In the beginning, there was Queen Catherine and Maid Marial. T’was a love story for the ages: an out-of-place debutante, optimism sketched across her dewy face, and a hardened local with cynicism beating out of her chest. Throughout the first season of Hulu’s The Great — a mostly fictional retelling of Catherine the Great’s early days overthrowing Russia created by Tony McNamara, previously Oscar-nominated for writing royal satire The Favourite — Catherine (Elle Fanning) and Marial (Phoebe Fox) are complete opposites, yet bond over their shared hopes for a more equal Russia. Marial, having been born into the royal court, lost it all when her father came into the ill graces of their mercurial leader, Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). Demoted to serf, she begins the series as one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, but quickly rises to trusted aide and closest friend as Catherine and a small band of confidantes try to coup their king. But at the end of last season, as the coup seemed to be failing, Marial betrayed — or saved, depending on your point of view — Catherine by informing Peter of her pregnancy. Which is why, when we open on season two, Marial is back in the court’s favor, but perhaps out of favor with her dear Catherine.
With the second season of The Great out now on Hulu, Vulture caught up with Fox just as she hung up a call with her co-star Fanning, to talk about the intricacies and complexities of female friendships and whether or not Marial is a Judas.
This interview contains spoilers for season two of The Great.
If I say that I am more invested in the love story between Catherine and Marial than I am in the love story between Catherine and Peter, does that ring true for you at all?
It does. Because Elle and I talk about it all the time. Like, fuck Peter, man; this is the real love story. [Laughs.] I do think that is informed by the fact that Elle and I are slightly falling in love with each other, too. You know, the way that you do when you find a new friend. And Marial and Catherine, that feels like a love story because of its complexity. It’s sort of a “will they, won’t they.” We are awful to each other, and we also deeply love each other. It’s a yin-and-yang energy.
Historically speaking, do you know anything about a “Marial” — a person like that who was close to Catherine the Great as a friend and confidante?
When I got the first script, I Googled, “Did Catherine have a best friend?” She did, I can’t remember what her name is, but she also did fall out of favor. I think, like a lot of royalty, Catherine had a group of ladies-in-waiting around her and she had favorites. But as for her favorite being an aristocrat who’d fallen from grace and become a servant, that’s definitely all made up.
Did you take much from what you read about this nameless best friend and put it into Marial?
You know, I’m a diligent homework-doer by nature. I did all that research and then turned up for the first day, and sort of asked Tony McNamara, like, “Was Marial a real person?”, and he was like, “Honestly, it doesn’t matter.” I was like, Ohhhhhkay. The historical bits, you just aren’t even meant to think about it. I think that all of us in season one who were trying a bit to hold on to that historical relevance, by season two — I literally just start slouching around in chairs, all pretense of this being a historical drama just gone.
Everyone has an angle on this show. What is Marial’s angle? Because I feel like on the surface, it is maybe obvious, but then sometimes, I’m not sure.
I feel like she doesn’t have one angle. As a person, she’s just flying by the seat of her pants. The ultimate intention always is to survive. Although she was incredibly privileged, she probably had quite a hard upbringing, which has made her quite tough. She’s definitely got a suit of armor on, and I think she’s doggedly trying to survive and that’s why her allegiances skip around. She betrays Catherine in a way at the end of season one, and then again betrays her by helping to cover up the death of her mother. So, I think she has a bit of a blind spot — that will to survive, it just overrides literally everything.
Perhaps Marial is just too damaged with not enough therapy and will burn even her own house down.
Totally. It doesn’t always make logical sense that she can’t see beyond that panic of, on a very base level, I’m going to die. She’s in constant fight-or-flight, you know, all the things that she’d be finding out through therapy [Laughs.] It’s glossed over because of the tone of the show, but the reality of being made a servant in this era is that it would have been brutal, especially if you had come from the background that she had. Once you’ve been there, you don’t want to go back there.
Marial is a real key player in this story line. She is the one who ended the first season with a reversal, betraying Catherine, and she’s done it again, sort of, by the end of season two.
