Elle Fanning just graduated high school. As in, the week before we spoke. But the actress is already a seasoned vet at 18, having been on screens since she was three.
In “The Neon Demon,” she adds “Drive”‘s Nicolas Winding Refnto the impressive list of directors she’s worked with, including David Fincher, Cameron Crowe, both Francis Ford and Sofia Coppola and Sally Potter. In the film, she plays Jesse, a teen model who enters a particularly hellish version of the fashion industry, with unsightly results.
Meanwhile, Fanning is just living a (relatively) normal life: unsure if she’s going to go to college, but interested in photography if she does. And she reveals the lighter side of her often notorious director: Did you know, for instance, that his favorite song is “Let It Go”?
How was Refn different from the other great directors you’ve worked with?
He’s always changing things. The script is really not like the film at all. The script is a structure, obviously, and he has a complete vision for it. But he’ll move things around, go down different paths. You have that freedom to just create, which was different for me. I loved it. It’s a collaboration and you’re working together to figure it out. The whole time we were like, “Who or what is the ‘Neon Demon’?’” It clicked when we did the runway scene.
So who or what is the “Neon Demon”?
I think it’s me. [Laughs] I think it’s Jesse. But it’s not only Jesse; it’s this spirit, kind of like a disease that infects people when they’re beauty-obsessed. Everyone’s kind of beauty-obsessed. It’s very universal. In fairy tales the princess is always young and a virgin and beautiful. It’s not just physicality; it’s also this aura of being young and having that thing, like a magnet in a way. I think Jesse represents that. We said she was like Dorothy in “Oz” but if she was evil.
Do you really think she’s evil? It’s a bit ambiguous and other characters do worse than her.
They do. But I think she drives them to do it. She’s the poison that infects the city and those around her. And she’s dangerous. She’s gaining this power and realizing how to use it. You can view her in two different ways. You can look at her as evil. Or you can see she’s not that innocent at all. I looked at her as a vampire. You don’t know how old she is, really. You don’t know what happened to her parents. She’s plopped there, alone, and I think she had this plan. When we were filming it was there were all these layers underneath. She’s so mysterious and she’s so toxic. [Laughs]
This is a pretty intense movie. How did Refn chill you out about doing it?
He did not chill me out at all. [Laughs] I was like, “Yes!” I was so excited. We actually made it darker during filming. We made Jesse darker than in the script. It was fun to play that. I was so on-board even before I read the script, just hearing that he was doing a movie about a teenage girl — the king of blood and masculinity and violence. That combination was very cool to me — as was to have a woman as complex as this, too.
You’ve dabbled in modeling. I’m sure it’s not as bad as it is in the film.
It’s very exaggerated. And our film isn’t about fashion. It’s just a beautiful, glittery backdrop. But I love fashion. I started acting when I was young, and when you’re in films they say, “Oh, we want you to do a photoshoot.” I went to my first fashion show — though I never walked in one — when I was 13. So I had been in that world a little bit. I haven’t seen any of the crazy sides to it, but you know there are some. Any world that’s mostly about the way you look, it’s kind of harsh.
It’s a world, like the movies, that’s obsessed with beauty and youth. How do you handle that as a young person?
I’m in this generation where there’s a lot of social media, Instagram. There’s great things about it. But it’s scary as well. You’re constantly comparing yourself to these dead images. They’re not alive. You think, ‘That’s beauty.’ The theme in our movie is death and beauty, and it’s about this digital world, too. Teenagers are looking at these images and thinking, ‘That’s perfection.’ But perfect doesn’t exist. When you see a photo of someone with a normal body who hasn’t been photoshopped, they think, ‘That’s not perfect.’ But that’s real. This is not real.
The filmmaker Wim Wenders once called selfies a perversion of photography, because people look inside, not outside.
But is that bad? It might not be. There is that line when it crosses over into narcissism. But you should love yourself, and you should think you’re beautiful.