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Phoebe in Wonderland: Walking to the Beat of A Different Drummer

Phoebe in Wonderland by writer/director Daniel Barnz is the story of a little girl (Elle Fanning) who has a hard time conforming to the demands of the world around her. Her inability to control herself is problematic until she finds temporary refuge in the creative, make-believe world of a school play directed by her drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson). Her parents, Hillary and Peter Lichten, (Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman) struggle with allowing Phoebe her non-conforming self-expression vs. wanting her to fit in socially. Huffman and Fanning recently participated in a Q & A:How did you wind up participating in this project?Fanning: I read the script and then met with Daniel at Color Me Mine. We painted two cups and talked about the movie. We talked about the character and that was pretty much it. We then started filming.What special challenges did you both face in developing your characters?Huffman: Hillary was challenging, not so such much in the mother aspect, but with who she is. She’s an intellectual – a writer – and was loosely based on Daniel’s parents who are both that. So not only where she came from, but also how she walked, and we decided that she was always off balance and when I walk I plant my feet. I needed to show the internal struggles that she was experiencing, and as they say in the horse world, “She fought her own head a lot.” So, I found all this to be challenging because of the subtlety of it. People see me as Lynette Scavo (Desperate Housewives) for many weeks during the year and I needed to transform so they just didn’t see Lynette Scavo on screen. As a mother, have you faced this conflict between trying to encourage a child’s individuality and having to address a condition that needs medical attention?Huffman: Yes. I think the issue really is you want your children to be special and unique and then your children are special and unique, and that comes with its own set of challenges and possibly pain and loneliness. So it’s a conundrum. As a parent, your job is to protect and support your child’s autonomy, but the world says “Be the same, be the same,” and you say, “No, no, no, she’s a special flower.” This often blinds you as to when the child may need assistance.So much of the film revolves around the school play. Have you ever done a school play?Fanning: I haven’t. I’m in elementary school so we don’t really have plays yet, but when I get older, like in middle school, I would probably want to do something.How do you decide on a script?Fanning: I read the script and then my mom reads it so we sort of decide together, but it more comes down to my opinion because my mom always says, “Do this only if you feel like you want to.” I like to play characters that are different and Phoebe is definitely different and challenging.Was there any kind of emotional residue after a day’s shooting?Huffman: Yes. I’m not one of those people who remains in character, but when you live in a certain world, and have specific objectives that you live with for 12 to 14 hours a day, you tend to carry them home with you. I found that with Hillary, I was more frightened than I usually am. I’m pretty frightened all the time and carry a lot of fear around with me. What about you, Elle?Huffman: She does this amazing thing. (To Elle) Can I talk about you for a second? So we’d be acting in these intense scenes, and Daniel would yell “cut” and Elle would shout, “That was fun, can we do it again?” It was such a lesson to me about the joy of acting that you forget as you grow older and get all these self-doubts. Elle’s incredible enthusiasm reminded me that it’s playing and it’s fun.How did you get started in your career, and do you ever feel like you’re missing out on a childhood? Fanning: When my sister (Dakota) first started I was really young, but when I was three or four, I thought, “That looks like fun and if she could do it, I can do it.” I don’t think I’m missing out on anything because I have so much fun with my work. Do you have any other interests or hobbies?Fanning: I like riding a lot. I have a horse. I also like singing and dancing and study both. Was it important to know Alice in Wonderland which is the backdrop for the film?Huffman: It probably is important, but ironically enough Alice in Wonderland makes my palms sweat. It makes me very nervous and scared. I don’t like reading it and I don’t like the chaos of it. I probably should have read it, but I didn’t.Fanning: I watched the video a few times when I was small, but I never read the book.You said before that you have a lot of fear. Can you explain what you mean?Huffman: Oh you know, the normal fears of a freelancer like is this job I’ll ever have or that you’re working your way down the ladder of success and you’ll just talk about your glory days. And I just sort of carry around a lot of fear with me all the time. I go to sleep afraid and wake up afraid.Do you have any plans to work with your sister, and are you in competition with each other? Do you discuss shop at home?Fanning: Hopefully we will work together, but there’s nothing right now. We don’t discuss our work and are not really in competition with each other. When we’re at home we just talk about normal sister stuff like what happened in school and things like that.What was your worst audition?Huffman: You got an hour? (laughter) I have had many terrible auditions and one immediately comes to mind. I was going in for the ingénue in a movie and I put on my dress and realized that I just wasn’t quite chesty enough so I stuffed my bra with toilet paper. I did a terrible audition for the director and the fancy people in the room, and it just laid there like a dead fish. I said, “Thank you so much,” and as I leaned down to get my bag, somehow the toilet paper fell out of my dress. So, not only did I have to pick up my ego, but I also had to pick up the toilet paper and somehow get out of that room.Huffman: Thank you all so much.Fanning: (Smiling.) Goodbye everyone.

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