Huzzah! We drank three rounds with The Great stars Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult
It may sound like the London set of Hulu's The Great, but the stars are actually in Savannah, Ga. — where they happen to be filming separate projects — cheersing each other in celebration of their occasionally true, frequently irreverent (and Emmy-nominated) Catherine the Great dramedy.
Over a few themed drinks at the historic Brockington Hall, Fanning and Hoult have agreed to spill the tequila — and vodka, of course — on season 2, which launches Friday and will see Fanning's Catherine grapple with impending motherhood, navigate opposition at seemingly every turn (including from her mother, played by new cast member Gillian Anderson), and finally take the throne from Peter (Hoult). But first, Fanning offers a sage warning about her costar and the interview to follow: "Don't take anything he says seriously."
ROUND 1: MOSCOW MULE
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Take us back to the very beginning. How was this series pitched to you, and what made you want to sign on?
ELLE FANNING: It was several years ago, and [creator Tony McNamara] came to me. He thought of me for it, which I was very lucky and grateful for. He had just finished [co-writing] The Favourite, I think, and he had Nick in mind from working with him on that. I read the script and was obsessed. Tony's just the best ever: the best guy, the best writer, genius extraordinaire. And I'd never done anything like this. The tone is so specific — people talk about that. It's a dark comedy, but… I don't know. It can go anywhere, we can do anything. I think it's very grounded in reality, but then at the same time, we can put our characters into bizarre circumstances that sometimes borderline on farce, and it works.
NICHOLAS HOULT: Yeah, it's a farce and satirical, but it's also very honest in terms of the characters. Tony's writing is very beautiful for that, because you just enjoy it. It's fun, and it's funny. And then suddenly, you get this emotional punch that you kind of weren't expecting.
When did you feel, "Oh, this is it. We've got the tone figured out"?
FANNING: [With] the pilot we were all trying to figure it out a bit, and I remember when we came back for the second episode and we did the severed-heads banquet, I was like, "This sums our show up completely." I remember that day really feeling like we were in the sweet spot and nailed exactly what our show is. It's like, "Why is a severed head on a platter funny?" I don't know. But somehow, we made it funny and gross.
HOULT: I don't think it's the severed head that's funny. It's when you gouge out the eyeballs. That's the true —
FANNING: Oh, yeah. That's truly hilarious. But it's dark and twisted, and I think we nailed it from then on.
What changed the most between seasons?
HOULT: It mainly changed character-wise. Our characters are on very different paths [than they were during the first season], so that created very different dynamics for us to play. And — since we'd already established the characters and the world that we're playing in — that meant we could push [the show] in different directions and try different things. That's what Tony is so brilliant at as a writer: He sees where characters interact, and he goes, "Oh, that's interesting. We haven't seen those two together. Let's try this, and we'll push it in this angle." He has the overall idea of what the series will be, but he writes as we go. So when he sees things that he likes, he'll pepper more of that in. That's what was exciting about playing the characters again — seeing where he takes them.
How would you describe those "different dynamics"?
HOULT: I think the power dynamics completely shifted, right? He's —
FANNING: Indebted to me.
HOULT: Yeah, and completely adores you through all the ways Catherine changes that might seem potentially bad — her becoming more ruthless — and Peter thinks that's even more incredible, and she becomes even more and more special to him. So it really strengthens the bond from his side of things.
FANNING: Catherine is trying so desperately to hold those emotions down. She's trying to be, "Oh, I hate him. I hate him," and she truly doesn't, and it grows.
HOULT: She holds him captive as a sex slave.
FANNING: Right, basically.
Do you two feel pressure, given how well the first season was received?
HOULT: Now I do, because you said that. [Laughs]
FANNING: I do feel a little pressure, I have to say, about the second season. I mean, now… [Takes a drink]
HOULT: You want to elevate and keep pushing and make it better and better for people to enjoy. And also, you don't want to repeat yourself.
