Elle Fanning is perfect & has no awkward stage

A seven year old girl travels slumped in her babysitter's arms, face sooty and sad eyes heavy, being lugged aimlessly through the crushing Tijuana desert heat with neither home nor help in sight. She's too tired to be scared but we're terrified for her. The same girl, now age 11 and a willowy 5'7", ice-skates in slow circles while her father watches with tenuous and bleary-eyed attention. But we can't take our eyes off her. At 14, she's a copper-headed beatnik in October 1962, protesting the bomb that could wipe out a world she's barely had the chance to see. Elle Fanning has grown up in movies. In fact, she says, "I can't really remember my life without movies." Fanning landed her first job at two years old on the set of I Am Sam, starring her older sister, Dakota, when the director needed someone to play the character in a flashback. "When I watch it now, it's like looking through old baby photos." She then delivered a series of her own small but virtuoso performances in big-screen prestige pieces--The Door in the Floor, Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (And in at least one Smucker's TV spot. "I had the best time on that commercial," she says. "I ate all those sandwiches.") But it was her first starring role, at age nine, as a girl with Tourette's syndrome in Phoebe in Wonderland, that made critics take notice. Surrounded by indie heavyweights, including Felicity Huffman and Patricia Clarkson, it was Fanning who was praise as "mesmerizing."

If she channels her characters--girls struggling as much with their own adolescence as with their dramatic circumstances--with pitch perfect authenticity, it's because she was never a typically precocious child star. "I liked that she was a real kid, not a miniature adult," says Sofia Coppola, who cast Fanning as the daughter of a half-present celebrity dad in 2010's Somewhere. Coppola's languid art-house style captured both Fanning's natural effervescence (that was really her playing Guitar Hero) and her formidable wellspring of emotion (during a pivotal scene in which Fanning's Cleo begins crying in her father's Ferrari, Coppola says she was surprised by how the girl "was able to be so emotional for so long filming on a car rig"). Fanning, 14, as in a studio outside London filming Maleficent, the big-budget Sleeping Beaty tale told from the perspective of the mother of all fairy-tale villains, played by Angelina Jolie. The complexities of the production don't faze Fanning: "There's lots of green screen, blue screen, every kind of screen you can think of. You really have to use your imagination." But how does she feel about her costar? "She's incredible," says Fanning , barely getting the words out before bursting into gawky teen-girl laughter. "And she's so beautiful." Super 8 writer-director J.J. Abrams is equally effusive about Fanning, who played a sweet but rebellious townie hunted by a mysterious otherworldly beast: "She was the most believable, the most intelligent, the most sophisticated, the easiest to give notes to. Just the right fit for the part." Pause. "The right fit for most parts." (Hear ye, casting agents). But Fanning--who begins high school in Los Angeles this year, and yes, she is nervous about all that honors bio homework--would be the first to tell you that it all takes keen effort. Before shooting writer-director Sally Potter's upcoming Ginger & Rosa, in which Fanning plays the anxious teen antinuke protester, she says, "we talked a lot about the script. You have to talk about the story and the characters and all the complexities so that you understand them--100 percent, for cure no questions, no doubts--before you start filming. Then you can just go for it, play, and change things up before you know the character." There's a scene in Super 8 in which Fanning's Alice agrees to act in her schoolmate's film project. She floors the film-nerd pack (and us) with a soulful performance and then snaps out of it with a self-conscious "Was that good?" Here, life doesn't imitate art: The real girl would never have to ask.

Q: Of all the industry heavyweights you've worked with, who was the most intimidating?
A: I was on the set of Somewhere in Las Vegas when Sofia [Coppola] said, "My dad's going to come to the set today!" I was like, Oh my God, Francis Ford Coppola's coming to the set. I was very nervous to meet him. Now I feel like he's a grandpa to me. During Twixt [a festival-circuit film Fanning later shot with Coppola Sr.], I stayed in Napa Valley with him. We made pasta, and he showed me how to prepare tomato sauce.

Q: Is it hard to have a normal childhood in Hollywood?
A: It's no different, really. I make movies the same way other kids play tennis or go to piano lessons. I'm trying to get better at what I want to do, just like other kids are trying to get better at what they want to do.

Q: You've worked with some amazing actresses. What have you learned from them?
A: It's all about observing them. And what I've seen is how they treat everyone else on set. And they're always so polite and so nice.

Q: Who is your Hollywood icon?
A: I saw The Seven Year Itch at about seven years old. It's part of what made me really want to be an actress. That Halloween I was Marilyn Monroe in the white dress, with the mole. I went to the vintage Levi's store in London yesterday, and they had denim from every decade. The lady said that the '50s jeans were the ones Marilyn Monroe used to wear--not the actual jeans, but the same style. They were high-waisted, and they tapered at the calf. I'm still thinking about them. Maybe I'll get them for Christmas. Then I can look like Marilyn Monroe.

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