'The Boxtrolls' Star Elle Fanning Talks Accents, Stop-Motion and Obsessions

A taste for stop-motion fare runs in the Fanning family.

Elle Fanning is the latest member of the clan to lend her voice to an animated project from Laika, the stop-motion studio that crafted Coraline, in which her older sister Dakota provided the voice of the heroine. In The Boxtrolls, the 16-year-old gets to play heroic with more than a hint of brattiness as Winnie, the well-heeled and high-spirited girl whose dubious suspicions about the exterminator ridding her village of the presumed pests bring her into contact with Eggs, the orphaned human boy raised by the shadowy creatures.

Sitting down for a roundtable interview session, Fanning not only shed light on the behind-the-scenes secrets of bringing a stop-motion role to life, she also revealed a lot of inner fangirl when it comes to her prized collection at home.

What did you see in this character that made you say, “Yeah, I can be her for a while”?

Elle Fanning: Well, I – right when I got the script, they also gave me a big notebook of sketches of all the different characters, then like a color scheme, and obviously I got to see a picture of Winnie in there. And I love that I don’t think I’ve ever played a character that’s been like her before. She’s kind of spoiled and bratty, and I enjoyed that. I thought that it would be really kind of fun to play and kind of exaggerate her dark, morbid sense of humor, because she’s so cute! She looks like Shirley Temple, with the little curly hair, and you think she’d be really sweet, but she loves these gruesome ideas of blood and bones, and I was really into that, because it was cool to have a little girl character – I don’t think anyone’s really seen a character like that before.

Do you have any of those things in common with her?

I think that our spirit is kind of the same, in a way that we are kind of fearless in we’ll always go do things, very much like a go-getter personality. So, in that way we share, but I think she’s very overdramatic. I’m not that dramatic.

Is it a different set of acting muscles to perform only with your voice?

Yeah, it is for sure, ‘cause you can’t rely on your face at all. You know, if you’re in a movie that’s not animated, you can show emotion in your eyes or in any way on your face, and this is much harder, because you can’t. You have to bring that emotion and all those layers into the way that you’re speaking, so it’s definitely, it’s harder. But then also you don’t have to worry about the way you look, so in that way it’s kind of easy. But it was a fun experience and one that I hadn’t done for a long time. ‘Cause I did My Neighbor Totoro, which was voice-over, but I was really small, so I don’t remember it much. With Winnie, I had to get back into that mindset again.

Did they show you the image of her and discuss how she would look? Did her visual look inspire you with your voice performance?

Yes, they did. I saw the image before. She wasn’t in her full form yet. They still had to figure out the exact hairstyle and dress, and all that, but she did inspire me, because whenever they drew her, they would always draw her with her chest puffed up and her hands on her hips, and that was very much you saw that attitude right away, so it inspired me.

Did you get any advice from to your sister Dakota after her experience with Laika on Coraline?

Yeah, it’s funny, because my sister was doing Coraline for about seven or eight years, so that’s like half of my life that I was aware that she was doing this, and I was aware of Laika and stop-motion. I went with my sister to Portland to visit the Coraline sets and things, and then I think that that’s probably why they asked me to be in The Boxtrolls because I knew them already. But she didn’t give me, really, any advice, but at least she’s very happy that I was going to do it and kind of join the community in that way.

Sometimes the animators will take some footage of the actors, and sneak in little facial gestures. Did you notice anything like that? Did they tell you about anything like that?

Well, they let me know that whenever I did my sessions that they were filming me as well. So they have a little camera that was on me, just to see what I did with my face, and I think that some are in there. I can see a little bit of it. I think we have the same nose!

The Boxtrolls are very scary to humans, and you mentioned your character’s sort of morbid love of blood and stuff. What scares you?

When I was really little, I was really afraid of witches. There was a shadow in my room that looked like a pointy hat and a long nose, and every night I would be so scared of the witch. And so, I just remember that from my childhood. Right now, I’m afraid of elevators. I don’t like them very much. It’s not so much the claustrophobia. I got stuck in one, when I was little, in a parking garage, so maybe that scarred me. But if it’s a glass elevator, that’s okay, because you can at least call for help. But if you’re just in there, no one knows you’re in there. I try to avoid them. One time, when I was at the Venice film festival, there were a lot of stairs to walk up, and I always made my mom walk up all the stairs, like, “Let’s just walk the stairs. Let’s do the stairs.” I try to do stairs as much as possible.

Winnie’s got a rebellious streak. What’s the most rebellious thing that you’ve done?

Me and my friend, we used to go to Pebble Beach – it’s a golf course in Carmel [California], and we’d always go to Carmel every spring break, pretty much, and we’d always break into the golf course, because it’s right off the beach. And so all you have to do is just climb the rock, and then you’re on the golf course, basically. But it’s like members only – you’re not allowed to be up there, but we always did it.

What did you find fascinating as you got a peek behind the scenes of how Laika makes these movies? Was there something that really surprised you or just fascinated you about how they did it?

I think it’s unreal when you see it. Like how small these [puppets] are – they look so big on screen! The first time I went – I visited the Boxtrolls set, as well, but when I was on the Coraline set, we saw this lady who is a miniature knitter, so she sits there with tiny little needle and knits teeny mittens for the puppets, and teeny sweaters. I think there’s only two people like her, that can do what she does, in the world, and Laika has one of them. It’s insane. Everything you see on screen is made by someone -- and out of the weirdest materials. They use the craziest stuff that you would never think of, that looks like something else, and use all these illusions. It’s insane to think, I think like five seconds takes like two weeks to film. I was so scared when you’d get around the sets. They’d say, “Oh, this is a hot set.” You don’t want to touch anything! Because if I knock something over, it’d take them, like, three months to do again.

