How would you describe the show and your character?
Orlo is Russia’s first geek of books. A mostly ignored advisor to Peter (Hoult) whose job it is to bring some intellectual and legal framework to discussions. Under all that neurotic anxiety beats the heart of a Lion. He becomes Catherine’s (Fanning) partner in crime.
The Great is an unexpected period show, loosely based on the life and rise to power of Catherine the Great. Its unique because it respects the period whilst throwing it out the window at the same time. For starters, I’m a British South Asian actor playing a character that is Russian from head to toe, and that’s what the show does so well. It challenges the audiences perception right from the get go! I like to think of it as an ensemble of contemporary characters in a period setting, and the challenges and dilemmas they face are as vital as our dilemmas and challenges today.
What drew you to the script?
I was a huge fan of Tony McNamara’s writing even before I read the pilot for The Great. I thought The Favourite was sublime. For me, I see Tony as a playwright first and foremost. His dialogue is naturalistic, but it never feels general. In fact, it’s incredibly specific, as are the characters he creates. The Great strikes that perfect balance between comedy and drama, which makes it a complete joy to play.
I also loved the energy of it, it felt both fast and furious. And of course, I was totally drawn to the character of Orlo who was complex, multi-layered, and had real heart. I could also see the potential of the character evolving and changing over the course of the season as Catherine continued to grant him the permission to exceed his own expectations.
It was also the perfect opportunity to challenge myself. I love playing characters that flip my last part on its head. My last being a martial arts villain in Marvel’s Iron Fist, the polar opposite to the ‘loveable’ Orlo.
How much did you know about your character before filming and what research did you do?
As The Great is loosely based on the life and rise to power of Catherine the Great, it was a relief to know that I didn’t have to try and imitate or replicate a historical figure, I could make the character my own. Tony was also keen for us not to get bound down by the history or etiquette even, which was incredibly refreshing. I hadn’t seen or been part of anything like it. Everything I needed to know was in Tony’s writing, not in history books, which can often get in the way sometimes making you less instinctive.
What are you most curious about regarding your character?
You never know what turn your character might take next on The Great because Tony’s always adapting storylines from what he sees on screen or in the edit. He’s totally open to us asking him about preliminary character arcs etc., but its constantly evolving, and I kind of like that. The unpredictability; The not knowing. His storylines never fail to surprise me, and as daunting as it can be at times, it keeps me on my toes. It also forces me to be as spontaneous and in the moment as possible, because I genuinely have no idea what may be in store for Orlo next…
The script knowingly plays fast and loose with history – did that mean you approached your character differently than you normally might?
I guess because the script plays fast and loose with history it gave me the total freedom to approach the script like I would with any other; to start with a blank canvas and put my own stripes on the character as it were. The Great isn’t a historical period drama, in fact, I see it more as a contemporary drama. Yes, it’s based on Catherine the Great’s rise to power, but at its heart, it’s really the story of a young woman. And the wonderful world that springs out of that feels just as relatable in today’s world not only from a political stance, but from an emotional one too.
What was surprisingly difficult or challenging about inhabiting this role?
Tony’s writing is incredibly naturalistic, but it’s also very specific. Every word, comma and full stop is there for a reason, nothing is ever wasted, and there’s also a certain rhythm to his dialogue. It can be a challenge at times to memorise lines with this kind of precision and detail, but once you’re on top of it and in the scene with the other actors that’s when you hear Tony’s writing really come to life. It’s pretty amazing. I love getting the initial script drafts, and unpicking the dialogue, because there’s never just one way of playing it. And of course the writing is incredibly funny, but to really land the joke, you have to almost do the complete opposite, and not play the humour of it at all. That can be tricky at times, trying to keep a straight face and keep it together!
The period costumes look terrific. What were your reactions to them?
I felt immensely proud as an actor of colour to not only wear a period costume, but a costume that gave the character status at court. I was dressed to be ‘seen’, right on the front line as it were, and I loved that. Not only was there a real attention to detail, but our brilliant costume designer, Emma Fryer was also really collaborative to ensure that we created a period costume that was totally unique to Orlo; from the way his neck scarf was
tied, right down to the style and colour of his shoes. I found the costumes quite comfortable actually. To be fair, I think us guys have it a lot easier! In saying that, I did find wearing ‘heels’ took a little bit of getting used too. Oh, and I forgot about the wig?! That actually took quite a bit of time to put on…if only you knew how long it takes Orlo to get ready in the mornings?!
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?
The Great is a lot fun to watch, but it’s also refreshing to be part of a show that empowers women, not just on-screen, but behind the screen too. We have some amazing female crew members, assistant directors, producers, writers, and HODs [Heads of Department]. And three fantastic female directors who worked on season one; including Geeta Patel, who directed the series finale, and absolutely nailed it! The Great wouldn’t be the show it is without this incredible pool of talent.
Did you have a favourite scene to film? Do you have a favourite or most memorable line of dialogue?
I loved filming the sequence where Orlo heads to the front line to speak to Velementov in episode six, but doesn’t quite get there. Instead it becomes a catalyst of events that change Orlo forever. To be fair, I always felt his ‘lion heart’ was going to rip from its seams at some point and this was the perfect opportunity to tip him over the edge.
Also much as I love filming in the palace, which is actually a huge studio in East London, it’s always nice to venture beyond and film on location. Whenever a character or group of characters leave the palace grounds I know we’re about to embark on a mini adventure or excursion, and there’s always a genuine feeling of excitement amongst us all, depending on the weather that is?!
What are you most looking forward to in season two (of what you can share at this stage)?
Orlo comes back a changed man after those catalyst of events in episode six and I’m excited to see how the character evolves going forward. I’m also excited to see how the dynamic between Orlo and Catherine develops in the next season. Not only are they partners in crime, but the two are like siblings who love and care for each other but are also prone to be at loggerheads as well. And they’re not afraid to challenge each other but never fail to have each other backs in times of crisis.
I can’t wait to get back on set especially after such a turbulent year that has affected so many of us. There’s no doubt this will bring a new energy into Season 2, which will only take the show to even greater heights.
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?
I’m still trying to process my experience of 2020. It’s certainly had its up and downs, but we’ve also been fortunate enough to witness some key historical changes that I hope will shine some light on what has been a dark period for many. It’s been a turbulent year but it’s also given us the opportunity to reflect, and connect with the things that really matter. Who knows what 2021 will bring, but whatever the outcome, I know that the resilience of the human race will continue to adapt to whatever life throws at us. I’ve learnt to just try and be as present as possible, take each moment as it comes, making sure we look after each other along the way.
The Arts couldn’t be more important than ever right now to provide us with that well needed respite, and escapism. And The Great certainly does that, in spades. The show wouldn’t be what it is without our amazing team of ensemble actors, many of whom orginate from a theatre background, including Tony McNamara. Without theatre, shows such as this that challenge boundaries, would cease to exist, which is even more of a reason that we strive to keep the Arts alive.