I'm walking behind Elle Fanning into L.A.’s Chateau Marmont — not in a creepy way — and the first thing I notice is how perfectly, well, Elle Fanning she is. She’s wearing a cute plaid pastel minidress and chunky Gucci slides, and her hair is up in a topknot. All of it is polished off by a pair of swinging vintage daisy earrings. She’s also 10 minutes early. What’s so winning about Fanning — apart from daisies and punctuality — is the openness she radiates wherever she goes. An uncynical desire to try things, to perform, to fling herself out into the world. And, of course, her exuberant embrace of fashion is why she’s on the cover of this Best Dressed issue. Fanning has worn princess ball gowns (which she will also sport in Maleficent Mistress of Evil, out this month), sparkly Rodarte, artsy-girl Miu Miu, and the crowning glory that was a reinvigorated Dior New Look at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
On Fanning, though, every look is new.
LAURA BROWN: Everything you do, Elle, you embrace. I remember when you came to the InStyle Awards [in 2017] wearing a full-on Versace dress and giggling like you were 6.
ELLE FANNING: [Laughing] Oh my god, I hated the faux bangs I wore that night so much. But, hey, it was a costume. It was a Warhol print with Marilyn Monroe, and I love her, so, obviously, I wore that dress.
VIDEO: Elle Fanning On How To Be Best Dressed
LB: It seems like that “I’m going to experience this” feeling governs you.
EF: Yes, I was always curious and mischievous. Like when I watched Friends, I loved Phoebe. I loved that she was gawky. I had a real awkward phase. I grew 12 inches in a year. I didn’t want to be like everyone else in school. There was a certain confidence that I had, that I was like, “I want you to make fun of me because that makes me feel cool.”
LB: Ah, the old “Awkward and gawky, now I’m a goddess.”
EF: Exactly! There is, like, a fairy-tale aspect to that, so that was always kind of in me. And I was already doing films and stuff.
LB: Did you go to a school that had a lot of performers?
EF: I went to Campbell Hall, which is in the [San Fernando] Valley. But I was home-schooled until the third grade. And then my mom kind of realized, “OK, you need to be around other kids.” [laughs] I went in fourth grade, and I was there until senior year. I went to all of my proms.
LB: What did you wear to your proms?
EF: The first prom was in ninth grade. I wore a white Ralph Lauren dress that we found at the mall. It was long and flowy with a V-neck tank. For the second prom I went to the Paper Bag Princess [in L.A.] and got a vintage bias-cut pink John Galliano dress.
LB: You wore a bias-cut Galliano to your 10th-grade prom! That is very advanced.
EF: Oh, yeah! I haven’t worn it since. I should wear it to a red carpet. You know, I’ve always just been interested in fashion. I love dressing up and playing characters. Growing up, my sister, Dakota, and I would do scenes but just for each other. There was a lot of Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada and a lot of desk jobs.
LB: Oh, poetry. Was your desk job always in fashion?
EF: From what I remember it was. We would dress a certain way and then put Coca-Cola in wineglasses. It was a lot of Dakota screaming at me.
LB: Well, that’s what it’s like. [laughs] Who were some of your style heroes as a kid?
EF: I loved Samantha from Bewitched. I would put a Brownie uniform on for some reason and make tea. That was me playing Samantha. I also loved Alexa Chung and her ’60s tomboy style. My mom would take me to [the clothing store] Opening Ceremony all the time. That was a big deal.
LB: I remember seeing you really wearing fashion when you were just 16.
EF: Yes, that was for the first Maleficent. That was a very important moment because it involved a huge press tour. That’s when I learned how to express myself through clothes.
LB: Alongside that, when did you first compute that your life was getting bigger, externally?
EF: I saw things happening to my sister, so it wasn’t completely foreign to me. People would confuse me with her all the time. It was a relief when people saw me as myself. Super 8 [written and directed by J.J. Abrams, 2011] was a big film, and we went to a couple of award shows, and experiencing all of that was extremely new. I also love seeing celebrities. I’m not jaded by that at all.
LB: Go on...
LB: You’re about to have a big movie come out. How do you metabolize this shiny world?
EF: You just have to not think about it. I’ve never tried to separate myself or wanted to separate myself. I also feel like to be a good actress, you have to immerse yourself and have experiences in the world.
LB: How do you manage your career, and what sort of things are you looking for?
EF: It’s definitely instinctual, and, of course, there are other factors, like, I really want to work with this director or this actor. Like, with Leo? [laughs] Great! But I’m not a very calculating person. That’s why I’m bad at interviews. I’m obviously not that old, but I am starting to realize that I can get a little more involved [in developing projects]. If I have an idea for a story or if I read a book that I really love, I can start to cultivate that. I can take matters into my own hands. I’m producing a television show in London [The Great] for Hulu about Catherine the Great that I’m about to go do for six months. And it’s with the co-writer of The Favourite, Tony McNamara. We all decided we should make it into a show instead of a movie, so we went around and pitched it. I’ve only done that a couple of times. It’s very weird and unsettling.
LB: Worse than an audition?
