Two years after director Yorgos Lanthimos turned Tony McNamara’s script “The Favourite” into a twisted, Oscar-winning look at the British court of Queen Anne, McNamara himself has applied the same sensibility to 18th-century Russia in “The Great.” The Hulu series stars Nicholas Hoult as the egotistical but inept Peter III and Elle Fanning as his young, naïve wife Catherine, who would go on to lead Russia for more than 30 years.
The opening credits to each episode call “The Great” “an occasionally true story,” and certainly there’s a distinctly modern sensibility and a load of deliberate anachronisms in the portrayal of the dysfunctional Russian court. The series is blackly comic feast centered on the delicious feuding between Hoult, played by “The Favorite” vet Nicholas Hoult, and Catherine, played by Elle Fanning with a breezy combination of innocence and steel. Fanning, who also served as an executive producer on the series, spoke to TheWrap about “The Great” on the day that Hulu renewed it for a second season.
You got involved with this before it actually was a TV series, right?
Yes, that’s true. I was sent a film script, which was written by Tony based off a (2008) play that he put on in Australia. Tony, I guess, had been thinking of me, but the young Catherine was just a small kind of sliver in that big script, because it really spanned her entire life.
And there’s so much information there, it just seemed right that this should be a television series. And I was allowed to hop on board as an executive producer of the show before it was picked up. It was stepping into that role behind the scenes, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but then also getting to play an incredible character with the best script I’ve ever read.
I would also think that being a producer for the first time might have helped, since Catherine was stepping into a new, more powerful role as well.
Totally. There was such a parallel there. Much like Catherine is finding her voice and her authority in this story, I was doing the same. My confidence had to build, because I would have a lot of notes and sometimes I wouldn’t say anything. I realized I have to speak up. Maybe I’m not always right, but we have to at least have the conversation. Over those six months, my voice got pretty big, I have to say I, which I was happy about.
As a producer, did you have certain priorities going into this?
Yeah. It’s such a specific tone, so I think every decision was always talked about in regards to this tightrope that everybody is walking — not just the characters, but the production design and costumes have to fit this world. No one’s really seen a world like this before — it’s completely created by us. It has little modern touches, but also things that you don’t normally see.
We filmed in London, so obviously I’m sure they film a lot of BBC period dramas and they’re used to that. So even in big banquet scenes or party scenes, everybody would have the most perfect etiquette. I would look around and be like, “We need to shake it up, you know?” I’d tell the first AD, “They can eat with their hands.”
I remember even the candelabras, people were cleaning the candle wax off of them and I’m like, “In Peter’s court, they wouldn’t do that.” So it was about making sure we had enough broken chairs and broken glass. Those details really mattered.
The show is so much fun, but also involves torture and murder and chopped-off heads at the dinner table for dessert.
We really found our stride in when we were filming that severed-heads dessert scene. I was like, “This is so us, you know? This is our Russia. We have a severed head next to a lemon sorbet. This is our show summed up in one scene.”
There are bizarre things happening and funny things happening, but there are such high stakes involved that it’s important when things do get serious that you feel this emotional connection that doesn’t feel out of the blue. So I think for all of us, even though we were telling jokes, it all has to come from a really truthful place that makes the audience feel for each character.
It’s also a show about a young woman trying to exercise agency in an environment that is set up to give her no control over her own life. Was it important to you that it deal with issues like that?
Completely. I think that’s what’s so intriguing about the story and about the real Catherine the Great. Although we’re not a historical document by any means, we still tried to capture the essence of what Catherine the Great did and how incredible she was. Most everyone that I talked to, what they know her for is this rumor that she had sex with a horse, which is so reductive and sad. We reduce this incredible woman who brought female education, art, science — she was the longest ruling woman ruler of Russia, and we reduce her to this rumor and that’s what people know her for.
So it was important that she was really humanized. I think her youth is so important. Especially in the beginning, she’s still optimistic and romantic. And then she goes into this upside-down world and reality slaps her and she realizes, “OK, I have to do something about it.” So many people that are in situations like that say, “Oh, OK, I’ll just live with it.” And she decides she’s not going to live with it, even if she is completely out of her depth at times.
And I love playing her arrogance. She’s very arrogant at times — she doesn’t know anything she’s talking about, but she’s good at faking it. There’s so much more to explore with her.
And as arrogant as she is, anytime she’s in a room with Peter, she’s at best the second most arrogant person in the room.
Yeah, that’s true. And Nicholas Hoult is so fantastic. Obviously Nick was in “The Favourite,” so he was used to Tony’s writing and the comedic timing of everything. So he really kept me on my game in that way. But also, to add so many layers to him where he could just be easily written off as nasty and the enemy — actually, sometimes I watch and I’m like, “Oh, he’s kind of playing Catherine. He’s a little smart.” Or he’s like this man-child and you kind of pity him. And I think that’s how Catherine’s feeling too, because she absolutely hates him but at times he’s kind of amusing to her. I think there is an odd romantic feeling there.
You play a real historical figure, but the opening credits spell out that it’s only occasionally true. Did you feel as if you had to research what she was really like and what really happened?
Yeah, that was another tightrope to balance. That was something I talked about with a lot of the other cast members. Because I think they went into it and they’re like, “All right, we’re going to research this time period.” And we went to the first table read and Tony was like, “Put away the history books. You don’t need to do any of that.” I fairly quickly realized that our scripts are the Bible for us, and that’s all I really needed. I researched a bit. I looked at her handwriting, which was obviously all in Russian. One of the first pieces of information I learned about her is that she invented the roller coaster, and I’m like, “OK, that tells me pretty much all I need to know. She sounds like someone I would want to be friends with.”
What was the most challenging part of playing her?
Just in a technical sense, comedy. I’ve explored comedy a bit, but this is my first major comedy. I think for me it was getting that rhythm and the timing and reading a script and knowing, “That’s a joke and I want to hit the joke.”
And I learned to not be embarrassed. In comedy that that’s the key ingredient, to just let yourself go and be uninhibited. I’m quite a silly, uninhibited person in my real life. But when you get on a set around tons of people, with the outrageous things Tony has us doing, you have to commit. I think maybe that was the biggest challenge that I learned along the way. Just go there do full-on do it. And if you fall on your face, you can do it again.
Are there any particular examples of things that when you were doing them, you were thinking, “I cannot believe that I’m doing this?”
The peeing-on-wheat scenes, that was pretty outrageous. (The scenes depict an early kind of pregnancy test: If the wheat blooms, the woman is pregnant.) In Episode 10, I have a scene with Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), and I have to hold in my pee. I felt like I wasn’t committing completely on that day. I realized that when you’re holding in your pee and then finally you do release it, how good that feels. So I was like, “We have to do another take and get that feeling right.” I had to embarrass myself.
You were one of two series about Catherine the Great this year, the other being “Catherine the Great” with Helen Mirren. Did you watch any of her take on Catherine?
I feel like it came out while we were shooting, so I didn’t watch it. And I didn’t watch any of the Catherine the Great movies, because I didn’t want to get it in my head. But I should now.
I think it’s interesting — what does that say about our world that so many things are being made about Catherine the Great now? I think the themes are very relevant and modern to today, with this woman taking charge and taking on the men. That’s pretty fascinating.
Watch the video of the interview above.