Photo: Yelena Yemchuck
Everyone’s talking about The Neon Demon because it hits three points of the American dream: sex, violence, and perfect denim. The latest film from Drive auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon follows a neophyte model (Elle Fanning) as she hits Los Angeles, captivates the style industry, and gets slowly swallowed by its evil edges. (We can’t call it an underbelly — this is a fashion film, after all, with no excess body fat.)
Guiding Fanning’s sinister transformation is Sarah, a fame-hungry model whose obsession with youth and success drives much of the movie. Played by former runway star Abbey Lee, Sarah is a vampire in every sense, feasting on Fanning’s triumphs and failures before actually (spoiler alert) sucking some teenage blood.
It’s a breakout role for the Aussie native and the start of a big Hollywood push — she’s got three more movies rolling out by next year. So, ahead of the film’s release, we spoke with the 29-year-old actress about career suicide, fake eyes, and the Jennifer Aniston effect.
Yahoo Style: You’ve been very clear that your focus now is on film, not fashion. But this is your first major role, and you’re playing a model. Why take the chance?
Abbey Lee: Because of [director] Nicolas. As a model really passionate about acting and wanting to be taken seriously as an actor, I wouldn’t be so willing to play a model in a movie had it not been for somebody like Nic. And when I heard about the part, I was terrified. I thought, “Damn, they want me to play a model? This could be career suicide for me.” But it was in the hands of someone brilliant. Regardless of whether it becomes a crazy successful film, it’s always going to be polarizing and interesting, and people will always want to see it and talk about it. So I had faith that it would work out.
Your character isn’t just a model — she’s also a violent monster.
The film is not what the script was. … When I first read the script, I was like, “This bitch be crazy.” But she turned into something more [mythical] on set, because this film, it changed every five minutes.
Nic has a wild process. He had a suggestion box for crew members where they could decide the ending. He changed every single scene, every single day. And he wouldn’t just tell you how something would change. He’d say, “This is how I want it to change, do you think that’s right or wrong?” You’d have to go away and decide what you thought was best not just for your character, but for the entire message of the film. And you’d have to offer up your own suggestions!
Elle Fanning said when she first came on set, she was starstruck by you because she’s such a big fashion groupie.
If she was, she hid it very well! She’s a confident little thing, that one! She’s fearless. She’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and she’s so professional and she’s so good at her job. It’s wild — I was not that put together when I was her age. So, if she had any nerves, she definitely didn’t show it.
She told V Magazine that you gave her runway lessons?
Again, she’s being really modest. She asked if I’d look at her walk before we had a scene together. I took her down the corridor and said, “OK, go.” She walked once, and I was like, “Seriously? Mate, you’re fine.” She was a ballerina. She’s been a performer since she was tiny. She’s fine. I literally said, “Don’t swing your arms,” and that was it. But she’s very cute for saying that I taught her something.
You get to eat one of her eyeballs in the movie, and it looks very realistic. What are you actually eating?
That is a great question. Elle’s eyeball was a hard candy, like a [jawbreaker]. I couldn’t bite through it. I’d have to spit it out after every take. They coated it in muesli and red cinnamon syrup. It tasted filthy and soggy and syrupy, and there were trays of her eyes on the set. It was so gross.
That is so disgusting and so awesome.
You’re incredible in front of a camera — any camera. It seems like everyone wants to have that skill now, at least on Snapchat. How do you do it?
To be honest with you, I feel more comfortable looking into a camera and talking into a camera than I do sitting here talking to you. … It’s one of those things. There’s something about the [distance] that makes me really comfortable. It’s innate, and it’s a natural thing. … Some people are just born with a relationship to a camera.
This film makes a lot of claims about beauty being evil or destructive. Do you have a view on that?
Oh, yeah, totally. Beauty has become so skewed. It’s become this disgracefully negative thing to admire beauty. And it seems like it’s just getting worse. But I think that there’s nothing wrong with finding something beautiful! There’s nothing wrong with worshipping beauty, or appreciating beauty, and feeling physically beautiful, and seeing beauty around you. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is when it’s the only thing in your life. Then it’s dangerous.
Besides modeling, you’ve also performed in a band. Are you still doing music?
No! Not because I don’t love it. But I left the frontman of that band, so I kind of had to leave the band… And then a few weeks later I got picked up for Mad Max. I realized that’s what I loved. And I think as much as I love to make music, at some point, you kind of have to make a decision and focus on one thing, so I’m focusing on acting. I mean, I’ve been shooting three movies back to back. I’m leaving tonight to shoot in Upstate New York. I got back from Africa two days ago.
Oh, for Dark Tower? The Internet is very excited about that film.
I know! They’re really excited, and being the only female character, essentially, that’s like… it’s very interesting.
Have you read the Dark Tower books?
There are seven books, and I didn’t have time [to read them all] because I didn’t know I had the role for a very long time before we filmed. So, I read the first book — and can I tell you, that s*** is wild. I don’t know how anyone understands what the author is talking about. Weirdly, the script helped me understand the books! Because the books are crazy.
Sci-fi franchises have really active online communities. Have you checked out the Dark Tower message boards?
I have. They’re really unhappy about me playing Tirana. They’re like, “Who is that girl?” And, “She doesn’t even exist in the books; she’s only in Book Seven,” or whatever. It seems like they’re all very angry about it. Hopefully they just enjoy the movie and relax.
There’s only one female character?
The first couple of books, there’s, like, no women in it! It’s like, you can’t do that! We’re sick of stories like that.
And then you’re doing Office Christmas Party, which is a comedy, right?
Oh, because I love to challenge myself! And it’s really funny! It’s the last thing I would ever do, which is why I did it. If I can pull this off, and show people Neon Demon and then Office Christmas Party, hopefully people will be pleasantly shocked.
What’s shocking about it?
Oh, it’s a really cool role. I play a whore. I have all my scenes with [Saturday Night Live writer] Jillian Bell, who is beyond brilliant. Comedy is not my world, and it’s a very cliquey industry. You watch comedies and you see the same people in all of them. So, to get into that group was weird. And then to have Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston on set with me — I couldn’t not do it.
Did you learn anything from Jennifer Aniston about making jokes work on camera?
We have, like, one scene together, but that woman — she’s crazy sweet. She’s so friendly. She’s exactly like you see on TV. You watch Friends, and Rachel Green — that’s basically her.