Guest of Honor

Elle Fanning Has Empathy, Luck, Friends

In "Low Down," young actor Elle Fanning gives her first performance depicting a real-life subject... who was there every day to watch.

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ROBYN BECK / Getty Images
ROBYN BECK / Getty Images

At the age of 16, Elle Fanning has delivered a collection of acclaimed acting performances – you may have seen her as Princess Aurora in “Maleficent” (which happens to be the second-highest grossing film of 2014) or as Cleo, the daughter of Stephen Dorff’s character in Sofia Coppola’s Cannes-winning “Somewhere.” This week, she stars in the gritty-but-tender indie film “Low Down.” It’s based on a memoir by Amy-Jo Albany — who Ms. Fanning portrays on screen — about her life with her father, noted 1960s and 70s jazz musician Joe Albany.

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Rico Gagliano: Both Amy in “Low Down” and your character in “Somewhere” seem to be young women quietly drifting through life. That seems so the opposite of you — you’ve been on this major career path for half your life.  How do you relate to these characters?

Elle Fanning: I do in a funny way feel similar to them. I think just because, maybe, I’m a very strong observer.  And maybe that’s why I love acting — because I feel like I can look into someone else’s life and absorb what they go through. Amy and Cleo in those movies, they were watching a lot. I could relate to that.

Rico Gagliano: It’s interesting that you mention that because, you’re right, this character doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, the action is very minimal, it’s a very slowly-paced film. Tell me about the challenges of that, when you don’t have dialogue to rely on.

Elle Fanning: Right! I think that the biggest challenge was actually playing a real character, a real person. I have never done that before. That was huge. You’re given someone’s life, in a way, and Amy was there, on set, every single day. So I had a huge pressure, I felt. She would call me all the time. One time, I was in the airport, got a call from Amy, and I was, like, pacing through the terminal, talking to Amy about Amy. Also, she hates getting her picture taken, so we didn’t have a lot of pictures of her from when she was a teenager, either, so we had to ask her a lot.

Rico Gagliano: You had very little to draw on. Actually, that’s fascinating — what guidance did she give you about how to play her, or not to play her?

Elle Fanning: We would have these conversations and I would mostly, again, look at her. Like, secretly. Maybe it’s a little stalker-ish, but I would pick up on her mannerisms and gestures and things without her kinda knowing it.

Rico Gagliano: What’s an example? What’s something that she does all the time that maybe even she didn’t notice?

Elle Fanning: Well, she’s kind of very shy, and so she kind of guards herself. Her posture is kind of more downward, so I definitely picked up on that. More slumped shoulders. And especially at that time, she was living in such a big world with her dad, you know, with the music, and so she was a little more hidden.

And we talked about her experiences. She always said how much she loved her Dad. I found that fascinating because he was addicted to heroin, and there’s a lot of tough things that went with that, and she never seemed resentful. She always said — there’s a line in her book and we have it in the movie — she’s like, “I loved him out of all proportion.” She’s like, “I had amazing times with my Dad, we had the most fun.  He would call me funny nicknames…” And so we wanted to incorporate that too. That it wasn’t just all harsh.

Rico Gagliano: Even so, there are a lot of moments of real sadness and pain in this movie. I can imagine that being really daunting, to enact those moments with the person you’re portraying standing there on the set with you.

Elle Fanning: Yeah, definitely. It was hard. We filmed Glenn Close’s character —

Rico Gagliano: Who plays your grandmother.

Elle Fanning: — Yeah, she plays my grandmother, and the apartment building that we shot in was Amy’s real grandmother’s apartment building. It wasn’t the same room, but it was the same building.
Glenn Close and Elle Fanning in a scene from LOW DOWN, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Elle Fanning: For me it was a challenge, but also, I’m like, “Amy’s watching and I want to get it right.”

She was ‘RA’ and I was ‘FA,’ because she was ‘Real Amy,’ so R-A, and I was ‘Fake Amy,’ I was F-A. That’s what we called each other.

Rico Gagliano: My God; that is so meta!

Elle Fanning: Yes!

Rico Gagliano: Was she living these things again through you, or do you think she has enough distance from it?

Elle Fanning: That would probably be something you would have to ask her, I think. But we had the premiere the other day and I saw her, and even though I’m sure she’s seen the movie with different edits and all these cuts so many different times, she did say, “Every single time I watch it again, I feel the feelings and the emotions come up.”

Rico Gagliano: Actually, I like the feel of this movie a lot. It kind of feels like the West Coast jazz the characters play — it’s very mellow and also very sad. Were you at all a jazz fan before shooting?

Elle Fanning: [Laughing] I was not! Jeff [Preiss] is so passionate about it, the director.  And you know, it was always playing on set. And also Flea – he’s in the movie –

Rico Gagliano: Of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for those who don’t know.

Elle Fanning: –Yeah! And he’s a huge jazz fan. There’s one scene where he’s explaining to my character about all these records by these different musicians and he knows all these songs… and that was completely ad-libbed. Because Flea just knows so much information.

Rico Gagliano: He also runs, for those who don’t know, a conservatory of music here in Los Angeles.

Were there any jazz artists you particularly got into as a part of making this movie that you now listen to?

Elle Fanning: Oh, lord… You’re putting me on the spot!

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, Flea is listening right now.

Elle Fanning: I can’t… Ugh. This is awful. This is so disappointing. I mean, Joe’s music was always playing. Joe Albany. So there we go… Bird!

Rico Gagliano: Bird Parker?

Elle Fanning: Yeah! He’s incredible.

Rico Gagliano: Alright, we have two questions that we ask everyone on this show. The first question is, if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?

Elle Fanning: You know what? This is such a funny one, it’s so interesting. Press or whatever, they always ask me, “Do you have any friends?” And I just think that’s the saddest thing. Like, why would you ask me that?

Rico Gagliano: Because you’re a young actress, basically?

Elle Fanning: Yeah, but I’m like, well, I go to normal school, I think I have a lot of friends! It’s just a weird assumption that they think I’m always working and doing this. I look at movies as extra-curricular. A lot of my friends do tennis, I do movies. You know?

Rico Gagliano: I think it’s because people don’t expect to meet someone so young having a real career. And I know my career takes up all my time, so I figure it must with you? But you, you just wing it.

Elle Fanning: Yeah! Exactly!

Rico Gagliano: Alright, here’s our second question, which is more of a demand, really. Tell us something we don’t know.

Elle Fanning: You know, something about me, I always carry a chicken wishbone in my purse. At all times. My dad gets the rotisserie chicken and it’s our thing: we have to pull the wishbone.  And I never win, ever. A couple years ago, I actually finally won, you know, the longer side, so I keep that longer side with me.

Rico Gagliano: You still have that same wishbone from that one time years ago?

Elle Fanning: Same one! And whenever I switch out purses, I gotta put the wishbone in there. It gives me good vibes and good luck.

Rico Gagliano: It seems to be working so far.

Elle Fanning: Yeah!