Elle Fanning is superb voicing the feisty, upper-crust 11-year-old Winnifred Portley-Rind in LAIKA’s beautiful 3D stop-motion animated fantasy-adventure, The Boxtrolls, opening September 26th. When scheming social climber Archibald Snatcher (Sir Ben Kingsley) attempts to exterminate the kind creatures that raised the orphan boy Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Winnie helps her new friend devise a daring plan to save his adopted family. Not only was Fanning drawn to playing the sassy character with a big heart and a dark imagination, but she liked what the unique story had to say about love and courage.
At a recent roundtable interview, Fanning talked about finding the right frame of mind to play her character, her inspirations for Winnie’s voice, how her voice-over experience compared to regular acting, what it was like using a posh English accent, how she created the right environment in the recording booth, the appeal of fantasy and how it provides a fun escape, her interest in ballet, her plans to attend college after high school, what she’s learned from traveling around the world, her desire to one day write and direct, and her upcoming projects: Young Ones, Low Down, Trumbo and A Storm in the Stars. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
There are so many elements to The Boxtrolls and morality tales within the fabric of the story. When you first read the script, what stood out to you the most?
ELLE FANNING: I liked that you have to sometimes get into a situation that might not be a comfortable one – so, overcome your fear and good things will happen — if you want someone to know something, or you have to really take charge and do it yourself and go for it. With the Boxtrolls, they want people to know they’re not mean guys, but they’re too scared to show anyone. They have to eventually work up the courage to show that and gain the confidence.
Can you talk about finding the wicked frame of mind to play your character? Winnie is very different from most young girls in animated films.
FANNING: She is! I love that. You look at her and you think, “Oh, she looks so cute and sweet.” She has that little Shirley Temple look, but she’s obsessed with these grotesque things – she loves blood – and I liked that opposite. That was fun to play. I feel like audiences at first probably won’t want to like her because she’s a little bratty and spoiled, but then she definitely grows on you and you realize she’s not mean-spirited. She means well. She’s feisty. She has an attitude. I respected her sass. (Laughs) I liked playing that, because I had never really done that before. She is a very different character for me, so it was neat to exaggerate it. It’s funny, because there were a couple drafts of the script where she was a lot meaner. Then they were like, “Maybe we should tone it down and make her a little more likable,” but we kept her snootiness a little bit.
Did you have a chance to see her before you picked the voice?
FANNING: When they sent the script, they sent a big notebook of sketches and the color themes of the movie, and she was sketched in there. She wasn’t completely her final self now, but each time I would go in to do the [voice-over] sessions, they would show me more and more of her progress. It was close to the last session, they finally made her walk. For about two seconds, we saw Winnie walk, and you just have to get inspiration from that. And the animators get inspired by our voices, too, so that helps them. They record our faces while we speak, so some of my facial expressions are in her.
When you go in to do recording sessions that are spread out over time, and it’s an accent and voice that’s not your own, do you have to have them play the tape back for you a little to remind you what you sounded like, or do you recall it easily?
FANNING: Obviously the English accent was a big part, and I had done it two times before, but still, hers is a little more posh, so I worked with a dialect coach to get that right, and she was with me when I was there. Sometimes they’d be like, “That was a great delivery. We’re moving on!” And she’d be like, “No! That one word just sounded terrible. Do it again.” (Laughs) So then I’d have to re-do it. She was kind of like my playback. She was there marking things down and listening. You have Sir Ben Kingsley and Isaac Hempstead Wright – they’re English, so I can’t sound bad. I have to sound good and like I’m actually British.
Do you find voice-over work strange since acting is such a give-and-take experience? Is recording solo a unique challenge?
FANNING: It was. I was kind of scared at first to do that because when you’re on set, a lot of the things going on around you – the environment and playing off other actors – and that’s what makes it easier and helps you to be in your character. So, realizing you’re not going to have that and you’re going to be secluded in this booth, it’s like, “How am I going to be a character when I’m just in these walls?” The first time we did it, I was trying to use my face and my eyes more so and really portray that emotion, and that didn’t matter. I realized you have to bring that emotion into the way you sound, and all those different layers have to be in your voice instead of the way you are wrinkling your eyebrows or whatever. I had to learn how to do that.
Sir Ben Kingsley talked about sitting in a chair and keeping his body completely still. Were there any tricks that you used like that?
FANNING: With Winnie, she’s very energetic, so I always took my shoes off. It was more comfortable to. I always went barefoot. They had a little stool for me to sit down in, but I would never sit down. I was always very active and moving a lot. That could have definitely helped. In a weird way, you try to create a climate for yourself in your head. Even if it’s not the way the animators are animating it, it’s what you imagine so you can step into a place and it won’t sound weird. If you’re in a tunnel, you have to imagine you’re in the tunnel, and you’re screaming because they’re far away. You have to create that for yourself.
FANNING: It was strange, because obviously she’s not me. In My Neighbor Totoro, my sister and I did that, but I was really small and I don’t remember it much. So hearing her talk like me, it is a weird thing. It’s a funny experience. But then you get used to it and you feel like, “Well, I don’t sound like myself,” and also you’re not as self-conscious because you’re not seeing your face on screen, so you feel like you’re kind of hiding behind this little puppet and it’s OK to watch. (Laughs)
Have you been told if there will be toys of your characters?
FANNING: I hope so. I think they might’ve been talking about that. I think there will.
