The secret weapon of the Oscar-winning “The Favourite” wasn’t the marvelous trifecta of actresses who made the movie. Clearly, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film would not have reached the creative heights it found without the masterful work of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, or Emma Stone. The cast member who was the icing on the cake, however, was Nicholas Hoult. Now, Hoult has reunited with that film’s nominated screenwriter, Tony McNamara, for another period dramedy, “The Great.”
The Hulu series chronicles the rise of Catherine the Great, the longest-ruling empress in Russian history. Well, perhaps chronicles is the wrong word considering the factual liberties the program purposefully takes. Maybe “inspired by” is a better description. Elle Fanning plays a young Catherine who arrives at the court of her new husband, Peter III, portrayed by Hoult. Both actors have entertaining arcs over the course of 10 episodes where there are just as many comically absurd moments as deadly serious ones.
Last month, Hoult jumped on zoom to discuss a Peter that seems far different than the history books, the triumphant use of “Huzzah!” throughout the series and much more.
Please note: There are mild historical spoilers throughout the context of the interview.
The Playlist: I finished the series last night and I really, really liked it. I thought it was great. Especially in the second half, which is so good.
Nicholas Hoult: Oh, amazing. Thank you for watching. You’ve seen all of it?
Yeah, all 10 episodes.
Oh wow, you’ve seen more than me. Nice, is it good?
It is. The last episode, in particular, is fantastic. It’s so good.
What about playing this character made you want to sort of jump into television like this again? Because you really haven’t done any TV like this in a long time.
I mean it was purely based on Tony’s writing, to be honest with you. I had the best time shooting “The Favorite” and playing that character. And, each line of dialogue he writes is just kind of completely different from anything I’ve read before. And fun and smart and well-paced and very different tonally I guess. And I found that with the characters as well, that there’s a lot of room to play with them. They’re kind of unlike a lot of other characters you’ve read, where there’s a lot of a gray area, I suppose, within them. And that’s certainly the case with Peter. I mean he’s clearly a product of his surroundings and his parents and all these things that he’s grown up with and his position of being the emperor. But then I suppose it’s a thing of how that can be twisted and changed. Also, this character is quite unlikeable in many ways. How you can kind of try and find redemptive qualities within him? And make him funny as well and bizarre? It was just something very different and felt unlike things I’d done before. And also I’d worked with Elle I think maybe eight years before or something, on another film [2014’s “Young Ones”] and really loved working with her. And since then seen her in so many things and just think she’s a brilliant actress. So, the idea of her playing Catherine and telling the early history of that person, in kind of an odd, offbeat way, it was something that I found very appealing.
Historically, the real Peter seems quite different than the character you’re playing in on-screen. Did that make it easier?
Yeah, completely. To be honest with you, I remember when we were prepping for “The Favorite” there was never an emphasis or an encouragement to kind of try and perform and create the characters as they really were in a way if that makes sense? Or to do impressions or to stick to that. So it’s very much you creating the character for the purposes of this storytelling. And there’s a great freedom to that. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t reading history books and trying to discover as much information as I could about Peter to base this character on something real. I was kind of focusing completely on the script and then finding the character from that. And then having fun with it, to be honest.
Did you have an inspiration for him? Because at times it feels like you’re playing him like a kid or like a rambunctious teenager.
That was certainly one of the elements of the character. He’s petulant at times. He’s easy, he’s very mercurial I guess, in a sense. His mood swings can go up and down. He can be manipulated but also at times can be unwittingly smart. I think deep down he’s obviously, this idea of following his father’s footsteps is something that terrifies him. And so, people are describing him as a psychopath. I don’t think that’s right because he clearly has emotions and feelings. He just hasn’t had to kind of understand them in a normal structure or, or sense himself all through life probably. So yeah, it was sometimes childlike, at times trying to pepper in kind of a more human side to him as a character. But I think the thing that’s likable about him [even though] he can be very rude and obnoxious, in an odd way he’s kind of a stream of conscious. He does say exactly what’s on his mind in a straightforward manner. And I think that could be seen as a positive quality. But he’s also very excitable by new ideas and things and trying to be progressive and be loved. He really wants to be loved, but he has no concept of how to behave to achieve that. Because everyone kind of pretends to love him because of his position.
I don’t want to give too many spoilers away, but there is a moment in the series where he realizes that he loves Catherine, and he sort of realizes that she doesn’t love him back. And I thought that the reaction that he has and the reaction that you gave him wasn’t what I expected. He doesn’t seem angry. Why do you think that is?
