Elle Fanning (‘The Great’) on her desire to ‘humanize’ Catherine the Great [Complete Interview Transcript]

Elle Fanning stars as the legendary Empress of Russia Catherine the Great on the Hulu comedy series “The Great.” The role has already scored her a TCA Award nomination.

Fanning recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about what drew her to “The Great,” working with Nicholas Hoult and her time as a jury member at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Elle, “The Great” is irreverent, it’s often very explicit. It’s very funny. It’s not a tone we often see in period films and series. So what attracted you to the role? 

Elle Fanning: That’s a big question. I got the script from Tony McNamara. This originally was a play that he had put on in Australia years ago and then had turned that play into a film script with possibly maybe being a movie. And that’s actually what I read and just the young Catherine was a sliver of that story. So the script that I had spanned her whole life and then Tony was like, “You know what? There’s so much information on her and so much there. So read this with a TV show in mind, possibly that we get to expand it and maybe the first season will be about the young Catherine and her rise to power.” And I hadn’t even seen “The Favourite,” which Tony wrote at that point. So reading the script for me was a true whoa surprise and a real wild ride. Just the language and the wittiness but also the heart, I think it’s a truly emotional story to me of Catherine and her rise and such a unique character. And I knew it would be a great challenge to play, even just with the tone alone, to get that specifically right is a challenge, but also to just show this woman grow. And I wasn’t really that familiar with Catherine the Great. I wasn’t taught about her in school. I knew she was the Empress of Russia and I knew about the horse incident propaganda fake news (laughs). And that’s all I knew. Sadly, that’s all I knew. And just learning about her, of course, we’re not historically accurate all the time but there are amazing facts and things she did in her life that are completely represented in our show. We just get to do it in a fun way, not a dull period piece way (laughs).

GD: Absolutely. I didn’t really know much about her either. And when you look into what she did, her influence and reign was so transformational for Russia and for the world. Were you keen to portray her authentically despite the show, as you say, being a comedy and not necessarily being historically accurate but you still had to kind of play her as a person? What were you looking for to get into her mindset? 

EF: Gosh, I wanted to humanize her. I feel like, she is this historical figure that we know what she did. She did incredible things. But I wanted to make her human. I wanted to figure out what makes her tick. I didn’t want to make her the strongest person in the room. I’m kind of allergic to the term “strong female character.” I don’t really know what that means. I feel like I want to play a human who has many layers, who always doesn’t have the right answer. Catherine makes mistakes. She has to learn from others. She sometimes feels very weak. She doubts herself. She’s grappling with all of this and she makes a lot of big decisions and sacrifices. What’s so beautiful about her is in the beginning, she’s extremely romantic and very optimistic and it’s this gorgeous quality that she has. And when she arrives in Russia, reality slaps her in the face and she’s faced with this upside-down world and she’s like, “I’m going to change it.” I think there’s two people in the world. Either they are like, “All right, you know what? I’ll just live with it,” or, “I’m actually going to try to do something.” And she really tries to do something and it’s the journey to that. So she’s feisty. I would say she has an ego. She has a good arrogance to her, which I always love to play, just mapping out the different qualities. So I was more interested in just creating our version of her instead of really researching tons of facts about the real Catherine the Great. Although, Catherine the Great in real life, she invented the rollercoaster. So that tells you a lot about a person. Like, “OK, that person’s fun.” That’s someone I want to know.

GD: It occurred to me about 10 minutes into the first episode that I was like, “Okay, so Catherine is the outsider.” And she, to me, felt like the surrogate for the audience because we’re looking at all these morons in the court and this very backward society. She’s looking at them too like, “This is not acceptable and I’m going to change it.” Did that aspect of being the outsider inform how you were going to tackle her? 

EF: A bit. I think there is a side to her in the show that she is the straight man a bit. She is the observer of all the hijinks that are going on around her. So I guess in many ways she reflects the audience and how they’re viewing this world that’s a bit off-kilter. So I knew that I was the eyes to that. Yeah, so I guess it influenced me in that way. But I guess it’s something that maybe I didn’t try to think about too much. But it is obvious that a lot of things are happening to her in the series.

