In 'The Great,' the actress stars as one of the most legendary female rulers of all time -- and finds her own power in the process.
A grown-up child star finding her creative power in playing one of history's most cunning female rulers -- the metaphor would be a bit on the nose if it weren't crafted as thoughtfully as Elle Fanning's portrayal of Catherine II, the longest-reigning Empress of Russia, on The Great.
The actress steps strikingly into the Golden Era of the empire's 18th century Enlightenment on the lauded Hulu series, though it takes her character a moment to see past the glitz and glamour. "She starts out as this romantic and very optimistic young girl," Fanning tells ET of her Catherine, scripted to cunning perfection by The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara, who created the series, "and basically is slapped in the face with reality and realizes, 'OK, this is not the life that I wanted, so I'm going to make the life that I want.'"
The Great's first season portrays just a fragment of Catherine's fictionalized story -- spanning from the moment she meets her husband-to-be, Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult, who expertly toes the line between stupidity and sadism), to the moment she makes her move to overthrow him and take the country for her own. The part was originally conceived as a smaller section in a McNamara play encompassing Catherine's entire life, but carving out a few years of her early reign -- just as The Crown does with Queen Elizabeth II -- allows viewers to dive deeper into the details of the monarchy. Unlike The Crown, however, The Great plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, with colorblind casting and a bawdy, Favourite-esque tone.
"Historians probably don't like us very much, the way that we tell it," Fanning admits with a laugh. "I did a bit of research, but to be honest, that wasn't where my attention mainly was. I learned that the real Catherine the Great invented the roller coaster and I was like, OK, she's a fun person. Seems like someone I would like to be friends with."
The roller-coaster story is true by historical accounts: The empress adapted the popular Russian ice slides, ordering that a track and wheeled cart be constructed at her summer palace, and the fad quickly took off across the continent. (In fact, in some European languages, roller coasters are still referred to as "Russian mountains.") It was one of many advancements Catherine spearheaded during her time on the throne -- another being the gruesome but effective variolation treatment for smallpox that plays out in a harrowingly "close to home" episode about a plague besieging the palace's servant class.
"She's obviously someone that is a young woman that's finding her voice," Fanning says of finding the details of her character in a historic span of leadership. "My focus was just, I wanted to humanize Catherine and make my version of her."
Before she can take the throne and change the world, however, Catherine must wait. She suffers at Peter's side for a few episodes at the start of the season, stifling her ambition and watching in bewilderment as her husband drunkenly carouses his way through lavish fetes and boorish council meetings, as well as his advisors' wives. The more she learns the game of ruling, however, the more the young empress masters it, working behind the scenes to bolster female education, science and the arts, and, as Fanning points out, using her "girlishness" to avoid raising any eyebrows.
"I feel Catherine, such a big part of her character is youth," the actress explains. "She still has that optimistic twinkle. Even though it waivers at times throughout, it's still there -- the hope of fulfilling her destiny and fate, which I think is such a beautiful theme of the series. But youth is a big part of it. I actually feel like this is my most grown-up character to date -- but she's also the most youthful."
It's an interesting dichotomy for a performer who's been in front of a camera since she was three years old. Now 22, Fanning has played her share of wide-eyed daughters and poised princesses, but she's spent the last few years seeking out meaty and interesting indie roles -- her resume is a dream list of modern directors, from David Fincher and Alejandro González Iñárritu to Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola. On The Great, she assumed a new role entirely, taking on the mantle of executive producer alongside McNamara and shepherding the project from its early stages.
"I feel like I've come into my own as Elle through this," she says of the series, "learning to speak up, learning my point of view on filmmaking. I got to watch edits, go to sound mixes and just go behind the scenes a bit more and learn how to use my voice. I was on phone calls that I normally wouldn't be on and had to state my opinion. And sometimes I would be nervous because I was like, 'Oh, I don't agree with that.' I had to find my voice at the same time as Catherine [did], completely. That was an incredible feeling."
Though Fanning's performance is singular and driving, The Great is far from a one-woman show. Phoebe Fox, Belinda Bromilow and Sacha Dhawan steal scenes as Catherine's co-conspirators, and Hoult's Peter is the perfect frowning foil to his ambitious wife -- dull where she is sharp and fiery when she is cool.
He's so compelling, in fact, that viewers might make the same mistake Catherine does in underestimating him, making the pair's turn in the final scenes of the season all the more fascinating to behold. "He adds so many dimensions to that character," Fanning raves of her co-star. "You could write Peter off as just nasty and evil, but he adds all these issues -- daddy issues and mommy issues -- and he's like a big kid. I think Catherine at times, she's confused, because she pitied him and then she kind of loves him."
Having a scene partner who was already experienced with McNamara's sharp verbosity is something Fanning said she was grateful for -- particularly as she hadn't yet seen The Favourite when she took on the project. "He was such a support," she recalls of working with Hoult. "We feel so comfortable with each other and we feel like it's OK to be embarrassed in front of each other, which I think for comedy is so important."
"I love how complicated it got, and Nick and I were very much on the same page in making sure it wasn't just flat. That it was something that was a real relationship of a marriage," she adds, musing, "Maybe because we were both child actors, too, we work in a very similar way. Our relationship off set and how we like to work on set is basically the same. So having him there was just, thank god."
And while she was more than ready to push the limits when it came to some of the show's more vulgar and shocking moments -- "I'm like, 'More blood, more gross!' -- Fanning admits there was less exaggeration than she expected when it came to fictionalizing the 18th century ruler. So comes the territory when playing a ruler who oversaw the rapid expanse of her empire and enlightened advancements of her country -- but yet, is still perhaps best known for that pesky rumor about a horse.
"If you think about it, she was also the first woman to be slut-shamed," she says. "She's like the first feminist icon, in a way."
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