The delicious words of writer and series creator Tony McNamara are what drew Elle Fanning to star as the titular Empress of Russia, Catherine, in Hulu’s series “The Great.” In this wild comedy, Fanning turns Catherine into a modern feminist icon up against the foul-mouthed royal boys’ club led by Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), a misogynistic dolt who she’s been forced to marry to escape a dreary life in Prussia.
Fanning said that coming into the role, she didn’t know much about the Empress of Russia, except of course for that rumor that Catherine died while trying to have sex with a horse. “Sadly, that is all I knew,” she said. “Tony’s script isn’t the blueprint for everything that happened and is not a historical documentary. But he’s done a lot of research on Catherine and taken out the bits that would service him.”
If you’re looking for a biography of Catherine the Great, who ruled in the 18th century during the Enlightenment Period, look elsewhere. This series uses her story as the foundation for a revisionist tale of Russian political history, as Fanning’s Empress quietly begins to mount a coup from the inside out, accompanied by her dry-humored handmaid Marial (Phoebe Fox), the obsequious Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), and her lover on the side Leo (Sebastian de Souza).
“We wanted to make sure that we were creating our version of Catherine, and the essence of that person, but with all the things that she did do,” Fanning said. “It’s true, she’s the longest woman ruler of Russia. She brought female education, art, and science to Russia, variolation [from] the smallpox.”
For fans of “The Favourite,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-winning black comedy about the folie a trois between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and two women in her circle (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone), “The Great” is a brazen treat, giddily stomping all over the patina of world history with muddy boots. Fanning said that the series’ flippant tone, which has more F-bombs and C-words than an Armando Iannucci script thanks to “The Favourite” co-screenwriter Tony McNamara at the helm, “is important to bringing it to modern audiences, and showing her as a feminist icon. I really came to know her as one of the first feminist icons. And I don’t know what’s more modern than that story.”
“The Great” marks Fanning’s first bona fide foray into leading a comedy, though she did have a supporting role as a daffy journalism ingenue in Woody Allen’s canceled 2019 film “A Rainy Day in New York.” As Catherine the Great, she oscillates between steely reserve, fierce determination, wide-eyed naivety, and gleeful rebellion, which she captures masterfully in her line readings, and through a willingness to debase herself with slapstick setups.
“People perceive me probably as a dramatic actor, whatever that means,” Fanning said, which made “The Great” a unique challenge. “You have to have the comedic timing. The rhythm of [McNamara’s] words is very specific, which was something that obviously Nick Holt was more used to because he was in ‘The Favourite,'” she said. “There’s an element of not being embarrassed. I had to let my walls down to kind of go for it, and be spontaneous and be a bit crazy. You can always come back from that and try to be truthful and let the words speak for themselves. I think the moment you try to make anyone laugh, it’s like crickets.”
Thanks to that big Hulu money, “The Great” features rich, period-specific costumes designed by Emma Fryer and Holly Waddington, and production design by Francesca Di Mottola and Kave Quinn, which were built from top to toe in an East London studio “next to a McDonald’s,” Fanning said. That also meant that Fanning and her female co-stars were very much sucked into real corsets. “It was very constricting, but also helps you know the time, of how we all must have been feeling in that period.”
With films like “The Favourite” and shows like Apple TV+’s “Dickinson,” there’s a surge of interest in revisionist period stories that Fanning said are “going to be around for a long time. People are realizing you can tell these historical stories in a way that will be relatable, and not feel like homework. Sometimes, I feel like watching very accurate, somber, a bit boring and dull at times [period movies], sometimes it’s a bit like, ‘Oh, there’s someone tying a shoelace very dramatically.’ It’s good to spice it up.”
A second season was just greenlit by Hulu this week, and Fanning, who also produces, said that she and McNamara have plenty of ideas and that the story they’ve established in Season 1 still has a lot of mileage, thanks to the bawdy, irreverent approach to the storytelling. “The lives of these historical figures, they must have had so much fun,” she said. “If you look at Catherine the Great’s furniture online, it’s very explicit, but very naughty and hilarious. They had to have a sense of humor. Just because they’re from back in the day doesn’t mean that they didn’t have wild parties, and a lot of fun. They probably had more fun than we do.”