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Elle Fanning Embraces ‘Neon Demon’s’ Divisive Reaction, Reveals Most Difficult Role to Date

Elle Fanning got her start in the business — and her SAG card — before the age of 3, when Jessie Nelson, the director of “I Am Sam,” starring 7-year-old Dakota Fanning and Sean Penn, needed someone to play a younger version of Dakota’s character in a flashback. Recruiting Elle for that role was a no-brainer. Fifteen years later, she’s emerged as one of the most exciting and consistently compelling actors of her generation, tackling indie dramas (“Somewhere,” “Ginger & Rosa”), blockbusters (“Maleficent”) … and whatever the heck “The Neon Demon” was.

Mark Williams & Sara Hirakawa for Variety

Fanning was only 16 when she shot that twisted, lurid film from Nicolas Winding Refn. If fact, she was too young to see it in theaters. “The Neon Demon” caused a divisive reaction from audiences when it premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Fanning, now 18, is taking the response to the film with grace. “Some amazing movies have been torn apart [in Cannes],” she notes. “But I’d definitely rather have a split response like love/hate than have audiences say, ‘Oh, that was fine.’”

For Fanning, that night on the Cannes red carpet was special, not just because of the premiere. It was also her senior prom. She had chosen to attend Cannes for the first time, but “my best friend who was going to go to prom with me ended up coming, and we had prom in Cannes.”

Fanning has always had a life outside the business to keep her grounded. “My best friends aren’t in the industry at all,” she notes. “I still live with my family.”

Now a high school graduate, Fanning is considering college, but not this year. It wouldn’t be fair, as she has a slew of movies to promote, from “20th Century Women” with Annette Bening to “A Storm in the Stars,” in which she plays “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley. She’s also hoping that “About Ray,” which premiered at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, will hit theaters this year. To research the role of a female teenager transitioning to male, Fanning became involved in the transgender community. “I spoke to a lot of transgender guys, and hearing their stories was really powerful,” she says. “They had so much courage to just tell their story and answer difficult questions.”

Mark Williams & Sara Hirakawa for Variety

And then there’s “Live by Night,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck, in which she plays a heroin addict, and which she calls her most difficult role to date.

Watching Affleck work was inspiring, says Fanning, who would like to direct someday. “I like the idea of forming something that’s all your own,” she says.

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