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‘The Great’ Goes for Period Authenticity Except When It Doesn’t

"The Great" hair and makeup director Louise Coles discusses how she dresses Catherine's court, and how wigs and makeup affects the show's tone.

“The Great”

Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

One of the key strengths of “The Great” is the way in which the Hulu series modulates its tone. It is a show that’s hilarious until it isn’t, and the series’ ability — especially in the performances of Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult — to pinball from life-or-death stakes to droll comedy is at the heart of why “The Great,” well, rules. Weaving those disparate tones together into a cohesive whole is the work of every department, but Season 2 found some of the most subtle and playful tonal pushes from hair and makeup designer Louise Coles, who spoke to IndieWire about her work on the second season.

“Things just turn and we go from a quite shocking or dark comic moment to quiet, loving emotive moments,” Coles said. “So in terms of aesthetic, you can’t be one or the other… It’s a real treat, actually, the writing, because I’m doing loads of different genres at once.” Because one of the abiding themes of the show is progress versus traditionalism, the wigs of those characters 21st-century audiences might find most sympathetic (such as Catherine and her mostly devoted confidante Marial) are more naturalistic, lace-front ones, with extensions deployed in the way they are worn today. Meanwhile, the more antagonistic ladies of the court are coiffed in hard-fronted wigs, closer to an actual 18th-century style. This allows “The Great” to have its cake and eat it, too, presenting a detailed, decadent world shot through by a modern sensibility. “I usually want to play with [the styling of the] surrounding world more than with the leads, so we push it a lot with the background,” Coles said. “If those things in the surrounding world can lean towards the comedy at times, [then] I can keep our principals more anchored in reality.”

Elle Fanning and Phoebe Fox in “The Great”

Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

Coles honed in on a two key sequences that really upped the level of period-specific ostentation in Season 2. During Catherine’s coronation sequence in Episode 2, much depends on Catherine’s ability to win over the Russian court through the sheer force of her persona. Catherine selects more in line with Russian iconography than the very French-styled sensibilities of her court, a contrast that could either elevate her or reduce her to mockery. Coles’ mission with Catherine’s coronation look was to create something that both harkened even further back then the show’s period but would leave modern audiences stunned.

Part of how Coles achieved that reaction was the contrast between how she styled Catherine and how she styled everyone around her. “There’s something about [Catherine’s look] being slightly otherworldly which was important,” Coles said. “We really pushed the characters around her at the coronation to let you know, they’ve really dressed themselves up for this [and they’ve] sightly missed the mark, particularly with the ladies. It’s just so done that it’s not quite working… That contrast really works with the way that [Catherine] looked.” Coles used modern textured makeup and shimmer on the new Russian Empress in order to produce an ethereal look that literally no one could have achieved at that time and place. “But it doesn’t really matter on this show!” Coles enthused.

The Great Season 2 Elle Fanning Nicholas Hoult Hulu

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in “The Great”

Gareth Gatrell / Hulu

In Episode 4, Coles was able to tweak the period details into comedy during a baby shower sequence. “It started sort of small and then I just thought, ‘Let’s do this,'” Coles said. “Let’s do themed wigs. Let’s figure out what we can do… [for Tatyana] we started with the idea of pompoms and gold, gaudy cherubs, and lots of little bows and things… and then it sort of grew from that literally, and just got bigger and bigger.” The underlying tension of the scene is whether or not Catherine can win over a potential enemy by making herself seem fun to the Court and to Peter’s friends. So Coles pushed the wigs higher, the colors into more pastels, and the beauty marks into the deepest reaches of garishness: “We designed beauty patches in the shape of teddy bears, rocking horses, all kinds of baby shower paraphernalia,” Coles said. The result was that, surrounded by so much excess, Catherine’s attempts at seeming fun only made her seem simpler and smaller by comparison. Even in the midst of such elaborate over-the-top looks, Coles sets up the contrast to serve the scene and sharpen the tension — as well as the jokes.

Over and over, the comedy and drama of “The Great” are rooted in its characters. Of the rich and very gauche Tatyana, Coles said, “You know, her home life is actually quite hard. [So] she really goes for the styling, the wigs, the makeup. But the reality of those beauty processes is quite harsh on you. So there’s moments where we see her without her wig on and we gave her a makeup bald-cap application with a thinning weave to show her hair was thinning, [to show] bald patches from the lead makeup usage and the wig usage. It’s not necessarily hugely poignant, there’s only so many moments you see it. But I think the thing about Tony [McNamara]’s writing is that we were able to really develop very different looks for every character, [and] I think it gives something very interesting to the show.”

That combination of writing and design provides the audience an inescapable logic to how the characters act, how they move, and how they present themselves, working individually and in contrast to each other in order to create a living, believable world, even when it’s ridiculous. That invisible but clear common sense allows us to follow each twist in the story — whether we’re laughing or gasping.

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