Elle Fanning may be a member of an emerging Hollywood royal family – her older sister is actress Dakota Fanning – but she has long fantasized about being a princess of the Disney variety. And as happens in fairy tales, her wish came true: At 14 the actress was cast as a reinterpretation of Princess Aurora, the heroine of the studio’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty and the object of the malice of its show-stopping antagonist.
With the horned enchantress now the centerpiece of her own origin film Maleficent, the irrepressibly enthusiastic Fanning, now 16, sat down for roundtable discussion about her interpretation of the character, her takeaways from co-star Angelina Jolie, her uniquely themed (again, think regal) Sweet Sixteen party, and that all-pervasive princess love.
We've seen you talk about how as a child you always had a dream to be a Disney princess. So what are the realities of finally getting to be one, though not animated.
Elle Fanning: I know, it's crazy! That was my dream when I was little. People would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I would say, “A Disney princess.” That's the ultimate goal in life! And I'm still like pinching myself to say that I'm Aurora. It's so weird for me. A little girl came up to me the other day because she had been seeing the trailers and stuff. And she asked, “Are you Aurora?” And I'm like, “I guess I'm Aurora.” It's crazy …Yeah, it was a really special thing, and also, my first meeting that I had, because I heard that there was going to be a Maleficent movie, so I was like, I know it's going to be from the villain's point of view, but that means there has to be a Sleeping Beauty in it. So my ears perked up. But then, Rob [Stromberg], the director, wanted me to come in for a meeting with him and Linda [Woolverton], the writer, and from there, that meeting they gave me the part, and that handed over the script. And that was kind of like handing over the crown. And I was like, “Oh!” That ride home, I was reading it in the car and I kind of got motion sickness reading, but I was still reading it. I was so excited.
What were the moments while you were filming that you were trying to really savor, because this is quintessential princess stuff?
I know. Getting to dress up in her outfits each day – because it took a while, too, because it was in the medieval times; it was all lacing up. So I would be savoring getting ready, putting on the princess gear – and also working with Angelina was something that does not happen to everyone. And even meeting her for the first time, I'll never forget that. And I was so nervous – like, crazy nervous – and we gave each other a hug right away. It was like an initial reaction, and the first thing she said to me, she's like, “We're going to have so much fun working together.” And we really did. Just to get to watch her and have the nerves kind of go away, but I still get like butterflies, which is funny.
What were lessons that you learned from her both as an actress and Angelina the person?
I mean, I think that she's the perfect role model. I feel like whatever she's like wanted to do, she's done. Now she's directing and being a mom. It's like she's done everything, and she's still not done with doing everything she wants. It's just so incredible. You hear that name, and it's such an intense name. And you think of all the pictures that you've seen of her and her at events and stuff. I was kind of scared. I was like, “Oh, she's going to be really intense lady.” And then you meet her, and it's like she's still, like, everyone walks into a room and everyone looks at her. She's so powerful. But I got to know the side of her that was more sensitive and really playful. Like they would yell cut, and all her kids – they were on set all the time – they went to her. And she'd be holding Vivienne and Knox on her hip. Like to see that, and learn she's very into the detail of things. She's very specific, like with her outfit. Like it really mattered, every little thing mattered – which to me, I learned from that as this character's going to live with her forever, in her acting career, for life. So for me, I took that away to always really pay attention to all the little details. They all come together to make the final.
Your character also has a physicality to her, too. Did you go back into Disney archives and look at the sources for inspiration – Mary Costa’s voice, Helene Stanley’s live-action movement?
I had seen the Sleeping Beauty ballet. I do ballet, so that was – I don't know, I think that one of the reasons that I do dance is because it helps with acting, and it helps your physicality. Even though you're playing someone with bad posture, you know the muscles to use to kind of do that. But I did watch – I'd seen the animated one so many times, but I watched it again right before we started filming because she has certain hand gestures, like the way she walks and her posture. So I tried to bring all of that physicality into this one because that's what you fall in love with when you see her. You fall in love with kind of the outside because she's kind of one-dimensional in the animated. So for ours, we tried to make her more layered and have that depth, but then on the outside look like the character that you love.
Aurora’s 16, and you’ve just turned 16 yourself.
Right, I filmed the film two years ago. I was 14, so I was kind of playing older. But now, finally, yeah, April 9 was my birthday and I had a dinner – it was very girly, lots of flowers and it was Marie Antoinette-themed. So we dressed up, we had little masks and stuff – that was fun! – and a photo booth. That was my one contribution because my mom, she loves surprises so she decorated everything. But I was like, “We have to have a photo booth!” and so we did. That was great. It was friends and family only – all my girlfriends and then just my family. My sister [Dakota] came. I did it actually early, practically two months early because I wanted my sister to be there. So we did that, and then I could kind of have two months of birthday celebrations!
You've spent a good chunk of your life in Southern Californian girl, and Disneyland is so iconic in this kind of part of the country, as is the Disney culture, the movies, the toys. How much did that Disney-ana mean to you?
For me, I was mostly obsessed with all the animated films. My mom would just pop them into the DV, and my sister would watch them. And of course, we all like have our favorite ones where we have the characters we like stick up for. Really care about. Dumbo's mine – I love Dumbo! And I remember going to Disneyland and my first memory going to Disneyland was for my sister's birthday and I was five. And the huge thing was getting the notebook, like a Disney notebook, and having all the characters sign it. And have all the autographs of all the characters. But it was really scary when you got to the villains. Like when you would have to give it to Ursula – I did not want to go up to her and sign the thing. But I did because I knew I had to get all of them. That was just the thing. So I just kind of like handed it over and threw it over and had her do it and get it back really quick [laughs]. We still have it. My mom saves everything, so I'm sure we do. I haven't looked at it, but I'm sure it's in a bin or something.
Maleficent is now playing in theaters nationwide.