Natalie Southwick
September 09, 2015 2:42 pm

No matter the role, acting is hard — there’s a reason most of us don’t do it in front of an audience bigger than our friends or family. But there’s extra responsibility that comes with a role as complex as that of a trans youth — especially for an actress who hasn’t even graduated from high school yet.

Elle Fanning experienced this firsthand with her newest role in About Ray, opening next week. In the film, Fanning plays Ray, a transgender skater boy navigating his transition while trying to gain the approval and support of his mother (played by Naomi Watt) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon).

In an interview with Teen Vogue, 17-year-old Elle discussed the anxiety she felt about taking on such an important and sensitive role.

“I never thought about saying no, but I was so afraid to touch it,” she said. “What if I don’t do it right?”

Even though Elle has grown up onscreen, working with award-winning directors and actors alike and playing a number of challenging roles, she felt especially intimidated by the daunting prospect of becoming Ray.

“It did make me very nervous when I was asked to do this film. It was a big responsibility. I was really moved by Ray’s story,” she told Out magazine. “I have a lot of transgender friends, so it was interesting for me to read this script and try to really understand the struggle of my friends and how they think and handle these issues. They are really incredible people.”

Like any professional actor, she did her homework for the role, speaking with trans teenagers and youth across the country, both in-person and on Skype. She also watched YouTube testimonials that teens made about their own processes of transition, recalling one where the subject was so excited to be developing a visible Adam’s apple that “they started crying, and it just hit home.”

“Some kids were telling me such personal things,” she said. “It was really moving. I was a stranger, and they were opening up to me, and way more confident than I would be. On YouTube, I watched how they lit up — they were so happy about becoming who they are, so happy that they don’t have to hide anymore.”

In the film, Ray has already been living as a boy, but he decides to begin the process of a medical transition, which has a ripple effect on his complicated family. Elle underwent her own (relative) physical changes for the role, adjusting to Ray’s cropped, dark hair and binding her breasts with a T-Kingdom binder.

Elle said the role and experience of hearing from trans teenagers has made her more aware of the discrimination faced by the trans community, and trans teens in particular.

“In my school, I would say we’re very accepting,” she said, “but you hear about all these hate crimes, and you realize it is still really bad.”

She added, “The thing is that so many people are afraid to ask the questions. If you have a question, go find the answer. And try to be a compassionate, caring person. Why should anyone care if someone is just trying to be themselves?”

(Image: The Weinstein Company.) 

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