Exclusive video: As her Hulu biopic about Catherine the Great drops, we speak to the 22-year-old star about the women who inspire her, and her life as both the series’ lead and producer
Words by MARSHALL HEYMAN
Before the global pandemic, when human contact is still an everyday occurrence, we meet Elle Fanning in one of her favorite restaurants in the Valley, where she was born and raised, to talk about her latest role. With a script by Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara of The Favourite fame, she jumped at the chance to work on a TV series about the young Catherine the Great, who became the Russian empress after overthrowing her dastardly husband, Peter the Great, played by Nicholas Hoult. Following the coup d’etat, she went on to rule the nation for 34 years, embracing the European ideas of the Enlightenment, extending its borders and governing during a period that became known as The Golden Age. We ask the actor what it was like to embody one of the most powerful female figures in history in The Great, available to stream May 15.
ELLE FANNING is Catherine II in Hulu’s The Great. Photo by Andrea Pirrello/Hulu.
What appealed to you about Catherine’s character?
She’s a beautiful character because she’s very curious, and she always has a second plan and a third and fourth and fifth plan. And she makes mistakes. And she doesn’t claim to know everything. She’s open to learning from other people and even Peter, though his style of ruling is horrible. And she’s a great manipulator.
Did you have to do a lot of research?
Not so much. I was thinking in the beginning when I got the part, I’m going to have to do all this reading, and blow dust off of these giant books. And then I realized: Tony has sprinkled in historical aspects to her, and just hearing about her as a woman overthrowing [Peter the Great], you can just tell what type of lady she is. She also apparently invented the roller coaster, so she has that side. I tried to capture the essence that Tony wanted in his scripts.
How was reuniting with Nicholas Hoult?
Nick and I did a movie together called Young Ones. Jake Paltrow directed it. It was a small sci-fi apocalyptic thing. I was 14, and he was like 22 or 23 — he’s 30 [now] — and we played husband and wife. It was supposed to be a child-bride situation. So I’ve been married to him before, he’s been my husband before. He’s such a villain. The character is so bad. He does such horrible, evil things, and you can’t help but love him because Nick has made him so charming. And it’s also disarming for an audience — “Am I supposed to like you?” And Catherine is the audience in that she doesn’t know, really. She hates his guts, but it’s kind of endearing.
How did you become a producer on the series?
Originally, it was a play about a young Catherine, but it grew with her, you saw her grow much, much older in the original script. Tony wrote it as a movie. He had it as an idea for a long time. He brought it to my manager, and all together, they said we could finance this. And maybe it’s a TV show. At that time, Hulu wasn’t a part of it.
“She’s a great manipulator,” says ELLE FANNING of Catherine the Great, her most recent role. Photo by Ollie Upton/Hulu.
How was the pitching process?
We felt like a carnival. Buy what we’re selling! I was a bit more of the creative side of [responding to]: “What drew you to this?” Passionately talking about it. Tony was the storyteller. He told little bits of what he wanted to happen.
What appealed to you about the character?
I know who I am, and I know who my friends think I am, but there’s a very dark side to me that is irreverent and weird and really likes to go there and likes to push people’s buttons and kind of likes to toe the line of what’s questionable. That is inside me. And so reading the script, that just started to overflow in me … [that there] could be a possibility that I could play this character and get to be strange and say these words. … So I was very excited. I wasn’t scared. I knew the challenges.
GRACE MOLONY as Queen Agnes and ELLE FANNING as Catherine II. Photo by Ollie Upton/Hulu.
What were some of the challenges?
There’s something about our show that’s more like The West Wing in a way. We have a lot of long hallway shots of us talking … a lot of conversations — that was the biggest challenge, was the memorization. I had never experienced that. I had never done a TV show. … [I thought,] how is it possible, the pace? The episodes are all like 80 pages, the dialogue is so dense. The challenge of the memorization of that language — it’s teaching yourself to speak in a different rhythm. … Everything’s inverted. It’s delicious to say, especially in an English accent. It’s so punchy and fun.
How was your experience producing?
Man. It was definitely a learning experience. It’s also easy to lose your voice. I’m still kind of finding my voice in it. I get to have an opinion. I can say, “I don’t like that.” It’s a process in being able to fight back a bit … and work together. You learn that nobody has the right answer. Actually, no one exactly knows until we try it out. You have to try so many things. You want to hear everyone’s opinion to figure out what it needs to be.
What is special about McNamara as a screenwriter?
Tony’s writing is so against sappy or cliche — we do have romance, and I get a lover eventually. We are so respectful as a cast to the words. Punctuation-perfect. Word-perfect. That’s why memorizing it made my heart pump. One time, Nick got to ad-lib and we couldn’t believe it. … He’s very dry. He laughs a lot and turns red. He has a Santa beard and says “totally” a lot.
In The Great, ELLE FANNING plays the one-time empress of Russia, who overthrew her husband. Photo by Ollie Upton/Hulu.
What is the tone of the show?
It is classified as a comedy. I hope that I hit that, but me, I’m not used to that. I’m not a dramatic actress, but I do more drama. It felt cathartic, because it felt like I finally got to show that side. That was the challenge. To say that line in a really weird way … to push that line for its full capacity to be funny. To say it jarringly or different. I got less embarrassed as I went on with the show.
ELLE FANNING and NICHOLAS HOULT (as Peter the Great) in a scene from The Great. Photo by Andrea Pirrello/Hulu.
What were some of your favorite locations?
We got to build all the sets in London at Three Mills, which was a gin distillery, and they use it as a studio. We had seven stages and a whole world and we’d go to Italy to shoot in Caserta, which is outside of Naples — [at] this giant castle that’s bigger than Versailles, and we shot exteriors there. And Hatfield House, where The Favourite was shot.
You’re already a seasoned lead and now a producer. Do you ever pinch yourself?
What happened? I feel lucky that I found what I wanted to do so young. I’ve gotten to expand myself in a lot of ways and learn so many things. I would love to direct something. That’s why producing is coming in. But I can’t think of not acting.
Who do you want to work with next?
There are many directors I haven’t worked with. … I want to work with the Safdie brothers really bad. I loved Uncut Gems. I want to work with Yorgos [Lanthimos, director of The Favourite].
Feature image: ELLE FANNING is Catherine the Great in Hulu’s The Great, debuting May 15. She wears FENDI dress, OLIVER PEOPLES sunglasses and KENDALL CONRAD rings. Photo by GIA COPPOLA.
May 14, 2020
Discover more CULTURE news.