Before Hulu’s terrific and hilarious historical drama/satirical and black screwball comedy “The Great” was a successful TV series starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, now entering its third season, it was actually a play in Australia written by the same showrunner Tony McNamara. Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favorite,” the Academy Award-winning screenplay that McNamara eventually wrote, was not out yet, and so for its stars that had no reference point yet — a period piece set during the `1700s period of Russian Enlightenment, but also a super clever ratatat-style comedy in the vein of “His Girl Friday”— was hard to wrap their heads around. And or at least something they’d never even seen before.
And in fact, when Elle Fanning first read the script for the “The Great,” wherein she plays Russian empress Catherine the Great, it was not yet a series but, in fact, a screenplay—McNamara still had hoped to turn it into a movie at one point (and Fanning says Lanthimos read it, which may have inspired “The Favorite” into being). Still, as outlandish as the idea seemed—a quick-witted historical period piece comedy that thumbed its nose at being historically accurate—when Fanning read the script, she automatically recognized it as “The best gift I’ve ever received.” She said, “I really didn’t have anything to compare the tone to, [but] this literally [was] a genius piece of writing [that] kind of fell into my lap.”
In this episode of The Bingeworthy—our podcast dedicated to all things television, streaming, what we watch in those mediums and how we watch it—Fanning dropped by to talk about not only “The Great,” recently finishing its second season, and about to shoot its third, but her excellent and absorbing Hulu mini-series, “The Girl From Plainville.” Both series have garnered great acclaim and received tremendous accolades for Fanning’s performances, but for very different reasons.
“The Great” is a wickedly paced, relentless, and machine-gun rapid-style-delivery comedy—something Fanning had almost no experience with beforehand, but she’s proven that she can conquer any kind of heightened performance. “The Girl From Plainville” is radically dissimilar in tone, shape, and style. Based on the unprecedented true “texting-suicide” story case of Michelle Carter—convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the suicide of her boyfriend Conrad Roy III—it’s a very different show, a different beast with a much more serious manner. But as Fanning says of the series (she stars as the teenage Carter), it also has a dreamy quality to it, in the way they “play with the blurred lines of fantasy and reality—which I think our show does really, well.”
“The Great” couldn’t be much different, and what’s nutty is that Fanning basically finished season two and then went straight into doing ‘Plainville’ with next to no break to wrap her head around a totally different style, tenor, and tone. About “The Great,” Fanning said with glee that the show loves unshackling itself from history and being fast and loose with facts (it was once subtitled “The Great: An Occasionally True Story”) to just create an entertaining show about power dynamics and women in power, centuries ago.
“Tony’s writing is so delicious. We kind of pride ourselves on being historically inaccurate,” Fanning said with a giggle. But that’s the fun of it and, and the parameters, and we have much more freedom to imagine what it was like for Catherine back then and not be tired down by boring facts [laughs]. We’re not held to a history book so much.”
Fanning is a producer on both projects, and coming on to “The Great” as a producer has really helped enrich her experience as an actor on sets. “It started my journey being able to be behind the camera a bit more,” she explained, a role which seems to be growing and growing. “I felt like the first season, as Catherine was growing with her voice, I as Elle was really growing in my [producer] voice and opinion, and being in rooms that I wouldn’t necessarily be in and learning to speak up and have a say.”
Fanning said the comedy’s hyper-specific rhythms were something she had to adjust and attune herself to. “I definitely hadn’t done a comedy like this, or really ever,” she said. “So that was something I had to get used to. Getting on [Nicholas Hoult’s] rhythm was really helpful; he’s also British and has that [sense of] humor. Weirdly, oddly enough, it just needs to be faster. If it’s not working, just say it quicker [laughs].”
For “Girl From Plainville,” Fanning said she was much more cautious about signing on to the role, considered it heavily, and didn’t want the series to be exploitative. “Before signing on, I had a lot of different conversations with everyone involved. And ultimately, I got to be a producer on that as well, which adds more of a responsibility and pressure to [getting it right]. These people are alive, and these families are alive, and a young man’s life was taken, and you have to be aware of that.”
At the time we spoke, Fanning was about to start shooing season three of “The Great,” and she gave a little tease of what to expect. “I do think that you’re going to see Katherine and [Hoult’s] Peter—they’re finally going be a real married couple and try to figure that out—what that means for them to [truly] be together this season. And we’ll see if that works for them.”
Fanning has a production company with her sister Dakota Fanning and to hear it from the actor, producing her creative vision sounds like it will be her path going forward. “The Great” and “The Girl From Plainville” are both streaming on Hulu now, and you can listen to the entire conversation below.
As always, Bingeworthy is part of The Playlist Podcast Network—which includes The Playlist Podcast, Be Reel, Deep Focus, The Fourth Wall, and The Discourse. We can be heard on iTunes, AnchorFM, Soundcloud, Stitcher, Spotify, and most places where podcasts are found. You can stream the podcast via the Spotify embed within the article or click on the lead image at the top page. Follow us on iTunes, and you’ll get this podcast as well as our other shows regularly. Be sure to subscribe and drop us a comment or a rating, as we greatly appreciate it. Thank you for listening.