In late March, Elle Fanning was supposed to go off to Budapest to film The Nightingale, based on Kristin Hannah’s bestselling novel about two sisters struggling to survive in Nazi-occupied France. Her co-star—for the first time since they made plays together at home as toddlers—was meant to be her older sister, Dakota, who is four years her senior.
But, as happened with most Hollywood movies and television series in production during the COVID-19 crisis, just a few days before the siblings were set to depart from Los Angeles for Hungary, shooting on The Nightingale was canceled, its release date postponed indefinitely.
“We’ve dreamed of this for a long time, and we talked for a while about what project could get us together,” says the 22-year-old Fanning, who underlines that they will star in The Nightingale at some point in the future. “We thought maybe we didn’t want to play sisters, but we’ve grown up in this industry and have a unique understanding of what it means to be sisters. So, at least the sister part we’ve got down.”
Though they were already quite close, at the moment, they are closer than ever, hunkered down at the family home in California’s San Fernando Valley, where Fanning usually lives with her mother and grandmother when she’s not filming somewhere on location. Now, Dakota, who was recently living in New York City, is bunking there, too.
“It’s a rare occasion that we get to be together,” Fanning says. “So we’re enjoying each other’s company.”
It will be easy, then, for the entire Fanning family to have a premiere party for her new series, The Great, which they can all binge together on Hulu. On the show, Fanning stars as a young Catherine the Great, sowing her seeds in a new marriage to Russia’s Peter III, played by Nicholas Hoult.
The series marks Fanning’s first real foray into comedy. But it’s a specific kind of comedy—a satirical, genre-bending romp through 18th-century Russia in the vein of 2018’s The Favourite, which The Great creator Tony McNamara also co-wrote, earning him an Oscar nomination.
“Being asked to play Catherine in this show was a gift,” says Fanning. “Tony wrote a play in Australia that was very much in this witty, irreverent voice.” McNamara had originally planned to adapt his play into a feature film, but in this time of peak streaming television, decided to develop it into a series. He asked Fanning to play Catherine and help produce the show.
“As Catherine is gaining her voice on The Great, I was gaining mine,” she says. “I went to pitch meetings and saw the mechanics of the series from the beginning.”
Fanning lived in London for six months while filming the series. She loved the opportunity to flex her comedic muscles with the wordplay, banter and rhythm in McNamara’s scripts. “That was hugely appealing for me. I love challenging myself,” Fanning says. She believes the experience was a boost for her abilities, even in a career that includes two Sofia Coppola movies (Somewhere and The Beguiled) and roles opposite co-stars like Annette Bening, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie and Jeff Bridges. “It’s all very Shakespearean and I had to get used to it and not be embarrassed.”
Fanning believes the hilariously dark show is exactly the entertainment we need right now. “Fun, laughter and escapism are really important,” she explains. “But it also grapples with themes that are super relevant, even though it’s historical,” she adds, especially in its depiction of Catherine attempting to gain her footing in the patriarchal and misogynist Russian court.
Despite the seemingly elevated historical setting, “I think it’s totally bingeable,” Fanning continues. There’s plenty of bawdy humor and surprising twists: “With shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, you need time to process between episodes; it’s heavy. But with The Great, it’s light enough that you can watch it all in one go.”
And Fanning knows a thing or two about bingeing. She has a taste for reality television and has been watching the Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance (“We’re huge sports people,” she says of her family) and old standbys like MasterChef Junior and 90 Day Fiancé with her mom. “We have a whole ritual around it,” Fanning says of 90 Day Fiancé. (Dakota, meanwhile, is watching The West Wing from the beginning.)
Being in quarantine has given Fanning more time to keep up with her Campbell Hall friends via Zoom happy hours. Their group meetings are called “See You Next Tuesday” because they meet on Tuesdays. (It’s the kind of joke you’d find in The Great.) Fanning sips Aperol spritzes while they reminisce about high school, just like the sophisticated 22-year-old that she is.
Indeed, Fanning turned 22 in April amidst the shelter-in-place restrictions in Los Angeles. How did she celebrate? Not necessarily with an Aperol spritz; she says she listened to the Taylor Swift song “22” and ordered in Chinese food from Chin Chin. To top it off: a strawberry shortcake from Big Sugar Bakeshop featuring the cartoon character Strawberry Shortcake wearing a quarantine-friendly facemask.
“I do sort of have a strawberry obsession,” Fanning explains. “I’ve been doing Strawberry Shortcake coloring books while in quarantine.”
Friends sent her a recorded birthday message via Cameo from some of her favorite cast members on a recent season of Love Island, while Coppola sent a birthday video over text from Napa.
“She’s way too chic for Zoom,” laughs Fanning. Fanning was embraced early on by the fashion industry. She loves Miu Miu, Dior, Gucci and Valentino, while the Rodarte designers, sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy, are friends. But she isn’t dressing up at the moment. “It’s mostly sweatpants and T-shirts, like everyone else,” Fanning says. As the weather gets warmer, she’ll start pulling out her sundresses, and she’s having fun with her hair, blowing it out and curling it at home to pass the time.
“I also dyed it pink myself,” she says.
Social media has become a welcome distraction. “It’s a nice place where we’re all together,” she says of her high school friends and the pals she’s made in the business over the 20 years she’s been working. She’s been learning TikTok dances, “but I won’t post them,” she says, and has gotten into Chelsea Peretti’s comedic makeup tutorials and Karen Elson’s singing clips on Instagram.
She’s been using her own account to show off her photography skills and picking up some cooking tips. “My grandmother loves hearty Southern food,” Fanning says. “I’ve always loved cooking and helping her in the kitchen.”
They’ve been meal planning, ordering groceries, mixing spinach dip, making lamb chops and perfecting the poached egg. Fanning is also finding inventive ways to use leftovers, including quesadillas made from, well, anything. “Just add whatever you have in the fridge and fry it up,” Fanning says.
If she’s not quite Julia Child, we can let it slide. She happens to be one of the best actors of her generation, so forgive her if she’s already looking forward to her first meal out of quarantine: guacamole, sweet corn, hard-shell beef tacos and churros from Casa Vega in nearby Studio City.
“Also, just hugging someone that you haven’t been able to in a long time,” Fanning says.