If history was taught the way that The Great teaches history, we might be in better shape. The Hulu series doesn’t concern itself with telling a historically accurate biography of Catherine the Great, but it gives us a captivating heroine to root for in the performance by Elle Fanning. While Fanning has grown up almost literally before our eyes, her performance as the Russian empress is bold, sexy, and cunning.
At the very start of the series, Catherine has a romantic, sweeping idea of marriage. When she meets her husband, Peter (a dastardly Nicholas Hoult), those dreams are automatically dashed after she sees how he runs his court like a royal frat house. She quickly realizes that she is just there to produce an heir, but she hatches her own plot to overthrow her husband and rule a country that she feels a powerful tie to, despite not being born there. Catherine coddles, humors, and spars with Peter, and Fanning takes her from a delicate girl to a badass in a matter of episodes.
How Fanning hides her strength from Hoult is the best thing about the series. It makes you wonder if Catherine is surprised by her own moxie and manipulative mind. Catherine declares war on a man who takes her life and her body, and Fanning’s performance is a loud cry in taking back her power.
Awards Daily: This is the third series to come out about Catherine the Great in the last 8 or so years. Why do you think we are so fascinated with her?
Elle Fanning: It’s interesting, right?
EF: Everybody wants to talk about her right now. I think it tells something about the world we are living in right now. I’m happy that there are all these different versions about her story. Obviously, our version has a very specific tone and not completely historically accurate. We want to create our own version of her, and that’s what Tony [McNamara] does so well. He merges in facts and what she did in a very specific way. I didn’t know much about Catherine the Great before I read the script. I had heard the horse rumor.
AD: Oh god…
EF: She was a feminist icon that took on The Man, you know? That’s a very modern concept that she did that all the way back then. Maybe that’s why people are so interested.
AD: Maybe. I didn’t realize that she is still the longest female leader that Russia has ever had.
AD: Throughout the series, we hear everyone reminding Catherine that she’s not really Russian, and you always say that you feel Russian in your heart. Do you feel like, even by the end, she truly feels Russian?
EF: That’s so interesting because that’s one of my favorite parts of the show. It’s so funny when Peter will remind everyone that she’s just this German girl. She’s so adamant that inside, her blood, is Russian. It’s one of my favorite characteristics that she has. She starts out as this optimistic, romantic, slightly naïve character who is looking for love. I think that’s true of the real Catherine—she was always looking for a real love. She thinks that she will have this amazing marriage and then reality hits her in the face. In the pilot, maybe by the end, she’s starting to realize that Russia is that great love. The country is what is going to be that love affair for her.
AD: Yes, I can see that.
EF: The pilot there is already that magnetic pull. I think there are two types of people in the world: people who get into a messed up situation who do something about it or people that don’t do something about it. Catherine does, and I think that takes a lot of guts. Or at least tries to. Slowly but surely, she feels it more, but she has to have that drive to make the decisions that she makes. She makes some tough decisions.
AD: Yeah, she does.
EF: (Laughs) She has to feel the dedication throughout 100%. She has the loyalty to Russia from the end of the first episode, even though she changes as a woman. There are moments where that optimism is weakened at some state. She doesn’t always have the right answer. That’s my favorite thing to watch and to play. It’s not like she’s always the most courageous or the bravest—that’s not interesting to play. Sometimes she thinks that she doesn’t want to kill Peter. Maybe she can just manipulate him? I can laugh at him—maybe I don’t have to kill him? He can be funny sometimes.
AD: Your chemistry with Nicholas [Hoult] is very captivating, because he’s batshit crazy all the time.
EF: He is.
AD: But she has to really roll with it at every turn because he’s such a live wire. It’s like she is on her toes throughout this entire season.
AD: There are moments when Catherine is looking at Peter and I kept wondering if your plans or intentions were changing. It’s this fascinating dynamic between the two of you. You look at him like a puppy sometimes.
AD: Can you talk about that relationship?
EF: Absolutely. He plays him so expertly. The character is so vile and evil, but it’s done with this charm that you can’t help but laugh. He’s kind of lovable, and he also brings a childish quality to his performance. Catherine sees that and begins to pity him. In Tony’s writing, it’s so layered. He could be the straight enemy of the show, but like many leaders, he’s not making the rules. He just wants to have a good time. Is he really in control? There’s the church and the military involved, too. Catherine needs to find out where the power is really coming from. The scenes with Nick were my favorite to shoot, and they were the ones that I looked most forward to. We work in a similar way?
EF: I’m not sure if it was because we were both child actors, but we both work on the set. Our set and actor relationship is very much the same. We like to challenge each other—he’s the best sparring partner. We always tried to one up each other. We both like to play around.
AD: That’s a good word for it—playful. It reminded me of this kind of…young Dangerous Liaisons banter. It is very light, but then it takes a sharp swerve into the dark territory when things get real.
EF: We are constantly walking on a tightrope. With Tony’s writing, it can be completely comic but then become very dark. You have to believe it. Be truthful with it. Tony said, weirdly, in an interview, ‘You know, I don’t write jokes. I just write how people talk.’
AD: Oh, that’s unexpected.
EF: Yeah (laughs)
AD: Not to go from one relationship to another, but I love Catherine and Leo together.
AD: It’s really warm and is quite different than, you know, anything Catherine does with Peter. Is Leo the only person she can be her true self with?
EF: It’s interesting with what happens.
AD: I know! I was very upset by the end of the first season. (Laughs)
EF: I know! I think that Leo is. After she learns to trust him, she can let her guard down a bit. But then are episodes where she is keeping things from him but that allows her to end up being completely vulnerable with him. Part of the real Catherine the Great, she notoriously loved sex and she was very modern in that way. I like the way sex and her sexual journey is depicted.
EF: Sex with Leo is very different than sex with Peter, obviously. It allows Catherine relief from all the pressure. With Leo, she can finally take a breath and not talk about work.
AD: I love how she harnesses that sexuality. She has to take control and manipulate it so she can learn and grow with it.
AD: There are some bears throughout the show, and Russian imagery does tend to feature bears. Do you think Catherine is trying to become a bear or trying to tame a bear?
EF: Oh, interesting! That’s something I’ve never thought of. The bear is a symbol of Russia and all of our vodka. I guess she’s trying to tame it, right? Or is she trying to free it? She’s trying to free Russia instead of tame it since she’s trying to bring things in. I’m going to say that she wants to free it.
The Great is available to stream on Hulu.