The Great is the latest historical drama to revisit the life and rule of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Unlike previous versions, however, creator and the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Favourite Tony McNamara makes no apologies about its satirical take and disregard for historical accuracy in the stylish and bitingly funny Hulu series starring Elle Fanning as a younger version of the aspiring ruler adjusting to royal life as wife to Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult).
Believing she’s marrying for love, a wide-eyed Catherine is shocked to learn that she’s seen as nothing more than a means to an heir when she arrives in Russia. Over the course of the season, with the aid of her servant, Marial (Phoebe Fox), and other newfound allies in court, the disenchanted consort sets out to kill her horrible husband and uproot the depraved kingdom she’s come to call home.
Similar to The Favourite, the series mixes humor, wit and a modern point of view with plenty of sex and nudity to bring to life this darkly funny version of events. “That's so unique to Tony,” Fanning tells ET's Katie Krause about McNamara turning this entire world on its head. “It's just such a fascinating way to tell that story.” Hoult agrees, applauding McNamara for transforming a genre of “dull and dry” period dramas. “This felt just completely different to all those."
If there are any other comparisons to McNamara’s film about Queen Anne, which also starred Hoult as Earl Robert Harley, it’s all in tone. “Tony’s voice is so idiosyncratic. Having done The Favourite, I did recognize the kind of rhythm and the pacing and that humor that is in this show,” Hoult continues, adding that Peter was “a really fun role to inhabit.”
As for taking on the infamous empress, who is known as much for her sexual appetite as well as her modernization of Russia, Fanning “absolutely loved” playing her. “It was the ultimate gift to be a part of this show and get to bring her to life,” the actress says of showing their take on Catherine’s journey to self-actualization, especially when it comes to her place in the palace. “Catherine the Great is truly this feminist icon -- what she brought to Russia and her country -- it’s neat that we get to show how she became that.”
Because this is Hulu, there’s no censoring of the sex and nudity, which is aplenty in the first season. Catherine’s sexuality as well as Peter’s philandering is very much part of their story as a couple as the newlyweds attempt to produce an heir while seeking satisfaction elsewhere.
“I don't think any of us make a big deal out of them. I think the thing with the sex scenes and this show is they're very perfunctory in terms of where the characters are aiming for, discussing during them,” Hoult says. “They were very funny to film, a lot of them, because it was just bizarre.”
Although Peter and Catherine’s sex life is very transactional, they both find pleasure in separate loves, Georgina Dymov (Charity Wakefield) and Leo Voronsky (Sebastian de Souza), respectively. Those interactions show the evolution of their two characters, Hoult says. “They’re very different. It’s what they say about the character.”
If there was any scene that gave Hoult pause, it was one in episode six when a confident (and endowed) Peter walks naked down a busy corridor. “That’s me,” the actor says of not using a body double. “I don’t know if you noticed -- like if you can tell onscreen -- but it’s probably, like, 200 meters long. And I tell ya what, it gets even longer when you’re butt naked.”
While audiences familiar with Catherine’s real-life story know that she eventually leads a successful coup and overthrows her husband, The Great’s first season draws to a close in an unexpected place. “This season doesn’t end the way you think it’s going to end,” Fanning says, adding they were always surprised about what they learned about the characters along the way. And with the battle between Catherine and Peter only truly beginning, there’s plenty of room for a second season.
In fact, when the series was first pitched to Hulu, McNamara and his team outlined six seasons that would eventually see Catherine as an older woman and introduce other key historical figures in her life. “[Tony]’s definitely thinking about it. He has some idea,” Fanning says, adding that she’s committed to playing Catherine. “If they wanted to do it, I would do it right away.”
The Great is now streaming on Hulu.