Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult on The Great’s surprising season two

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult on The Great’s surprising season two

“He just does not get it.”

Elle Fanning is lamenting the fact that her The Great costar Nicholas Hoult did not laugh at her appropriately crude joke. The two, who play Russia’s Catherine the Great and Emperor Peter III in the outrageous Hulu dramedy series, have reunited for EW’s cover shoot in Savannah (as luck would have it, they’re both in Georgia filming different projects) having recently wrapped the Emmy-nominated show’s upcoming second season.

The joke in question involved another princess, albeit a fictional one — Cinderella. Instead of a slipper, though, this version was in need of a tampon. As Fanning tells it, Cinderella’s fairy godmother obliged but warned her that if she was not back by midnight, it would turn into a pumpkin. She goes to the ball and returns much later than midnight, much to the fairy godmother’s surprise. “Where on earth were you? How did you do it?” she asks incredulously. To which Cinderella replies with a wink, “Oh, I was with this guy. I think his name was Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.”

Hoult’s confusion is still written all over his face as Fanning recounts this. There’s a certain level of irony involved in the interaction, given that on The Great it is usually Hoult’s Peter saying ludicrous things to the bewilderment of Fanning’s more refined royal. Not to be outdone, though, Hoult will spend the rest of the shoot making japes and jests, particularly about a comically large slice of ginger in a prop cocktail.

This competitive dynamic exists between the actors both on and off screen. “The characters of Catherine and Peter are always trying to one-up each other,” Hoult explains. “Elle and I have a healthy habit of doing the same to each other as actors. Within scenes, we’re completely supportive and trying to get the best from each other — but also at the same time, battling within it and having fun.” Underscoring his point: As the two are vamping it up under the bright lights and the snapping cameras at the shoot, Hoult goes in for a kiss. Just before their lips can meet, he pops a macaron into his mouth with a cat-ate-the-canary grin.

It’s this battle of wills and wits that lies at the heart of season 2, all 10 episodes of which are available Friday. At the end of the critically acclaimed first season, Catherine’s big attempt to pull off a coup and unseat her husband was in full swing, and she had just seemingly sacrificed her lover Leo (Sebastian de Souza) to the cause — although the outcome of both of these events was not shown on screen. Oh, and there was the small matter of her being pregnant with Peter’s child.

It was all well-received by critics and audiences alike — in addition to its two Emmy nods, season 1 also notched nominations from the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, Indie Spirits, WGA Awards, and more. Much like creator, writer, and executive-producer Tony McNamara’s The Favourite, The Great is at once blithely anachronistic and stylish, extremely crude, and surprisingly emotionally resonant. It’s obscene but enjoyable precisely because of that, not in spite of it. In other words, this new season has big shoes to fill.

Picking up shortly after the events of last year’s finale, season 2 will see Catherine finally take the throne, and with it, the name Catherine the Great, while dealing with impending motherhood. The show’s massive ensemble — including chambermaid-turned-Lady Marial (Phoebe Fox); the devious, shroom-loving Archie (Adam Godley); and the ever-wise but kooky Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) — are all back as well, and carving out their own schemes for power under the new regime. And Leo’s fate, which weighs heavily on Catherine’s mind throughout the season, will be revealed in a way perfectly befitting the series.

To put it another way, Fanning says, the new season is “bonkers” and “very high stakes.” It’s all, once again, the devious brainchild of McNamara, who credits Hulu with allowing him to make a no-holds-barred romp that’s occasionally true but always, above all, entertaining. “Hulu let me make it extreme where I want it to be extreme, and they’ve got my back in terms of whatever I want to do. That is a great feeling,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I can’t think of anything we wouldn’t do, because I’m quite contrary. If I thought of something we shouldn’t do, it’d probably make me want to do it.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this insistence on taking the show in extreme directions was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in relatively minor ways, though the production was not without its challenges. Filming ballooned from about six months in season 1 to nearly nine months this time around (including one two-week shutdown), and one group of background extras was used for all 10 episodes. In addition to standard testing protocol, additional screening was ordered for anyone involved in the filming of an intimate scene — which, for a sexually-explicit show like The Great, meant lots of nasal swabs. “We were just like, ‘Swab me here, swab me here, swab me there, whatever. Here we are. Just swab me everywhere,'” Fanning jokes.

