‘The Great’ Creator Was Inspired to Write the Show When He Learned Catherine the Great ‘Maybe Fornicated With a Horse’

TCA 2020: “We pride ourselves on not being historically accurate,” star Elle Fanning says

The Great Hulu
Ollie Upton/Hulu

Hulu’s “genre-bending” period comedy “The Great” tells the story of Catherine the Great in spirit, if not in fact. But there was at least one important fact that made it into the show — and inspired the entire project in the first place.

“I think when I started, the reason I wanted to do it was because basically I knew one thing about Catherine the Great,” series creator Tony McNamara said at the Television Critics Association press tour on Friday, “Which was — maybe she fornicated with a horse.”

Written by McNamara, who also wrote the tongue-in-cheek period piece “The Favourite,” “The Great” is described as “a genre-bending, anti-historical ride through 18th Century Russia following the wildly comic rise of Catherine the Nothing to Catherine the Great.”

Elle Fanning stars in the series as the titular Russian Empress, along with Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Douglas Hodge and Sacha Dhawan.

“I would say this is the first comedy that I’ve done,” Fanning said. “You look at the scripts and say ok that’s a joke. I want people to laugh at this joke, how do I make this happen … And that did take a bit getting used to for me, getting into the rhythm. The delicious writing, it’s all there, you have to say it.”

“We pride ourselves on not being historically accurate,” she said. “So there is room to experiment there.”

Fanning said the essence of the character came through in McNamara’s scripts, but it wasn’t necessarily based entirely in the biography of the 300-year-old historical figure.

“The scripts for me are what guide my story and my character,” Fanning said, calling out the true fact that Catherine invented the rollercoaster as one that actually did help her define the character. “[But] you can look at so many oil paintings of someone but they probably didn’t even look that way. So that doesn’t really help me as much as the script does in capturing the character that Tony has created and her essence.”

Added McNamara, “It seems more importantly to tell the story of a young woman and her rise than it is to get each thing and each detail entirely correct. And we wanted the audience to know that.”

“It isn’t a perfectly historically accurate document,” he said. “Other shows have done that, but that’s not what we’re doing.”