Elle Fanning was beyond focused when it came time to play Michelle Carter, the teen who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III (played by Colton Ryan), to end his life.
The court case was splashed all over the news in 2017, so Fanning had footage to study when preparing for Hulu’s “The Girl From Plainville.” However, that wasn’t what she spent hours watching. Instead, she binged “Glee,” which was Carter’s favorite show, so much so that it took over parts of her life.
“She was a huge ‘Glee’ fan. I had seen the show, but I watched a lot of it on set. Reading the pilot, in the last scene she’s singing ‘Make You Feel My Love,’ mimicking Lea Michele’s grief. Lea’s grief was real in the show; she’s also mourning her real-life boyfriend,” Fanning tells Variety. “I’ve never met her, but I know every mannerism that she does in that scene. I have a legal pad of notes. I wrote down every time she blinked, every time she moved her hand with each word to mimic the emotion. It was a real exercise. I felt really connected to her, because I feel like I’ve seen her grieve. It was very meta.”
At the end of the first episode of “The Girl From Plainville,” Fanning sings the song to herself in the mirror, pausing only to rewatch the “Glee” episode to make sure she was getting the motions down.
“As an actor, I was very eager to commit it, but I also knew how important it was for the story because I think the series turns and you start questioning Michelle’s motives in a way,” Fanning continues, noting that Carter overly dramatizes things in her life. “I think our show threads the needle of those Y.A. themes, but we’re trying to do the opposite. We’re trying to completely not sensationalize this story. But at the same time, Michelle is kind of being she’s the star in her own TV show or in her own Y.A. movie.”
The balance between fantasy and real life was something that Fanning, who has been acting for more than 20 years, can relate to.
“I’m an actor, I live in fantasy! I’m creating characters and living in other worlds, so I could relate in a sense — especially when you’re young, I think you’re always trying on different outfits and masks and figuring out who you are. That was very relatable,” she explains. “I think the toughest part of this project was to balance the fiction and reality. That’s a theme throughout our show — balancing fantasy and reality. This is a real story, and you need to be sensitive to that, but then we have to also create a show and think about things in a cinematic point of view. Being a producer on it, I was able to have more responsibility and watch edits and collaborate to make sure that it didn’t feel one-sided. I just wanted to tell the truth of it and show these people for more of what they were, not what the media portrayed to all of us.”
Co-creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus knew from the start that they wanted “Glee” to be a part of the show and were thrilled to get the rights to show footage through their partnerships at Hulu and Disney. They also were blown away by Fanning’s commitment.
“Elle studied that video non-stop. She’d come on set and then go home and watch it for three hours,” Hannah says. “It was super important for Elle that she was physically correct in how she was mimicking her. So it was definitely daunting for Elle and for the challenge that we gave her and the bar she cleared, which she tends to do.”
The first three episodes of “The Girl From Plainville” are now streaming on Hulu.