By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Actress Elle Fanning knew nothing about Dalton Trumbo or Hollywood’s infamous blacklist when she got word that she was in line for a part in the biopic “Trumbo.”
Of course, it didn’t take long for the teenager to start researching the period (post-World War II to the early 1960s) when writers and others were prevented from getting work because they happened to be communist or suspected of being communist. One of the most outspoken and previously respected people on the list was Trumbo, a talented and prolific writer whose credits included 1940’s Ginger Rogers starrer “Kitty Foyle” and 1943’s war drama “A Guy Named Joe,” starring Spencer Tracy.
Fanning, 17, plays Trumbo’s older daughter, Nikola (“Nikki”) who, like her father, was an activist. While her dad subscribed to the belief that people—even Hollywood screenwriters—should be allowed to hold whatever political views without recrimination, Nikki’s cause was civil rights. The whole Trumbo family endured economic and social hardships during the two decades Dalton Trumbo was on Hollywood’s infamous blacklist.
Faced with dwindling opportunities to earn a living, Trumbo moved his family from their spacious L.A. ranch to a much smaller house, and continued to write using pseudonyms or other non-blacklisted writers fronting him. He also helped other blacklisted writers (collectively known as the Hollywood Ten) find work penning B-movies, during a two-decade period that amounted to a witch-hunt.
Jay Roach directs “Trumbo,” from a script by John McNamara based on the book “Dalton Trumbo” by Bruce Cook.
Georgia-born Fanning, the younger sister of actress Dakota Fanning, got a chance to exchange emails with Nikki Trumbo before tackling the role of a teenage girl growing up in Hollywood in the 1950s.
Q: When you got the script, what was your first impression? How did find out you got the part?
Fanning: For me, I guess Jay had heard of me and sent me the script and wanted me to play Nikki, and I met with him for breakfast at a hotel and talked about Nikki. I learned more about the blacklist because I didn’t know, so I had a lot of questions. From there, I started speaking to Nikki. And, to be part of a cast like that was great. I knew that Diane Lane and Bryan Cranston would be my parents, so I was freaking out! (She giggles.) That was definitely part of the whole equation of it. It was very exciting, and to play a real person is always fun and a challenge.
Q: Did you know about the Hollywood blacklist?
Fanning: Actually, before I got the script, I didn’t even know that the blacklist existed, or the Hollywood Ten. For me, it was shocking learning that part of history. After I read (the script), I asked my parents about it and they were like, “Yeah, it actually happened.” I couldn’t believe that this would actually happen. For me, it was shocking but in getting to play Nikki Trumbo, and finding out who she is, and (getting to meet her sister) Mitzi at the premiere last night, was really special.
I hope I did her justice. Before filming, we got to email her, and she was so open and willing to answer anything. She would send me back these paragraphs to the answers to my questions specific to the relationship that she had with her dad, and how it was definitely a very unique one, and specifically because of what was going on in that time in their lives. So I was so happy to play her. She’s such a strong girl. It was exciting to play.
Q: Do you feel like your generation faces its own set of civil rights issues?
Fanning: Yeah, I think so. My generation, honestly, is concerned with things like transgender issues. That’s a big one, I think. Specifically, my school is accepting of people for being different. So I probably would have gotten involved (in causes back in the 1950s). I’m glad that Jay (Roach, the director) included (Nikki Trumbo’s activism) as part of the film because it made her a more complex character. Obviously, she was taking after her dad. She gets that fire from him, the activist side.
Q: You play Nikki from a teenager to an adult. What was that like? And did you like wearing the period clothing?
Fanning: I guess all of us got to age in the movie and go through many different time periods of clothes. At least for me, the 1950s to the 1970s, that was exciting. I remember on that day where I had to be the oldest version of myself I was in with Daniel (Orlandi), the costume designer. He’s so great. He put me into this vintage Halston dress, did my hair and (applied the) most makeup I’ve ever had on. No one recognized me. So that was fun to experiment with.
Q: You went through different looks for the eras. For an actress, is it kind of like playing dress up?
Fanning: I would say so. Yeah, definitely. When I read the script the first time, I didn’t know I’d be playing so many ages. I just assumed that I would be playing just the teenage section. Then when I met with Jay (Roach), and he was like, “No, you’ll be 13 to, like, 30 years old.” Okay.
For the clothes and the hairstyles, we had inspiration from magazines from that time. So each day, I’d come in and we’d say, “Yeah, I like this hairstyle.” And we had specific photos of Nikki as well. It was exciting. Every character I play, it’s always pretending and make-believe.
Q: Did you enjoy dressing up and playing characters as a child?
Fanning: When I was really little with my sister (Dakota), we’d play around the house and create these crazy characters. Then, when I realized that this was a job you could do, I was really excited to do that.