ELLE ATTENDED her first premiere when she was only 3. She first appeared in a film at 18 months – a common feat for children of actors, but Elle’s parents were sports players. Elle’s entrance ticket to Hollywood was her sister, Dakota. After Elle was born, four-year-old Dakota began showing her talent as an actor for the first time — she would stuff a pillow under her dress to depict a pregnant mum (Elle played herself — a newborn baby). Her parents took Dakota to a theatre workshop near their house, where she so stood out from the other kids that her mother was urged to find her an agent. Mama decided to take Dakota to LA for six weeks, and there, at the age of 5, she won her first role in a washing-powder ad. Soon afterwards, the whole family moved to LA too.
Elle joined her sister on the set of I Am Sam (where she sat on Sean Penn’s lap). And, a year later, she received her first role independently of her sister in Daddy Day Care. The producers of Door in the Floor thought a four- year-old would be unable to cope with the workload and wanted twins for the part. But at the audition they were so impressed by little Elle that they decided she could manage the role all by herself. Elle was soon so busy shooting films that she didn’t even have time left over for school. Until 9 she was taught at home while working with top stars such as Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (Babylon), Denzel Washington (Deja vu and The Nines), and Blanchett again (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). And yet, in spite of being so busy, Elle felt lonely.
Complaining of not having enough friends, she persuaded her mother to allow her to go to school. Incidentally, it was at school that her parents met – and they always looked back on their school years with fondness. To attend school balls, hang out with girlfriends, talk about boys – Elle wanted at least sometimes to live the life of the girl from next door. At the age of 9, she went straight into the 4th class. This, though, was the moment she was given her first leading role, in Phoebe in Wonderland, as a girl with Tourette Syndrome and OCD. She and the director went around meeting similar children so as to gain a better understanding of her part. Playing in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere also required special preparation, but of a more pleasant kind. Elle had to spend time with her ‘new Papa' – Stephen Dorff. “Stephen would pick me up from school and we’d go eat frozen yoghurt, play bowls, make things from clay; he would come to school to watch me play volleyball – it was great,” recalls Elle. The two became such close friends that they were able to throw the script aside and improvise. Somewhere won a Golden Lion and Elle finally began to break free from the shadow of Dakota.
Elle became a favourite with the Coppola family, with Francis Ford Coppola asking her to play in his new film, Between. When Elle started spending time at the family’s estate in the Napa Valley, Coppola senior discovered that with her busy schedule she had missed out on getting to know.the classics of world film. During the evenings he would put on a film and doze off while she would be unable to tear herself away from the screen. Her favourite was Marilyn Monroe – posters of whom she hung all over her room. When Elle grew up, she bought at auction some powder and a bottle of lotion which had once belonged to Marilyn. Meeting celebrities continues to be a source of excitement for Elle. One day, when turning up for rehearsals in Hollywood, she noticed from afar that Angelina Jolie was coming towards her – and, unable to hold back, threw herself into her arms. After this, both actresses realized they would have no problems getting on together on the set of Maleficent. “I was a very gloomy teenager,” says Jolie, “but Elle radiates happiness. I adore her!”
Sleeping Beauty is Elle’s favourite Disney princess, but the new film required her to use her imagination to the full. “It was difficult,” she recalls. “For instance, you had to look up and imagine there was a dragon flying over you.” After her enormous success in Maleficent, Elle had to make a real effort to avoid getting stuck in the image of a sweetie. She chose the difficult role of a transgender teenager in About Ray. For this she began talking to girls who were injecting themselves with testosterone and also had to learn to skateboard, a knee- bloodying process which made an interesting change from ballet (she describes ballet lessons as the most difficult thing she’s ever done).
Another thing Elle finds challenging is to separate work from life. At interviews she becomes instantly animated when given an opportunity to stop talking about her latest film and move on to how she spends time with her friends. “They forget I'm an actress and are always surprised to see my face on a film poster,” she says with a smile. “And I adore them for that.” ♦