When Elle Fanning first met director Sally Potter during her audition for the film "Ginger and Rosa" she was only 12 years old. The role called for someone 16.
"I went in anyway and met with Sally," says the actress, who turns 15 on April 9. "We had an instant bond and became very close."
Rarely do you see an actor playing someone older, especially one so young, but Fanning, who has been in films since she was 2, displays an amazing onscreen maturity. Talk to her, though, and you realize she still giggles a lot and has the enthusiasm of a young teen.
Among her already many films and TV appearances are J.J. Abrams' "Super 8," Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo." Not a bad group of directors to have on your resume.
In Potter's film, coming out in limited release on Friday, Fanning plays Ginger, a East London schoolgirl in 1962 coping with her parents' dysfunctional marriage and the paranoia of nuclear destruction heightened by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her best friend, born on the same day in 1945, is Rosa (Alice Englert of "Beautiful Creatures"). "Mad Men's" Christina Hendricks plays Ginger's mother and Alessandro Nivola is her unreliable dad. Annette Bening is a poet and anti-nuclear activist who gives guidance to the girl.
Obviously, the actress's age didn't bother Potter. By the time Fanning - who at around 5 feet, 8 inches
"Sally would also talk about how the age wasn't significant because it was about what the character was going through," Fanning says. "And also I could relate because when I filmed it at 13, I was a teenager, and teenage girls, we're sort of all the same. So I could relate."
The script by Potter, 63, who had based the story on some of her own experiences, is written from Ginger's point of view, so casting of the part was crucial for the film. The director ("Orlando," "The Man Who Cried") says that in Fanning she never met anyone so "hungry, able and willing to take directorial notes."
By 1965, fears of nuclear annihilation had become part of the popular culture. A hit song on the radio then called "Eve of Destruction" had the line: "If the button is pushed, there's no runnin' away," but during the crisis in '62, many young people were beginning to realize the implications of that. Newspapers at the time would publish front-page stories with maps that laid out projected death and destruction areas, while TV news was bringing the story into homes in a real way for the first time.
Fanning, a freshman at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, says when she first got the part in "Ginger ; Rosa" she was learning about the Cold War era.
"Sally, of course, she grew up during that time, and she remembers it very well. She went on all the marches, and she had a lot of pictures of herself at the marches and she would show me and Alice and tell us what it was like so we could imagine it," Fanning said. "Knowing that it was that close to being all destroyed seemed very scary."
When we talked, Fanning was in South Africa shooting "Young Ones" with Nicholas Hoult and Michael Shannon. She describes the movie, written and directed by Jake Paltrow (Gwyneth's brother), as "cool," and notes, "It's set in the future, but a sort of realistic future where everyone is sort of having to survive."
In "Ginger ; Rosa," the actress - who first appeared in movies when she played a younger version of her older sister, Dakota, in "I Am Sam" - had to do an accent for the first time.
"Because it was in the '60s, they used different terms. So I worked with a dialect coach to get it right." she says. "We filmed in East London, so the whole crew spoke that way. But I definitely worked hard on it."
Fanning also used a British accent while shooting "Maleficent" with Angelina Jolie in England. The reimagining of the "Sleeping Beauty" story is set to come out for the July 4 weekend. Fanning plays Princess Aurora, the innocent obsession of Jolie's evil title character, in the movie directed by Robert Stromberg, the production designer on "Avatar" and "Oz the Great and Powerful."
"There's definitely a lot of green screens and suits," says Fanning about the film. "I don't know what the world is going to look like when people see it on the screen because you just have to sort of imagine what it was while standing there. I'll see when the movie comes out what it's is going to look like."
Whenever she's on location a teacher goes with her: "I do all the tests and all the homework and everything that my class is supposed to do; so when I go back I will be on track." Outside of school, she takes a lot of ballet classes. (She showed off her skills in the 2010 drama "Somewhere.")
"I love going to the ballet," says Fanning, who sometimes attends performances with her teacher. "We have fun talking about it and analyzing it afterwards." And like other teens, she loves music, listing Beyonce ("She's sort of the ultimate"), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Lana Del Rey ("She's so beautiful and incredible") among her favorites.
Fanning says she definitely wants to go to college: "My sister is at NYU right now, so I want to do that as well."
But she says acting has always been it for her, noting that even as a small kid she would love to play dress up.
"I'm glad that I started when I did," says Fanning. "There isn't anything else I want to do. I want to be in movies the rest of my life, and I hope that I can."