Elle Fanning Explains the Hazards of Acting in ‘The Great’: ‘Your Brain Is Just on Fire’

TheWrap magazine: The actress also talks about the season’s big death and admits, “I was crying all the time”

Elle Fanning
Photograph by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

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This story about Elle Fanning and “The Great” first appeared in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

There’s a scene in Episode 4 of the third season of Tony McNamara’s “The Great” in which Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great has a huge argument with her husband, the deposed Russian Emperor Peter III, over his delight at the fact that their son’s first word is pussy. After the shouting is over, Catherine storms into an empty room, throws back her head and screams at the top of her lungs — and the camera, hovering above her, has a perfect view directly down her throat to an unnerving depth.

“We were all laughing after that shot, and Tony was like, ‘We basically saw inside your body,’” Fanning said with a grin. “It was not an attractive shot, but we don’t care about looking attractive on this show.”

For three seasons, “The Great” has been taking a period costume drama and subverting all those lavish gowns and ornate furnishings with ridiculously profane antics and over-the-top excess that bear only a passing relationship to what really happened in 18th-century Russia. McNamara, a playwright and screenwriter who turned to this show after writing the Oscar-winning “The Favourite,” gave Fanning her first major comedic role and made her an executive producer on the wickedly funny and irreverent Hulu series, allowing her to learn her way around raw comedy in the same way that Catherine learns to navigate the vicious politics of the Russian court.

Elle Fanning The Great

“The first season, everything was new to me,” Fanning said of the show, which required her to not only lose her vanity but to develop crack comic timing with Nicholas Hoult, who plays Peter, as they navigated the words of a writer-director who demands complete precision in the midst of insanity. “Tony’s brutal on us about being word-perfect,” she said. “The memorization always feels like you’re cramming for a huge final every night — your brain is just on fire. But I live for the challenge. I like feeling terrified.”

For McNamara, Fanning’s growth over three seasons has been particularly noteworthy in the way she learned to deal with humor. “She’s really stepped up,” he said. “That was the thing she was most nervous about, and she was surrounded by great people of comedy — Nick and Belinda (Bromilow) and Doug (Hodge) and Adam (Godley), really great comic actors. But she really holds her own with all of them, which has been a big thing for her and for us to discover as we’ve gone through these seasons together.”

If Fanning likes feeling terrified, she had particular reason to feel that way in Season 3, for reasons that constitute a major spoiler for those who haven’t seen the season. (If you didn’t watch at least the first six episodes, please stop reading.) Midway through the season, the deliciously complicated relationship between Catherine and Peter is severed when Peter suddenly falls through the ice on a frozen lake and sinks into the murky depths, leaving Catherine without the soulmate who drove her crazy and Fanning without her partner in one of the most delightful relationships on television.

“I’d never planned for the show to be this kind of love story, but I changed my mind while watching Elle and Nick together onscreen,” McNamara said. “Watching them together, I thought, ‘Oh, he would actually fall in love with her.’ And then in Season 2 we managed to convince ourselves of the same thing about her. So I ended up building the show around this idea of a marriage that was a great love story but also untenable for their characters — she can’t possibly run this country and still be married to him. At some point during Season 2, I knew we were going to have to kill Peter in Season 3. But how do we kill Nick and how can that be great for the audience?”

Elle Fanning Nicholas Hoult The Great
Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in “The Great” / Hulu

He also knew that the death would be great for Catherine the Great. “I was aware of how much of (the real) Catherine’s story hasn’t been told in the show,” he said. “For most of her story, she wasn’t married and didn’t have anyone — that was a big part of who she became and why she was the leader she was. So I knew I had to bite the bullet (and kill Peter) to be able to tell Season 4 the way we wanted.”

When Peter’s demise comes two-thirds of the way through the season, it upped the stakes for Fanning. “I put a lot of pressure on myself, because the doors opened for people to say, ‘Oh, it’s not as good now that he’s gone,’” she said. “But Tony had a brilliant idea and played us a podcast about a father and daughter who’d lost their mother, and the father went into this manic grief. He was grieving in complete mania, not acting like himself, in complete denial. And we decided that was what we were going to give Catherine. It can’t just become somber, because we are a comedy, so we have to teeter on the line between darkness and sadness and comedy and energy.”

At the same time, coming to work without Hoult (who continued to play a smaller role as Peter’s double) took its toll. “It was completely emotional,” she said. “I was crying all the time. That’s a testament to how great Nick is, because he made Peter so alive. I would walk the sets feeling his presence and feeling the emptiness. Nick and I are going to work together again many times, but the saddest part is that we’re not going to play these characters.” She paused. “Our last scene on the lake, we couldn’t even get through rehearsals that day because we were crying so much.”

McNamara said he had to deal with it, too. “The whole cast was grieving,” he said. “I had a very hard time getting them to be funny, because they were upset about Nick.”

The Great
Belinda Bromilow, Elle Fanning and Jane Mahady in “The Great” / Hulu

“The Great” take on Russian history is for the most part fictionalized to an extreme degree for the sake of comedy — but is it getting harder to make fun of Russian leaders in our current world? “I did ask Tony about that, but our show could be anywhere,” Fanning said. “I mean, Catherine’s period was the Enlightenment, which is the opposite of what’s happening now. I think that Putin tried to say he was a lot like Catherine in a speech the other day, which isn’t true.”

“I don’t think the show was ever about Russia for us,” McNamara added. “In a strange way, it was more Western — more about America, the UK, Australia. We’re writing about our own cultures, about the leader who doesn’t want to leave.”

Still, “The Great” certainly seems to reference current times when Catherine receives a visit from the ambassador of the United States to ask Russia for help in its war of independence. The two speak of democratic ideals, argue a bit, have sex and then talk of cementing the great relationship between Russia and the U.S. “forever.”

“Tony did that on purpose,” Fanning said, laughing. “I mean, I think so.”

Read more from the Comedy Series issue here.

Comedy Series Cover, Selena Gomez
Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap