Lying atop the red velvety covers of an ornate four-poster bed in a gold-soaked set on a rainy day in London, a sickly looking Nicholas Hoult takes swigs from a bottle of water between takes.
“Men love me for my parties, women and … [gulp] … delicious food,” he splutters moments later after the camera begins rolling (bottle now hidden under the blanket), groaning and retching while Elle Fanning, in a corseted light-green gown and tightly curled blond wig, stands at his feet, feigning concern.
“And women love me for my massive cock.”
Welcome to the world of The Great, Hulu’s bawdy, satirical and not exactly (in many cases, not remotely) historically accurate retelling of the early years of Russia’s famed 18th century monarch Catherine the Great.
“We actually pride ourselves on the lack of historical accuracy,” says Fanning with a laugh, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter during the Nov. 26 set visit from a room just around the corner, this one littered with ornate chairs (most protected by plastic sheeting). In her first TV role, Fanning plays the pre-Great royal as a fresh-faced 20-year-old thrown into the “bonkers” universe of her feeble-minded, mistress-loving emperor husband, Hoult’s Peter III, and the maneuvering and plotting that would see her — eventually — ascend the throne.
“He’s a bad guy, but I don’t dislike him,” says Hoult, adding that The Great‘s somewhat casual approach to the truth meant he didn’t feel the need to read up on his character, as he normally would for such a role. “He’s up-front and honest, and that is kind of likable. Sure, he does terrible things, but he’s very open about it.”
Later on in the scene, Peter III ruminates on the things he hoped to achieve in his lifetime as ruler, including renaming July after himself.
“Each line of dialogue is something you’ll probably never get to say on another show, or any other time,” says Hoult with a laugh.
The series’ fast-paced and darkly comic tone is comparable to that of The Favourite, unsurprising given that its creator and showrunner was the film’s co-writer Tony McNamara (director Yorgos Lanthimos approached him to help with the script after seeing an early draft of the The Great).
“It’s not a period drama. I mean, it is and it isn’t,” McNamara says as production readies for another scene. “We’re trying to tell the essence of the story, how she got there before she was a leader. Occasionally an actor will ask, ‘Is this true?’ and very occasionally it actually is.” (Among the many fallacies inserted into the story is that Catherine invented the Moscow Mule cocktail.)
Beginning life as a stage play in McNamara’s native Australia, The Great was initially conceived as a film before TV became the preferred choice, with Fanning joining early on as executive producer and taking part in the network pitches.
Almost all of the series (produced by MRC, which shares a parent company, Valence Media, with THR) has been filmed across four stages at 3 Mills Studios, the East London facility developed — perhaps aptly — on the site of a former distillery. It’s also, notes Fanning, near a frequently ordered-from McDonald’s and a branch of the supermarket Tesco (“which we all go to, in costume”).
With exterior scenes mostly shot in Venice, the production team has re-created the interior of their very own version of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace in the British capital, one dripping in gold and boasting a number of long corridors for what exec producer Marian Macgowan describes as the “17th century version of the West Wing‘s walk-and-talk.”
The set isn’t short of its own eccentricities, most notably in the room of Aunt Elizabeth (played by McNamara’s wife, Belinda Bromilow), which is adorned with pictures of sex positions.
“Apparently the penises weren’t big enough on the photos, so we had to enlarge them,” notes Fanning. “So someone’s job on our show was to enlarge the penises.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.