It’s a glorious spring day and one of the first where Los Angeles has seen sunshine in a while, after several unusually bleak winter months. Light beams in through tall, glass windows and onto actor, Elle Fanning, who is now back at home after finishing up a long stint in London filming season three of The Great—Hulu’s hit period drama in which she portrays eighteenth-century Russian empress, Catherine the Great. She’s excited to talk about the show from the get-go. “This season is probably full of the most twists, turns, and surprises yet,” she laughs, as the bright sunshine continues to pour into her home. “A lot of unexpected things are going to happen.”
The Great has proven to be a television phenomenon and a defining role for Fanning, who has been a constant presence in Hollywood since childhood. She’s appeared in films as varied as David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, J.J. Abrams’s Super 8, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and The Beguiled, as well as Disney’s Maleficent. When the script for The Great came her way, penned by The Favourite writer, Tony McNamara, she knew it had the potential to be a game-changing part.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever read before,” Fanning says of the script, as she pushes strands of her blonde hair back from her face, which is fashioned into a neat bun. She says she’s learned more about herself through depicting Catherine than in any of her other roles to date. “I’ve really seen myself in a different light playing this character. Like her, I’ve learned to trust my opinions, inklings, and instincts, and to listen to them as I much as I can, and I’m probably not as afraid to fail now because of what Catherine has taught me. She’s made me a stronger woman... I feel like I’ve grown as a woman getting to play such a powerful figure.”
Fanning is warm and gregarious to speak to: she’s passionate about her character, but also her profession and the rights and opportunities for women in the entertainment industry. Her answers are thoughtful but also funny, too—something that coincides with her character in The Great, flexing more comedic bones in the upcoming season. “I have been reflecting a lot on Catherine and myself and how our lives have intertwined,” she laughs, the sunlight reflecting off a delicate,pastel-lemon knit she is wearing. “We did the pilot when I was 20 and now, I’m about to turn 25. I’ve been on this show during the most formative years of my life and Catherine has become imprinted on my soul. I wonder if it’s her who’s helped me, or is it me who has just put so much of myself into her? I’m not sure,” she muses. “The lines are starting to blur a lot with the both of us. But it is the most special part I’ve ever had.”
Season three sees Catherine come into her own as a leader. Two seasons ago, she was an idealistic young bride whose hopes of a loving marriage were soon dashed when she was wedded to Emperor Peter (played by Nicholas Hoult), a wild, cheating husband, who is violent and misogynistic. The intelligent and well-read Catherine manages to eventually usurp him as leader in a coup, but not without making many mistakes along the way.“She’s a very messy character,” Fanning laughs. “I love that her growth and trajectory are not always on the way up—like she crashes and falls. She experiences that a bit more this coming season. She’s wavering and not getting everything done that she wants to get done as problems arise. The unexpected surprises really [alter] the way Catherine views her personal life. There’s a lot of change ahead for her.”
One of these “unexpected surprises” come with the fact that she is, perhaps for the first time, seemingly in love with her husband. At the end of season two, Catherine tries to kill Peter after he sleeps with, and then accidentally kills, her mother(who is played by the brilliant Gillian Anderson). Like much of the show, it’s a darkly comedic, but deeply seedy moment. Peter survives (Catherine kills his double, not him), and the two awkwardly embrace at the end. Something about seeing him alive stirs a remorseful Catherine, while Peter, watching on, seems to finally take her seriously—both as a leader and a wife. “She thinks she’s in love with Peter now, so she’s really focused on him at the moment,” Fanning reveals, saying she loves how Catherine isn’t afraid to change her mind, nor to explore her manifold complex feelings. Like the real Catherine the Great, her character is also becoming more unafraid to explore her sexual identity too, breaking taboos of the time. In Catherine the Great’s lifetime, rumors about her many sexual encounters were rife. There was even one about sleeping with a horse—something that the show addresses early on.
“My Catherine comes into Russia being a virgin and having this totally idealistic and wrong view of what a wedding night is,” Fanning says. “I think the horse rumor that was spread was like the first kind of slut shaming in a way because as we now know, she very openly had lots of lovers and loved sex. We’ve explored a bit of this in the show, but I think it will build even more. We have to get to that part because it was so much a part of her. We’re definitely on the way with that now.”
Fanning says she’s also enjoyed exploring Catherine’s more sinister side, too—something that’s coincided with women “finally,” she says, being given more realistic roles in Hollywood.“For so long, male characters have been written so that they can be the villain, they can be unredeemable, and that’s seen as both watchable and financeable,” Fanning says astutely. “But women can’t really be put in that box for some reason. For us to be ‘financeable,’ it has to be ‘Oh, create the strong, female character who is brave, who always shows up, and who is perfect.’ That’s the type of woman they want to portray on screen. But I’m not interested in that side, because I don’t relate to that. I’m not that type of woman: I make mistakes, I’m multifaceted, as are many other women.”
