Hulu’s The Great is an unusually slippery show to talk about. It’s a costume drama that’s decidedly ahistorical; a comedy that dresses in dramatic drag. So much of what makes it wildly appealing is also difficult to nail down; its comedy happens in the empty spaces between lines, often by holding a beat for one minute too long or letting one of its near-sociopathic characters speak a sentence and simply walk away.
All of those qualities make it equally fascinating to consider in detail, especially when its lead actors are as thoughtful and game as Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. At this year’s Vulture Festival, the two sat down for a long conversation about The Great in the lead-up to its second-season premiere on Hulu. They discussed the project’s development from its earliest iteration, the show’s incredible costume and production design, and the challenges of shooting its many violent and intimate scenes. Watch it all go down in the video below, or read on for the full transcript.
Elle, you were attached to this early and were part of pitching it. What was it about this project that you were like, We gotta make this happen?
Elle Fanning: It was pretty immediate. It wasn’t much of a contemplation in my mind at all. Tony McNamara, the creator, had seen some things I had been in and thought of me for this. It was a pilot — I might’ve read the script, actually …
It was a film script, originally.
EF: And he had just done The Favourite with Nick, but it hadn’t come out yet, so I didn’t have anything to tonally compare the script to.
It’s so distinctive, I can imagine it being hard to imagine.
EF: I don’t know if it was hard to imagine, weirdly, because Tony’s words are so specific and direct that he puts his point so across: It’s right there, and it’s very unapologetic. And honestly, I didn’t know that this is what I was looking for, but this role and this series is everything I was looking for. I think I was 20 when I did the pilot. Now I’m 23 and thinking about season two coming out, I get very emotional talking about the series. Catherine means a lot and we all love each other on the cast. Everyone comes up here and says that, but it’s true!
Nicholas Hoult: Cheap gags!
EF: But Catherine, I just saw her completely. I met Tony, and he’s the greatest genius ever, and I knew Nick was gonna be in it at that point. I just hoped people wanted to buy it for whatever it’s worth.
So it’s not really a period drama in a lot of ways, because it’s so modern. But it really is a costume drama — the set, the clothes, and the space of it are so gorgeous and detailed. The audience just watched the coronation scene — you have an incredible costume in that scene.
NH: Thank you. [Laughs]
EF: I knew you were gonna do that!
How much are costumes a part of how you develop the characters and how you understand who that person is?
NH: The interesting thing from Peter’s perspective, in terms of that coronation scene — obviously he’s not overjoyed about handing over the throne. He puts little sparkles in his hair for that day. He’s always trying to one-up you subtly. There’s a scene later in the season where we have a baby shower and my outfit for that is completely outrageous. I’m trying to show just how fun I am; I’ve got feathers and lots of color and a dress — it’s beautiful. But that’s the great thing about the costumes and the design — the heel you have on the shoe and all these little things that change how you walk and how you move make you feel like the character from that era.
EF: Sharon Long is our costume designer this season, and she worked on everything — the background, the design that goes into this show: Those are all sets. They’re not location, they’re built. Gillian Anderson, she watched the first season, of course, and when she came on, she could not get over that this was not on location. She did not think it was real. She was like a mother taking photos of everything on the set because she was so flabbergasted!
It has to be amazing to impress Gillian Anderson.
EF: It felt good. Francesca Di Mottola, our production designer, designed everything.
If you look at other people’s costumes, are there any you’re particularly fond of? Mine personally is Aunt Elizabeth — I’m obsessed with the bugs she draws on her face. They’re so great and weird!
EF: Louise Coles, who does the makeup … I think it’s felt? They cut out the design and then place them on the girls’ faces. You had some on at the baby shower.
NH: That comes from when they used to have lead in the powder and it would eat away at the skin, so you would put these beauty marks on to cover the holes in your skin. But they also mean different things depending on the shape of the felt cover-up and where it’s placed on your face.
Food is one of my other favorite things on the show. I feel like if you were to count up all of your lines of dialogue, Nick, a measurable percentage would just be descriptions of food. How much of it do you actually eat?