Even I was shocked when I read those scripts. I was like, “Oh, come on! I do it again? Jesus. Learn your lesson, Marial.” In season two, I don’t think Marial realizes how tenuous her position is. She is proud and she is arrogant, and she doesn’t quite comprehend that Catherine may change her mind. Marial knows the ways in which she benefits Catherine, and that Catherine needs her, and I think it doesn’t even cross Marial’s mind that she will slip back from aristocracy into the servant’s quarters. Otherwise, why would you help to cover up Catherine’s mother’s death?
So you really don’t have much to go on with your character prior to each episode, do you?
We get the scripts quite late. Tony likes to write as we’re filming, so we started with maybe the first two scripts, and then you’re getting them about a week before you start shooting that episode.
Yeah. It’s totally mad. And you have to be careful around Tony, because he’s such a magpie. He’ll listen and watch what you’re doing on set and then be inspired by it. There’s a moment in season two where I pick up a cherry and I eat it in front of Grigor. That definitely came out of us making jokes about eating cherries on set.
In season two we get even more of Marial’s backstory, and one of her relationships that intrigues me the most is that with Archie. What is going on there?!
[Laughs.] Well, the normal part of their relationship is that he basically raised her. Her mom died young, her father was an abusive alcoholic, and Archie stepped in as her guardian. That’s why she’s so fiercely loyal to him. For someone whose will to survive is their main driving force, the fact that he saved her, it’s written in blood for her. Now, the sort of weird sexual undertones of their relationship, well, Archie is sexually perverse, and she, like a sibling, has figured out that by flaunting her latent sexuality in his face, she can poke fun at him.
And then there’s this backstory with Georgina and Grigor. That was fun to find out, that she and George used to be best friends growing up and that she and Grigor lost their virginity together. Royal courts are always such an incestuous, hilarious place.
What I hadn’t realized until recently is that growing up in court is a bit like living in a fraternity. It never occurred to me in season one that I would have grown up with all those people, so it came as a surprise when we got episode three in this season and I have that scene with Grigor. Me and Gwilym [Lee] were like, What?! We didn’t even think we knew each other. I’ve been playing the whole of season one like I didn’t know him, though we didn’t have any scenes together, so that was fine. But of course, we would have all been kids and teenagers living at court together. Of course they all fucked each other and were best mates. It now makes it even more brutal that she was a servant and none of them stepped in or really tried to intervene on her behalf.
Marial’s line to Catherine — “You’re a singular individual and you helped me be one. You have changed me and you’ll change millions.” — that’s such a poignant moment, because it’s Marial finally opening up and being a more positive person. Did that come as a surprise to you?
When I’m acting it, I’m not analyzing it in that way. It’s only since after we finished filming and talking about it that I realize how much she changed in season two. There’s a willingness to be vulnerable. There’s actually a moment where Grigor yells at me about my inability to accept that I am loved, pointing out that I struggle to let people in. There’s a possibility, if season three goes, that she may well end up as a servant again, since she’s got arrested at the end here, and I wonder whether she will handle it differently because there is that chink in her armor, whether she will be less angry and more quietly devastated.
And that leads to this question, or rather accusation, raised by Catherine’s mother Joanna: Is Marial a Judas, stabbing Catherine in the back?
I don’t think it’s as black-and-white as that. I think Marial absolutely did think that she was doing the right thing for Catherine, in that telling Peter about her pregnancy was the way to keep her alive. Marial doesn’t have the style or grace of the other political movers like Aunt Elizabeth or even Archie. She’s not savvy, but she’s intelligent enough to know what the solution is. Carrying it out, she goes for broad strokes, for killer blows, when actually it needed delicacy. That’s really the only thing that she got wrong as far as I’m concerned.
Marial is the most violently tempestuous person I’ve played. I have really enjoyed that, because in drama school, all the boys and all the girls learn how to do stage combat, but as a woman acting, you very rarely get to throw those punches. I just love how angry she is. It’s not an emotion that people expect in women, which is ridiculous, but historically we’ve erased anger from the retinue of women’s emotions. A lot of the time anger is misunderstood to be something else, whether it’s hysteria or depression. The truth is, women get fucking angry. And I love that Tony has written a character who gets really angry really easily. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t see enough of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.