Elle Fanning heads into the past twice this winter. In Ben Affleck’s gangster movie “Live by Night,” she heads to the 1920s to play a young Florida woman whose trip to Hollywood leads to a heroin addiction, not fame; once home, she finally makes her name as a popular evangelist a la Aimee Semple McPherson. In “20th Century Women,” from “Beginners” director Mike Mills, the actress jumps back to 1979, playing a less impressionable character who simply shacks up in a Santa Barbra house with a group of strong-willed women (including Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig), plus some progressive dudes (Billy Crudup and Lucas Jade Zumann).

Fanning, 18, talks about her fear of public speaking, learning about history and which song Mills “assigned” her for “20th Century Women.”

Weirdly, your characters in “Live by Night” and “The Neon Demon” are kind of similar: They both go out to Los Angeles and have horrible, horrible things happen to him.
That’s very true. They both fall into dark places. But Loretta gets stardom in a different way: She becomes this preacher. That’s when she becomes a star. She’s sort of like a circus animal, though. I think eventually she doesn’t even believe what she’s saying anymore. Her story is tragic because she never gets to deal with the things that have happened in her life.

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Both here and in “20th Century Women” you got to do deep dives in the past. What kinds of things did you learn about the 1920s?
It was a great time for women, in a way. The corsets came off and they cut their hair and they became a little rebellious. The Roaring Twenties seemed like a fun time. Ben was very authentic about recreating it. The underwear, the socks — everything was from the 1920s. They were delicate and musky-smelling. Even the makeup was period. You really felt like you were in that period. Films aren’t made like this anymore, so beautiful and epic feeling. This felt like an old Hollywood movie.

You spend some of your scenes with Affleck, too.
I was kind of worried about that. I was like, ‘Is that going to be strange that he’s in the scene with me?’ But it was not weird at all. When he has his actor hat on, he’s just there in the scene with you. You don’t feel him judging you while you’re performing. Actors think that’s great.

Do you feel that a lot, that directors are judging you when you’re acting?
I do! But because Ben’s an actor, he understands how to work with them. He’s so trusting, and I trust him. It’s nice that he’s in the scene with you. You feel like there’s no director. Directors never know exactly what the actors are feeling. He has an amazing advantage, because he knows what we’re feeling.

Katie Holmes recently made a movie, “All We Had,” and she said one reason she wanted to direct and act in it was so she could be in the middle of the scenes, working with the actors. What she did almost sounds like theater, in a way.
I’ve never done theater, so I’m not exactly sure what that feels like. But I can imagine. I had this scene where I had to do a sermon on a stage. That felt like theater to me. It was three pages of dialogue, and I was scared out my mind. [Laughs] It was just me up there in front of a bunch of extras in a tent. It felt like I was really performing.

Are you generally afraid of public speaking?
I am. I get butterflies before and this adrenaline rush. But normally I’m like, ‘OK, Elle, you just have to suck it up and do it.’ Somehow I just don’t think about it because I’m out there and I just have to go for it. But I get nervous.

Do you think you could one day do theater? Some actors, like Amanda Seyfried, have said they’re scared of live performances, although even she did an Off-Broadway show last year.
I would love to. I really would. I’d like to try everything.

I did want to ask about “20th Century Women,” since it’s also a period piece. It’s set in 1979, which is for one thing a really cool time for music: punk, new wave, etc.
We had dance parties before we did the table reads. We all got assigned a song. My song was “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac. Julie [her character] wasn’t so into the punk scene, so she wouldn’t listen to the songs Abby [played by Greta Gerwig] would. But I do remember on set Mike Mills would play songs on his phone in between setups. He has such great taste in everything.

He’s also the rare male director who really seems to get women.
He’s such a sensitive guy. He just understands people so well. That’s why his characters are three-dimensional. He understands that women aren’t just one way or this way. They’re very complex. [Laughs] I think he captured that at all different ages and stages in life.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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