NH: I eat most of it and really enjoy it. I love eating on set, and that definitely comes from Tony. He’s a real foodie. A lot of the times, it’s me and Rhiannon Preece-Towey, the script supervisor, trying to work out how to pronounce things, because I don’t speak good French and a lot of the food’s French. It’s us trying to figure out how to pronounce these weird culinary things that Tony’s come up with. The eating is very good on set — apart from once. Me and Belinda Bromilow, who plays Aunt Elizabeth, were so excited about a scene where we just got to eat ice cream — but it was actually made out of lard so it wouldn’t melt onscreen. That was the closest I ever got to being really upset on set. I was like, “This is ridiculous!” And they did go and get real ice cream for me.
What’s your favorite weird food they’ve put in front of you?
NH: I ate squirrel this year.
EF: No you didn’t, when?
You ate squirrel? How did they cook it?
EF: Isn’t that in the pilot — the rat?
NH: It was meant to be a rat, but they didn’t get me a rat. They got me a squirrel because once they’re roasted and skinned, they kind of look similar. And apparently squirrel is a delicacy. But they asked like, months out from shooting the scene, “You mind eating squirrel?” I was like, “Yeah, fine, whatever.” It got to the day and I saw the squirrel and it was pretty gross, that one.
EF: Catherine has pregnancy cravings this year, so with the iron deficiency, she’s sucking on rusty nails.
She eats dirt.
EF: She eats dirt and rose petals as well. With the rusty nail, we had one that was made of chocolate, and when I would suck on it, it was coming off, it looked too much like chocolate. So we got a real one. I was just sucking on a real one! The dirt was not real, though. I think it was mushed-up Oreos or something. And the flower petals were marzipan — they might have used the marzipan take — but at some point it looked a little too marzipan-y, so I was just like, “Bring in the real ones.”
The pregnancy prosthesis is pretty convincing. It’s such an effective, looming time bomb. Did that change how you think about the character?
EF: I thought about it a lot. Obviously I’ve never been pregnant, so I wanted to make sure it seemed as real as possible in our world. Paul, the baby, represents so much: Catherine is a bit like, Being pregnant is keeping me alive because Peter’s so obsessed with becoming a father and loves the child so much that he won’t kill me if Paul’s inside. The baby’s this political play — she has to be a mother to this child but she’s thinking of it in that way.
I don’t think that Catherine is super-maternal; she didn’t want to address the pregnancy until she had to — until it starts to kick her and she’s like, “Oh right, a baby’s in there.” She’s too busy thinking up other things. And it’s useful to her, obviously, but then again, it’s going to be a real human being. She’s going to have to grapple with that: how to become a mother.
Something that we talked about early on: not touching the stomach too much. Sometimes I feel like in movies, people are always touching the stomach. I also don’t think Catherine would care. Sharon really helped with the costumes, too. Everything became a little more empire-waist, a little more flowy and practical. I didn’t try to acknowledge the baby until a scene about the baby where I had to acknowledge it.
I’m pregnant for a very long time — the whole season, basically. It grows and grows, and the way you walk, it’s kind of weighted. The prosthetic took two hours to put on when we would actually see the flesh. They told me, “Okay, this is what you would look like pregnant.” I sent so many photos to my sister and my mom! [Laughs] I couldn’t believe it! It looked so real. They molded it to my body.
I think it added so much to Catherine. The physicality definitely changed. Funnily enough, I was like, “Great! I don’t have to wear corsets this season!” And they were like, “No, they still wore them over the pregnancy.” We were gonna do a thing where it would be over the bump so it wouldn’t be tight, and then they were like, “The clothes don’t look as good.” So I would wear a corset underneath the bump. Every day!
On that note, I think we should go to our first clip, so that we can see a little bit more of season two.
So, no squirrel on that table.
