On paper, the starring role in Teen Spirit — the directorial debut from the Handmaid’s Tale and Social Network actor Max Minghella — doesn’t sound much like Elle Fanning. The film follows Violet, the underdog teenage daughter of a Polish immigrant, as she competes on an American Idol-esque singing show. Minghella was looking for an actress who was fluent in Polish, and even more importantly, one who sang.
After hearing about the role, Fanning sent the director a video of herself singing with her friend, the French musician Woodkid, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2016. While she doesn’t do much of a Polish accent, Minghella decided Violet could be from the Isle of Wight after she tried an English one when they met. “I was glad I had that up my sleeve,” Fanning says with a laugh.
Rolling Stone caught up with the actress on her way to the Toronto International Film Festival, where Teen Spirit is premiering, to discuss her surprising inspirations, her love of American Idol, and working with Minghella. The Teen Spirit soundtrack, which features music by Ariana Grande, Robyn, Grimes, Katy Perry and more — along with an original song sung by Fanning and produced by Jack Antonoff — is out soon on Interscope.
You’ve never had to sing for an onscreen role, right? Did you have any reservations?
I did a little bit for [2017’s] How to Talk to Girls at Parties, but that was extremely punk and really wild, almost screaming. This role is a musical. You’re performing, and the musical numbers are very important to the film.
I was obviously very nervous. I can hold a tune, but to be able to have the stage presence and to get to where I knew Violet needed to go — it was very conscious in my mind that this girl has to win the competition. I had to do something that is believable enough for the audience to say, “She did win.” That was something I was scared about.
How did you prepare for that?
Marcus DeVries was our music supervisor. He did La La Land and Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge and all these huge movies. I also felt very included on picking songs. It’s not like we had all the money in the world; sometimes you’d be practicing a song and they’d say it’s too expensive. But Interscope helped out a lot in that category.
It was about four months of singing every single day. The moment that I found out that I got the part in February, literally that day, Max was like “OK, now you start.” So I would go to Marcus’ loft, and he had this whole recording studio setup. We would do vocal exercises and sing through all the songs every single day. And he would record me every single time. He made me listen to myself back, which was very odd. In acting, you always want to be kind of unconscious of what you’re doing. I was like, “Why do you want me to hear myself?” But then you can hear what you’re doing wrong. And Bob Garrett was my singing coach in LA. I saw him maybe four times a week.
What about the dance numbers? You’re a dancer, so was that less challenging for you?
I did ballet when I was younger and took jazz classes. I love to dance. But we had Johnny and Amir, the choreographers — they are Max’s godparents, and they choreograph operas usually, so this was very different for them. We had dance rehearsals especially for the tryout sequence. That was difficult. But it was nice that I was able to let loose and move to the rhythm.
I was happy that Max made Violet a good dancer. There was an early draft where she wasn’t as good at dancing. And Max and I were like, “Why are we dumbing her down?” She wins and is going to become a pop star. You have to have that natural talent.
Did you draw inspiration from any specific pop stars for Violet?
I watched videos of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift as a part of my homework. They have that “it” factor. They’re polished. It’s a machine. So I studied their mannerisms. And I am a [pop] fan — my first concert was Gwen Stefani in Budapest when I was nine.
For the end performance, I was almost thinking Kanye West [laughs]. Not that I’m saying I was like him! But I wanted to add a little hip-hop to Violet, because she’s rougher. That’s why she wins the competition, because she has edge. And pop stars all have that edge.
I was also thinking about Rihanna. I saw her in concert for my 13th birthday, and that performance and the way she moved [inspired me]. The last performance isn’t choreographed, but I was thinking “How would Rihanna do this?”
How familiar were you with reality competition shows like The X-Factor and American Idol before making this movie?
I watched all those shows. I watched American Idol almost every season when I was little. I would call in. I was one of those people. I would call in and vote for Fantasia. So I really remember that. And I watched The X-Factor, too. I’m also a big YouTuber — I’m always watching clips of people singing. It’s my bedtime ritual. It calms me down.
I was also aware of the behind-the-scenes of it, and that it’s not all glamour and production value. You have to know it’s a TV show at the end of the day. There’s one in particular, I think it was The Voice Kids UK, and I was in the middle of filming the movie and I was watching it on TV. It was the finale, and this girl won and she had this amazing reaction of absolute disbelief and her hands came up to her mouth. I sent that video to Max and said “Isn’t this great inspiration?” Because that’s when it becomes a reality and their lives are changed.
“I can relate to Violet’s hunger, which a lot of people feel. It’s that climb. It’s treacherous.”
Did you relate to Violet’s journey?
Yeah. I mean we’re obviously different in ways. But I started acting when I was, like, two years old. I remember those torturous commercial auditions, and I would never get the part, because I was the alien kid coming in and they’d be like, “I don’t know if you can sell Barbies.” I was told “no” a lot.
I think I can relate to Violet’s hunger, which a lot of people feel. It’s that climb. It’s treacherous. I feel that in myself, I still do. There are still so many things that I haven’t done yet and things that I’m still learning. You’re trying to achieve that goal and that fantasy, because everybody imagines themselves being the best at what they do, whatever the job. You fantasize about reaching the tip-top, like Violet.
This is Max Minghella’s directorial debut. What was it like working with him to develop this character?
He’s a pop-music whore, basically. He loves pop music. I think he drew inspiration to write this from High School Musical. He’s like, “I know this is not highbrow exactly, but it’s very enjoyable and the songs are good.” And it’s true.
He lived with the script for such a long time that he has every shot in his head and he is very particular. He’s someone that he would be listening to his headphones, listening to the music of a take, timing the camera movements out to the music.
The best directors create an environment that’s conducive for the artists to work, and Max is just so collaborative. He knew that sometimes I was still possibly unsure, and that I needed that support with the singing, and just very sensitive to that and everyone’s moods.