Fanning and Minghella speak to Vanity Fair ahead of Teen Spirit’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Growing up in Southern California, Elle Fanning fantasized about becoming an actress or a pop star. She didn’t have to dream long before achieving the former—a bit role in sister Dakota’s feature I Am Sam, released when she was three, snowballed into a prolific career in films like Somewhere, Super 8, and The Beguiled. No matter how many credits she collected, though, Fanning couldn’t shake the secret desire to be a singer.
“It was inside me—I would dream of myself one day being onstage,” Fanning told Vanity Fair, speaking ahead of the world premiere of Teen Spirit, a dreamy, music-driven coming-of-age story from first-time feature director Max Minghella. “I always thought, ‘That would be so cool to get to do that . . . but I’m an actress. So what—I’m going to become like Katy Perry or something? It doesn’t work like that. But I did have a secret desire in the back of my mind because singing is something I loved to do.”
Fanning realized that finding a role that let her sing was her most viable strategy for living out that fantasy. So when she heard about Teen Spirit, which was written by Minghella with an assist from executive producer Jamie Bell, the actress pounced.
“I was very confident,” Fanning said of her first meeting with Minghella. “I was very, ‘I can sing.’ I wanted the part so bad. . . . I sang this little thing at the Montreux Jazz Festival with my friend. So I sent that to Max.” Bursting into laughter, she reflected, “I guess it was kind of odd, because now I’m like, ‘Wow, he just trusted that I could really sing.’”
But Fanning took just as much of a leap of faith on her director—who had been working on the Teen Spirit script since 2009. Minghella, an actor currently co-starring on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, said, “I’d heard through the grapevine that she was a singer, and I think initially that was her main interest in doing this movie, far more than working with me.”
In Teen Spirit, Fanning stars as Violet, a working-class teenager living an isolated existence on the Isle of Wight with her Polish immigrant mother. Music is her escape. So when an American Idol–style reality show called Teen Spirit comes to town to audition contestants, Violet recruits an older local (Zlatko Burić) to pose as her legal guardian. The two develop a friendship as she readies for the final auditions and the show itself. For Fanning, Violet is a departure from the typically sweet, ethereal characters she plays, and the teenage girls usually depicted in film. Violet is cold to her classmates; unconcerned with being likable; and only motivated by her desire to express herself—not some romantic desire.
Speaking from London, where she is currently filming the Maleficent sequel, Fanning said, “I’m very smiley. I laugh all the time. But Violet doesn’t have that personality. I was really intrigued by that—that it wasn’t just the typical story of this shy girl who blossoms out of her shell. . . . Violet has this rough edge. I loved creating a girl who wouldn’t necessarily be likable in school and making her this hero.”
Minghella did not hinge his film on a competition show because he is interested in the TV genre, but because he wanted to make a musical “where there was a motive for the singing.” Movie musicals can sometimes jolt audiences out of the story when the characters break into sudden song. The competition-series framework makes Teen Spirit more narratively cohesive: “We do stick to certain rules of the musical, which was important to me. There is a music sequence every 10 [minutes] in the movie, almost exactly. And for me, the film is driven by the music, which is also kind of a rule of the musical.”
The feature is also in some ways an artful homage to Minghella’s mother, choreographer Carolyn Choa, and his late father, the Oscar-winning filmmaker Anthony Minghella. “My father was a son of two Italian immigrants. He grew up on the Isle of Wight. He had a very kind of labor-intensive childhood; he worked in a restaurant and sold ice cream. He had very little free time, and the time that he did have, he dedicated to his love of music, which ended up being a very important catalyst in his life,” said the budding filmmaker. “My mother is Chinese, and she’s from Hong Kong, and she moved to England when she was 18, not speaking a word of English, in the hope of becoming a professional dancer. And did,” he continued. “The idea of the character who feels kind of culturally displaced and finds some solace in artistic expression probably is a hereditary interest, if it makes sense.”
Like La La Land, Teen Spirit was produced by Fred Berger, with music producer Marius de Vries, music supervisor Steven Gizicki, and Interscope Records spearheading the musical elements. For three months before filming, Fanning trained with de Vries, who also worked with Emma Stone on her Oscar-winning performance in La La Land. Said Fanning, “He had stories of working with Emma and all that stuff, which made me nervous. At the first meeting, he was saying, ‘Well, when Emma did this and that . . . and I’m like, ‘Oh no.’” Fanning was also working under the added pressure of performing beloved, widely recognizable songs from artists like Ellie Goulding. Minghella was initially not sure whether Violet would win the competition series, but Fanning’s vocals became so powerful that the filmmaker ended up giving Violet a favorable outcome.
“She sings all of the music live in the film,” said Minghella. “She was doing multiple takes of these performances. And all of the audio is usable.”
The film culminates with Violet performing a head-thrashing cover of Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe” during the final round of the competition show. Watching her character’s grand finale is like seeing a heavy-metal life force overtake the delicate actress, as she puts every ounce of herself into an electrifying performance. Knowing how good she wanted the performance to be—this was the onstage moment she had been dreaming of—Fanning was terrified. She texted Minghella “a really long paragraph” as her nerves spiraled. Ultimately, though, Fanning found the sort of inner strength she realized her favorite artists must have: “Pop stars, they get in a [mental] space when they’re onstage,” Fanning explained. “’What does Rihanna do? What does Taylor Swift do? What does Katy Perry do?’”
The scene was choreographed and intensely draining. Said Minghella, “She performed for 12 hours, and had to sing really well at the same time. . . . We had all of the Interscope executives on set that day, and none of them could believe it. They told me that no professional singer would be able to do what she’s doing—12 hours of physical exhaustion and having to sound perfect, and sound like you could potentially win a singing competition.”
That particular sequence is a coming-out moment for Fanning, who proves she can crush a pop anthem with the swagger of an artist who has no need for autotune.
“I was shaking,” said Fanning of filming the scene. “I was just so nervous to finally show everybody . . . I think that, exactly like what happens with Violet, a rage just overtook me. I loved the outfit. It felt very hip-hop in a way also. . . . It was more dirty and I leaned into the grittiness of it and I was excited to have that. It wasn’t about being pretty. It was just about being truthful, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Though Fanning is currently playing Sleeping Beauty in the Maleficent sequel in London, it is clear that Teen Spirit was just as much a fairy tale for the actress.
“I never really wanted to stop performing because of the adrenaline,” said Fanning of her day spent onstage. “We had a real audience! I was like, ‘Wow. I’m really performing for people.’ And they were into it. I got to interact with them and just unleash myself.”
Getting giddy just thinking about it, Fanning suggested, “Everybody should do that probably once. It doesn’t matter what you sound like.”