NH: No squirrel. Interestingly, though, that morning they were like, “Learn how to write Peter’s name in Russian with a quill,” and I’d done it, and Elle saw my handwriting and burst out laughing. I was like, “Okay, you do it better, then!” It turns out Elle’s had calligraphy lessons since she was like, 9 years old. So suddenly she does the most beautiful handwriting of Catherine’s name in Russian on the document.
EF: And you felt bad!
NH: I felt like an idiot.
So much of the second season takes place on set, but you do have a couple moments where you’re out in fields and forests and you get this scope of a very strange agreement. It’s like, half running the whole country and half “this is about our marriage.” I think one of the reasons the show works so well is that you’re playing them at this moment where they’re so united in the performance — the massive governmental, “Who’s in charge of this thing?” but also, “Do you like me?” It seems like a joy to be able to develop that over time as a television season rather than a film where you make it and it’s done. This is a place these characters would not have been in in the first season.
EF: I think that’s something I was most excited to do in season two, mostly because of the relationship between Peter and Catherine and how complicated it is. You can tell she is trying so badly not to like him, and there are times where he’s so evil. That’s what Nick is so brilliant at. Everyone says it, everyone knows it’s true. He can do things so vile, but you still love him, and it comes from a place that’s actually grounded. There’s a backstory to it and you see the history watching him.
My favorite scenes on set are the ones with Nick. Everyone’s incredible, but those meaty scenes that Tony writes are so long, with the back-and-forth and the banter and the rhythm. We’ve gotten into that groove now that we can explore more than we could in the first season, so there’s many of those in season two. I love Nick so much. There’s no one in the world that could play him.
NH: The second season is really fun because as Peter is trying to become nicer, Catherine’s getting all this power and realizing how difficult it is to be in that position. A lot of what was vile about Peter the first season, I’m now put on the back foot by Catherine in a really funny way. It’s a real joy to suddenly be on the receiving end of things. When we get into the breakfast room and have those scenes, it’s like little sparring matches. But also, as actors, we push each other for the best and encourage it. There’s this really joyful thing when we both instantly sense it’s the one where we’ve got every beat as we imagined it or are firing on all cylinders. That’s the best scene partner imaginable.
It then seems the other challenge is, “I’ve played this person for so long— where’s the fresh thing?”
EF: I don’t feel that way yet. I think like you were saying, Catherine is morphing into Peter, becoming a little more ruthless and learning that to be a leader, you have to make harsh decisions. And she’s not perfect. That’s why I liked her so much. She’s messy and actually quite arrogant. This season especially, she talks too much and people start to turn against her and she gets challenged.
Peter is so explicitly monstrous that it kind of hides the fact that Catherine is also a little bit of a nightmare.
EF: But now he’s becoming a dad, so he’s so sweet and making things for the baby that aren’t quite meant for babies, but they’re still sweet! [Laughs]
Because you both began acting when you were so young, has that given you a sense of shorthand or comfort with the other person?
NH: I definitely think the way we both work is very similar. We both have the same sense of enjoyment we get out of it, and directness. It is probably because we both started acting at a young age, and we’d worked together before even doing the first season of this — how many years, eight years before? [In the 2014 movie Young Ones.] Everyone has different methods, I suppose, but our methods are very similar and they’re always supportive of the best for each other.
Can you remember the first scene of The Great that you shot where you felt, “Oh, this is the back-and-forth. This is who these people are”?
EF: The first time I felt that was the breakfast scene in episode two with Colin, where Peter says “toosh” for the first time, and that scene with the strawberries. That day, everyone was amped. Everyone was like, “That was a great scene!” I feel like our relationship as Catherine and Peter gave it a sliver of knowing. It wasn’t just like, “He’s mean to me!” It was a little more complicated.
We should go to the second clip. Warning: I hope there are no children here.
So why did you pick this scene to show tonight? [Laughs]
EF: Well … I think it sums the show up pretty well!
I will say when they told me they were thinking about it, I was like, “Oh, cool. This one’s called ‘Hulu.thegreat.clittybitty.’”
NH: When I read that episode — I think I read it before you did —
EF: That one take was the only time we got through it without laughing when you said “toe fuck” and “clitty bitty.”