GD: As we mentioned earlier, it is very funny. A big part of the show’s comedy is the interplay between you and Nick Holt, who is hysterical, as the impulsive and idiotic Peter. Talk about your dynamic with him and what he brought to the set. 

EF: Gosh, Nick is absolutely incredible. He somehow has managed to be so evil as Peter, but also so incredibly charming. I think that Catherine even is kind of fighting with herself because at times she finds him kind of amusing and entertaining and then also sometimes utterly disgusting. Nick is just so incredible and so funny and he’s the best scene partner, really. I mean, we’re very comfortable with each other. We’re not embarrassed around each other. I think that that helps because our dynamic on-set when we’re doing those scenes is we want to challenge each other. So it kind of is like Catherine and Peter in a way, because we were like, “All right, we want to top with each other and play around.” Maybe it’s because we were both young actors growing up. But I think we have a very similar relationship to the set and how we work. So we’re just very similar actors and that just, I think, helped us immensely because we were really in it together and wanted to try to kind of do the craziest thing and we’d be like, “All right. Let’s rein it back. Let’s experiment. Go here. Go there.” And Tony creates this world that we don’t ad-lib at all. That is a no-no. We’re very stay to the script, word for word and there are these restraints. But because you have that restraint you get to kind of be spontaneous and play all these other ways. Even when it’s written, Tony doesn’t write a lot of description either in the scene. So you can really do whatever you want, but you just say those words, but you can bring whatever you want to it. So to have Nick, a partner who is willing to go there, I think pushed me too. Just the rhythm of the banter he was a little bit more used to ‘cause he had been in “The Favourite.” So I learned a lot from him during filming.

GD: As you mentioned, you get to say some beautifully acerbic one-liners and insults as Catherine. It’s the highlight of the show. Tony’s writing is so exceptional. I mean, an Oscar-nominated writer for “The Favourite.” You couldn’t ad-lib, as you mentioned, but what flavor were you giving his very specific language that you guys were actually speaking? Give us an example, perhaps. 

EF: Oh, gosh, the ones I think all have bad language. I need to think of some good ones to say. I mean, I actually always think about Nick’s lines because he’s talking about, “Oh, I just blew my bag on Madame Dimov.” I mean, as Catherine, her character, she was supposed to be shocked by that like I was shocked. I had never heard that in my life. Where does Tony get these things? How does he come up with it? And funny, I don’t know if he said it to you but the other day we were doing one of these interviews and he said, “I don’t write jokes.” I’m like, “Wow.” He’s just a genius in that department. The wordplay on everything. I mean, the whole sex speech that I say in the pilot was so fun to learn and to play and just the language of that, learning everything. It just brings me back. It’s so specific. There’s nothing like it.

Gold Derby: When you’re picking up a script, though, do you ever think, “Oh my god, this is too much. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get through it all”? Because it’s a lot to remember and do properly.

EF: Oh yeah. Of course. You’re terrified. I’m terrified (laughs). Nick and I would be looking through the scripts like, “Ahh!” You see a big paragraph and you’re like, “Oh, it says Peter up there. Phew.” We would laugh and kind of joke to each other because we would always get these kinds of monster paragraphs of scenes. And at the same time, I mean, that’s what I’m in it for. That’s what I want. I am someone, I like kind of putting myself under pressure in pressurized situations and to feel very scared. I feel like I thrive in those situations. So maybe these six months were perfect for me in that way. But the memorization muscle, really, it is a muscle, truly. I worked it hard over that. So it became easier to get your mouth around the words. But yeah, I think it was just the fun of it. It felt like Shakespeare or something, almost.

GD: Absolutely. You touched on this earlier, but as I was watching the season, it did occur to me that both you and Nick were child actors and you’re both young in the beginnings of your career. You’ve got decades to come. Do you find that is a way for you to bond with your co-star when you’ve both shared that experience as children? 