All’s well that ends well though, something that Fanning, also an executive producer on the series, attributes both to the crew (“They’re the greatest, pun intended,” she says) and to McNamara, who only wanted to plow ahead with the season if it meant doing complete justice to the story and characters. “He didn’t want to have to compromise the writing and the scope of the show,” the star explains. “It was almost like, ‘Okay, if we’re going to really compromise the show, then we should just wait to make season 2.'”

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice Hoult is also listed as an executive producer this season, but he gets bashful when asked about it. “I guess it’s just a nice way of them saying that I did a good job on the first season and [to] keep it up, which is very nice of them,” he says. Hoult explains that — as the two leads — he and Fanning are on set all the time, which can help keep things consistent.

“You have different DPs and directors [for different episodes] and different styles and tones, and people coming in with different ideas. Elle and I are on set throughout the whole thing and see the overall bigger picture of what’s happening throughout,” he adds. 

One thing he definitely doesn’t do, however, is watch edits. “That’s something I’ve got to get better at, being able to watch things that I’m in and not just hate myself, so that I can have a good, objective eye about it in a way. It’s something that I’m learning,” he says.

Where some shows might have cut down on screen time for certain characters in order to simplify the production, McNamara did the opposite. “We’ve got 10 regulars, so it’s kind of a big cast to manage. With the second season, we could relax a bit more and get to know some of those characters, and do different things with them in a way that maybe in the first season we didn’t have the space,” he says.

And, true to the first season, every character has their own hidden world of motivations. “Above all, I like characters who are coming from a place that’s logical for what they want, and you understand that what they’re doing seems like a good thing to do from their perspective. None of them are going, ‘I’m about to go do evil.’ They all just think they’re doing the right thing, for them,” McNamara says. Basically, “Don’t trust anyone. They’re all coming from a good place, but they’re all coming from their own place.”

Perhaps no one exemplifies this better than Peter, though fans might be surprised by the turn his mercurial character takes this season. Losing the throne to Catherine and becoming a prisoner in her court humbles him a bit, forcing him to confront some of the more unsavory parts of his tempestuous personality. “He’s shredding away a lot of what made him who we’d come to see in season 1,” Hoult teases. “He’s getting rid of [the throne], which he realizes he never really wanted anyway, and becoming much freer in himself — obviously still with his manic and strange qualities.”

When asked if he thinks viewers should root for or like his character — who is oddly charming despite all the debauchery and truly heinous things he has said and done — Hoult pauses, contemplating. “I think that would be too simple,” he says finally. “Obviously, he messes up a lot and does terrible things. What’s fun about the character is even though his observations and his musings and everything are ridiculous at times and horrible, they’re very honest and truthful. That’s why he is quite a likable character. He has a stream of consciousness in terms of what he says and believes in. You always know where you stand with him.”

He continues, “I don’t think he’s ever had to grow up or learn or understand other people’s feelings or have empathy, because it just wasn’t ingrained into his life and what he was experiencing. I think there is part of this character who is a monster, but then when you start to peel away a few of the layers, you start to go, ‘Oh, actually there is a sweet kid underneath all this,’ that perhaps you can — maybe not root for — but you get behind in a way.”

On the flip side of that is Catherine, who is beginning to learn that in order to change Russia, she might need to change herself… and not necessarily for the better. “That was really fun for me in some of the scenes this year,” Hoult says. “Watching that more venomous, ruthless, demanding, and entitled side of the character then come to the forefront. And Elle was so wonderful at doing that in a really funny way. That was a joy to watch because it weirdly felt like a reversal of some of the stuff we did in season 1 with how Peter would be towards Catherine.”

