I don’t remember the last time that I saw a character be so charismatic and so terrifying all at the same time. Hulu’s The Great is a delicious period comedy, but Nicholas Hoult’s insane performance is something that needs to be seen to be believed. His Emperor Peter is the ultimate party monster–a brat who is drunk on his own authority, and he doesn’t have the emotional maturity to know when he’s hurting other people. Hoult’s performance is another example of how he is one of the best actors of his age.
There is something in Hoult’s eyes as he recklessly parties and plays with the members of the court. His focus goes from a drunken glaze to precise obsession in a matter of seconds. That light-switch ability to flick back and forth could lead to a sloppy performance, but Tony McNamara’s writing in the hands of Hoult’s intelligent guise prevents that from happening.
As Peter is manipulated by Elle Fanning’s Catherine, we realize that Peter’s reign of frat-boy lunacy is a result of his royal decadence. That’s not an excuse for his vile behavior (you know, the burning down of schools, the demand of sex from women of his court, ordering people to be killed because you think they go against you, etc.), but it gives Catherine an opportunity to understand how to overthrow him. Behind every idiotic man in power is the woman who is better suited for the job.
Awards Daily: You’ve done two projects almost back to back written by Tony McNamara. What do you respond to most about his writing?
Nicholas Hoult: It’s definitely the dialogue—there’s nothing like anything I’ve ever seen before—dry, irreverent, funny. You have to learn a specific rhythmic language to get it right. It’s deceptive, and he introduces words I’ve never seen before. You have confidence in what you’re doing, though. It’s all these intertwined ways of speaking that caught me by surprise. I welcomed it though. When I did The Favourite, I didn’t see any of the other scenes until I saw the film.
AD: Oh, that’s interesting.
NH: I was surprised by the emotional heft and the emotional highs the script had as well. You can have these scenes that are hysterical but then there’s a deep, emotional undercurrent behind them.
AD: Peter is a dangerous man, but I don’t think he realizes how dangerous he is. I was wondering if that made you think of immature people in power positions in the world?
NH: That’s a good question. The fun thing is that I got to unpack where that dangerous power comes from and why. Catherine learns how to manipulate Peter in a way that makes him think that he’s getting what he wanted all along. But the dangerous thing about Peter is that he can spin on a dime—I got these really huge swings. The flip can be so fast depending if he thinks people think he’s stupid or if he feels particularly emasculated. If he feels like he’s back into a corner, he uses his anger to reaffirm his power. He’s in power, but he’s ill-equipped to do it.
AD: That’s funny that you say that, because when I talked to Tony [McNamara] he used that exact phrasing—”backed into a corner.”
NH: Oh, yeah? (Laughs)
NH: Well, at least I’m in good company then!
AD: I have to talk about Peter’s daddy issues.
NH: And mommy issues.
AD: Yes, of course. Peter probably doesn’t trust anyone and that’s why he behaves the way he does. How do you make that an active choice to play instead of pitying him?
NH: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not pitying him. I don’t try to put that viewpoint on him. He doesn’t get to change his career—he was born into this. When all is said and done, Peter wants to be loved. He’s constantly living in his father’s shadow.
AD: That seems to be something on the forefront of his mind at all times.
NH: Yes, it looms large, and his mother psychologically tortured him. I tried to understand from his perspective and display that with as much dimension as I could. That part is hard, because it could end up being very one-note, and I tried very hard to dissect it properly to understand everything that he was thinking.
AD: When it comes to Grigor and Georgina, that’s a very extreme relationship. He’s basically cuckolding his best friend and his best friend’s wife is a little in love with Peter. Was he always aware of how much damage that could cause someone he cares for?
NH: From my standpoint, that has always been the case. Peter is allowed to have whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and he tortures Grigor throughout the series. But when Grigor tells him to cut it out and tells Peter how he feels, I think Peter is genuinely surprised.
AD: Yeah, that shock is very genuine.
NH: He’s so disassociated from other people’s feelings that you actually have to tell Peter to his face how it’s hurting you. And then he goes and says something like, “Well, maybe I’ll still have sex with Georgina once or twice a year or on special occasions.” (Laughs)
AD: It all comes back to Peter’s need. (Laughs)
NH: It’s not a malicious standpoint at all. I think he genuinely loves Grigor and Georgina. They are his best friends.
AD: There is a moment in the final episode where Catherine rips open the belly of her dress for you to see it. She tells you to give her power and she will give you a child. Given that Peter has so many issues with his own parents, how does he feel in that moment? There is this look on your face that made me wonder if Peter thought he would want kids.
NH: Ah, yes, baby Paul.
AD: Yes, and he’s going to be a cutie.
NH: Yes. (Laughs) I don’t think for a moment that this child wouldn’t have issues. He’d be doting in his own way. I actually think Peter would love being a father.
AD: He’d be the kind of dad that would love playing with his old toys again.
NH: Perhaps, yeah. I will admit that when we shot that scene, Elle’s stomach was growling. It was doing it on cue.
NH: It was the best acting I’ve ever seen. (Laughs) He’s a big kid. Peter would love having a smaller version of him running around the palace to play with, I’m sure.
AD: I hope he doesn’t take after his father.
NH: We will have to see.
The Great is streaming now on Hulu.