NH: Your reaction to “toe fuck” kills me. I remember because I texted you —
EF: I hadn’t read it yet.
NH: And all I texted was “CLITTY BITTY” in all caps.
EF: I was like, “WHAT?!”
Who breaks more in scenes like that?
NH: I think me.
EF: I want to say you, but we both do. I try to keep it together, but it’s hard, because I’m trying to be there and my mouth is quivering, and you see the quiver and you’re like, “Oh God!” It’s gone. It’s a really fun scene. I don’t know if we have any stories … [whispers in Hoult’s ear]
Okay, what was that? You have to say it now.
NH: We had planted KY Jelly juice, I guess, to make it look more realistic for me to wipe [my mouth]. I think I stole it as an idea from when we were shooting The Favourite, because it was something they did on that with a sponge up her dress. I was like, “Oh, we should do that!” So there was a special makeup Ziploc with WAP Juice for my face.
There are so many things I love about that scene. The reactions are hysterically funny, but so much of the performance is about them not realizing, not trying to be funny, not knowing that they’re funny, often never registering that the thing that they are doing is ridiculous. Is that ever hard? Your brain has to be going, This is the most absurd thing.
EF: It’s weird. When we’re doing it, I don’t think it’s absurd at all. Of course, you watch it and it’s so out there. My mom watches the show and she loves it, but she’s like, “It’s not for everyone! It’s really out there!” And I’m like, Is it? I think I’m a little desensitized to it.
When we’re doing those scenes, what works best with how Tony’s written it — and how we can get away with the emotional pull of the payoff at the end — is that we’re all playing it straight. It’s very grounded, and because we can be so grounded in reality, we have the freedom to do farce or outrageous concepts if you’re just believing it. I’ve learned that through the comedy of it all, because I haven’t done a lot of comedy. I learned a great deal on the first and second seasons. I realized that you had to be truthful.
NH: When you first read it, you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s ridiculous.” But when it comes to doing it, as the characters, you’re playing it almost as honest as possible. You’re never trying to sell gags.
I also liked the pairing of these two clips. In the one before, he’s like, “You’re gonna regret not wanting the tongue-lashing,” and you get to see the payoff of her regret. But you also get to see a tiny bit of the arc that plays so beautifully over the whole season: both of them going through this strange journey of, Do I actually like him? In this moment, he is so wounded that it feels like a breakthrough for him. He’s like, Wait, I can’t be this person I was before. Did that feel as momentous to you, or is it more of a smooth journey from the beginning?
NH: With Tony’s writing, it’s always a smooth journey. We get the scripts as we go, so you unpack it as it happens. But when we were shooting it, this was clearly a momentous, big scene that had a lot going on. A lot of the things Peter predicts or says will happen end up being true. That’s part of the reason Catherine starts to come back to him a bit, because all these things she thought would be easy about ruling, and these decisions … she’s like, even though he’s a monster, there’s a lot of … not intelligence —
He knows the world better than she does.
NH: Because of his weird approach to things and how he’s been brought up, his lack of empathy also makes him a good leader at times. I think that’s what she starts to witness and understand, that sometimes his mad ideas and methods actually do work.
In terms of the hurt and the pain, the more ruthless and egotistical Catherine gets, the more Peter loves her, because he doesn’t see them as the qualities that are bad. He sees them as the qualities he’s charmed by. He sees her as a great leader and the love of his life because of that.
Do you work with an intimacy coordinator on the show?
EF: We do.
Can you talk a little about that process?
EF: It was my first time working with an intimacy coordinator, the first season. I’d never experienced that before. Obviously, there’s a lot of sex on our show — not just us but a lot of other characters as well, and also background actors that are just having sex in the hallway.
The busiest intimacy coordinator.
EF: Running around all the time: “You’re good! You’re good!” But I’d never worked with one before. I found it helpful. They make sure the set’s closed — just logistical things. But I feel pretty safe with everyone cast-wise in that way, so it wasn’t that I needed her for that as much.