Fanning continues: “And even shows like Breaking Bad, which I loved, you have a group of men being nasty to one another, and it’s fun to watch. Those are the characters I want to play...and I’m sure other female [actors] out there do too. There are more female characters that are coming out in this vein,” she says, citing those in recentOscar smashesEverything Everywhere All At OnceandTár. “And I think The Great is one of them too,” she continues. “Catherine now gets to be nasty and outspoken. She doesn’t always have to be strong, or to make the right choice. I feel lucky that I get to play someone like her and not some perfect woman who has all the answers.”
Fanning set up a production company in 2021 with her actor sister Dakota, with the aim of bringing more characters like this to the screen and getting more women behind the camera as directors. “I worked with this actor, I won’t say who, but he’s very established. But he said he’d never worked with a female director before,” Fanning recalls. “And I was like ‘What?!’ It was so surprising to me. With our company [Lewellen Pictures] we try to have female writers and directors to tell any story—not just female-driven ones, although of course they’re a focus... but just because you’re a female director doesn’t mean that you have to tell a female-driven story.” She adds that she feels it’s vital that women are in the writer’s room or behind the camera—just like her mentor, Sofia Coppola.
As mentioned, Fanning appeared as a child in Coppola’s acclaimed Somewhere, and later The Beguiled. Fanning says the director’s work left a lasting mark on her—so much so that she wants to direct her own film, “in the next ten years.” Fanning smiles, “She is still a mentor to me. I feel like I can text her and ask her for advice about anything and she would be there for me. I was very lucky to be on a film set at such a young age [Fanning was 11] that was led by a woman because it kind of broke that barrier for me, where it didn’t seem weird at all to have a woman in charge. It was her vision entirely and she was so respected. Seeing her in charge was inspiring for me. And I thought if I ever wanted to make my own things, I could because Sofia did.”
Fanning says she and her sister were also inspired by a number of female actors-turned-producers in the industry who brought more female-led stories to the screen. “In the last few years, I’ve thought a lot about how I can take power back,” she says, when it comes to seeing more realistic portrayals of women on screen. “I’ve started to do that by acquiring books and articles that I want to make into stories. People like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Jessica Chastain—they’ve made it happen. Sadly, as a woman, I think in this business you have to kind of make that shift.”
Fanning says another reason for creating the roles comes from a “frustrating” audition process where people can shape your career after only seeing you for “15 or 20 minutes”—by not giving you the part or molding you into a different part based on knee-jerk assumptions about who you are. “I’m trying to be more assertive, to not allow people to put me in a box,” she explains, “but I still feel it can be a bit of a battle to get your voice across because inevitably, and what frustrates me a bit about this business, is that your life in the industry is kind of in someone else’s hands. I’m trying to take that power back. I feel like you have to create [those parts you want to see] for yourself.”
Fanning credits the females in her family for her strength when it comes to finding her own voice like this: her sister Dakota, her mother (who she still lives with in LA), and her grandmother, who used to accompany her to sets when she was a child. “They’re all just very outspoken, very opinionated, and very feisty women,” Fanning laughs. “I think they’ve helped me to stand my values.”
Fanning also says these women helped her to stay grounded and avoid the pitfalls that’s beset many other child actors. “I think we’re in an industry where it’s really easy for people to be persuaded, or to just not be grounded,” she explains. “If you don’t have that foundation, that’s when it gets hard for people. Because I had that foundation, and because I knew my worth—because they always told me that—I’m also comfortable saying ‘no’ in this business. If it doesn’t feel right, or it’s not like something I would do or think that is okay, I will say no. I’m only comfortable with that because of my family.”
Fanning has turned down plenty of parts, instead choosing her roles carefully to ones that stand apart—like her role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s outlandish The Neon Demon. In this, Fanning plays an aspiring model in a film that holds a mirror up to the fashion industry.“There are like mini-milestones in my career that jumped me to the next chapter, and I think The Neon Demon was one,” Fanning says. She thinks it was the first role that conveyed her in “an older light,” and, like The Great, helped her to transition from child actor to a leading one. “It was a very polarizing film,” she continues, “some people really hate that film and others love it so much.I discovered in myself that I like choosing [such] films.I like challenging myself and surprising people and not being predictable in any way. I kind of like that people love or hate it: that’s a good spot to be in.”
The film chimed with many for its cutting take on the fashion industry, the treatment of women, and the desire for perfection. Her character in the film, Jesse, has a #MeToo moment long before that movement happened in Hollywood, leading many to say the film was ahead of its time. It also highlighted pressures of social media on young people. “I think it was a little before it’s time in a way of having that [#MeToo] conversation,” Fanning says. “It’s also a film about why people are so obsessed with beauty and asks: ‘What does beauty mean?’ I think there’s this unattainable beauty that everyone goes after that honestly just doesn’t exist—like people will do anything to achieve it and then you never achieve it anyway. That’s the sad part.”
