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by Julie Kosin
Palace intrigue, canopy bed sex, tiny corsets and ballooning skirts—what more could you ask of a period drama? For screenwriter Tony McNamara and actress Elle Fanning, quite a lot, actually. He already elevated the genre beyond Masterpiece Theater chintz with his Oscar-nominated script The Favourite. For his treatment of Russian empress Catherine the Great, who famously unseated her husband Peter III with a coup in 1762, McNamara recruited Fanning as star and executive producer. “I love being terrified by a role,” she tells ELLE.com, her chirpy American twang a contrast from Catherine’s polished British cadence (disregard the fact that the sovereign was technically German). “If it’s a challenge or I feel a pressure, it’s probably the right choice.”
Like its spiritual cousin, Apple TV+’s Dickinson, Hulu’s The Great is a risky endeavor. The 10-part series parleys in the anachronistic, marrying history with ribald dialogue, farcical fictions, and a decidedly modern cadence. McNamara molds Catherine and Peter (Nicholas Hoult, unselfconsciously brilliant as the insecure ruler) into a clash of wits; he is a toddler-like philistine driving the country into decay, spending his days hunting, fighting, smashing glasses of newly drained of vodka, and “eating pussy” (his favorite phrase, second only to “huzzah!”). Catherine, idealistic but level-headed, refuses to be yoked by the expectations of her dim husband, wielding her intellect like a knife and surrounding herself with a brain trust possessing the urgent desire—though not always the organization or the guts—to save her adopted country. “[With] shows about women, I think people want a ‘strong female character!’ I’m allergic to that,” Fanning says. “Catherine doesn’t always have the right answer. Sometimes she’s not the strongest or bravest person in the room. These characters like Killing Eve or Fleabag or Russian Doll—they make mistakes. Those are the characters I want to see. I wanted to make sure Catherine fit into that.”
But also, it’s a lot of fun. The Russian court is populated with an eccentric cast of characters who flesh out this delightfully absurd world, from Peter’s sexually ravenous aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow, gloriously kooky) to Catherine’s cunning lady-in-waiting Marial (Phoebe Fox, the series’ breakout star). Fanning and Hoult clearly enjoyed every moment. “There would be times we’d be like, ‘We have to get it together. We’re laughing too much,'” Fanning remembers. “The moment he even sees my mouth twitch, it’s all over.”
Below, Fanning breaks down the on-set antics and how she’s spending her time in quarantine.
It was an immediate reaction, like, “I have to be in this and I have to play Catherine.” It was such a gift that Tony had thought of me. The script I read was for a film he wrote. It only had the young Catherine as a little sliver and it spanned her entire life. Tony was like, Let’s do a TV series. The first season can be all about young Catherine’s rise to power. [He] asked me to help build it from the ground up. We got to go out and pitch the pilot to different streaming services. To be in those rooms was a real learning experience for me.
Tony and I talked about making sure that there are times where Catherine’s questioning herself and figuring it out. Because of course, Catherine the Great is a historical character. We know what she did—she overthrew her husband. She is this feminist icon completely. She took on the man. That’s so powerful. But what did it take for her to become that person? What did she have to sacrifice?
Just seeing how much editing comes into play. As an actor, once you’re done on set, you go home and you’re done. Then post-production comes in and you have nothing to do with that. But I would get dailies and watch different cuts of the episodes. Seeing how they could change so many things was really interesting.
And I also felt a lot like Catherine in finding my voice. I’d be on calls and I’d have to have the courage to speak up in situations that could be intimidating. I was learning to speak my opinion, even if it was an opinion someone was disputing. I can go head-to-head. That was a real confidence builder.
It’s mostly in the writing, but the scenes I had with Nic were my favorite because the relationship between Peter and Catherine is so layered. Nic and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just two enemies. She’s learning from him and sometimes she’s charmed by him and pities him. He starts to fall in love with her, but she’s learning to manipulate him. It’s very complicated.
I love in episode 2, the breakfast scene we have together—Nic and I had so much fun doing that. It was our first big scene and we go at it. We work in a very similar way, and we love to challenge each other and push each other’s buttons. Sometimes I would try something out [and] I’d be like, “All right Nic, was that too much?” And he’d always do the same with me. We had such good support [for] each other.
No, we did not know this. [Laughs] Kate Middleton, is she related to him or something? This is hilarious because I think someone did an ancestry.com on us. We didn’t ask for it, a fan or something put it on the internet, and then we’re like, “Oh, okay, this is true.” I mean, I guess it is! I don’t know. Me and Dakota did the 23 and Me thing, and we have a lot of English.
I’ve been wearing a lot of comfy stuff honestly. If I have an interview or things with friends on Zoom, I’m like, how do I dress from the waist up in different ways? What you normally wouldn’t choose: good necklines, bright colors. I’ve been doing a lot of makeup, posting on my Instagram. [Laughs] I don’t know if you follow Chelsea Peretti, but she does those weird, funny makeup tutorials. I love her. And she has them on TikTok too, making fun of makeup tutorials. So I’m like, “All right, I’ll do some wax makeup.”
I will look, and I have done some [challenges]. I can do some dances, but I’m like, I can’t put these out. But I have learned. I do confess I’ve learned the “Savage” one. I know “Renegade.” It’s embarrassing, but yes.
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