The Great

An Interview with Elle Fanning

Category: Interview

How would you describe the show and your character?

The Great is a historical satire that follows Catherine the Great’s rise to power in 18th century Russia. Catherine is an idealistic young woman who finds herself in a backwards world, married to a tyrant. She quickly realises she would be a better ruler and plots to take over the throne. Catherine is romantic and naive at the start, but throughout the series her ruthlessness grows.

What drew you to the script?

I was drawn to Tony McNamara’s singular voice. The tone and world he created was one I had never read before. The effortless blend of dark, bizarre comedy and emotional realism. I read the script before I saw The Favourite so I really had nothing to compare it to. The elaborate period setting, over the top situations, yet still grounded characters all set in a high stakes environment. He truly is a writing genius! Above all, Catherine as a character was what made me have to be a part of the show. She is such a dichotomy of a person. Each page surprised me with what she was willing to do. Tony captured her struggle as a woman trying to navigate a patriarchal society and not always succeeding. She isn’t a perfect character. She is learning as she goes along with the guidance from the court.

How much did you know about your character before filming and what research did you do?

I have to admit I did not know much. I knew she was the Empress of Russia, but I did not realize all the amazing things she did for her country. Sadly, the world has reduced her legacy to a false rumour about her and a horse. She brought art, science, and women’s education to Russia. And she invented the rollercoaster! I stopped there once I learned that. Anyone who invents the rollercoaster has got to be fun! The Great does play loose with history. Our show is by no means a historical document, but hopefully captures the essence of the real Catherine the Great and what she achieved and stood for.

What are you most curious about regarding your character?

I absolutely love Catherine’s unapologetic arrogance. She has a youthful confidence, which translates to always having a way to problem solve. She loves herself and truly believes she is best for the job. Her optimism pushes her through some extremely tough situations. Throughout the series, destiny plays a beautiful role. Catherine’s love affair is not really with a man, it’s with a country. Her driving force is for Russia and fulfilling her destiny to help find reason and democracy. I would say Catherine is an activist in every sense of the word. There are two types of people. Those who sit back and watch and those who take action. Catherine runs into the flames every time.

The script knowingly plays fast and loose with history – did that mean you approached your character differently than you normally might?

Very early on, Tony told us to put away our history books. I wanted to create my own version of Catherine. I still approached her like I would any character. I guess the most different was it being a 10-hour series instead of a two-hour film. Having the luxury to explore and pace myself with a character was a blessing. Tony is also super strict with our lines. There is absolutely no ad libbing! In a way, being married to the words makes for a whole other kind of freedom. Freedom in the movement and in the rhythm of scenes.

The series is set in Russia but is filmed in English. How did you hit upon the accent you went with?

Since we are not following the history books and in actuality, we would be speaking an entirely different language altogether, it made most sense to go with an English accent across the board for all characters. Tony writes for the rhythm and cadence of the English accent. It sounds much more delicious.

What was surprisingly difficult or challenging about inhabiting this role?

The comedic timing and memorisation. Tony writes us some meaty speeches. My memorising muscle was stretched to its limits. I have never done theatre, but I would think our scenes felt a lot like doing a play. And the comedy of it all was a new challenge. Nicholas Hoult was no stranger to Tony’s writing, having just come off The Favourite, so Nick helped me a lot to get the speed and banter required for scenes.

The period costumes look terrific. What were your reactions to your costumes?

The costumes are drop dead gorgeous. I wish I could say they were as comfortable as they were beautiful. The corsets take some getting used to. I do not envy the ladies of the time. All of us women were so jealous of Nick [Hoult] and the other guys because they would saunter around shirtless or in robes! Corsets aside, the way my costumes tell Catherine’s journey is vital. Her silhouettes stay pretty simple and practical compared to the ladies of the Russian court. My main colors were pale blue and green. But of course, at the end there is an electric pink dress (my favourite) that summarizes Catherine perfectly. It is her birthday dress and the dress she’s going to kill her husband in! It incapsulates her femininity, youth, and boldness.

The Great is a LOT of fun to watch. At the same time has a lot to say in a world still living in the fall out of #MeToo; would you agree?

There is a particular scene I’m thinking of when Catherine says to Marial (Phoebe Fox): “if they invent something easier than buttons, we’re in trouble.” Our show is about a young woman expressing her opinions loudly and being shut down for doing so. But Catherine persists in making herself heard.

Has any of Tony’s way of seeing the world crept into your daily life?

Definitely! I now use “Huzzah” and “indeed” quite often! I haven’t started smashing glasses yet, but when the occasion calls for it, I’ll be ready! I definitely have had enough practice!

Did you have a favourite scene to film and most memorable line of dialogue?

In episode two, Nick and I have a scene at the breakfast table. It was one of our first long back and forth scenes. We’re just sitting and firing back at each other. I remember feeling so elated and having so much fun with Nick. He is such an incredible actor and human. We work very similarly and like to try off the wall ideas whether they work or not. He has made Peter entirely three dimensional. A character who on the page is so nasty and vile, Nick makes likable and charming. Also, we are always the first to crack and laugh in scenes. Once we start it’s hard to get us to stop! My favourite line of dialogue, I have to say, was, “the horse said no, and nay means nay.”

What Christmas or Holiday traditions do you always abide by or look forward to? Is there a Christmas film you return to?

My grandma’s Christmas cooking is what I look forward to most! She is from Georgia, so the more butter the better! Christmas morning, she makes these cinnamon rolls called “sugar babies” that are essentially pastry wrapped around a melted marshmallow! My favourite Christmas movie is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

2020 has been quite a year; how would you describe your own experience of it? The Great will TX in Jan of 2021 on Channel 4; How would you describe your expectations of 2021?

2020 has affected everyone. We will always remember this particular year. It has been a time of fear, loss and sorrow, but has hopefully brought us all together. Everyone on this planet has been affected by the pandemic in one way or another. It has given us a commonality that hasn’t existed for so long. This year has certainly made me more grateful and reminded me not to take the small things for granted. I hope 2021 brings peace and unity and many, many hugs!