The actor’s darkly comic portrayal of a young Catherine the Great could be the role that defines her. With a second season in the works and a burgeoning career as a producer, things are heating up for fashion’s favorite polymath
Words by MARSHALL HEYMAN
Photography by GIA COPPOLA
Creative & Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND
Since she started working in the movie business a whopping 20 years ago, Elle Fanning, who turned 22 earlier this year, has collaborated with some of Hollywood’s most exciting directors. Among them: David Fincher for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Sofia Coppola for 2010’s Somewhere and 2017’s The Beguiled; J.J. Abrams for 2011’s Super 8; Mike Mills for 2016’s 20th Century Women; and Alejandro González Iñárritu for 2006’s Babel.
But Fanning’s first major role in television may wind up being her career-defining moment. In The Great, she stars as Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, opposite Nicholas Hoult as the dastardly Peter III. Alongside Normal People, the series became one of Hulu’s biggest streaming successes during the pandemic, and the platform says it will commission a second season.
As viewers gleefully discovered, this is not your average, run-of-the-mill Catherine the Great — nor anything at all like the one portrayed last year by Helen Mirren in HBO’s limited series. No, this is Tony McNamara’s Catherine the Great. You might know McNamara because he co-wrote 2018’s The Favourite, which won Olivia Colman an Oscar. The Great is very much in the mold of that film, meaning it’s hilarious and absurd, offering a side of Fanning we haven’t gotten to see much during the last two decades.
“I’m not a dramatic actress, but I tend to do more drama,” Fanning explains over a bowl of Italian wedding soup at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz, just as COVID-19 begins to turn Los Angeles upside down. (She was actually scheduled to go to Budapest a few days after this interview to co-star opposite her sister, Dakota, for the first time on screen in The Nightingale, a World War II drama that has since been put on hold.)
McNamara wanted Fanning specifically for The Great. “I just found it bonkers and incredible. It was so special,” she says, describing her thoughts after reading the script for the first time. “Tony’s writing is so against sappy or cliche. He’s very dry. We’ll have this romantic scene and snot will be coming out of Catherine’s nose. It’s with a bit of a wink.”
Fanning thinks the show is actually a good match for her personality. “There’s a very dark side to me that is irreverent and weird, that really likes to go there and push people’s buttons, that kind of likes to toe the line of what’s questionable,” she explains. “Making it felt cathartic, because it felt like I finally got to show that side.” Indeed, critics have tended to agree. The New York Times called her performance “terrific.” Salon said: “[Fanning’s] performance is everything a viewer wants from an empress in ascent: confident, sharp, funny and luminous.” Rolling Stone wrote that she “nails every beat of it, and is never less than intensely watchable. It’s a hell of a calling card as she gets deeper into the adult phase of her acting career.”
GIVENCHY gown, $3,690.
Fanning plays opposite the equally lauded Hoult, who is almost a decade her senior, though they’ve played spouses before, in Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones, when she was 14. “It was supposed to be a child bride situation,” she recalls.
As Peter in The Great, “Nick does such horrible, evil things, and you can’t help but wonder, ‘Am I supposed to like you?’” Fanning says. “Catherine is the audience in that she doesn’t know, really. She hates his guts, but it’s kind of endearing. She’s a beautiful character, because she’s very curious, and she always has a second plan and a third and fourth and fifth plan. She makes mistakes, and she’s a great manipulator.” When asked if she spent time researching the historical figure for the role, Fanning laughs. “Not so much,” she says. “When I got the part, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to have to do all this reading and blow dust off these giant books.’ But Tony has sprinkled in historical aspects. Just hearing about [Catherine] overthrowing [Peter], you can tell what type of lady she is. And she also apparently invented the roller coaster.”
Besides exhibiting incomparably empathetic acting skills, Fanning has also proven to be an arbiter of very good taste, especially when it comes to cinema. (The Neon Demon was especially divisive, though at one point, Fanning thought it was the best movie she’d ever made. “I love it,” she says.) In 2016, she skipped her senior prom at Campbell Hall in the Valley for the picture’s premiere at Cannes Film Festival. Just three years later, she returned to Cannes as part of the festival’s jury panel, making her the youngest member in history. “I learned a lot,” she says. “Young people watch movies too.” That said, her favorite sequel is Pixar’s Monsters University, and she binged the trashy reality series Love Is Blind on Netflix, but who didn’t?
