Elle Fanning on Making The Neon Demon

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The Neon Demon (2016)

Hannah Lack sits down with the beguiling star of Nicolas Winding Refn’s new movie – a compelling study of Hollywood's blood-thirsty obsession with youth and beauty

Elle Fanning was on camera before she could walk, and at 18 the precociously talented actress is already a Hollywood veteran. She followed older sister Dakota into the movies aged two – her first co-stars were Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer in drama I Am Sam. Since then, the actress has drifted around the Chateau Marmont in Sofia Coppola’s autopsy of Hollywood ennui Somewhere, played a wayward British teenager in Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa and Sleeping Beauty opposite Angelina Jolie in Maleficent. In May this year, Fanning swapped her high school prom for a cinematic coming-of-age at the Cannes premiere of The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s glittering, macabre vision of Los Angeles and its blood-thirsty obsession with youth and beauty. Fanning plays Jesse, a wide-eyed aspiring model who is sucked into the piranha pool of the LA fashion scene, a netherworld of steely models with ice-pick stares, sleazy pimps, S&M clubs and haunted Hollywood mansions. On a recent trip to London, Fanning spoke to AnOther about the director’s visceral tale of savagery lurking beneath LA’s lip-gloss shiny surface.

On Nicolas Winding Refn and Barbie dolls…
"Nic Refn is the king of violence and blood – which of course he’s brought into this movie set in the fashion world. For our first meeting I went over to his house in LA and there were princess clothes everywhere, and Barbie dolls, and I met his two daughters and his wife. He explained the premise of The Neon Demon, how at the core of it, it’s about people’s obsession with beauty, and how destructive that can be. The darkness of it attracted me for sure, and I wanted to be part of the fantasy world he creates. We shot some scenes in the Paramour Mansion, this giant old house in Silverlake – it’s supposed to be haunted. You can rent it out for sleepovers!"

On Valley of the Dolls and The Wizard of Oz…
"Nick suggested I watch Valley of the Dolls, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, these horror-esque movies with female casts, that are also based on the classic 'Star is Born' premise – a girl from a small town moves to the big city to try to become 'a star' – and what happens to her on that journey. We also talked about Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, because my character Jesse is kind of plopped into LA. You don’t necessarily know her backstory, her parents… She’s just placed in this new, shiny world. We were creating a dark, dark fairytale – and we ended up making Jesse much darker than she was in the script."

On the craziest day on set…
"There were a lot of those, but Keanu Reeves putting a knife down my throat was probably a once in a lifetime thing! But I actually found it fine. Keanu is the most polite guy you’ll ever meet, he made sure I was OK! Through the whole filming, Nic gave me more freedom than I’ve ever had before. Some days we’d show up and he’d say, well, what do you want to do today? I work a lot off instinct, so I’d just take it and run with it. Nic threw the ending away in the middle of filming. You have to really trust your director to deal with that!"

On Los Angeles and narcissism…
"The movie is completely exaggerated fantasy, but of course there’s a competitiveness in Hollywood, in the acting world. A lot of it is about the way you look. It’s so intense and harsh. And you do feel pressures, especially growing up when you’re a teenage girl and your body is changing, but then you’re also being judged by the way you look. It’s hard! There’s a scene in The Neon Demon where my character transforms on the catwalk – she changes. You see it all in her face. She’s falling in love with herself, with her reflection, like the Greek myth of Narcissus. That whole sequence took us two days to film, with Nic constantly blasting this one, very dreamlike song from the 1950s – the rhythm of it felt very much like falling in love. Abbey [Lee Kershaw] taught me how to do the model walk for that!"

On her first memory of being on set…
"When I was four I did a movie called The Door in the Floor – Jeff Bridges played my dad and Kim Basinger played my mom. In between takes, Jeff Bridges taught me how to draw. When you’re little you draw sticks for the legs, right? With round shoes. And Jeff is a very good artist so he was like, 'legs aren’t that skinny, draw four lines so the legs are fatter.' That’s the first memory I have of acting. After that, there was no other thing I ever wanted to do." 

The Neon Demon is in cinemas nationwide from July 8, 2016.