Blue-eyed and blonde-haired, 13-year-old Elle Fanning has just finished seventh grade. She loves to draw, dance, and act. She lives with her family in a house in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, where her parents—Southern Baptists, her mother a former tennis player, her father an ex-minor–league baseball pro—moved from Conyers, Georgia, when Fanning was a toddler. This summer, a full year before she enrolls in high school, Fanning plans to go to Paris, already her favorite city in the world despite her never having visited. (“I want to go there so bad,” she says.) She also has three Hollywood movies premiering before Christmas, which she filmed under the supervision of mega-directors J.J. Abrams, Cameron Crowe, and Francis Ford Coppola.
Precociously talented child actors aren’t a new phenomenon in Hollywood—Jodie Foster dropped jaws in 1976 as a teen prostitute in Taxi Driver, Anna Paquin won an Academy Award at 11 for her work in 1993’s The Piano—but Fanning’s career trajectory is remarkable for its range and continuity, and for the fact that her older sister, 17-year-old actor Dakota Fanning, is already earning comparisons to Meryl Streep. In fact, Fanning’s entrée into the acting world was as a younger version of a character played by her sister. By age 4, she was striking out on her own, delivering astoundingly nimble performances in films like The Door in the Floor, Babel, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Fanning’s growing collection of on-screen Dads scans like the male half of People’s Most Beautiful list.) Last year, she appeared in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a tale of haute-bourgeois listlessness at the Chateau Marmont. It won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, the awards ceremony’s highest honor.
Talking to Fanning, one begins to appreciate the beguiling blend of childhood and professionalism she represents. She squeals, giggles, sprinkles her speech with cusp-of-teen parlance (“like,” “oh my god,” “you know?”)—in short, she’s genuinely delightful. She also handles an interview like a seasoned vet, summoning equal parts deflection and flattery. (Fanning on the possibility of future career clashes with Dakota: “We haven’t gotten really competitive with movies yet. I don’t think we ever will.”) Like many children still on the lunch-pail side of puberty, Fanning is comfortable with herself. She’s comfortable with her age, her acting, and her unique traits, which are just beginning to come into focus: goofiness, intelligence, the discipline of a prima ballerina.
On June 10, Abrams’ Super 8, a super-secret, super-big-budget adventure film about an Area 51 monster-alien unleashed on a sleepy Ohio town, will hit theaters. Like most of Abrams’ projects, Super 8 has been shrouded in a haze of secrecy so thick it seems yanked from one his screenplays for Lost. “We were sort of scared,” says Fanning about maintaining the strict code of silence. “We didn’t want to slip up and say anything.” Even during the auditioning process, the plot of Super 8 remained obscure. Then the script arrived. “It was just, like, the biggest thing ever,” Fanning trills in her helium-balloon falsetto. “J.J. was so good with us,” she recalls of filming Super 8. “When we were doing the big train-crash sequence, all these explosions were going on, and there were so many people everywhere—and then you have these six kids. He had to take care of us and make sure that we weren’t getting into trouble. There was fire.” When he wasn’t acting as a sort of paternal deus ex machina, issuing stage directions through his ever-present microphone, Abrams was “like one of the kids,” according to Fanning. “He’s obsessed with his iPhone, obsessed with Angry Birds. He’d just be sitting in his chair playing Angry Birds.”
As Abrams surely knows, being like one of the kids is the point. Super 8 is being backed by Amblin Entertainment, the production company co-founded by Steven Spielberg in 1981. For more than a generation of American high-schoolers, Amblin’s filmic aesthetic—E.T.’s flying bicycle, the Gremlins’ furry malevolence, the blazing tire treads Doc’s DeLorean leaves in the mall parking lot in Back to the Future—instantly conjures the terrible wonder of early adulthood. The chutes, traps, and treasure maps of The Goonies, were, of course, just metaphors for puberty, the most unknowable X mark of all.
In partnering with Spielberg for Super 8, Abrams meant to evoke the same giddy blend of science fiction and adolescence as early-’80s Amblin films. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting—or more telling—movie for Fanning to be starring in next. “[Super 8] is based in the ’70s , around the same time Steven and J.J. were growing up,” she says. “J.J. told me that Steven did exactly the same thing the kids in Super 8 are doing—he made crazy monster movies with his super 8 camera. You could tell he was really excited because he saw us doing what he did.”
With two other releases expected to hit theaters later this year (Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, adapted from the memoir by Benjamin Mee, and Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic, Dan Deacon-scored Twixt Now and Sunrise), red carpet appearances, and, most unnerving, eighth grade, Fanning might be the one struggling to stay free of adult cynicism. When Twixt wrapped production in Napa, California, earlier this year, Ford Coppola—“I feel like he’s my Italian grandfather now!”—gave Fanning a piece of advice: “He told me, ‘You always have to love it. You can never just act because someone else wants you to. You always have to feel it in your heart,’ which, well, I thought that was great.” Giggling, as if realizing it for the first time, she says, “And it’s so true!”
Photography by Yu Tsai. Styling by Britt Bardo.