Inside HBO and Hulu's Very Different Takes on Catherine the Great and Her "Super Complicated Relationships"

11:30 AM 6/29/2020

by Rebecca Ford

'The Great' and 'Catherine the Great' crafted their own versions of the famous Russian monarch, but have at least one thing in common — creating a complex woman, flaws and all.

Helen Mirren in HBO's four-episode miniseries 'Catherine the Great,' Elle Fanning portrays Catherine as she moves to Russia at age 19 in Hulu's 'The Great'
Helen Mirren in HBO's four-episode miniseries 'Catherine the Great,' Elle Fanning portrays Catherine as she moves to Russia at age 19 in Hulu's 'The Great'
COURTESY OF HBO; OLLIE UPTON/HULU

  • Helen Mirren

    Actress: 'Catherine the Great' (HBO)

    Right away, Mirren noticed something that Catherine the Great had in common with another historical character she'd played, Elizabeth I (in HBO's 2005 miniseries). "The rate these people lived at was unbelievable," she tells THR. "Catherine got up at 5 o'clock every morning in freezing Russia to write for two or three hours before her day even started. They put in an amazing amount of work." Mirren's research for the role involved reading copious amounts of Catherine's writing and diaries. "The people around her loved her," says Mirren. "She was nice. She wasn't a violent, obsessed, mad dictator, as so many of the Russian court had been." Mirren also had to withhold her judgment about ­Catherine's very active sex life. "I had to make sure there was no looking down on, no criticism of this whatsoever," she says. "It was absolutely acceptable. It was like having dinner: You're hungry, you have dinner; you feel like sex, you have sex. That was sort of liberating, in a way, but it was quite hard for me to mentally get my head into that."

  • Elle Fanning

    Actress: 'The Great' (Hulu)

    Hulu

    Fanning did very little research on the real Catherine the Great for Hulu's unique take on her story, other than looking up her handwriting. Instead, she focused on the character's arc, from a naive 19-year-old who moved to Russia in hopes of marrying her great love (Peter III) to realizing that she instead wanted to lead the country. "She has a beautiful arrogance and ego to her that I really loved playing with," says Fanning. But, as the character embarks on her quest for power, Fanning made sure to humanize her. "She makes mistakes," she says. "I wanted the audience to also feel at times that there was no way she can do this." To do so, she focused on her physicality changing, "her actually becoming off-balance in those dresses and those little shaky heels," she says. And her character isn't the only person who matured through the 10 episodes. "Maybe because she grows so much and I had more time to explore and develop that, I felt like I stepped into my womanhood [with this role] in a way that I haven't before," says Fanning.

  • Maja Meschede

    Costume Designer: 'Catherine the Great' (HBO)

    For HBO's miniseries Catherine the Great, Meschede spent about eight weeks researching the real Russian empress and looking at art from the period. "I was vastly inspired by Pietro Rotari and his beautiful paintings of people living at the court of Catherine the Great," she says. For Catherine's earlier looks, she focused on pastel colors like pink — and, of course, the classic Russian blue, which Meschede describes as "like a dove gray, but slightly more vibrant." She also used earthier tones. "I used gold or gold-blond colors, and colors from nature and also a lot of embroideries taken from nature, which they did at the time," she says. "Catherine's court copied a lot of the styles from the Russian peasant dress — what they wore to church — for contrast to the French fashion." Meschede tried to keep Catherine's looks feminine but remembered that she was an intellectual leader who spent a lot of time writing in private. "We only dressed her up when there was an official court scene," she says. "Otherwise, we wanted her to seem to be comfortable and very confident and intellectual rather than stuffy and dressed up."

  • Emma Fryer

    Costume Designer: 'The Great' (Hulu)

    When Catherine the Great arrives at the Russian court in Hulu's The Great, she's an outsider (her father's family was German), and Fryer made sure her clothes reflected that. "She's not a part of that world, and that's why her palette is very different," says Fryer. "Her fabrics were sort of soft, but had a little bit texture about them." To find the right materials, Fryer scoured the U.K., Italy and France, even looking at furnishing fabrics. Fryer didn't base her choices only on historical references, but was also inspired by more modern fashion, including a recent Dior retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or even fashion from the 1950s. "Some of Catherine's lines were different, whether that was a shape of a sleeve or the neckline — we certainly tried to incorporate slightly more of a fashion feel to it," she says. "Everyone was really embracing the idea of putting on interesting fabric and not really thinking about looking at a painting from the period and then re-creating it for the show."

  • Nigel Williams

    Writer: 'Catherine the Great' (HBO)

    It was the German princess' intelligence that first drew Williams in. "Learning Russian in the amount of time, her appetite for reading, her appetite for everything — she was just absolutely mesmerizing," says the writer, who adds that he read everything he could get his hands on about her. His focus, he says, was to bring that history to life. "To me it's very important not to put down stuff that bears absolutely no relation to the truth," he says. "The urge is to try, without making it too stodgy and boring, to be as faithful to what happened as possible." One aspect of Catherine's personality he was determined to get into the script was her sense of humor. "She was just full of gags," he says, adding that toward the end of her life she was known for doing an impression of a famous courtier by hobbling around as if she were a peddler selling wares. "I love that she had a fantastic sense of humor, and I love that she loved life."

  • Tony McNamara

    Writer: 'The Great' (Hulu)

    The series' creator was struck first by how young Catherine was when she landed in Russia. "When I was 20, I couldn't pay my rent and certainly wasn't up to taking over an empire," he tells THR. The writer, who penned the 2018 film The Favourite, says he amped up characteristics of the real Catherine's personality, such as the fact that she was "a delusional optimist and a romantic. But, in a way, that was her power, because you couldn't get anything done if you weren't a slightly delusional optimist." McNamara adds that he wanted to highlight her imperfections and stumbles as she attempts to gain power. "I was really interested in her flaws — her arrogance," he says. "It made her quite blind to threats and other people. She was empathetic on a grand scale for the country, but sometimes she had no empathy for those around her and what they were going through, if it was in her way."

  • Louise Coles

    Hair and Makeup Designer: 'The Great' (Hulu)

    Coles worked closely with Lorraine Glynn, Fanning's personal hair and makeup artist, to create Catherine's look, with a focus on how she transforms as she finds her way in court. "It starts with a German girl that's come to get married, hoping for love and happiness and marriage, and then she becomes a leader, by the end," says Coles. That meant that Catherine, an outsider, often had softer hairstyles made with her natural hair while the rest of the Russian court sported elaborate wigs. "A lot of those styles that Lorraine created were based on historical shapes and textures, particularly the profiles, which are absolutely beautiful," says Coles, "but still using more modern techniques and keeping it quite sleek." In the same way, Catherine's makeup was kept more natural compared with the sometimes garish styles of the Russian women. "She always had quite beautifully fresh pink cheeks, and that really youthful innocence carried through the whole show."

  • Philip Martin

    Director: 'Catherine the Great' (HBO)

    Martin leaned heavily on Catherine's real letters when trying to understand the leader's perspective. "She's very frank about things, very open about her emotions, her fears, her weaknesses, yet she's this enormously powerful monarch," says Martin, who helmed all four episodes. Many of the letters were to Grigory Potemkin (played by Jason Clarke), a military commander who was one of Catherine's lovers. "They had this complicated sexual or love relationship where they couldn't survive without each other intellectually and emotionally, but physically took on other partners," he says. "It just got super complicated." From the letters, he understood that Catherine had an openness to her that comes off as very modern. "You're used to monarchs, particularly British monarchs, burying their real feelings under layers and layers of repressed politeness," he says. "Catherine just wasn't like that."

    This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.