“A lot of people describe him as a psychopath because of how he behaves,” ponders Nicholas Hoult about his role as an impetuous, cruel and often outrageously funny Emperor Peter in period comedy “The Great,” which premiered on Hulu this month. “I think he does have a lot of those tendencies but I don’t think he is,” Hoult explains. “He’s quite an emotional being at times, he just hasn’t been brought up in a way where he knows how to understand it.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
“The Great,” created by Oscar-nominated writer Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”), is the irreverent exploration of the early life of legendary historical figure Catherine the Great, following her rise as the longest-reigning ruler in Russia’s history. It shares a similar tone to McNamara’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for Yorgos Lanthimos‘ period farce, which also co-starred Hoult, featuring lavish production and costume design, razor-sharp dialogue and hilarious over the top performances, including Hoult and also Elle Fanning as the title character.
According to Hulu’s cheeky advertising campaign, the show “occasionally” incorporates historical facts as a young, sprightly Catherine arrives in Russia after it is arranged for her to marry Peter. She soon realizes that Russia is a backwater ruled by an impulsive and often ridiculous emperor running amok in a depraved and violent court of sycophants. In order to survive, she devises a plan to usurp and kill Peter and take his crown.
Hoult admits that while the emperor does and says some horrible things, there’s a playfulness about him that we can’t help but like. “There’s a cheekiness in the character that might let you get away with a little bit of it. Because as much as he is the villain or the bad guy, you want people to enjoy him,” he says. “The rhythm of Tony’s language is very flippant and irreverent and you can kind of toss everything away to keep the pace moving. His writing has a wonderful way of presenting everything up front and everyone being quite direct in what they’re saying but then suddenly sneaking up on you with an emotional gut punch.”
In keeping with the show’s tone, “The Great” features it’s fair share of sexually explicit material, with characters partaking in all manner of sexual exploits, many involving the emperor himself. Hoult took that in his stride, but admits that the nudity was still sometimes intimidating.
“I have to pretend that it doesn’t bother me and in the moment I try not to let it phase me too much,” Hoult declares. “A lot of the sex stuff is fully clothed so that is not so exposing or intimidating, but there were scenes where Peter is born again and decides that he does not want to wear clothes walking around the palace,” he says. “There’s one scene where I have to walk down the long hallway and they’ve built these magnificent sets for this show, but this long hallway is probably about three to four hundred meters long and it looks even longer when you turn up in it naked! I think on the day they planned to have about 60 extras in there,” he recalls, laughing proudly that “I negotiated them down to 30!”
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