Among all the bickering and potential backstabbing, there are some genuinely tender moments between Catherine and Peter this season, which may have viewers questioning their feelings about the two as a couple. “I think you should ship it,” Fanning admits. “They are a complicated bunch. Because it’s also like, at any moment, you don’t know if they’re going to murder each other. It’s like Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the 18th century.”

But asking if they are bad or good together is perhaps the wrong question, Fanning suggests. “They push each other along. They understand each other. I think that’s what it is,” she says. For instance, when Catherine takes the throne this season, ironically Peter is the only one who knows what she’s going through as a leader struggling to rule a country. And, when Catherine’s mother, Joanna, comes to visit, it quickly becomes clear that Catherine and Peter have something else in common: mommy issues.

For the role of Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, McNamara says he always hoped two-time Emmy winner Gillian Anderson would be game. Anderson wasn’t initially familiar with The Great when the offer came her way, but after reading the scripts and watching the series, she was sold. “When I actually saw the show, it reminded me so much of aspects of Monty Python humor, and just how unbelievably irreverent it is,” she says. “I just wanted to join in with the fun, really.”

Anderson’s character arrives in the latter half of the season, when she gets word of her daughter’s coup. To put it bluntly, she is “appalled” by the news. “Joanna is known as the maestro of marriage because of how she’s arranged very high-profile partnerships for her daughters, and so the impact that Catherine’s coup has had on her and the ability for her to marry off the rest of her daughters has had consequences,” Anderson explains. “So she’s come to basically, one, see what the heck Catherine is up to, and two, to see if she can change the course of history.”

Anderson says her character’s motives should probably be questioned. “I wouldn’t trust her, and I think her motivations feel suitably contradictory. It does indeed appear that sometimes she is just incredibly loving, and thoughtful, and completely, appropriately obsessed by her daughters — and then sometimes it does feel like she has very sinister motivations that aren’t necessarily taking into consideration the best interest of her children, and that maybe she is just talking s—,” she says. Suffice to say, she fits right in.

The first season dabbled in showing the myriad ways Peter’s own mother and father, both now dead, were pretty awful, neglectful parents. Season 2 takes that and runs with it, giving Peter his own parental visitation — and not just with more shenanigans involving the mummified corpse of his mother, although there is definitely more of that as well. Anderson’s two-episode guest stint is complemented by Jason Isaacs as Peter’s father, Peter the Great. (History buffs will point out here that Peter the Great was actually his grandfather. But The Great has never had a problem playing around with history.)

“His father was this great ruler and man and built up to mythic proportions,” Hoult explains. “He’s this incredible army leader, this fearless ruler, this Lothario in bed — all these things that Peter cannot believe his father was while also being the man who belittled him and couldn’t raise him in a way that made him his own person. He was always in his shadow. Because we’ve discussed that so much, I couldn’t imagine who could possibly come in and inhabit all of that character so wonderfully, and Jason completely did it.”

Like Anderson, Isaacs joins the series in a pivotal moment toward the end of the season, which builds to an “odd place again,” according to Hoult. For starters, there’s the birth scene, which involves Catherine delivering her baby in front of the entire court — in order to make sure the heir is legitimate, of course — as everyone places bets on if the little one will be born half horse, or if Catherine will die during labor. In spite of all the hilarity, Fanning says she was very concerned with making the labor look real, particularly since she’s never experienced it herself.

To prepare, she talked to a midwife and watched birthing videos, including one starring her own mother. “I was born during a tornado, so they couldn’t video when I was born because the hospital was in lockdown — which is very fitting, I think,” the actress says with a laugh. “But I do have a tape of my mother giving birth to my sister [fellow actress Dakota Fanning], and she didn’t have any drugs or anything. So it’s scarred in my brain of what that’s like!”