We talked about this a little bit last season, but the technicality of it, making it look real — I didn’t realize that their job is also to make it look real for TV. Without doing it, how can we fake it? That was helpful to me. Afterwards, she’d be like, “You need to scoot a little lower.” I would be like, “Great! Tell me these things!” “Do this more, do that more” — the technicalities. I like that because it’s all about how you want to make it look as right as possible.
The analogy that made me really understand what it is closest to is: You would not do a fight on a set without a fight coordinator. It’s safety. It also wouldn’t look good.
EF: I hadn’t thought about it this way, but with Tony, we cannot ad-lib. The words are very much, “You have to say it this way.” That frees you up in a lot of ways. He’s not telling you how to do it, but there is a parameter. So in scenes like that, there is a parameter they give you and then you feel totally free in both ways.
There’s also a great deal of very gruesome violence on the show. You throw a dog off the roof. Can you talk about —
EF: He lives!
NH: That was science. [Laughs] He had a parachute. It was not violent. It was a fake dog. Although they did shoot the real — what kind of dog was that?
NH: Yeah, they did have a real Pomeranian that they had in a little harness for CGI effects.
EF: He liked it.
NH: Although when we had the stuffed-toy version of the Pomeranian, they did build the parachute as effectively as possible. But there were times where it wasn’t as effective as it should have been …
EF: Thank God we used a stuffed animal!
NH: We’d watch it and we’d be like, “Ugh, that wasn’t a good landing.”
There’s a scene where you torture the entire court. What does the set look like when everyone gets there and you’re like, “Oh boy! Look at all the torture machines!”
EF: We all took a picture in every single one of them.
What was your favorite?
EF: Well, it was very gruesome with the nail situation. I had to get my nail ripped off. Not great! That was pretty stressful, actually. They weren’t fun and games, but it’s a TV show. These are such huge set pieces, and to think that the crew turns them around so quickly … they’re building those machines and it’s a lot. In that time, it wasn’t COVID, so we had a ton of background actors, and the choreography of that … I think the roof fell in that day.
Not on purpose?
EF: No, not on purpose. We had to shut down filming because the roof of the studio fell in. We shoot in East London. We love the studio. It’s like our home. But you know, the roof falls in! It’s next to a McDonald’s, which is great — at times.
I think I read there’s also a Tesco, and you go to the Tesco in costume?
EF: Have you done that?
NH: I’ve never been to Tesco in costume.
EF: Neither have I. Maybe the other cast members have. But there is a Tesco right there.
The chocolate mousse they have is good.
EF: Yeah, I have to run and get the ice cream.
Okay, so you throw a dog off a roof. There’s a dead moose on a lawn at some point. There’s a bear.
NH: I shoot the bear. I get her a new one. There’s a crocodile in season two.
One of the reasons I like the number of animals on this show is that it underlines the strange wildness of the court. It’s such a thin veneer between the wild world and these crazy wigs. But also, the people are so brutal and the animals fit in well.
EF: Everyone’s kind of animalistic in their own way, and they have to survive. Florence, who plays Tatyana, had the little beaver makeup. There’s a lot of animal things.
NH: It’s interesting, the survival thing, because throughout season two, for a lot of the other characters, it’s about them positioning and trying to predict the outcome of what’s going to happen. Will Catherine succeed in this coup? Will Peter regain power? They’re trying to hedge their bets on the best outcome and where they stand depending on who wins overall. So it’s really fun for all the other characters as well.
Who is the hardest to make break on set?
EF: Adam Godley, who plays Archie. He’s totally in on the joke, but he will always stay in it.
Do you try to mess him up?
EF: [Sighs] No, I don’t try to mess him up. We don’t try to mess anyone up because I think we’re all kind of teetering already. But he’s very, very in it. He’s the sweetest man in the world. But he doesn’t laugh as much. Doug Hodge, who plays Velementov, tries to make everyone laugh. He’s always doing drunken noises.
NH: Like heavy breathing, belching, and swallowed burps.
