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One Elle of a talent

For the role of Alice Dainard in his 70s-set Spielberg homage Super 8, writer/director JJ Abrams needed a teenage girl who could leave a group of smalltown boys tongue-tied and twisting in the wind every time she spoke to them.

And so, he cast Elle Fanning, the 13-year old acting veteran with the likes of Deja Vu (2006), The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008) and Somewhere (2010) on her CV. Opposite Fanning, Abrams cast relative unknowns Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee. After that, says Abrams, "all we had to do was film them".

"Yeah, it was kind of that way," laughs Fanning, sitting pretty in London's Dorchester Hotel, "but then, I've always been nervous on that first day on set, and they were definitely nervous, because they hadn't been on one before. "JJ really, really helped them know all the movie lingo, the things that people say on set, and I think they're pros at it now. It's huge -- the first movie they've done is with Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams!"

The first movie Mary Elle Fanning appeared in was 2001's I Am Sam, playing the two-year old version of her older sister Dakota's character, Lucy. The three-year old actress had longed to follow her sister into the acting business, and the two have been on our screens solidly ever since.

As Dakota makes the transition from cute kid to teen queen (recently playing real-life rocker Cherie Currie in The Runaways and popping up as Jane in the Twilight movies), little sis Elle is also proving to be more than just a really pretty face. Her turn as a jaded movie star's surprisingly well-adjusted daughter Cleo in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere won the younger Fanning many an accolade.

PAUL BYRNE: Super 8 is set in Ohio, 1979, but it might as well have been shot in Steven Spielberg's brain, 1979, having so much of his DNA present. Did you go back and watch E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters, Stand By Me?

ELLE FANNING: I'd definitely seen all of them -- they're classics. You have to see them to live in the world. For my generation, we need another E.T., we need another movie like that, and I think Super 8 could be added to that list.

PB: Your mum, Joy, played tennis professionally and dad Steve was in minor league baseball, while maternal grandfather Rick Arrington was an Eagles quarterback. On top of that, you're from Conyers, Georgia, with a population of 15,000. So, given that you grew up about 1,000 miles and a million light years away from Hollywood, where did the acting bug spring from?

EF: Because my parents have no acting genes -- it was funny when we got into acting. My mum and my sister moved to LA, and it was decided that acting was something Dakota really wanted to do. So, me and my dad moved out, and I saw my big sister doing it. And so I wanted to try it. We have that connection. That's brings us together, being in movies.

PB: You've been acting since shortly after you could walk and talk. Ever feel the urge to rebel and become a hairdresser instead? You're just at the right age for teenage rebellion now. . .

EF: [Laughs] Yeah, I think that being in the movies is fun -- it's not really work to me. It's something that I've been doing my whole life, and hopefully I'll continue. It's something that you should be able to at any age.

PB: You strike me as a young woman with a strong will -- you made your solo big-screen debut in Daddy Day Care, the painful 2003 Eddie Murphy flop, and yet, you continued to act ...

EF: Well, it's all about the experience. And you learn just as much from the bad as you do the good. Have to point out too, making Daddy Day Care was fun. Eddie Murphy is a comic genius, and getting to work with him was a real treat. And remember, Angelica Huston was in that movie too, as well as Jeff Garlin, Steve Zahn. How can you regret working with people like that?

PB: Last thing -- your full name is Mary Elle Fanning, and I read that there's some German and Irish blood in there. Any idea where the Irish comes from?

EF: I think it comes from my great-grandmother on my mum's side. I was named after her -- apparently we look alike. I've been told I have the same nose. I've never met her before. So, that's where all the Irish comes in.

Super 8 hits cinemas on Friday