An Occasionally Serious Conversation Between Sebastian de Souza and Elle Fanning

Published June 25, 2020

Photo courtesy of Hulu.

The English actor Sebastian de Souza knows a thing or two about making an entrance. Take, for example, his first scene on Hulu’s The Great, in which Peter (Nicholas Hoult) asks—well, orders—Leo, De Souza’s character, to pull his pants down to assess his, er, talents. Leo’s role is to please and entertain Catherine the Great, played deliciously by Elle Fanning in the series that draws loosely from the life of the infamous Empress of Russia.

The 27-year-old British multi-hyphenate—on top of acting, he’s a singer, songwriter, and screenwriter—is no stranger to edgy roles that flirt with recklessness. De Souza worried mothers worldwide with his portrayal of Matty Levan on the grimy teen series Skins. Soon after, he dove deep into the world of period pieces, appearing on Showtime’s The Borgias and the medieval Italian drama Medici, alongside Richard Madden. Lately, the actor has been seen in Normal People, Hulu’s buzzy adaptation of the hit Sally Rooney novel. Though it’s a small role, his intervention in the central romance has turned his character into “enemy number one,” he says, for fans of the show. Luckily, his sensual portrayal of Leo in The Great has won over many hearts—and the praise of critics. De Souza got on the phone with Fanning to discuss his dream of becoming the next Elton John, spinach dip, and that peach scene. Huzzah!

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SEBASTIAN DE SOUZA: Hi, Elle. How are you?

ELLE FANNING: I’m good. Did you make any pies today? I watched you making that pie the other day. It looked so good.

DE SOUZA: No, you didn’t.

FANNING: Yes, I did. I’m cooking-obsessed. 

DE SOUZA: What are you cooking these days?

FANNING: I did lamb recently, and I’ve made some really good spinach dip. I did that in the oven.

DE SOUZA: What do you dip into the spinach?

FANNING: Well, bread or pita chips.

DE SOUZA: Delicious. Well, I’ve got lots of questions for you, Elle.

FANNING: Oh my gosh. I have questions for you, too. I’ve never really asked you this, but why did you decide to act? When did you realize that you were going to follow this artistic life? 

DE SOUZA: Oh, that’s annoying. You stole my first question. I always wanted to be Elton John, and then I realized that I wasn’t any good at the piano or songwriting. I was lucky enough to go to this school that had just opened a new theater when I arrived. I had never thought about acting before, but they were putting on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I went and auditioned, thinking maybe I would be a tree or something, or just help out. And they cast me as Puck.

FANNING: Wow.

DE SOUZA: It was this transformative moment for me, because I’d never actually thought about acting before. I’d always been taken to the theater by my parents when I was young and I loved it, but I never thought seriously about it. I didn’t know how to how to act—I still don’t—as you know very well, Elle.

FANNING: Not true. 

DE SOUZA: Very true. I didn’t know how to do it, so I did whatever came to me. How about you? I mean, maybe you didn’t have any choice. You were such a natural that it just happened.

FANNING: I mean, I look back at old videos of myself, even from when I was, like, 2 years old, and I was such a ham. I was constantly dressing up, constantly singing, always wanting the video camera to be on me. It’s obvious to me when I look at those videos that there’s really nothing else that I would’ve done.

DE SOUZA: Dakota [Fanning, Elle’s sister] is obviously an actor, too. I know that you guys are so close, but has it ever been weird and tricky between you?

FANNING: I’m truly being honest when I say this—because people love to ask this question—we don’t ever feel that sense of competition. We also keep our work very separate. It’s nice having someone in the family understand what you do. When you go off for six months, they know what you’re doing. And there’s a comfort in that; she gets the hours and the little things. You don’t have to explain it. 

DE SOUZA: You must have such a shorthand with each other. It’s such a difficult thing to explain how this bizarre world of ours operates. You guys don’t have to do that, which must be wonderful.

FANNING: It’s really nice. I’m really excited to mesh our artistic worlds together soon, because we’re supposed to play sisters. That’s very exciting for us, we’ve wanted that for so long. Honestly, I only got into acting because my sister started acting. She’s four years older, so as the little sister, you want to do whatever they do. I was definitely trying to copy her for a long time, and out of that, I found my own path. So it’s really through her. I feel very grateful for that. 

DE SOUZA: That’s so lovely because one could imagine other scenarios. Shall we talk about the first time we met?

FANNING: I remember, the table read. The Great was new for me because on a TV show the pace is so quick that you just don’t have the time to rehearse or get to know everybody. 

DE SOUZA: It was this real luxury, given the speed at which we had to do what we had to do, that we had table reads every few episodes. I always felt that it was like taking stock. It was like, “Okay, we’re really happy and we’ve done our best there and now we’re going to come down the mountain again.” For me, it had this nice undulating feeling. You’ve done this so many more times than me, so you knew that this would be a relatively long working relationship. Tell me how you felt at our first table read, because in my mind, I was like, “Am I talking too much? I’m babbling. Oh, my god. Jesus.” You were being so sweet.

FANNING: No way. It was something that [the producers] Tony [McNamara] and Marian [Macgowan] and I had talked about, because it’s inevitably going to be awkward, and we wanted to create a space that you felt comfortable coming into. 

DE SOUZA: Do you have a method in those situations? I don’t think you do. As far as I was concerned, we hit the ground running and that was it. But I know some people are like, “Okay, let’s experience in real life what’s happening in the show.” Is that something that you ever do?

FANNING: I think sometimes that does happen, but I’m not conscious of it. I think if there’s bleeding over, it just happens because you’re so in the story. But I don’t try to make that happen. I remember that we all went to that steak place in Covent Garden to get to know one another. 

DE SOUZA: We sat at the bar, and I had a beer. As soon as I have beer, I always have to pee. I peed about 10 times that dinner, and I was like, “This is dreadful.”

FANNING: I was drinking those—they’re like bourbon drinks made with butter? Fat Old Fashioneds, they call them. 

DE SOUZA: Were there any particular scenes or moments in the show that stand out to you now?

FANNING: One of my favorite scenes is the one when you give me the peach. It’s the first time we really get introduced to your character, and also the first time Catherine’s feathers are ruffled a bit. She’s just so taken aback by you. That scene always stands out to me when I think about the show. I miss it so much.

DE SOUZA: I know, man, tell me about it. I really hope that at some point soon we’re going to get back on a beat that’s safe, productive, and happy for everyone. I know you’ve got your picture that you’re doing with Dakota. It’s weird how in an instant our business has changed so much. What do you think the future of our industry will be?

FANNING: I mean, obviously we don’t know what the protocols are going to be. In certain countries, people are filming again. I have some friends who are filming in New Zealand, and they started up again in Israel. We don’t know what the future holds exactly, but I have faith. You have to have faith. 

DE SOUZA: We have to have faith.

FANNING: Oh, you know what I just watched? Normal People, all of it, in, like, two days. 

DE SOUZA: Oh, you did?

FANNING: I was like boom, boom, boom.

DE SOUZA: You binged Normal People?

FANNING: Binged

DE SOUZA: How good are Paul and Daisy? I mean, honestly.

FANNING: I was like, “Dude, that’s the guy you just don’t want her with at all. Why!” 

DE SOUZA: I’m an extra, basically, in Normal People, but—

FANNING: No, you’re not.

DE SOUZA: I’m also enemy number one. People write to me and say, “How could you get in the way of those two!” I’m like, “I really didn’t want to!” 

FANNING: [LaughsI believe you.

DE SOUZA: Anyway, I can’t wait to see what happens with your new picture. Miss you.

FANNING: Miss you, too. I will be keeping an eye on your pie-making.