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During this historic time of isolation, people have been entertained by “Never Have I Ever,” “Normal People,” “Dave,” “Dead to Me” or “Ozark.” They have spent hours watching “The Last Dance,” a rejuvenated “Survivor,” “Drag Race,” “Love is Blind” and “Making the Cut.” Escapism has been what has popped the most and another welcome respite is likely to be Hulu ‘s “The Great” starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. And thankfully, Hulu is making it available all in one binge this Friday.

Loosely inspired by the life of Catherine the Great, who is portrayed by Fanning, the Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”) created series imagines her rise to power through a contemporary mindset. Of course, the series begins with her marriage to Peter III, played wonderfully by Hoult, and McNamara and his writing team have glorious fun playing with history when it suits their particular tale. Despite an overall stellar cast (look for “Normal People’s” Sebastian de Souza in a major role) the shining star is Fanning. The now 22-year-old actress has earned acclaim for her roles in films such as “20th Century Women” and “The Beguiled,” but this is hands down the best thing she’s ever done. She not only excels at the comedic moments but finds a way to break your heart as well.

Fanning jumped on the phone just a month or so into the nation’s stay at home orders (well, at least those in California) to discuss her rare foray into episodic content. Be warned, however, there are some spoilers ahead (whether you think they are minor or major is debatable).

The Playlist: Hi Elle. How are you doing?
Elle Fanning: I’m good. How are you?

Pretty good. Happy belated birthday.
Oh, thanks. Yeah, a quarantine birthday.

I saw you got a cake though at least.
I did. My mom ordered a cake from Big Sugar, they’re still doing cakes, and it was Strawberry Shortcake. She has a mask on. It was amazing.

How have you been keeping yourself busy during this coronavirus isolation?
I mean, I’m with my family, so I’m not alone. And I’m in L.A, so to be at home and just having family time, it’s nice. Today I’ve been having interviews and stuff and I like actually the schedule of that. But we’re trying to keep a schedule still for my everyday life. Don’t sleep in too late. My sister and I are doing little workout videos together and she’s been doing a lot of paint by numbers, adult coloring going on. Obviously, I think everybody’s baking and cooking a lot. I made some peanut butter cookies, and I’ve been making a really good spinach dip.

O.K. Now I’m jealous.
Yeah, just experimenting, trying to be creative during this, just to keep your mind stimulated. And it’s a really, really nice day today.

It is gorgeous today, but let’s talk about “The Great.” What was it about the pitch that made you want to jump on board?
Funny enough, so I hadn’t seen “The Favorite” when I read the script, which was an interesting way to do it. Maybe a backward way. But the script written by Tony was [based on a] play that he had put on in Australia. And then he’s like, “Oh, maybe I’ll do a film of it one day.” And it spanned the life of Catherine, so you saw her young until her older years and that’s what I read first. From then it was like, “Maybe we should do a TV show” and he asked me if I would be a part of the process of developing that and going out with him to pitch it to [to networks]. But for me, this genre is very up my alley. I love this irreverence, witty, not taking ourselves too seriously, dark comedic tone. And [it was] so refreshing to me to read about a woman that was finding her voice and also struggling with how to use her power and how to gain it. She has a beautiful arrogance to her and this ego that I found really charming. You can just really see the arc in her and I thought that would be so interesting to play. And, of course, she is a strong female character, but I’m slightly allergic to that because she’s not always the strongest and she’s not always the bravest. She has these ideas, but at times even I would be reading the episodes and really question whether or not she’s actually capable of ruling a country, even though she feels that’s her destiny.

The show makes it clear to the audience that it’s playing with historical facts and is just inspired by what happened in Catherine’s life. But did Tony say to you, “If we do three seasons, this is where I see her ending up at this point”? Did he lay out for you where he wanted to take this version of Catherine?
Yeah, there was a rough outline that he had in his brain where the series would go. But still, at the same time, not all of the episodes were written before filming. So we would get episodes [one at a time]. We finish episode one, and then do a table read for episode two. And sometimes that would be the first time that we’d even read that, or know [what direction] our character would go. Because I also think a lot even though [Tony] definitely knew where it would end up, there were a lot of things that changed too [after] watching dailies and seeing how different characters interact and wanting to add more for them to do. So, I had a sense. And also, you can look at history and have a sense of where it’s going to go and what’s going to happen, but I was quite actually surprised how the season ended. It’s not what I thought and it’s not exactly what Tony had told me.

You had a number of guest appearances on TV shows early on in your career, but you’ve never actually done a series in this vein. What was the process like for you compared to your movie career?
I was curious if it was going to feel different to me. In terms of the preparation for a character, that’s pretty much the same. I think it always will be in any form. I feel like I could be doing a podcast and I’d probably think about the character the same way that I would for a film or whatnot. But with this, you just have so much more time to create a person’s arc. We have 10 hours if you’re really boiling down to it, so I just have so much more time. But then the pace of shooting is so much less time. We only had 12 to 14 days to shoot an episode. And it’s an hour-long each episode. So it’s like, “Wow.” Just getting that much footage and so much dialogue, and just to also capture the scale of the show. Because I think they do a really beautiful balance of it being intimate and having these great breakfast table scenes where we’re just talking back and forth. And then also we get to go out and shoot in Caserta in Italy and show this grandiose castle and it was incredible how much we got at that time because I always felt rushed. We were definitely up against the clock, it felt that way. And compared to a film you maybe have more time to do that.

