Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning in 'The Great'
Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning in 'The Great' Image Credit: Hulu

Elle Fanning was excited to spar once again with Nicholas Hoult as they returned to film season two of ‘The Great’, despite a pandemic raging at their door. The two, who play Russia’s Catherine the Great and Emperor Peter III in the outrageous Hulu dramedy series (screening on OSN in the UAE), left us at a cliffhanger last season with Fanning’s character overthrowing her husband in a deliciously wicked coup d’état. Huzzah!

In season two, Catherine not only is mother to all of Russia, but is also pregnant with her first child. Gone is the idealistic young bride from Germany who couldn’t wait to start her new life in Russia with her husband. As the new season unspools, the lines between the good and bad are blurred as the new Empress deals with erratic pregnancy cravings, a looming war on the horizon, the death of her first love, her scheming mother (a fabulous Gillian Anderson cameo) and some complicated feelings for the eccentric and bloodthirsty Peter.

Gillian Anderson and Elle Fanning in 'The Great'
Gillian Anderson and Elle Fanning in 'The Great' Image Credit: Hulu

“As you said, in season two, the lines are blurred a little bit and you can’t quite tell who’s on whose side necessarily,” said Fanning during a media roundtable with Gulf News. “I think for me, that’s what I was most excited about for Catherine in this season. She’s in power now and she’s learning what it’s like and how to use it. But as the season progresses, you see that she’s pretty cutthroat and not all puppies and rainbows anymore.”

Elle Fanning in 'The Great' Image Credit: Huli

By her side, the bright and bawdy Peter appears to have transformed as well, mellowing down in his blood-splattering ways, with the hedonistic man-child doing a bit of growing up as he embraces fatherhood.

The Emmy-nominated show has divided historians and critics as they debate on the fractured version of past events that are presented under the guise of fiction, spearheaded by Aussie playwright Tony McNamara. Yet, Fanning and Hoult dismiss the criticism saying the makers have always been pretty clear that ‘The Great’ is their version of a chapter in history that needed another look. Here are excerpts of our interview with the two leads stars of the show.

Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning in 'The Great' Image Credit: Hulu

Q. What do you think the real Catherine and Peter would think of your interpretation of them on screen?

Hoult: “Well, it’s difficult because I’m not basing my role on how the real Peter behaved. But in hindsight, if he was anything like this character, I think he’d quite appreciate how I played him.”

Fanning: “I hope that Catherine would be proud of how we’ve created her. I think Tony [McNamara, creator of ‘The Great] was trying to capture her essence and incorporate the things she tried to do to push her country forward. I mean, she’s been kind of reduced in society and I think that’s one of the reasons that Tony wanted to even tell her story. All people really know of her is a footnote in history and some horse propaganda. So I think it’s informative to show what she really did and how modern and progressive she was.”

Q. The show is pretty clear that what we see on screen is an exaggerated version of Catherine’s story. But did you guys do any research into Russian history before filming both seasons to perhaps understand your characters better?

Nicholas Hoult in season 2 of 'The Great' Image Credit: Hulu

Hoult: I didn’t, I can tell you that. Between seasons we had a lockdown and I have no excuse in terms of time. But the prep for playing these characters and telling this story is a bit tricky because it’s loosely based on history, but not 100 per cent accurate. It’s more important for us to be well versed in the ideas that Tony comes up with and the concepts behind it.

Fanning: “It’s a no for me as well. I remember very early on, Gwilym Lee, who plays Grigor on the show, came to set with all these history books and was like, ‘Alright Tony, what do you want me to read?’. And Tony was like, ‘Ahh, nothing.’ People might not realise, but the talents in the writers’ room and Tony specifically have done endless research on Catherine and they bring that knowledge to the storytelling.

Q. There are moments in season two where it is unclear whether it is Peter or Catherine who is the villain of this story. Do you agree?

A still from season 2 of The Great Image Credit: Hulu

Fanning: “It is definitely a bit harder to understand who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy here. I love Catherine’s arrogance and it’s really fun to play her but you can also see that her limits are tested a lot this season and she is sometimes faced with questions that she really doesn’t have the answers to and is forced to make the tough choices. But there are moments where you think she’s kind of turning into Peter a bit, a little ruthless and almost like a tyrant leader.”

Q. Nicholas, everyone’s character arc has undergone a change in the second season, but it’s perhaps Peter’s role that has seen the most significant transformation. What’s your take?

A still from season 2 of 'The Great' Image Credit: Hulu

Hoult: “Oh definitely. Earlier he believed that he’s perfect but it is through season two where he does start to see his shortcomings and starts to change, look inwards. And even if he’s not changing to a deep level, he does transform a lot through parenthood as well and recognizing certain demons that perhaps he’s been carrying on his back from his parents.”

Q. It’s pretty interesting to see is that not a lot has changed in the way a woman in power is treated across centuries. Is Catherine’s voice one that is resonated even today, in the era of #MeToo?

A still from season 2 of 'The Great' Image Credit: Hulu

Fanning: Of course, there are parallels. And I think that’s why this story resonates with so many. Yes, ‘The Great’ is a fun watch, but it really is saying something as well. Catherine was such an activist and a feminist and so ahead of her time. Here was a lone woman who was definitely trying to push things along very quickly in a country that didn’t necessarily want to change, let alone listen to a woman giving them orders. The struggle that she would have felt is what we are trying to show this season.

“Tony and I talk about this a lot. No one is perfect in life and I don’t want to show that Catherine always has the right answer, but I think the struggle is real and it continues even today.”

Q. Elle, since season one was your first job as a producer as well, what did the experience teach you to prepare for the second one?

Elle Fanning in 'The Great' Image Credit: Hulu

Fanning: “I felt like I grew so much in the first season, as a person and as an actor. I’ve grown up on a set so I had a basic idea of how a unit works, but you really get to see the cogs behind the machine as a producer. Plus, I think the pressure applied is much more intense when you are responsible for other decisions on top of your acting.

“I also think your emotions are so invested as producer; there’s more on the line here. I kind of had to learn how to use those emotions in a good way, in a leadership role and that really helped me grow to get more involved and use my voice more. And I think on the second season people could see that I spoke up more and was more vocal about things that I maybe disagreed with and I’m proud of that.

Q. Since this is a historical show, is there any specific moment from the past you would like to live in and experience?

Elle Fanning in The Great Image Credit: Hulu

Fanning: “Nick, you have anything?”

Hoult: “You know, I’ve been interested in Viking history so I’d like to go back and kind of be around the invasion [of England]. Yeah, that’s probably the era I would probably go to, to just kind of examine. But then also, I realise that is probably a horrendous time to be alive.

Fanning: “Yeah, I don’t know if I’d want to live in certain times as a woman considering I like my freedom. Maybe I would like to live in the past for a bit. I don’t know.

Hoult: “Can I change my answer? I’d actually go back and stop the fire that happened in [inventor] Nikola Tesla’s warehouse in New York because I feel like so many great inventions and ideas were lost in that fire.”

A still from The Great Image Credit: Hulu

Don’t miss it!

‘The Great’ season 2 is currently streaming on OSN