While promoting his Oscar-nominated work on 2018’s The Favourite, writer Tony McNamara expressed a dissatisfaction with period drama. Industry insiders were surprised, then, when his follow-up project turned out to be Hulu’s The Great, a darkly comic satire charting the rise of Catherine the Great from outsider to the longest-reigning female ruler in Russian history.
Starring Elle Fanning as Catherine and Nicholas Hoult as her husband Peter, the show is a surprisingly factual deep dive into the life of a woman more widely known for scandalous, and likely untrue, stories about her unseemly love of horses.
Asked about his apparent change of heart during Deadline’s Contenders Television virtual event, the Australian writer laughed. “I think I just don’t like the politeness of period shows,” McNamara clarified. “It’s not like I don’t like period pieces at all—I like Dangerous Liaisons and Barry Lyndon and things like that—I just think I’ve always just been a bit bored by BBC-style period shows. I love the life-and-death nature and the high stakes of period shows, but I just never liked the polite execution. It didn’t seem interesting character-wise, and it didn’t feel visceral and present, and it didn’t feel very funny.”
McNamara revealed that the idea for The Great came to him by chance. “I didn’t know much about her except that maybe she banged a horse,” he said of the famous rumor circulated about Catherine. “And then I heard something about her keeping the Age of Enlightenment alive. So, I read up on her and she seemed to be an amazing character—really complicated and really modern in a lot of ways. That made me want to write about her, and I thought, well, how do I write about her in a way that would make me want to watch it?”
Similarly, Fanning knew little about the real-life Catherine. “Like Tony, I knew her for the horse incident,” she noted, “and I knew she was Empress of Russia, but through this I learned so much more about what she did and how she truly is a feminist icon. She took down The Man. She did it, and that was just so fascinating and exciting to me—to show how she became the person who was able to do that. Because, of course, she was born with those qualities inside her, but she had to learn how to use those qualities. And so that’s what enticed me the most—that and her gorgeous optimism and romanticism. She’s a true romantic, and throughout the series she learns that Russia is actually her great love. It’s not a man, it’s a country.”
For Hoult, who also appeared in The Favourite, a big part of the show’s appeal was the chance to work with McNamara again. “It’s my second time working with Tony,” he said, “and everything I’ve read that he’s written, I’ve just fallen in love with instantly. It’s kind of the perfect framework, as an actor, because you get given this brilliant, witty dialogue to deliver and also the scenes just always work fundamentally. So, then you can go off and play.”
Check out the panel video above.