Like “The Favourite,” “The Great” has a tone that’s a mix between farcical comedy and quite serious, grounded drama. Was there a moment that you remember thinking “Oh wait, we’ve landed the tone. This is what we’ve been striving for”?
Yeah. It was in the second episode. The scene where we have the severed heads dinner or [are] served dessert with the severed heads. That to me sums up the show so much. Nick’s just eating this lemon sorbet next to a bloodied man’s face. That day particularly, I felt like, “Yeah, this is the scene that that sums it up.” Because it’s always teetering on violence and darkness and it’s rooted in the reality of that and real emotions. It is a comedy, but we all have to feel like we are in this world and truly reacting to the horror. You can’t have the comedy without the other, there’s not going to be a payoff. So I think for us it was always just balancing the darkness and also playing against the cliches. I’m allergic to cliches or anything that feels like, I don’t know, overly romantic. And I think that that’s what Tony does so well in his writing. A scene that you would think, “Oh it’s a typical my lover is coming to see me, but then someone’s throwing up.” We can’t be too sweet with it all. There’s always a wink and always something that’s pulling us back from being generic period dramas.

I wanted to speak to that. This is no disrespect to say HBO, but if this was an HBO “period” series you have to imagine that every time that Peter is with a woman they’d always have their breasts showing and it would very much be that. It’s sort of the opposite with “The Great.” I can’t remember the last time I saw a show where there were more male behinds than naked women on screen. It’s refreshing and about time.
Oh, good. Actually, I’m trying to think. There might be one boob in our show. But honestly, it was a joke that Tony and I had because all the sex in the show is basically fully clothed because it just takes too long simply to take the corsets off. Or we can’t deal with just pulling a skirt up, whatever, there is too much fabric. It takes literally 30 minutes to unlace everything. But yeah, I think that is refreshing. It’s interesting because there are things that are violent and vulgar but we don’t show much. It’s all in the writing.

Or it’s off-screen.
Everything’s just in the words. It’s all in the words.

I thought one of the most impressive episodes for you is when Peter is sick and Catherine thinks she’s going to be able to take over. It doesn’t quite go the way she envisions it would. I thought you did a wonderful job of capturing that.
Ben Chessell directed that episode and it was something we talked about. Catherine is finally knocked off balance. So throughout the episode, I also looked at it [physically] that she’s walking not as confidently as she normally would or as perky as she normally is. That’s episode five, so it’s right in the middle of the series. And we want the audience to think, “Well, maybe she is too young. She’s not really ready. She doesn’t know anything about Russia.” You can love Russia and want the good for people, but how could she really carry through and get the job done? I think up until that point she’s a lot of talk and no walk. And in that episode, she realizes that maybe she can’t even do this and she doesn’t want to kill him and she wants him to recover and live more than anyone at that point. I think her ego’s knocked. Again, the arrogance that she has. And also the panic attack that she has was interesting to do and see her finally be vulnerable I think was important. Because our show is pretty fast-paced and I think in five we get to breathe in that episode and things settle and for Catherine, it settles too. I think it’s good that the audience is reminded that she might not be able to do this. Because Catherine definitely is questioning herself a lot.

If a second season happens, what are you most excited about returning to?
Ooh, it’s so many elements. Yeah, the cast is phenomenal and we’re so close. We have a group chat still to this day called “The Greatest.” And so we’re keeping each other informed and in touch throughout this. But I’m just curious to see really how she deals with it next because it really doesn’t end how you think it’s going to. So it’s really up in the air for her. She has to make a really very, very hard choice at the end and she sacrificed a lot and, yeah, we’ll just see if she can keep going. It’s such a gift that I got to play her and I feel so uninhibited when I get to play her. I can just be spontaneous and go forward. Sometimes you don’t feel that way on set, you don’t feel that with certain roles.

Were you shooting anything when the isolation began? Were you free? I know you’d been attached to shoot Melanie Laurent’s “The Nightingale” which was originally supposed to come out at the end of the year. Was that in production yet?
Yeah, my sister and I were about to leave to go to Budapest to shoot it. We never even went because this all happened and we heard other friends, productions were pausing and so we played it out and then what happened happened. So, that’s put on pause. I think none of us know the future of what’s going to happen, but I sure hope that we get to film it eventually. Because literally pre-production was done, we were ready to go.

“The Great” launches on Hulu on Friday.


May 13th, 2020  No Comments Interviews, Press, The Great, TV
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Current Projects
The Nightingale (2021)
Elle Fanning as Isabelle

The lives of two sisters living in France are torn apart at the onset of World War II. Based on Kristin Hannah’s novel ‘The Nightingale’.

The Great (2020)
Elle Fanning as Catherine

A royal woman living in rural Austria during the seventeenth century is forced to choose between her own personal happiness and the future of Russia, when she marries an Emperor.

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