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  • Feature: Phoebe in Wonderland

    Fri, 06 Mar 2009 17:24:56

    Feature: Phoebe in Wonderland - Elle is in Wonderland

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    Phoebe in Wonderland's 10-year-old star Elle Fanning has already appeared in movies starring Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Brad Pitt (Babel and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Eddie Murphy (Daddy Day Care), and Jeff Bridges (The Door in the Floor). TV-wise, the young actress has been on House M.D., both the Miami and New York versions of CSI, and other series. That means she naturally must have been in a few school plays by now, right?


    "I'm in elementary school, so we don't really have the plays yet," she says. "But when I get older, in like middle school, we'll have plays, so I'll probably do some."

    When it comes to choosing which movie projects she will do, Fanning says she and her mother decide together. "But it more comes down to my opinion," she notes, "because my mom says, 'Well, it's only if you feel like you want to do this.'"

    Portraying the psychologically troubled Phoebe, who is more at ease in her school's Alice in Wonderland play than at dealing with real life, presented Fanning with more than the usual acting challenges. "I met with some kids that sort of had the same issues as Phoebe," Fanning says. "We went and talked with them for about an hour or so. It really helped me a lot. They're just like everyone else. They're my same age, they went to a school like me. They would be my friends."

    Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, who plays Phoebe's concerned and sometimes distraught mother, admits that it was hard not to take home some emotional residue after playing intensely dramatic scenes for up to 14 hours a day. She cheerfully points out that Fanning had no such problem. When director/writer Daniel Barnz would yell "cut," Huffman recalls, "Elle would jump up and go, 'That was fun! Can we do it again?' It was such a lesson to me about the joy of acting."

    'It's not really working to me. It's more just having fun and playing,' says Fanning.

    Fanning confirms this when asked if she thinks she might be missing out on being a kid. "Not really," she replies. "It's not really working to me. It's more just having fun and playing.

    Fanning says she has no plans to work with her older sister Dakota Fanning, and that they don't talk about their acting careers at home. Instead, she says they discuss "normal sister stuff; what happens at school, things like that."

    Writer/director Daniel Barnz wrote Phoebe in Wonderland a year before Fanning was born. One good thing about taking more than 10 years to get financing for the film, he says, was that it gave him the opportunity to rewrite the parents' roles from the perspective of a parent with young children himself.

    Also, as important as the Alice metaphor is to the movie, Barnz' long-ago first draft did not include it. Happening to read a review of a production of Alice in Wonderland was like an epiphany for him. "Since this was a story about a girl who couldn't fit in, of course she would want to retreat to Wonderland in her imagination," Barnz says. "This is a world where everything is the opposite and rules are broken, everything is kind of topsy-turvy. And of course that would be exciting for her."

    Although Fanning says she has seen Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland movie many times, neither she nor Huffman ever read the actual book. "Alice in Wonderland makes my palms sweat," Huffman says. "It just makes me so nervous and scared, and I don't like reading it and I don't like the chaos of it. So I probably should've, but I couldn't."

    Barnz was warned that a movie with a child in the lead and 20 children in the cast might not be the ideal project for a first directing job, but he found that the energy from the kids made the experience magical. "With Elle in particular, it was such a blessing to be working with her, and such an incredible process to see her craft this performance," he says. "She would show up on set in certain moods to play certain scenes, and she would go off between takes and do certain rituals to stay in character."

    Barnz says one thing he didn't realize when Fanning was cast was how well she could sing. "She's so good that we actually would sort of say, 'Could you make it a little bit less good, so it sounds like a real kid?"

    Fanning will be doing more singing later this year in the movie version of The Nutcracker: The Untold Story, which opens this Christmas. A musical with lyrics added to the original ballet score, the movie co-stars Nathan Lane and John Turturro.

    —James Dawson

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    Tags: Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Daniel Barnz, Phoebe in Wonderland

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