EF: We’re all just howling.
NH: There’s a scene in the first episode of the first series. We’d shot [that episode] in a country house, and then when we had the stages, we went back and were shooting the rest of the season the following year. We tried to reshoot the scene, and Doug was added as one of the characters in it. But because he was doing all of the breathing stuff, none of us could keep a straight face, and they ended up using the old version of the scene in the episode!
EF: Everyone was just laughing!
NH: They were like, “This new version’s rubbish,” basically, because none of us could stop giggling the whole time! Professional.
In season two, I feel like you do start to drift further from the historical record — not that the show was ever pretending to be accurate. They become more themselves, and then the show becomes its own separate entity. Do you ever look up your characters like, What are they actually doing right now?
NH: If they were alive right now?
No, I mean, at this moment in their lives on the show.
EF: They’d be in The Great-est Panel You’ve Ever Seen!
By this point, you’re so far from where they would have been.
EF: Ish. The history and the story, it’s the same balance as season one, because there’s a lot of things that did happen. I think Catherine’s rule, everything I’m trying to do this season, she tried to do as well. That’s all based in truth.
NH: In terms of developing characters and going back and being like, Oh, real Peter did this so I can try and do that in a scene, no. I personally never did that, right from the beginning of shooting it, because it wasn’t based on historical fact. It wasn’t like we were trying to create the ghosts of these people and be authentic to them. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that; on The Favourite, they didn’t do it. There was no, Oh, we’re going to read all about these characters and learn their history.
There was nobody on set being like, “Oh, you wouldn’t have that.”
EF: In real life, Peter was very ugly, so obviously very far!
NH: It was never a thing. I don’t feel the need to go back and do that.
In spite of the fact that they’re not at all historical people, you nevertheless think about the actual historical people as people. Do you ever look at other period dramas when you’re thinking about history? Or do you feel like you have a different relationship with these major figures from the past? An understanding of, Oh, that must have been a really uncomfortable corset she was wearing the whole time?
EF: Maybe. There have been a lot of period shows that have this modern twist. I remember seeing Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette for the first time. I was 10 or 11 when I saw it in theaters with my grandmother. I remember it was the first nude scene I saw, Kirsten’s bum. I was like, “Oh my God!” That was so ahead of its time. That movie’s such a classic.
It’s an incredible film.
EF: People now love it, but back then people would have hated it! They were like, “There’s Converse in there!” But it was like, “Hey, she has a point of view and she’s humanizing her.”
Tony and I talk about it a lot. We’re doing our version of Catherine, and it’s still in the spirit of Catherine. Tony’s done a ton of research on the century and on Catherine when he was doing the play, so it’s based in that, but you have to shake it up and make these people like people of our world. I really have never read much on her, but I love her! I know she invented the roller coaster, I do know that. I read that and I was like, That sounds very, very fun. She sounds very fun.
We should talk about the fact that Gillian Anderson is in this season. She plays your mother. Did you two talk about what this relationship was going to be like and how this was going to go?
EF: It’s going to go to a place you guys do not expect it to go to. I 100 million percent bet that.
NH: I didn’t expect it.
EF: None of us did. She has an incredible arc. It’s written really beautifully and very nuanced. The mother-daughter relationship gets very specific. And I think you get to see Catherine’s need of wanting to be perfect for her mother, and Gillian … the comedic timing is just beyond. She’s so funny. And we’re all very comfortable with each other. We’re all silly and kind of goofy. When Gillian would come on set, the first time, we were all very much on our best behavior! But then she’s silly and goofy, so we were all like, “Okay! Great! You’re a part of us.” When we heard she wanted to do it and was a fan of the show, I mean, it was like, “What! I couldn’t believe it! Mommy?”
NH: I got Jason Isaacs to play my dad. That was wonderful because he was brilliant. We talk about Peter the Great so much and the shadow that he cast on Peter the Third and all this stuff. That’s the fun thing about this season — Catherine’s dealing with parenting issues and then we’re also parenting together.