McNamara, who is understandably mum on precise details, teases that his favorite arc of the season happens in those final two episodes. “It’s about Peter and Catherine. It sort of brings their relationship to some kind of head in a way that hasn’t happened before, and everyone sort of gets dragged into this kind of choice about where they stand with everything… It’s sort of a dark last episode,” he says. Adds Hoult: “There are some switch-arounds that you just wouldn’t expect.”

Given that the show is technically, if only loosely, based on real history, there are some plot points to be expected — Catherine’s coup, the birth of baby Paul, the Empress bringing the Enlightenment to Russia — but there’s one fact that looms large (and so far unaddressed) on the show: Peter’s death. 

The real Peter III died under suspicious circumstances just eight days after Catherine’s successful coup attempt. In the show, the timeline of Catherine’s pregnancy and the coup is out of order, paving the way for Peter to be alive, at least for now. For his part, Hoult feels like there is still more to do with the character, and jokes that he sees himself on the “don’t kill Peter train” — but he ultimately trusts McNamara’s vision.

“I’m sure Tony will come up with a brilliant way for Peter to die, and a brilliant reason for it as well. And the build up to it’s going to be brilliant, I’m sure, in terms of the weirdness of it and why and how,” Hoult says. “Maybe it will be a complete freak, weird death and it will leave everyone shocked and rocked by it because it was something that people didn’t want in that moment in terms of the characters. We’ll see.”

Hulu hasn’t officially greenlit a third season yet. But should it happen, McNamara already has an abundance of ideas. “We end the [second] season with everyone in a very, very different place. I guess the third season is very much about the court and about the next level of leadership for Catherine, and Peter deciding what sort of guy he’s ultimately going to be,” he says.

As is common with television productions, both seasons have so far featured several different directors. Might a third season see its star and EP step behind the camera? Fanning, who counts Elisabeth Moss’ star-turned-director role on The Handmaid’s Tale as one potential source of inspiration, says it’s something she wouldn’t count out. “I don’t know. I’ve thought about it. It would be fun. I could boss Nick around once and for all,” she says with a smile.

As for story beats she’d want to see next season, Fanning wants to see how Peter and Catherine actually become a family — and more of her character growing as a leader, but with a caveat. “I like her kind of arrogant, crazy side, so I want to see her party a little bit more, get a little looser,” she says.

The star already has one very apropos suggestion for future seasons. “Have you seen the real Catherine the Great’s furniture?” she asks. “Oh my God. It’s literally carved with penises and vaginas. I want that furniture in there. Tony, get the furniture in. It’s so good.”

Directed and Produced by Alison Wild & Kristen Harding. DP: Josh Hart; Photography: Ren Adkins; Set Design: Risha Carnes/The Spin Style Agency; Post-Production Supervisor: Ethan Bellows; VFX: Ira Morris; Color Correction: Carlos Flores; Design: Chuck KerrFanning’s Styling: Samantha McMillen/The Wall Group; Hair: Jenda Alcorn; Makeup: Erin Ayanian-Monroe/Cloutier Remix; Hoult’s Styling: Wendi + Nicole/Forward Artists; Hair: Monique Hyman; Makeup: Mazena Puksto. 

Cover Look: Fanning’s Dress, Gloves: Khyeli; Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti; Earrings: Fred Leighton; Ring: Fox & Bond; Hoult’s Blazer: Tom Ford; Blouse: Saint Laurent; Pants: Burberry; Shoes: Christian Louboutin; Necklace: Tiffany & Co.; Link Chains: DRU Jewelry; Antique Ring: Beladora; Watch: Jaeger-LeCoultre. Macaron Look: Fanning’s Corset, Skirt: Vivienne Westwood; Shoes: Sophia Webster; Hoult’s Outfit: Dolce & Gabbana; Ring: MISHO; Watch: Jaeger-LeCoultre.