EF: I think it’s something that we did know, and weirdly enough, we worked together before in  a small movie called “Young Ones.” I was 14. He was 21 and we were married in that. So we have a long line of really bizarre marriages, messed up marriages (laughs). I mean, I think that you do relate on some level. Maybe it is unspoken or not. It’s like, “Oh yeah.” You see each other and can relate to certain things and it’s not necessarily something we talk to each other about all the time. But I think it’s just a nod of understanding and the same relationship to the set. I don’t know. Learning from others. I think it’s learning from the people before you that you’ve worked with and gotten to work with. He’s obviously gotten to work with huge legends in the industry and learned from them and what you pick up from people, because I don’t think Nick went to school for acting and I didn’t either. So our school was set. That was it, being on-set and learning from different directors and whatnot. So yeah, the feeling’s mutual between us (laughs).

GD: Yeah, I think that’s so fascinating. You said something earlier I’d like to explore if we could and it’s what you think the show says about feminism or women in power, positions of power, because you say that you’re allergic to strong women, that concept, which I think is a really intelligent thing to say ‘cause you’re strong human beings. But what is the show trying to say about women in power? Because it’s something that comes up a lot in our culture these days. 

EF: Yeah. I mean, that’s, I think, why the show is also so modern and I love that it’s told in this way because it brings these themes to modern audiences and are themes that we’re still dealing with today, sadly. But Catherine the Great is truly a feminist icon. She is the woman who went head-on with the man and ultimately took him down. She went head to head with him. And just the power of that and what that says I think is so beautiful. And also to talk about the relationship she has with her maid Marial is, I think, a beautiful kind of female friendship onscreen. I just love the way that we interact with each other. Phoebe Fox plays Marial and she’s incredible. So funny. I love her dearly. Getting to show that onscreen and also, we don’t really know where Mariel’s trust lies as well. So there’s a bit of uncertainty there with that friendship. But yeah, I think, obviously, feminism is greatly touched on in this series in who Catherine represents in history and what she represents today and now and just taking down the man. She’s like the original of that.

GD: Yeah, she’s the O.G. She definitely is. I’ve got two non-“The Great” questions before we wrap up and the first one is I just thought it was so cool that you are the youngest person ever appointed to the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and that wasn’t very long ago. It feels like years ago because we’re all at home now but what was the highlight from that incredible experience? 

EF: I don’t know if I can even pick just one. I think that was really one of the best experiences of my life. Those weeks, getting to watch those films and discuss with people that I look up to on just a huge level, these artists and creatives and them actually giving me the respect to want to listen to what I had to say, I’m eternally grateful to them for allowing me to have that opportunity. I was definitely young and I knew what an opportunity it was and how grateful I was for that. And even I was like, “What? They’re asking me?” I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. But then I thought about it and how the festival is also kind of growing and including me, who’s young, who’s the voice of a new generation and watching movies from those eyes, I think it was really neat on their part to do that. And they gave me an experience I’ll never forget.

GD: I mean, diversity is about all kinds of different people. And you’re speaking, as you say, from someone from a younger voice, and you’ve got so much experience. You’ve been acting for a long time and that was the jury that awarded “Parasite,” which was quite prescient given that that became the big film of the year. So you’ll carry that with you for the rest of your life. It’s pretty amazing. Another really cool thing that I’m bringing up because I have kids of my own so I’m very aware of the fact that you play Aurora in the “Maleficent” movies. Professionally and personally, what’s it like to play a real-life Disney princess? I know my daughter, that’s probably one of her dreams! What was it like to do that? 

EF: I relate to her. Growing up, my dream was to be a Disney princess, like in real life. “That can be my job, right?” And then weirdly, crazy enough, that actually happened. I remember that phone call getting the first film. I was 14 and I had to go in to meet and all that. And then getting that phone call, it really changed my life because that’s really the biggest movie I’ve ever done, scale-wise. Having it be a Disney film with Angelina Jolie, working with her, it completely changed. And also realizing kind of the responsibility, too, because after that, young girls would come up to me and not even say, “Are you Elle Fanning?” It’s like, “You are Aurora. You’re Sleeping Beauty.” And just having kids recognize you in that way, it was interesting being a little girl. It’s so fun to do, and getting to grow with that character, we got to do the second one, which came out not too long ago. So I’m proud of that for sure.

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