“There is a dark side to me that is irreverent and weird”
Fanning grew up in a particularly athletic family that didn’t go to the movies much, so she credits her refined palate to many of the filmmakers and actors she’s worked with over the years. “A movie set is such an intimate experience,” she says. “You’re sharing emotions you might not share with the closest family members. I’ve learned a lot from them. You feel that energy. That’s why they are who they are, and make the movies they do.”
VALENTINO dress, $2,890.
Fanning and Coppola have tea on occasion; she and Mills have an annual dinner at Café Stella in Silver Lake. While reflecting on filmmakers she’s worked with in the past, the actor says, “They treat me like I mattered, or they cared about my opinion. The person I am today is because of those people. They really kept my imagination alive and cared about my weird ideas. These people don’t have to care, but it means a lot.”
In addition to her interest in great filmmakers (whenever Hollywood starts production again, she’d like to work with the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny; and The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos), Fanning has also become known for her sense of style. Though today she’s wearing a soft vintage T-shirt and “mom” jeans, she insists, “I’m not usually the T-shirt and jeans type of girl. But I have a Gucci sweater that I can wear over it and Chanel loafers, so that’s OK.”
Her love of fashion was apparent even at a young age. When I interviewed 6-year-old Fanning for one of her first movies, 2004’s The Door in the Floor, she said she wanted to be a fashion designer. That didn’t quite happen, she recognizes, but a love of clothes has always been part of her life. “When I was young, I was allowed to be eccentric. My mom would let me put on crazy outfits and go to school,” she recalls. “I think I had an appetite for it more than Dakota did. There are things that I would wear, and she would say, ‘That looks insane.’ Kids definitely made fun of me, but I didn’t care.”
Working with Coppola in 2010 also got her noticed by the fashion industry. “They wondered, ‘Who’s the girl that Sofia picked in that movie?’” Fanning says. She met the Rodarte sisters and wore white sparkly pants they gave her on the local bar mitzvah circuit. “The fashion community really accepted me, whereas the kids in school didn’t always accept me. But I knew these top designers liked what I wore, so I continued to do that. I knew all the references, and I knew all the models, and I would look on Vogue Runway. When I get obsessed with something, I get obsessed.”
She’s worked with the stylist Samantha McMillan since she was 14; earlier this year, they decided she should wear black for the first time. So they chose an Armani number for the Berlin Film Festival. “I really liked it,” Fanning says. “I usually think, ‘Why wear black when you can wear a color and stand out?’ But there are a lot of different sides to me. I love being a Grace Kelly on the red carpet, but I also love The Row and want big, oversized suits.”
Lately, Fanning, who still lives with her sister in the Valley, has moved into producing, which certainly gave her a place to channel some energy during the statewide quarantine. (In April, she celebrated her 22nd birthday with a Strawberry Shortcake-themed cake that featured the cartoon character in a face mask, of course.) She has a producer credit on The Great as well as on the Netflix movie All the Bright Places, and she says producing has been an eye-opening experience for her. “It’s a process. Your emails are flooded. You’re cc’d on a lot of things,” she explains. “I’m still finding my voice in it, but you learn that nobody has the right answers. You have to try so many things.”
And though she’d like to try her hand behind the camera, she admits: “I can’t think of not acting. Every day, they’re still picking me for jobs, and there are so many things I haven’t done.”
Associate Fashion Editor MARGRIT JACOBSEN
Fashion Assistant GABE DOYNEL
Hair by JENDA ALCORN using L’Oreal Paris
Makeup by ERIN AYANIAN MONROE at Cloutier Remix using L’Oreal Paris
Manicure by EMI KUDO at Opus Beauty using Dior Vernis
Makeup: L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Triple Power Day Lotion SPF 30 sunscreen, $25, Magic by Studio Secrets Skin Beautifier BB cream in Fair, $11, Summer Belle Makeup Blush Please! In Blushin’ in Riviera, $10, Infallible 24 HR eye shadow in Perpetual Purple and Eternal Sunshine, $8 each, Voluminous Lash Paradise mascara, $11, and Summer Belle Makeup Glowing lip gloss in Tropic Like It’s Hot, $10.
This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of C Magazine.
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