Interview: Elle Fanning Talks “Mary Shelley”

You don’t usually end up interviewing the same actor twice at the same festival and two days in a row. But it did happen to me when I got the opportunity to speak with Elle Fanning, a young and very talented actress who carefully chooses the roles she portrays. If you already know who I am talking about, and have seen her movies, then you should probably check out her latest work “Mary Shelley”, where she portrays the title character, the author of Frankenstein.

During the Toronto international Film Festival, I had the great honor to sit down with Elle Fanning to discuss her approach and way of understanding Mary Shelley. Some questions were too challenging for the young individual, but I was amazed with the way she handled every single of them with subtle intelligence.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was the main reason you decided to portray Mary Shelley? Is it because of Mary Shelley herself or Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female director from Saudi Arabia?

Elle Fanning: It was a mixture of a lot of things. In fact, there had been a script about “Mary Shelley” for a while that I was hearing about. I think a lot of people have been trying to make a film about Mary Shelley. It’s just that her life is so extraordinary. And not many people are aware of her story. I read Frankenstein and we studied it in school. Mary Shelley is the author and all real talk about the Geneva portion and then the ghost story like that tale which is kind of true but is that’s not the most interesting thing about her. There’s so much more that people don’t know about her. So when I heard that there was this script, and Haifaa became attached to it, she wanted to meet with me. I was very excited. But also, it’s always so scary when you read the script, especially since this was a dauntingly big challenge.

I watched Haifaa’s film before meeting her and I after we met I so understood why Haifaa wanted to be the director of this movie. Because she, I think, is so sensitive to Mary and relates a lot to her and I knew that she would just bring a lot of heart and spirit. Haifaa is very feisty too. And so strong. This story had to be told by a female director and there were so many female crew members and kind of heads of departments that were female on our film, our editor was female, main producer was female. So it just felt very inspiring to be surrounded by women, telling the story, it just felt right to Mary, to me. That’s kind of how I got involved after that meeting where I agreed to do it together. And then it was just preparing for it, and then we filmed in Ireland and Luxembourg.

MOVIEMOVESME: Mary Shelley is not an easy character to play. She is a very emotional character and you just nailed it. How did you get ready for her?

Elle Fanning: People always ask those questions of how I prepare to get into character. How did I do this? And sometimes it’s easier than other roles, because you’re like playing an ice skater or something. I say, well I skated and that how I did that. But for this, I mean, Mary Shelley, you can’t read. I fantasize about a lot of things. I live in my head and I’m very imaginative. So I just daydream a lot. So I kind of just sit there and think about any character I do. But I think particularly for Mary Shelley a lot of like self-reflection was important. And being able to know that the story is the most important thing. So at a certain point you can look for so many things up on the Internet, about her facts. But that didn’t help me as much as going back to the script. The script was so beautifully written and the story was what mattered and what this woman tracking that emotional journey. So that’s always what I kind of refer to. I mean, you just put yourself in her shoes.

It’s hard to describe how it feels, but each year everything feels different. And after filming this movie I felt older. I feel like I learned something and I was kind of led into it. I do think that after the movie started a new chapter in my life more of knowing what it is to be a woman maybe or realizing that Mary Shelley gave me that gift of maturity and knowing what it is to be a seed in a story.

MOVIEMOVESME: Could you talk about working with the female directors?

Elle Fanning: It was really interesting because the last films I’ve done apart from one but four in a row were all female directors. It was Haifaa and Sophia Coppola, and Melanie Ronald and Reagan Ron. I can’t say that I chose this script because they were female. I think I chose the script because the story is amazing and I really respect them as directors. Because they are amazing. But it is important, I think, to be very aware of who you work with. And if you’re to hire women, that’s the only way there will be more women, that they have the opportunities to do so. So that means to even push further. And I know it’s so strange when people come in to talk about that’s why we have this percent of women in industry. What is that? Oh cool. Why are you saying that? I don’t know if it’s a good thing if that percentage keeps growing obviously, and it’s great too. It’s so cool that people are talking about it, it needs to be talked about. But in order to do so, I guess, we have to get over this hurdle which we’re all kind of experiencing right now. And hopefully this movie inspires that. it’s made for young women in particular. There’s a period piece in it, but there’s a lot of modern elements to it that people can relate to. So hopefully young girls would go and see it and feel inspired. I also just try to be different with everything I choose because I want to be as far away from Elle as possible.

MOVIEMOVESME: How was it working with Bel Powley?

Elle Fanning:  I love Bel. It’s very rare when you do a film where a lot of young people would gather. For me at least, I always feel like I’m the youngest person and I’m surrounded by a lot of adults which I don’t find is a bad thing. But it was really fun to get to hang out together. And Bel in particular we always find it so funny. I play the older sister, much older than me. She’s so tiny and we would joke around a lot about that. You know we have had rehearsals before a little bit. We had a good table read but the bond was kind of very strong right away.