I think he’s not angry about it because at times the character is kind of delusional in terms of he doesn’t, he’s definitely not too in-sync with other people’s feelings. And that’s something that he believes very much that if everyone else loves him then Catherine will love him. And if she doesn’t love him now, it’s only a matter of time. And the lover [Leo played by “Normal People’s” Sebastian de Souza] that he supplied to her is kind of a little bit of a stumbling block. But he’s also quite a problem solver in his own mind. He feels like he can kind of fix any situation and make people think and do what he wants. Partly, probably because of growing up in an environment where he has managed to do that in his ruling manner. I think he is, when he later finds out with the betrayal and the other things going on, then he is hurt and he is angry. But there’s also something with this character that he enjoys the game. And that’s something that develops between Peter and Catherine, I think, through the series, that he understands her as being smart. And to respect her and witnesses how well she’s playing the game. He enjoys that back and forth that they have. I know as actors that Elle and I really enjoyed that these two characters [are] going at each other with very opposing views. But still understanding the other one, slightly where they’re coming from, but trying to also completely change it.
Elle obviously hadn’t worked on “The Favourite” and when speaking to her I wondered if there was a moment in the series where she realized that the tone was going to work. Was there a scene or moment on “The Great” where you thought “Yep, that’s it”?
Probably not where I thought, “Oh yeah, we’ve got this, it’s going to work.” I mean, I kind of was fortunate going into it having worked on “The Favorite” I understood the process of it. But also so much is made in the edit afterward, the pacing and the tone and all these sorts of things. And you can’t, I mean there are times on set that you might feel like that you’ve really got a moment completely right and it doesn’t end up appearing to be that on screen.
I also think a lot of people will be surprised, or maybe not, that this version of Peter is quite the horn dog. He seems to be having sex all the time. Did you ask Tony about that?
That was something that, yeah, kind of developed. I mean it was quite clear to me about the character from the first scene I think, pretty much. Because in the first scene when he meets Catherine, Peter says “I have to get back to my whores” and then correct himself to saying “horses.” So, you know from that moment on that he has a naughty streak and that he’s up to no good. There’s kind of a frat, fraternity-esque kind of element to what the court is. Its kind is a big party in some regards, and that’s kind of what Peter wants to continue, is the fun of being the emperor. And he thinks if everyone’s having fun with him then they’ll love him and the country will be fine. And it’s Catherine coming in with these new ideas of ruling and what it could be in science and art, and all these things that kind of start to sway him and change his ideas about that I guess. But yeah, there is a fair amount of sex I guess. But it’s also told in very funny, weird, offbeat ways within the scenes. Whereby, obviously one of the main aims for Peter is to create or get himself an heir to his lineage of the throne. So that’s something that he sees as Catherine’s purpose and reason for being there. So then they have very odd interactions surrounding that. Some very funny sex scenes, I think.
Very funny. Also, how many times do you think you say “huzzah” in this series?
Huzzah! [Laughs] We say huzzah a lot. Do you actually want me to guess a rough number?
No, that would be hard.
It’s kind of a game. How many times, how many different ways can you say huzzah. There are times where it’s just like the end of a conversation, that’s solved, “Huzzah! Brilliant! On to the next thing.” It’s very adaptable in what you want it to mean.
Again, being careful with spoilers, did Tony and the other producers let you know what your arc was and where it would go? Because Elle told me she was quite surprised by the finale.
No. It was interesting because originally the script was a screenplay, kind of feature-length. So, I had in my mind that kind of rough overview of what the story is. But then also, yeah, we would receive the scripts as we went through shooting, so no one was fully aware of how exactly. Then you kind of heard rough murmurs here and there and occasionally you could get a little hint of what was going to happen. But no, I wasn’t fully aware of where it was going to end and how it was going to end until receiving the final script. But that was also a fun thing whilst making it. There would be a new, kind of hubbub and excitement around set of what’s going to happen next to each of these characters and where they’re going. Because each character kind of takes shifts and turns that you don’t expect.
I know a lot of actors were in the middle of other projects when the isolation started. Were you working on the new “Mission: Impossible” yet or were you free?
Yeah. Well, we kind of were in the process of finishing up this show. Because we shot in Italy and Caserta for the exteriors at the palace. And then was also prepping for “Mission: Impossible,” yeah. But then obviously everything that is currently going on happened, and it’s been put on hold for the moment.
How have you been keeping yourself busy during this isolation? Any shows you’ve binged?
What have I been watching? I’ve read Kevin Wilson’s novels “Nothing To See Here” and “Lessons for the 21st Century. And then I’ve, I started getting into “Schitt’s Creek.” I got recommended that by a friend, so I’ve been watching a bit of that.
“The Great” debuts in binge format on Hulu this Friday.