Warning: This interview contains spoilers for The Great, available to watch now on Channel 4.
Elle Fanning has been married to Nicholas Hoult twice on-screen, and both times have been a disaster.
In 2014, the two starred as Flem and Mary in The Young Ones, Jake Paltrow’s indie set in a dystopian United States wracked by apocalyptic drought. In the movie, Flem kills Mary’s father and basically tricks her into marriage so he can get their farm.
Their second union, as Catherine the Great and Tsar Peter III in Hulu’s The Great, is a lot more glamorous, but no less rocky. The series, written by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, follows a young Catherine as she travels from her native Germany to Russia, and what she believes is a fairy-tale future as empress and wife to a dashing king. What she finds there is… not that. Peter’s court is a shit show, led by a royal fool more interested in pleasure and ego than improving the lives of the people he rules. Cruel and vain, he treats his young wife as a broodmare, refuses to give up his mistresses, and threatens to run his kingdom into the ground, all while drinking copious amounts of Champagne.
“He’s always a bad husband to me,” Fanning joked about Hoult to Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the premiere.
But if history is littered with tales of woe, The Great is not one of them. Loosely based on true events, McNamara’s script traces a young woman’s path from ornament to fearsome ruler in her own right. It’s a journey that Fanning knows all too well.
The 22-year-old has been acting since she was 3 and cast in lead roles since she was 8. She’s worked with Sofia Coppola, J.J. Abrams, Angelina Jolie, Kirsten Dunst, Greta Gerwig, Brad Pitt, and Cate Blanchett — to name a few. But The Great marks a new chapter in her already extensive filmography. For one thing, it’s the first project she’s developed as an executive producer, a challenge that’s opened her eyes to new possibilities for her future.
Perhaps as a result, her performance is more layered and confident than ever. She gets to flex her comedic muscles — to great success — and finally emerge from the trappings of child stardom that defined her for so long. Like Catherine, she’s learned that the best way to find your own path is to forge it yourself — bad husband, be damned.
Refinery29: The show is about a woman finding her voice. As a first time producer, did you feel like you were mirroring Catherine’s arc in a way?
Elle Fanning: “Now that I’m older, I realised, Hey I can do this! I can read a book or find an article and try to make it happen, and use my creativity in a different way. Of course, I was nervous to speak up sometimes — it’s hard to find your voice in those rooms when you’re talking to huge execs. I’m obviously a young woman. I felt a lot like Catherine, honestly. The whole series is about her finding her strength and her power, and learning how to use them. She doesn’t always use it in the right way, she makes mistakes, which is what’s intriguing to me about her. And she has a bit of arrogance and an ego, which I really love. She doesn’t apologise for it, which is a nice thing to see on screen.”
Most people know Catherine the Great for the famous rumour that she died having sex with a horse. Were you aware that she had such a huge impact on her society?
“That’s how I knew her, too! I wasn’t taught about her in school. Obviously our show is loosely based on historical facts, but her period of ruling was the Enlightenment period. She brought female education to Russia, art, science, things that Peter the Great refused to do. When the court’s not educated, you can control them so much more easily. This [struggle for] equality between men and women is obviously something that we’re still dealing with — even though it’s a period show, it’s dealing with very modern themes.
Are you a history buff?
“I don’t know if I have a ton of knowledge but I do enjoy it. As an actor, I’ve gotten to play in so many different eras and times, and part of the fun is learning what they did back then. Like, for a pregnancy test, they used to pee on wheat. We used that in the show, and apparently, people say now — not to promote this — that it’s 70% accurate. If it balloons, it means you’re pregnant. I like the fun facts!” [Ed. note: Refinery29 does not endorse this technique. Please consult your doctor if you believe you are pregnant.]
The show uses colour-blind casting. Was that something that was talked about from the very beginning?
“That was important for all of us. You see these period shows where it’s just all these white people, and for us, it was about getting the best actors for the part. We opened it up to anybody who wanted to try out, and I think that makes our show more real. We don’t care about it being accurate to the time. It’s what we’re living in today, and people from today are watching our show. I want people from now to be able to relate to the show. We want to have everyone represented.”
How do you get into character? Do you have a process?
“I definitely do, but for this one there were a lot of different challenges. I had an English accent. I’ve done that before, but Tony’s writing is so particular, and the rhythm is so specific — and then you add the accent on top of that. That might sound technical, but once you get into that rhythm, you perform in a different way. Nick was used to it because he had done The Favourite. But it’s also a comedy, and I haven’t done a ton of comedies. [I’d] see on the page like, Oh this is a joke. I have to tell a joke. You have to not be embarrassed. As the months went on, I got more into [Catherine], and I found her more. It was great that it’s a TV show because you have more time, and you can really lay out her arc and gradually build. It was nice to imagine [her] step-by-step, laying down those clues to her growing as a person and making decisions. We filmed in a studio — all the sets are built by our amazing production design team — so you feel kind of transported when you’re in there. And in the corsets every day, which are inhumane. They look good, but after six months of that…”
Are your ribs okay?
“So many actresses talk about it, but your body does change. It’s moulding you! But it does put you into the time. It makes you feel constricted, which many women felt then. Just being in that corset and looking over and seeing Nick basically in pyjamas and a robe, you can’t help but be mad.”
You were saying before that you can’t be embarrassed when you do comedy. Are you usually a perfectionist?
“I would classify myself as a perfectionist, but I also think with comedy I kind of slowly figured out that it’s so much about the imperfections, and the moments where you’re just being spontaneous and trying new things. I had to learn to not be embarrassed so I would let my walls down and make the crazy face, and go for it. It was really exciting to just be in a space where I felt free enough to go for it. Catherine as a character made me feel safe to do that.”
You and Nick have these completely absurd sex scenes — did it help that you’ve known each other for a long time? How do you approach those kinds of scenes?
“It definitely helped that we knew each other before. We work in a very similar way. It might be because we were both child actors and we both grew up on sets. We love to challenge each other — he and I were really trying to push each other’s buttons in this playful way. I felt so comfortable with Nick. In most of those scenes when we heard ‘Cut,’ we would just be dying of laughter. I think there’s this wide shot later on in the show, and the whole time we are giggling. They couldn’t see our faces, just our bodies, so I’m like holding down on a pillow laughing so hard. But we’re also very much like, Get it together. Let’s do it. Pump me harder and let’s go! We were trying to make each other laugh to make the scene the best it could be. Like, Grunt more!
“Also, because all of us girls are so sewn up in our corsets and dresses, we’re always just fully clothed. Like, Just hike the skirt up, it takes too long. We can’t show someone unlacing the corset. We’re just having this fully-clothed sex, which is so funny.”
Royal sex is always fascinating to me, because when you think about it, that’s literally their job. They have to make an heir. It’s understandable that they would want to take lovers, and separate job sex from fun sex.
“Sex is a really big part of Catherine in the show. It’s her sexual awakening. Catherine was notorious for loving sex and being very comfortable with her sexuality and experimenting. She had incredible couches that had carved penises on the legs — they’re in museums, we looked at them. There are nods to that in the show. Catherine’s young and she’s just finding that in herself. There’s a lover who comes into the show as well, so that’s more romantic. Catherine gets something a little better than Peter.”
Would you do a season 2?
Do you think you would direct an episode?
“You know what, I thought about that. It seems extremely daunting to do but who knows what will happen. I’ve wanted to direct something for so long — it could be a nice gateway. There’s so many supportive producers, and Tony would help me. Nick would probably try to push my buttons a bit.”