I remember you talking about the toys from Maleficent and your grandmother…
FANNING: Yeah, my grandma was grabbing all the… (Laughs) Yeah!
I’m picturing your grandmother having to go back to the store…
FANNING: Yeah, they might turn her down. She’s buying too many. (Laughs)
Given your body of work and especially films like Maleficent, what do you think is the appeal of fantasy for women and girls?
FANNING: In a funny way, acting, to me, is all make-believe, even if the film has unicorns in it or is a normal movie that can be set in real-life time. I’m still imagining that I’m a different character, so it’s all, in a funny way, like fantasy. But when you do go see those films that have funny creatures or Boxtrolls, those don’t exist. But who knows? It’s fun because you can escape and learn about what other people’s minds have created. It inspires you to think maybe you could come up with a creature yourself. I like that.
Do you think it distracts from the pressures and complexities of life and the modern world?
FANNING: Yeah, it definitely does. It’s like, “I can escape from this world and live in a different world for the two hours of this film.” Then when I walk out of the movie theater, I can still be thinking about it and maybe I’ll still be living in that world. It’s just fun. It’s like dressing up when you’re little or putting on little shows or plays.
When I was your age, I was thinking about clothes, boys, and going to the movies. What are you into?
FANNING: I do a lot of ballet. That’s something I’ve always done and still do. I go to a normal school, so I’ll be starting school next week. Summer will be over. But I only have two more years and then I graduate, so that’s exciting. But yeah, when I film, it’s only three months. Four is probably max. That’s a long time that I’m gone filming a movie. Then when I’m not, I’m just at home, going to school, going to ballet classes. I used to play sports in school, but it was hard to do that because you’re part of a team and you don’t want to let your team down. So [I’m doing] more individualized extra-curriculars, I guess.
What’s the last thing you’ve seen at the movies?
FANNING: What did I see? Oh, I saw Lucy with friends. That was my last time, which was pretty recently.
You have two more years in high school. What do you have planned after that?
FANNING: Well, this year I take the SATs and ACTs and all that stuff, so my mom wants me to go on a college tour – East and West Coasts – and I think I’m going to do that. I just have to find my place. My sister goes to NYU and she loves it, and I have to find the match that I like. She still works while she’s in school, so hopefully I can do that.
What will you study and major in?
FANNING: I don’t know. I would love to do writing. That’s what I was thinking.
So screenwriting or literature?
Have you ever written something?
FANNING: I have. When I was nine, I got the Final Draft [software] for my computer, so I wrote short stories when I was little and I still play around with it. I actually need to renew it because it goes away. I click on it and it’s like, “You can’t go to the script…” and I’m like, “Come on!” So I need to pay the money or do something. (Laughs)
You travel to a lot of countries for work and you’re afforded a lot of opportunities that your classmates don’t have. What do you learn from these experiences?
FANNING: It’s amazing. I’m glad that I get to. The last place I went was Tokyo. It was my first time going there. That was very cool. A lot of people were jealous of that trip. (Laughs) It’s so nice that I get to have that and visit, because on summer break this time, I was just on vacation and I didn’t go anywhere with my family. We just stayed home. We like being at home. When you are working, you get to go to a lot of different places and see different things. I’m glad that I can do that. One film, Young Ones, we were in South Africa, in Springbok. It’s this teeny little town far away, like a 6-hour drive, from Cape Town. Our movie is about no water, and every two years the town runs out of water, and it happened to us while we were there. So it’s all these different experiences you get to have that I would never think of, and it’s because of being in films.
Can you talk about some of the interesting projects you have coming up?
FANNING: Yeah, I did Young Ones and Low Down. Those are going to come out. They went to Sundance. Then I’m about to go to New Orleans to film Trumbo about Dalton Trumbo, which has a really great cast. I’m so excited! It’s Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren and Diane Lane. I play Diane and Bryan’s (their characters’) daughter. Then A Storm in the Stars is the Mary Shelley project, which I don’t know…I’m going to do it whenever it happens. They just don’t have a date set exactly, but I am attached.
How do you know which projects to pick?
FANNING: When I was really small, I’d go in on auditions and hope to just get whatever. When you’re 4, that’s how it is. You don’t have the option to decide or pick. It’s cool now that sometimes scripts will come and you have the option. But I read them to see if it feels right. I feel like if I have to deliberate on something so much, “Oh, should I do it or not?,” it’s like, just don’t do it because you don’t have a connection right away. My sister and I would never read each other’s scripts. That would just never happen. So I don’t ask her. (Laughs) It’s just a feeling you get. I always try to do something very different with each character because that’s why I like to do this, because I can become someone else completely and it’s fun.
What’s the music in your iPod right now?
FANNING: I like Sam Smith. It’s unreal. I bought the whole deluxe album. It’s so good. (Laughs)
Are there any books you’re reading at the moment?
FANNING: Well, right now, I have to read all these books for school. I have to read Frederick Douglass, and then also Under the Banner of Heaven, which is about Mormons. So those are the two I’m reading right now.
Are any of your classmates jealous about some of the people you get to meet?
FANNING: Sometimes they definitely are like, “Oh my God!” I remember during Twilight, when my sister was doing that, they were freaking out like, “Robert Pattinson!” So you definitely get like that sometimes. I think Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, those are the two guys who girls in high school that I’ve met have liked. Those are the only two they’ve freaked out about.