FANNING: We had so much fun on the second season because everyone knew each other so much better and more. We're even closer, of course. So I hope people like it, and I hope they like where it's going.
ROUND 2: ARTILLERY PUNCH (RUM, GREEN TEA, LEMON, BITTERS, AND TROPICAL FRUIT CHAMPAGNE)
Your cast is not here to speak for themselves, but —
HOULT: So we will speak on their behalf. "I loved working with Nick and Elle."
Who is most like their character in real life and why?
HOULT: That's a very tricky question.
FANNING: You're a lot like Peter. We know that.
HOULT: I'm becoming more and more like him because I'm becoming more and more of a foodie.
FANNING: Yeah, that's true. I mean, gosh, is anyone like their character? I don't think so, honestly.
That's probably a good thing.
FANNING: Everyone is just really good actors. Belinda [Bromilow, who plays Aunt Elizabeth,] has a fairy, sprite quality to her. She has that side [where] you feel like she's the person you want to tell all your secrets to. I think Aunt Elizabeth has that, and I feel that way with Belinda. So it may be her.
You've both said you break character a lot on set. Who cracks more?
HOULT: I feel like I crack more.
FANNING: Maybe. There's a scene [in season 2] when he says "clitty bitty," referring to cunnilingus, and that…[Laughs]
HOULT: "Clitty bitty" is quite a difficult line of dialogue to do…
FANNING: It's a great phrase.
HOULT: …without laughing. Look, I can do it fine now. "Clitty bitty." [Pauses, then bursts out laughing] No, I can't.
FANNING: That was hard to get through. You have a lot of really funny lines.
HOULT: When I first read that script, I texted you right away. I was like, "Clitty bitty." [Both laugh]
FANNING: Yeah. And I hadn't read the script, so I was very confused.
HOULT: Imagine receiving that as a text message out of the blue. "Clitty bitty."
FANNING: I was like, "Okay…"
Nick, you have so many lines like that. Do they all trip you up? Do you stand in the mirror and say them over and over?
HOULT: To myself? [Laughs] No…. I don't know, really. I think I really enjoy them. I think part of the joy is that the lines are so specific and bizarre and strange, how Tony writes them. They're always really fun to deliver. But then, we always say this about the dialogue: It's about being very specific with it, and the rhythm of it, and enjoying it — but also pacing it through and knowing it really well.
FANNING: Yes. We're not allowed to ad-lib on our set. Tony is very specific. It's all written out, which frees you up in a way. But the cadence of it is very specific.
Your characters do some pretty scandalous and silly things. What's the most scandalous or silly thing you've ever done?
FANNING: You have something. Say it.
HOULT: It's not even that silly. I got naked in a fountain in Paris once. With a lot of mates. We were all naked. Weeks later, I read that a few people got arrested for it. So luckily, we got away with it…until now. Are you going to be sharing this?
FANNING: Darn it.
HOULT: It's probably too late.
FANNING: I've done some pretty crazy, fun things, but —
HOULT: Want to share them with us?
FANNING: [Laughs] Ummmmm…
What's the weirdest thing you've had to do on set?
FANNING: I did a backbend while pregnant serving macarons on my stomach in a yoga pose. I loved doing that. What else did we get to do?
HOULT: I get people to lick my tongue after refrigerating it.
FANNING: Yep. That's nice.
HOULT: It was a weird day.
FANNING: I got to wear the prosthetic belly, which I loved. It was very heavy. They made it, molded it to my body, and they basically said, "When you're pregnant, this is probably what you'll look like," because it was all matching to my stomach, and they matched all my moles. It was really eerie.
ROUND 3: SPICY MEZCAL MARGARITA
How else did Catherine's pregnancy impact things for you while filming?
