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Her portrayal of Michelle Carter in Hulu’s The Girl from Plainville is impeccable and though it’s hard to imagine another actress morphing into the role with such grace, Elle Fanning says she was initially hesitant.
“I was tentative to sign on when this project presented itself,” she explained in a recent interview. “It took a lot of thought because these are real people and this was a tragedy. A young man lost his life and we knew this would make these families relive the worst tragedy of their lives.”
Fanning, who stars in and executive produces the eight-episode limited series, knew this was an important story that needed to be told but it had to be told in the right way. “This could’ve easily been romanticized or sensationalized or told in an unthoughtful way. I wanted to make sure that if we did this that we would be truthful and thoughtful.”
In 2017, Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter by a Massachusetts juvenile court judge for text messages she sent her then-boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, urging him to kill himself. Just before he died in 2014, he reached out to her saying he was afraid. She urged him to go through with it. She received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence and served 15 months.
The texting-suicide case set a new precedent and made headlines around the world. The series, based on the Esquire article of the same name by Jesse Barron, has renewed interest in the case. “We wanted to shine a light on technology and the false sense of intimacy that it creates,” explains Fanning. “Young people have been trying to navigate this modern world and I think we’re still trying to figure it out. No one has cracked that code. Online is a place that makes it easy for people to say certain things behind a screen and bully people.”
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Fanning had full access to thousands of text messages between Carter and Roy and says that reading them was very haunting. “Their relationship was mostly on text as they only met a handful of times and their texts were very intense. This was their entire relationship we were reading in real-time; every thought they had was there captured at the moment. There’s the silliness of teenage love and the conspiratorial aspect of telling your deepest, darkest secrets. That’s all in these messages. It’s just two people you wish never met honestly.”
When asked to describe her opinions on Carter, Fanning pauses. She never met her or reached out to her and is thoughtful in her answer. “This was this scary, looming project that I inevitably knew was going to appear. For me, the scary part of it was wondering how I was going to be able to understand someone who said such horrible things and did things I don’t agree with. When playing a character, you don’t have to agree with them but you can’t judge them either. You have to get into their psyche and I had to figure out what exactly led her there.”
The series spans seven years and Fanning talks about how fascinating Carter’s evolution was during that period. “She looks so different in every single photo. There’s something in her eyes that changes over the years. In her high school yearbook photo before this all happened, she was voted most likely to brighten your day. I could understand that girl. She was someone who wants attention. I don’t think she was malicious. I think this all came from a deeply lonely place. She had this desperate need for social contact. She lived in such a fantasy land and this is where I could understand the blurred lines between reality and fantasy. Our show plays with fantasy a lot. She was obsessed with Glee and The Fault in Our Stars and I felt that she was casting herself in the starring role in her life and trying to orchestrate things in a certain way to garner attention. Glee specifically is a show that’s made for the outsider. It’s a real community for the underdog and I think that’s something Michelle gravitated toward especially after Conrad’s death. She played the grieving widow and used that to garner attention. Can you look at that as manipulation? Yes, but it’s also very heartbreaking to think about someone being so isolated in her life that she had this desperate need to be wanted and scared that people wouldn’t be there for her.”
Though at some point Fanning had to separate the real Carter from the one written on the page, she still needed to find a way to understand her without judging her. “I had to live inside her thought process and if you don’t understand in some way why she’s doing the things she’s doing, it’s a very surface performance.”
As for the physical transformations, Fanning attributes the hair and makeup departments as well as the costume designer for finding all of the clothes Carter wore in court. As for Carter’s thickened eyebrows in court, Fanning has a theory. “They were drawn on with makeup. I think they were like war paint, a disguise she could put on every day and hide behind. Ultimately, she had to face reality and her guilt and live in the real world.”
Chloë Sevigny (Lynn Roy), Colton Ryan (Conrad “Coco” Roy III), Cara Buono (Gail Carter), Kai Lennox (David Carter) and Norbert Leo Butz (Conrad “Co” Roy II) star alongside Fanning.