Fanning’s production company ventured further into this world in 2021 with a podcast, One Click, that explored the dangers of a diet pill showcased on social media and freely available to buy on the internet. The podcast was an adaptation of journalist Jessica Wapner’s article, “The Deadly Internet Diet Drug That Cooks People Alive” from The Daily Beast. Fanning narrated the podcast. “It was shocking,” Fanning recalls of the initial article. “It just struck me so much when I read it: a diet pill that literally makes people explode. People take it and overheat from the inside; your insides turn canary yellow,” she says, still clearly shocked at what she discovered. “It stems from the worst sides of social media, in that we’re just constantly comparing ourselves to others. It inevitably happens to all of us. But it’s so much easier to do when you have access to so many images, constantly. With this diet pill, there were a lot of bodybuilders who took it, but also young girls because of wanting to have skinnier thighs.”
Fanning continues: “Everyone falls victim to that. I’m like, ‘Oh god, is my body like this or that, it’s not perfect, it doesn’t look like that person.’”Fanning says growing up, she wasn’t allowed a Facebook account, with her parents trying to protect her from social media. As someone in the spotlight from a young age, however, her image was scattered all over the internet, so much so that she would see pictures of herself growing up in realtime—something she says was a “strange experience—you’re seeing yourself literally change before your very eyes and being confronted with that daily was [odd]. I don’t pay it as much mind anymore, but I think when I was younger, I really obsessed over that a bit,” she explains, saying she can see how social media creates a tough environment for young people across the globe.
While Fanning has an Instagram now, she spends most of her time away from social media, splitting her time between London where she films The Great, and LA with her family (she’s currently deciding where she wants to settle eventually, having fallen in love with London, but also not wanting to be apart from her family). She spends as much time with her sister as possible, too. A previously shelved project that would have seen the pair on screen together for the first time looks set to be revived, something Fanning is thrilled about. It’s calledThe Nightingale, and is a film about two sisters living in France whose lives are torn apart during World War Two.“It’s come back around,” Fanning says enthusiastically of the project. “We’re in talks, and it’s something we’re figuring out because it’s an amazing book and story, and to finally get to play together in a movie—something we’ve never done—as sisters, it will be very special when it happens,” she beams, the excitement of the project palpable. “The pan-demic really affected it, which was so sad. We were about to get on the plane [to start filming] and then the next day, boom, the world shut down.”
Fanning says she is very close to her sister; she circles back to The Neon Demon and shares an anecdote about the first time Dakota saw the film on screen. “I die quite a horrible death in that film,” she laughs. “My sister had to leave the theatre: it really disturbed her. [The scene] with me in the swimming pool, all broken—she was like: ‘I couldn’t watch that, it was making me sick!’ I suppose watching that and then the added layer of it being your sister was hard. I’ve experienced it, too, like in some sad, dark films, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m watching my sister here!’ It’s hard to watch!’”
For now, Fanning is focusing on the next stage of The Great but says that the show does now have an end in sight. “I mean, Tony[McNamara, creator] and all of us [cast and crew], we definitely see an end and we want to wrap it up in a nice ceremonious way and when that’s it, it will be very sad. But I know it has given me so much to move onto in the next stage of my life.”
Fanning says she's not sure the show would have been as successful without the close connection of the cast and crew—something she will miss when the show ends. “I don’t think the show would honestly be as good if we weren’t as comfortable and as close with each other... We get really vulnerable with one another and just share ourselves. That elevates it for sure.” She singles out praise for her co-star (and also former child actor), Nicholas Hoult. “Nick and I are definitely working together again—I just love him so much,” she laughs.“We push each other so much. We work in a very similar way, which might be because we were child actors. And just being onset from a young age, we have the same kind of mentality about how we view our work.”
Fanning is currently planning another podcast as part of the One Click series, and at the back of the chair she occupies is a pile of what looks to be half-opened scripts. Whatever project comes up next, Fanning says she’s not scared to take a risk. “Playing Catherine has taught me to not be afraid to use my voice and stand in my truth. And sometimes, you know, if you fail at that, that’s okay,” she beams, before heading out into the warm LA sunshine, “but at least you stay true to yourself.” The future indeed feels bright for Elle Fanning.
Photographed by Greg Swales
Styled by Mui-Hai Chu
Written by Elizabeth Aubrey
Photographer’s Producer: Alexey Galetskiy
Makeup: Erin Ayanian Monroe
Hair: Jenda Alcorn
Manicurist: Yoko Sakakura
Flaunt Film: Mynxii White
Photo Team: Amanda Yanez, Yolanda Leaney, Maya Sacks
Styling Assistants: David Gomez, Jadalyn Borla
Production Assistants: McKenna Matus, Serafim Mgeladze
Location: Twentieth Gallery