FANNING: Catherine's having pregnancy cravings, so she eats rose petals, dirt, sucks on rusty nails. At first, the rusty nail was chocolate — but it looked too much like chocolate, so I said, "Just give me a real one." So I was sucking on a real nail. The dirt was not real dirt, though. It was, like, crushed brownie, or Oreos. Really good. And the rose petals were marzipan, but then I was like, "That doesn't look real." So I ate a real one.
HOULT: There's a scene where Peter goes a little bit mad and gets lost while truffle hunting. We had unseasonable snow in England, and I was in the snow in my nightgown, running through the woods with no shoes. We were just in the woods near this country estate and I realized that I'd put my face in poo — real poo, not chocolate poo.
FANNING: Did you continue the scene?
HOULT: I continued the scene. Because I'm a dedicated actor. [Laughs]
FANNING: A true pro.
If you had to plan a coup, who would be in your inner circle to help you plan it, dead or alive?
HOULT: I'd take Catherine [the Great], I suppose, because she was very good at it.
FANNING: Rihanna, just because I'd love to meet her.
HOULT: Yeah, I'll just take my best mates.
FANNING: Yeah, and you'd go naked in the fountain.
HOULT: We'd go naked in the fountain. That's where the revolution begins, so we thought.
Given the shift in power dynamics you mentioned, are you Team Peter or Team Catherine now?
HOULT: I'm Team Peter.
FANNING: I'm Team Catherine, obviously. Tell me, why would you even ask? [Laughs]
HOULT: No, I will say that this year there's been some really funny moments…. There's some times that Catherine behaves like an absolute monster, and it's so funny to watch you do it.
FANNING: I beat the crap out of you.
HOULT: From where your character started in episode 1 to this, it's really fun for me to watch because I'm like, "Oooh." And just knowing from playing Peter in season 1 and the kind of crazy, horrible things he would do, watching you do similar things really makes me chuckle. It's good and horrible.
Speaking of horrible things, how does Catherine sacrificing her lover Leo (Sebastian de Souza) at the end of season 1 factor into this season?
FANNING: In the first episode, you're going to see that we don't quite know what's happened to Leo for sure yet. He was a huge love of Catherine's life — I would say the first real love of her life, where it was kind of beautiful and poetic and romantic and sweet. I don't want to reveal too many things, but I think it's carrying on. Basically, the loss of him and what she had to sacrifice… It was a huge sacrifice because she ultimately sacrificed him for the greater good of Russia, for her country. And that was a bit ruthless as well. Sometimes you have to give up some things to gain others. But that guilt stays with her throughout a couple of episodes, and it takes a bit to resolve it. I had a thing where I punched my face — Catherine would and Elle would — every time she would get emotional about anything, or if she would think about Leo. Tony wrote it in the script that I would punch my face. So I was constantly on set punching my face. The stunt coordinator was like, "We can do it fake." And I was like, "No, I'll haul off and hit myself."
What are you most excited for fans to see in season 2?
HOULT: Well, it's a spoiler, but I'm most excited to see the dynamic change when [baby] Paul arrives.
FANNING: Oooh, that's good.
HOULT: Because I think it's just so funny what happens and how it works. And I think that co-parenting…
FANNING: And the birthing scene. There is a birthing scene, you guys.
HOULT: There's a birthing scene. But yeah, co-parenting and how that works with two people that aren't together, but one's a prisoner, and whilst you're trying to balance ruling and how we change into being parents, I think that's… it makes me laugh a lot.
FANNING: Cheers to Paul.
Cheers to Paul and Catherine and Peter.
HOULT: Cheers, cheers, cheers.
Nicholas' grooming: Monique Hyman; Hair: Mazena Puksto; Styling: Wendi & Nicole/Forward; Elle's hair: Jenda Alcorn; Make-up: Erin Ayanian-Monroe; Styling: Sam McMillan/The Wall Group; Dress: Jason Wu; Bustier: Agent Provocateur; Shoes: Miu Miu; Location: Brockington Hall; Set: Risha Carnes/The Spin Style.
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