thing I asked our showrunner when I got the role was, ‘Do I need to do all this research?’ And he’s like, ‘No, not at all.’ So, honestly, I haven’t really dived into that too much.” 

While she may not be able to recite dates, names and battles with the precision of a Russian history professor, Elle is very well-spoken and informed about Catherine’s achievements.

“What I have read from her and things that are truthful in our series prove her to be a formidable woman in that time period. As a leader, she ushered in [the Age of] Enlightenment, female education, championed science … and she invented the roller-coaster. I have to love anyone who invented the roller-coaster.  

Elle Fanning
(Credit: Paco Rabanne.)

“Before taking on this role, the only thing I knew about her was the horrible rumour about her having sex with a horse, which just shows so much of who we are as a society, that we reduce this woman to this rumour. This woman, who has done so many incredible things and had so many progressive ideas.

“Instead, she’s been reduced to this form of slut shaming. She had a lot of lovers and was really comfortable in her sexuality—that was a beautiful thing about her—but our world likes to demean women and use sex to do so. Hopefully we can take some of that ownership back with The Great and show other sides to her.” 

It’s a role she took on at age 20 and says has helped her not only transition to an adult actor but also grow into her own personality and figure out who she is.

“I’ve learnt so much from Catherine,” she says. “I’ve learnt to voice my opinions and become more outspoken.” 

Elle Fanning
(Credit: Paco Rabanne.)

As luck would have it, she has also found a kindred spirit in her co-star, Hoult.

“He really is one of my favourite people in this entire world,” she gushes. “We’ve gone on this journey together and had each other to lean on. The second season took nine months, we filmed it during the pandemic, and Nick became my family during that time. We have a connection because we were both child actors and have grown up on sets. We’re honestly telepathic at this point.” 

To read the full story, pick up a copy of the October issue of marie claire Australia on newsstands from Thursday 15th September!

elle fanning marie claire cover
marie claire Australia’s October issue. (Credit: Fashion: @PacoRabanneFragrance)

Related stories