Dancing on her own: 'Teen Spirit's' Elle Fanning on the joys of pop

The actress talks about fangirling Robyn, sweating it out to Gwen Stefani and taking left turns in her career

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Elle Fanning in "Teen Spirit."

In her new movie "Teen Spirit," Elle Fanning plays Violet Valenski, a shy teenager with big dreams of pop stardom who enters an "American Idol"-style singing competition and shoots for the stars. 

A thread of bubbly pop music runs through the film: songs by Robyn, Katy Perry, No Doubt and more provide the pulsating backbeat for Max Minghella's directorial debut. And that music allowed Fanning to live out her own dreams of pop stardom. 

"I think it’s kind of a euphoric feeling that comes over you when you listen to pop music," says Fanning, on the phone earlier this month from Los Angeles' Four Seasons hotel. "I think there’s something really nostalgic about it, too. It brings you back to memories that you've had, or it brings you back to growing up. There's something about pop music that keeps everybody young. Pop music feels like your first crush. It’s like a universal language for so many people." 

Fanning's universal language has been film: She's been acting since she was three, when she made her screen debut in "I Am Sam." (She played a younger version of a character played by her sister, actress Dakota Fanning, the child star of "War of the Worlds" and "The Cat in the Hat" fame.)

Fanning, who is four years younger than her sister, appeared in films such as "Babel" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" before breaking out in J.J. Abrams' "Super 8," where she was part of a group of kids who discover supernatural activity in their small Ohio town. A year prior she was in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," where she played the daughter of a drifting Hollywood actor. 

Presented with both blockbusters and indies, Fanning chose the latter route, and has spent the last several years appearing in small projects from boutique directors: Nicolas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon," Mile Mills' "20th Century Women," John Cameron Mitchell's "How to Talk to Girls at Parties." She kept a toe in the mainstream world with 2014's "Maleficent," and she'll appear in its sequel, due later this year. 

Elle Fanning in "The Neon Demon."

"I want to do what interests me," says Fanning, who turned 21 earlier this month. "Also, directors matter and who’s in it, that matters to me. Because if Sofia (Coppola) asks me to do any movie, I’d say yes. 

"I do enjoy independent filmmaking. I like the rush. You never have enough days or enough money and you’re all trying to make something because you want to be there and tell that story. There’s something really special about that." 

For Fanning, there's also something really special about pop music.

Elle Fanning in "Teen Spirit."

Like her character in the film, who bops along to No Doubt's "Just a Girl" in her bedroom, Fanning has had those moments of pure pop elation, when pop music has provided an escape, a happy place, where nothing matters except the music and the rush of feelings it provides. 

"I love dancing. Growing up, I would dance, especially to Black Eyed Peas, Fergie, the Pussycat Dolls, Britney, Gwen Stefani. I would sing along and dance constantly in my bedroom, so that was very comfortable for me. I knew that territory very well," she says. 

Fanning has a cosmic connection of sorts with Stefani; not only does her character ice dance to Stefani's disco-kissed "Cool" in "Somewhere," the No Doubt singer was Fanning's first concert.  

"I was 9, I was in Budapest of all places, and I was filming some random movie,"
she says. "I idolized Gwen Stefani. It was her Harajuku days, and she was all I wanted to be. I remember the outfit that I wore, and I curled my hair like crazy. My grandmother went with me. And I had never sweated so much. So, so much." 

Fanning remembers trying to make eye contact with Stefani during the concert, a fan dream to solidify the bond between audience member and performer at a live show. 

"I was on my feet the whole time screaming and trying to get her to notice me. I think everyone feels that way when they’re in a concert, you’re wondering if they’re looking at you? I feel that, at least. Like, are they looking at me?" 

Elle Fanning in "Teen Spirit."

Fanning was able to experience the other side of the stage when in 2016 she appeared at Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival with Woodkid, the French singer-songwriter turned music video director. Fanning had never performed on stage before, but accepted the invitation to sing with open arms. 

"I was like OK, sure, I’m going to challenge myself and put myself out there and go for it. Like, why not?" she says. 

The pair performed "Never Let You Down," and when Fanning began to sing, the crowd's cheers almost made her blow the performance. 

"I had to catch myself because I wanted to smile but I had to continue," she says. "I was like, I’m singing the song. I have to continue singing the song!" 

The footage of her singing in concert helped her nab the "Teen Spirit" part. She drew inspiration for her character in part from Kanye West, whose spirit she channels late in the film, once Violet has a few performances under her belt.

But early on, when she is still overcoming her fears of live performing, the heart of the film comes from a scene where Violet performs Robyn's "Dancing On My Own," the Swedish pop singer's 2010 anthem which, thanks in part to its appearance on HBO's "Girls," has become one of the most celebrated, acclaimed pop hits of the last decade. (It also plays over the end credits of the upcoming "Long Shot," so it's fair to say the song is having a bit of a moment.) 

"That song is a pop anthem for everybody. That’s one of the best pop songs ever written or ever sung. Robyn is such a goddess. And that is my sister’s all-time favorite song," says Fanning, who first heard "Dancing On My Own" when she saw Robyn open for Katy Perry in Los Angeles when she was 10.  

She says she felt pressure to do right by the song — "I was like OK, I have to do this justice for everyone, worldwide" — and by Robyn herself. 

She hasn't had the chance to speak to Robyn yet, but if she did, "I would definitely be fangirling out over it," says Fanning, gushing like a teenager. "But I would try to act cool and be very appreciative that she allowed me to do it. But I would kind of like to pick her brain a little bit."

She says she'd like to ask her if she knows how good the song is. She giggles, like a fan, still in touch with her own teen spirit. 

"I guess she does," Fanning says. "I guess she has to."