EF: Oh, auditions, I can’t [do them]—I mean, obviously, sure, I can, but they make me so nervous. I fainted in an audition once. It was with Jessica Chastain. I didn’t get the part.
LB: You literally just fell down in front of people?
EF: I was young, but, yeah, I fell down in front of people. It was very odd. There were glaring lights, and I felt so hot. I fainted in Cannes this year too. Fainting is something I do. I was on my period. It was such a crazy feeling. It honestly happened at the best moment because I wasn’t on the red carpet. Could you imagine? That would have been kind of epic, though.
LB: She’s so Best Dressed that she fell down. Aside from that, how was being on the grand jury in Cannes? You killed it on the red carpet.
EF: I was there the whole time, two weeks. It was intense. You also have to watch the films and be serious about it. Cannes is the biggest red carpet in the world and is the moment that you can kind of pull out all the stops with the clothes. My stylist [Samantha McMillen] and I didn’t have that much time to plan, probably a month. We went to different designers, and I had the idea about the Dior, complete with the hat.
LB: That was your idea?
EF: Yes! It was one of my favorite things I’ve worn. I love feeling confident in what I’m wearing. You can tell when somebody is forced into something.
LB: What was it like walking in the Miu Miu show last year?
EF: Oh! That was crazy! I was so nervous. It wasn’t a planned thing. I was attending anyway, and then Mrs. Prada had that idea. Her team said, “You’re starting the show, so you have to be very serious.” The whole theme was rockabilly-grunge. I tried to keep a straight face, but that’s not my go-to. I was cracking up.
LB: You’re young and visible, so how do you handle when people ask you to be politically engaged publicly?
EF: Sometimes I feel like I don’t know all the information. Like, am I qualified to speak on this? But I also think it’s OK for people to say that they don’t know or aren’t sure yet. Angelina [Jolie] said that to me after a recent interview we did for Maleficent 2. She said, “You know what? It’s OK not to answer things.” I mean, I’m still learning.
LB: You’re 21 now. What was your first official beverage?
EF: I think it was a martini at Craig’s [in L.A.]. I loved it, except they didn’t give me my olives. I love olives. We had dinner there. Then we went to karaoke in Koreatown, and we drank a lot.
LB: So proud. Who was there, and what did you wear?
EF: I wore a dress from For Love & Lemons. It was long-sleeve and pink with a heart. Dakota was there. [Rodarte designer] Laura Mulleavy was there. [Film director] Gia Coppola was there.
LB: Now that you’re getting older, what are you ambitious for?
EF: Oh, man, I’m ambitious for a lot of things. I love game shows and want to create one. All I watch is Game Show Network. I love America Says, Idiotest, Chain Reaction, Family Feud. I don’t know exactly what my show would be, but I really want to do that. I want to direct something, maybe sing a country album. I love Johnny Cash, so I could possibly do a cover album. And a clothing line.
LB: You also have a very fancy L’Oréal contract. What’s your idea of “worth”?
EF: My mom, my sister, my grandmother, and I, we all live together. So, there is a strong sense of female empowerment that I’ve always had in my life. It’s significant to know that there are so many different types of women. I hate that in order to be strong you have to look like this or to be soft you have to look like this. Those stereotypes are just not true. My worth is knowing I can be anything. In Maleficent I play a princess [Aurora] who is strong in being completely feminine and isn’t afraid of that feeling. It’s a quality I also have. And, obviously, this version is different from the first one. I’m not fighting with a sword just so I can be stronger.
LB: To be worthy.
EF: Yes, exactly.
LB: I read that you’re a cousin of Kate Middleton. Have you interacted or gotten in touch with her?
EF: That came from somebody doing an Ancestry.com [search] on me and my sister, but no. [laughs] I’ve never met any of them. She probably doesn’t even know who I am.
LB: Are you obsessed with the royal family, like everyone else in the world seems to be?
EF: I’m in London a lot, so I feel like I’m in the know, and I do read the Daily Mail. [laughs]
LB: Click bait! Last one. What did you learn from working with Angelina and Michelle [Pfeiffer] on Maleficent 2?
EF: When I heard that Michelle was going to be in the film, I realized that the second movie is going to be about power. It’s about three generations of women in power and how they represent it in different ways. And, with Angelina, I was so young when I did the first film with her. I was very nervous then. My mom was with me. Now that I’m grown up, she sees me in a different way. We talked about different things. We went paintballing.
LB: Are you an aggressive paintballer? Is she?
EF: Oh, she’s aggressive. [laughs] We would do outings because her kids were there, so she was trying to schedule activities on the weekends. I had never gone paintballing before. We were in full-on armor. We were the only people in the place, with all of her kids. She and I were not on the same team. I was so bad. I hit their security guard in the neck, and he was on my team! [laughs] Angelina’s really good.
LB: I mean, I’ve seen Salt. She’s a trained assassin.
EF: Totally. I was good at hiding. I would just hide.
Photographed by Pamela Hanson. Styling: Samantha McMillen. Hair: Jenda Alcorn. Makeup: Erin Ayanian Monroe for Cloutier Remix. Manicure: Mel Shengaris for Forward Artists. Prop styling: Daniel Horowitz for Jones Mgmt. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 18.