Making Their Own Kind of 'Wonderland'
Tripping down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, Alice discovered a place where imagination ran wild and every character was more fanciful and bizarre than the last.
And Elle Fanning, who is 10 -- "turning 11 on April 9th" -- says what she loves most about acting is that it gives her the chance to do something similar: "To meet new people and play new people, to play different roles that you would never think of."
So she can understand why her latest character is searching for a way to experience the same thing. In "Phoebe in Wonderland," Fanning plays a girl who relies on imagination and fantasy to escape the troubles of the real world. Struggling with peculiarities that set her at odds with society's rigid rules, Phoebe seeks solace in the Wonderland of her dreams and the one being brought to life in a school play.
"I loved Phoebe's character so much. She was just such a different kind of role," says Fanning, who started acting as a toddler after watching older sister Dakota appear in films. ("I just thought if she can do anything, I can do it," she explains with typical little-sister tenacity.)
Though Fanning first read the "Phoebe" script a couple of years ago, it's actually older than she is. Writer-director Daniel Barnz finished a first draft of the screenplay almost a dozen years ago but couldn't find a production company willing to back it.
In a Hollywood it's-who-you-know twist, it turned out Phoebe's salvation lived in the neighborhood. When they both had small kids, Barnz regularly saw Felicity Huffman as they both pushed strollers. The two became friends, and eventually Barnz "threw the script over the fence," Huffman recalls. "And I didn't use it to line my gerbil cage."
Indeed, "I whipped through 'Phoebe in Wonderland' in one sitting because the story just carries you away," she says on the phone from an L.A. hotel where she and Fanning are preparing for the film's premiere. "The magic of the movie was in the script."
Huffman told Barnz she'd love to play Phoebe's mother in the drama, but having her name attached five years ago wasn't enough to get funding for the project. Then along came "Desperate Housewives" and the rise of her own star power, and suddenly, she says, "I had a moderate amount of juice, and we got it made."
So after years of toiling without success to get any of his films made, Barnz was finally in production. Once done, the film was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival and is being released today by ThinkFilm.
In reviews, much of the praise has belonged to Fanning, whom audiences may recognize from "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Babel." A critic for the Hollywood Reporter wrote that the "mesmerizing performance of Fanning as the gifted and troubled young Phoebe sparks the picture. Charismatic and graceful, Fanning is wondrous."
Huffman would agree with that assessment. "Professionally, it's a combination of talent and ingrained craft" that sets Fanning apart, Huffman says. "And personally she's a normal kid who's a pleasure to be around. . . . She'd come on the set and make everyone happy."
Except for the one day Fanning showed up silent and scowling. "I, of course, took it personally and thought, 'She doesn't like me anymore. What did I do?' " Huffman recalls.
Then they began acting intense scenes that explored the anger Phoebe felt as a child facing alienation because of her obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome.
"I turned to her at the end of the day and said, 'You were preparing, weren't you?' " Huffman says. "And she said, 'I guess I was . . . I just figured if I had to act like that, I couldn't come in all happy. I sort of needed to be where Phoebe was.' And, goodness gracious, that took me 20 years to learn."
In her first starring role, Fanning says she was glad to play a kid who's a little offbeat. "She just has such a unique spirit about her," Fanning says. "I think a lot of girls would look up to Phoebe and like her. They wouldn't look at her as being different; they'd look at her as being cool."
It's like what Phoebe's ethereal drama teacher tells her in the film: "At a certain point in your life, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are -- especially for everything that made you so different."
And that, Fanning says, is the movie's whole point. "When you say someone is 'different,' that's a compliment; that's a positive. You have a unique personality, and that's great -- you don't want to be like everybody else."
-Elle on acting (aged 14).
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