The Great star Elle Fanning on severed heads, funny sex scenes, and a potential season 2
Warning: This article contains spoilers about The Great.
In it, she plays the eponymous young Catherine the Great, the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, as she plots to overthrow her husband, the mercurial Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Created by writer Tony McNamara (The Favourite), the satirical dramedy prides itself on only being "occasionally true" and frequently anachronistic, and as such it revels in its ludicrous moments.
EW spoke with Fanning about all those wild scenes, the changes she insisted on as an executive producer, the future of the series, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the first time you executive-produced a TV series. Why was this the right project to jump into that?
FANNING: This wasn't necessarily something that I went after to produce, the script kind of came to me. And it was a gift in that way because Tony had thought of me when thinking about doing the show. The script that I read [first] was actually a film script that was based off a play that Tony had written and had put on in Australia. And the script spans all of Catherine's life, mostly, so the young part was just a sliver. So when he gave it to me, he's like, "Well, you know, there's maybe the possibility of it being a TV show and you could play the young version, and the first season would be about her rise to power." I hadn't even seen The Favourite, so I had nothing to compare it to. So of course the script shocked me in a new and amazing way. And he asked me if I wanted to produce it and come on and go and pitch with him. And so it really was all amazing luck.
There are so many insane scenes in this show it's hard to pick just one to talk about. What sticks out to you when you think about your time on set?
I know, there's so many to pick from. Six months of every day something bizarre and exciting is going on on set. So there's definitely never a dull moment on this set, and lots of laughter. Nick and I both crack very easily, so we had to get it together because we would like have these laughing attacks constantly. So that was something. But I think one of the things that really sticks out to me is in episode 2, with the severed head desserts. I feel like that sums up our show very well. It's like, "All right, you have a severed head with like a little bit of a lemon sorbet." It's everything that our show is: a little tart and sweet, and then also the gruesome and kind of grotesque stuff that we put into it. So I think doing that scene, I felt like, "Oh, we found our tone." Just that day was hilarious. You had severed heads everywhere. The makeup department was covered in them, they were trying to make them look as best as possible with all the blood, and there's a lot of photos of Nick and I with those heads, doing funny things on our camera rolls.
And as a producer, was there anything that you were like, "No, we can't cross that line"?
Oh, of course! I mean, there's one thing in particular: We wear a lot of fur on the show, and I made a point that all of the fur is fake. I didn't wear real fur. So they had to do faux fur, which is, you know, fur is definitely a part of Russia, and I have some really big coats and they look real, but they're all fake. So that was something that was important to me, because I knew there would be a lot of that.
Speaking of animals, the bear scenes never utilized real bears, right? Or did they?
Yes, we were not allowed to film with a bear or anything. I know, they did such a fantastic job [with the CGI]! Actually what was hilarious was, in the pilot, when we shot that, the bear was actually a man in a bear suit. And that is who we were looking at and playing with, and then they did CGI over that. So that's just a fun fact. Movie magic.
Sex is a big part of the show, and the tone is very different depending on the scene. What were some of the challenges of that?
This is something that Tony and I talked about a lot, obviously. You know, sex is a big part of our show. And we wanted to make sure everyone's comfortable. We had an intimacy coordinator that was on set whenever we had those scenes, to make everyone feel good and make everything look real. And I had never worked with anyone like that before, but that was nice to have. And of course, I think sex is also a real big part of the real Catherine the Great's life. She was notoriously kind of beyond her time in that way. She was very open and free and loved sex, so that's obviously something that I wanted to touch upon. You see the young Catherine on her first wedding night, and it's not exactly how she was expecting it to go. And she ultimately gets a lover in Leo, they have the sex that they have, which is more loving and passionate. The sex with Nick [Hoult] and the sex with Sebastian [de Souza] in the show is very different.
I think with Peter and Catherine, their scenes are just totally to get an heir. That's it. And Nick has to say some very bizarre lines that most of the time I was biting a pillow laughing so hard. I think we both like to challenge ourselves, Nick and I, and we're trying to push each other's buttons and he's trying to make me laugh and trying to go there. So I think it really helps those scenes. But especially the scene where [they have to] count his thrusts to 100, that scene, we were dying. There's a real wide shot where we had to kind of go through the motions because we're way in the background and the other characters are talking. And it was hard. We were just crying with laughter. So yeah, those days were actually quite enjoyable. They were funny.
The show flaunts the fact that it's not totally accurate. What was one fact that was fudged a bit that you enjoyed?
When I think about this, it is funny that I do feel like a lot of things are not necessarily true, but they are based on things that she did, like the smallpox and variolation episode. She really did that. She brought female education, she brought art and science all through Russia. That's a part of her. Even the lemon-top contraception method is something that they did back then. So that is real, but I don't know if Catherine did it. Tony and the writers' room researched things like that. Even the wheat [pregnancy test], they peed on the wheat, and that is apparently to this day 75% accurate. If it blooms, it means you're pregnant.
Yeah, I actually looked that up because I thought surely it was made up.
I know, it's funny. I think we pulled facts that played into our tone. We wanted to find those outrageous things that you'll think like, "Oh my God, this is not real." And then it actually is real. We just get to do it in a more fun way, you know, because we're not tied to a historical document, and we get to have the language of Tony. Obviously our world is very invented. You know it's Russia, little pieces of Russia, but it's not completely accurate to how it exactly was back then. We kind of created our own place. But even like the wigs as hats, that was something that they did. So, yes, everything is based on something.
Can we expect a second season?
There is a possibility, and it is open to having a second season. We can't say that, we don't know, but I definitely know that Tony is for sure thinking beyond [season 1]. He has more stories.
Good, because when I got to the ending I really wanted to know more!
Even for me actually, I was surprised. I did not think it was going to end this way either because I didn't get all the scripts before. Tony was writing the scripts while we were filming, as we were going along, and so I think none of us really knew the endpoint. I definitely thought it was going to be something different. So I was surprised by that. When we got the last script it was like, "Oh! Okay."
You mentioned earlier that the first draft of the script, which was for a film, went through Catherine's whole life. Do you think that's a possibility for the show? Or do you think season 2 would pick up right where season 1 left off?
It's hard for me to say. I don't really have any info yet, but I feel like season 2 would probably continue on this story. I don't know exactly when it would pick up, but it would be us at this age. We have our fingers crossed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.