The new J.J. Abrams film “Super 8” arrives Friday with a sci-fi tale of a ferocious alien on the loose in a small Ohio town but, really, the movie’s true aspiration is to weave a coming-of-age story in the tradition of “Stand By Me.” All this week we’re talking to some of the young actors at the center of the film who, judging by their poised and evocative work in “Super 8,” just might be the future stars of Hollywood. Today, a chat with Elle Fanning, the 13-year-old Georgia native (and sister of Dakota Fanning) who plays Alice, whose factory-worker father is in a grim spiral after a run of hard luck and hard-drinking.
GB: One of the strengths of the film is that the friendships among the youngsters feels very authentic, it doesn’t come off as an adult’s condescending or clumsy version of kid life.
EF: When the train crashes and these weird events are happening in the town, it’s all from the kids’ point of view. No movie really does that. It’s more from the adult point of view, usually. And this movie is not condescending at all to the kids. My character is the tough kid of the group. Even though there’s all these guys, she sort of the leader of the pack. She’s had to grow up really fast because of her dad and the situation there. She doesn’t have a mom. When the boys ask her to go make this [amateur zombie movie they are making with a Super 8-camera] she agrees to do it because it’s kind of an escape from her dad and spending the summer at home. She lives on the poor side of town and the house is pretty sad with her dad. When I did the movie I was 12 and all the boys were older than me. But Alice is definitely like their mom in a way. She’s the strongest of the kids and maybe the loneliest, too.
GB: The movie is set in the summer of 1979, long before you were born. Did you research that era or the vintage pop-culture in any way?
EF: All of us had seen “The Goonies” and “E.T.” and all those classic movies. I’ve seen them a bunch of times. Those are movie that you can watch over and over. There needs to be a new one of those, actually; there hasn’t been one in a while. Hopefully “Super 8” can be added to that list.
GB: This movie puts you behind the wheel of a vintage muscle car. How was that experience?
EF: It would have been illegal for me to drive so they had to have some girl beneath me. She was steering. She was sitting down far enough that you couldn’t see her. She was pressing on the pedals with her hand and stuff. She was watching a monitor so when she wanted to turn right she had to turn the wheel left — since she was watching a monitor [getting a live feed from a camera in front of the car]. It was my stunt double. She’s a lady, she’s older than me. I’m pretty tall so I can have an adult stunt double. I’m 5-foot-6, I grew seven inches in two years. The lady that did all the driving was really nice. She had done it before. I think she had to do it on “Star Trek” when the little boy [playing young James T. Kirk during a memorable joyride sequence] was shown in that car. J.J. Abrams has a lot of experience with kids driving cars.
GB: Hollywood success isn’t new to your family but it must be satisfying for you to add to that success story.
EF: My whole life my sister has been acting and I’ve seen her doing all of this and traveling and now it’s fun that I’m getting to experience some of that as well. She’s so excited to see “Super 8” and she hasn’t read the script. She’s going to be so surprised. She’s really proud of all this.
GB: What’s it like when Steven Spielberg comes by the set of a movie you’re starring in?
EF: He knew my sister because she was in “War of the Worlds” and I had been on that set and seen him them. Steven is really close with my sister. Once you meet him you will always know him. You never really lose that. Whenever he comes by the set, you kind of forget about everything else. Everybody gets really excited. It’s a big deal. He came by when we were shooting in the cave. I was in this cave hanging upside down. So I saw him upside down. “Is that Steven?” “Yes, that’s Steven.” Since my sister and Steven are so close, she was so happy that I got this. She was really proud of that. I’m really excited. I also just finished a movie with Francis Coppola, it’s called “Twixt Now and Sunrise,” it was filmed in Napa Valley at his vineyard, and it’s a scary movie. Val Kilmer is in it, too. And another movie I did with Cameron Crowe called “We Bought a Zoo.” That’s with Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson and I play Scarlett Johansson’s cousin and we both work at a zoo and the story is based in a zoo. Matt Damon’s family buys the zoo and he comes in and tries to get it back to what it used to be.
— Geoff Boucher
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