Did you enjoy being able to go to work and not have to deal with hair and makeup and wardrobe?

That was very nice, yeah. That was fun, you could just wear whatever you wanted. I always took my shoes off. I would get really comfortable. Yeah, also I feel like Winnie, she’s very excited, so I always stood up. I never sat down. They always had a little stool, but I always would prefer to stand, because I felt that’s what she would do.

How tough is the English accent for you?

Yeah, I was nervous, ‘cause, I mean, Sir Ben [Kingsley] and Isaac [Hempstead-Wright], they’re English, so, like, I have to mold and get this right, ‘cause it all has to do with the voice. I know that people will probably be picking it apart and stuff, so I wanted to make sure it was perfect. I had a dialect coach with me, but I had done the accent twice before: Ginger & Rosa and Maleficent. Even though they’re slightly different English accents, but I at least knew the rhythm of it already, so we just worked on finding Winnie’s voice. Hers was a little snootier, you know, ‘cause she is how she is.

Winnie seems to be very frank: She wants to say what she thinks, even though nobody listens to her. How are you with that? When you want to say what you think, do you just keep saying it until somebody listens?

I’m very hard-headed, in a way. I’m an Aries, so I guess it’s like a fire sign, so I definitely, I can relate to her, how if you want to say something, I just have to let it out. I’m not the type of person that I can hold things in. I just have to just say it every time. So, yeah in that way. Winnie obviously wants to get the attention of her father very badly, because she feels like he likes cheese more than he likes her. So that’s her goal, she just doesn’t want to be ignored.

What are you as obsessed about, as much as those characters are obsessed with cheese? Is there something that you eat, sleep, breathe, that you just can’t get enough of?

I am like a kind of OCD person, over certain things. This isn’t really a – nothing like the cheese, but I have a calendar in my room, and I’m very obsessed over it. Like, I write everything down and the time. Like today, I wrote in “Press” at the certain time. I mark it off and everything. So, maybe that’s something … It’s a Barbie calendar on the wall, yeah. Just with like with a pushpin on it … It’s completely full. I’ve gone through about five of them. Like for five years, I’ve been doing it, and we get the Barbie one every year, ‘cause they come out with the new one in the Barbie catalog. And every Christmas my mom orders me one, and I get to see which Barbies are going to be in there … I get really sad when you don’t have the Barbie that you want on your month. Like, April is my birthday, and if the April Barbie is in the brown suit, I’m like, “All right, let’s just not talk about it.” I love dolls. My whole family – my mom, my sister and me, we all collect dolls – especially these Madame Alexander dolls – and we keep them in a cabinet. We get one every kind of special occasion and every birthday. And I have my grandma’s and my mom’s that they kind of split up between me and my sister. I have a lot. Maybe a hundred.

Did you get one of these Boxtroll puppets as a souvenir?

Yes, I got a statue. My sister has Coraline, and I have a Winnie one.

You must have an Aurora one from Maleficent as well.

Oh, I do, yeah! There’s a funny story about that: My grandma, when the Sleeping Beauty dolls all came out, she went to the Disney Store, and got like every single one that was on the shelf, to like give to people. Then the people at the store were like, “You can only have five.” Like, “Lady ...” My grandma’s like, “No!” She must have looked so funny, just carrying all of these Aurora dolls of her granddaughter.

When did you realize you wanted to be an actress?

When I was two, I did “I Am Sam,” but that was kind of a coincidence, because I was on set that day, and I looked like my sister. They were like, “Oh, you should be in the flashback scenes.” They just put me in there. But I guess a moment where I realized, I was nine years old, and I did Phoebe in Wonderland and I played Phoebe, and it was a girl who had Tourette’s syndrome, and I realized that acting wasn’t just – you know it’s very fun, but it’s also work involved, and I had to meet with kids who had Tourette’s syndrome and observe them. And I really had a lot of input in that filming, instead of just being like a kid in a movie, so it was different, and I realized, “I like this.”

Did your sister inspire you?

Yeah, she definitely led the way in the sense that she started before me, so the little sister wants to do what the big sister does. So for sure in that way – I mean, we never talk about films, though. It’s just something that we don’t – I don’t know – she’ll come onto sets and things, but we’ll never like read each other’s scripts or get involved. Because we’re very like – I make my decisions, and she does hers. We’re separate in that way. But we’re very supportive.

Now that you have a lot of acting opportunities, is it difficult when you want to keep your life somewhat normal, like studying or saying no to things that maybe you want to do?

Right. I have a great school. I’ve been going since fourth grade, because I was homeschooled before that. They allow me to leave, and they send all the work with me. I have a very good teacher, and I have to do every single thing. I have to do all the homework and the classwork, and the tests, and I send it back the day it’s due for everyone else. So I know I just have to keep up, which is something that is always known …I’ll have two more years left of high school. I’ll be a junior.

What are you dying to do in a movie, that you haven’t gotten the chance to do? Is there some kind of scene or some kind of movie that you really just think “Please, give me this”?

Well, I guess it would be nice going from Sleeping Beauty – she’s always so happy all the time, it would be fun to do something a little maybe darker. I guess with Winnie, she’s pretty dark, so maybe that’s paving my way to doing a role that’s like that!

The Boxtrolls opens today nationwide.

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