MOVIEMOVESME: How was it for you to portray a character who would struggle to get her book published because of being a woman?

Elle Fanning: Sad. I feel like it is kind of a modern issue and still relevant. I know like friends that have scripts about women for women. Women are complicated and nuanced and they fight. it takes years for them to get something done. And they have to fight for it and in a room full of men. The story of Mary Shelley is something that’s still happening today. So even though you know it’s a period piece, but I am happy that Mary Shelley did live to get to see her name on the book at least.

MOVIEMOVESME: Mary Shelley was also someone who had to live and even loved a man who was for ‘free love’. At some point, he even gets angry at Mary saying, ‘Why wouldn’t you positively answer to the advances of my friend?’. I wonder, how was it for you to deal with that part of Mary and her realities of life?

Elle Fanning: I think I got a lot of growth. It is very confusing for her, because she thought that she believed in these ideas and thoughts. She believed in free love. And then she would read her mother’s book religiously, which was like her Rights of Vindication of the rights of woman, it was called. When it hit her and the things that actually happened to her, I think there is a lot of hypocrisy, because she also kind of believed in love at first sight and was a helpless romantic. And it’s also the balance of how can you believe those things but they also believe in this kind of free love. You can be with anybody. So that was it. That was a struggle.

MOVIEMOVESME: What if you could get a chance to travel back in time. What would you tell Mary Shelley?

Elle Fanning: Oh, Wow. I think I would want to ask her a bunch of questions. I do. Gosh. I think I would want to understand more about the kind of monster relating to her and why she thought that the monster in Frankenstein was her. Because I think, that’s what I feel she believes. And she feels Percy is Victor Frankenstein who’s kind of created this monster. I feel like I would want to ask her what she thinks of herself.

MOVIEMOVESME: Was there something you disliked about Percy Shelley?

Elle Fanning: Gosh. Well I didn’t meet him. But in the film I love how passionate he is about things. I love the rebellious nature that he has inside him. I think that anybody who is willing to risk a lot of things for something that they believe in. I really respect that. I think Percy has that, so I do love that. I feel like he’s careless, not very much at least. He doesn’t seem compassionate at times to other people’s feelings. And it’s completely wrong.

MOVIEMOVESME: You were in the same movie with Nicole Kidman twice. How is it working with her?

Elle Fanning:  I love Nicole. She’s someone who is super light. She’s very motherly and protective of me. I believe I had a lot of, like mothers, in my life but she really took me under her wing. Now that we’ve done two movies together I do feel like I know her pretty well. And she was someone on my list forever to want to work with. Moulin Rouge is my favorite movie growing up and also just her. She’s like anybody else. And her ability to transform and go. She just risked it all. I feel like you see that on screen how she just goes for it and you just can see it. And she’s just a lovely lady.

MOVIEMOESME: What is it that you like about acting?

Elle Fanning: I love it all. I love it. I think most fun is that feeling of when you’ve finally been working on a character for and you’re always so nervous before the first day of filming. I was about to go to a Woody Allen film on Friday. You can do so much preparation but you never know what the set is going to feel like on the first day or what you’re going to be like and I kind of love that feeling. I like the pressure and I was also saying I kind of like suffering a little bit, not in a bad way. Not in uncomfortable away. But like after doing the scene to go home and the entire body is sore and you have like bruises that reminds you – you worked really hard. You just feel like ‘OK’ you’ve given it your all that day. And I love that feeling.

MOVIEMOVESME: What does for an actor mean to cross the line to deliver the most convincing and believable performance?

Elle Fanning: Oh! Gosh! There’s so many. I mean I think it’s important also to depict women. I would love to play it. And that is which I do. I think Mary Shelley is a strong woman as well. She has this very sensitive heart. She has so many different emotions. She is strong. She’s had to overcome a lot. But I think that there’s so many different types of women in the world in each, you know, not only one category can be portrayed. So I’m just going to continue to kind of show off all sides of us.

MOVIEMOVESME: What is it that you felt about Mary Shelly?

Elle Fanning: Oh my God. I thought the whole room was to come some time. It was neat to get to play with the vulnerability of a strong woman. I think a lot of her had to do with holding it in and I think she suppressed a lot of hell just from what I’ve read it. So I think I worked to try to be as subtle as possible in the film.

MOVIEMOVESME: You’re about to turn twenty, and you’re also too young to answer this question. But I guess you’re wise enough to answer. Anne Hathaway once said that she was not cast for one role because she was found too old to portray the character. Is it something you’re afraid to experience? That one day someone might tell you; “you’re too old, while you’re in your early 30s?

Elle Fanning:  That is so infuriating isn’t it? When you look at a lot of actresses like Nicole Kidman, who doesn’t look old at all or Annette Bening who I worked with. She’s still so beautiful, so gracefully aging and so like me. And I think they are on top of their game. I mean I think it’s just kind of the mindset you have to have. But I think that’s so so gross. You know that someone would say that it’s like sorry everybody ages. You have to tell them not to do it.

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