Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult could hardly maintain their composure while shooting their final scenes together on “The Great.” For three seasons on the anti-historical Hulu dramedy series, the Emmy-nominated actors, who first worked together in the 2014 sci-fi film “Young Ones,” have gone toe-to-toe as Empress Catherine the Great and Peter III of Russia.
Although they have survived more than most couples — she staged a successful coup against him and nearly stabbed him to death, whereas he slept with and accidentally killed her mother — Catherine and Peter’s deep-seated animosity belies a growing affection that neither is able to fully articulate until just moments before one of them meets an untimely (and icy) end in the latest season. Stop reading now if you don't want to know those details.
“I think we can both appreciate that it was so special to get to play these characters and be in those scenes together,” Hoult says. “Knowing that it was the last time we'd get to do that was very difficult.”
On a recent video call — Fanning from Los Angeles and Hoult from Calgary — the co-stars discussed the evolution of Catherine and Peter’s relationship and their plans to work together again in the future.
Catherine and Peter have taken the ups and downs of a married couple to the nth degree, but they seem to arrive at a place of reconciliation this season.
Fanning: I think Catherine says a line early on this season, “For us to move forward, we have to leave the past behind.” But the past inevitably always does creep back. The outside influence of the court and the ghost of his father are telling him that being a good father isn’t enough, which is quite sad, and that he needs to have some huge, powerful legacy and have done something like win a war. I think if it wasn’t for those outside forces gnawing at Peter, they probably would be OK. If they were just on a desert island together, they would probably want to kill each other at times — like a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” situation — but they do always inevitably come back together and love each other in the end.
Hoult: You’ve struck the nail on the head, because that’s what’s fun about this season. It’s this breakdown of, “How much baggage is too much? How can you rebuild trust and love after terrible things have happened?” And I think, ultimately, Catherine and Peter get each other enough where they could [move on], and it’s actually the environment around them that prevents them from finding happiness.
What did you each want to convey in Catherine and Peter’s final conversation in Episode 6?
Fanning: I think we both knew that it was so special, and it is a culmination of their entire relationship in that scene. We also could not do the scene like a goodbye scene, because then it would totally give away what was about to happen, so we had to keep our same rhythm. But it did emotionally have [another] layer, for us as Nick and Elle, knowing that every word held such a weight to it, because it was very poignant.
Catherine probably feels guilty that maybe she did change him so much. Of course, they’ve learned from each other, but in a way, she really has made him into someone that he’s not, and he’s always gonna be that guy. There is so much weight in that scene, and I wouldn’t have wanted a different scene for the last one.
Hoult: The scene was perfect. I remember the first rehearsal that day, I started crying, and then you started crying. … I think people probably expected some dramatic, murderous plot to happen between these two characters and for [Peter's death] to be quite simple and fateful but also peppered with this tinge of Peter probably about to change his mind and turn around and be the man that Catherine does need — for that to not happen is just a beautifully tragic end.
Did you do anything behind the scenes before shooting your last scene together as Catherine and Peter?
Hoult: The final [moment we filmed] is over our shoulders, and it’s Catherine and Peter sitting on a log in the snow, looking out at the lake. Before we shot that, [creator Tony McNamara] came over, and he had a small bottle of vodka, and he was like, “Come on, let’s have a little farewell toast.” So the three of us did that and had a big hug, and then we went and did it.
Fanning: Also, Nick had so many goodbye days on this show. [Laughs] OK, Peter’s gone, [but] then he’s there as [Peter’s lookalike] Pugachev.
Hoult: I just kept on turning up. But that was nice for me, because it softened the blow, because I think if it just cut off completely, I’d have been so lost and lonely.
But the series took such a beautiful turn in terms of how that affects Catherine, Grigor [Gwilym Lee] and Elizabeth [Belinda Bromilow], and the heart that Tony finds in that, particularly [for] someone who meant so much but was so horrendous in so many moments. I think Tony just wrote amazing episodes, and to hear Elle bring that energy in as Catherine in that read-through was unbelievable, because I was like, “Oh, this has opened up a whole new avenue for all these characters and place for the show to live and breathe.”
Elle, how did you want to play those devastating scenes immediately after Peter’s death, when Catherine is in a state of shock and disbelief?
Fanning: It was something that Tony and I talked about at length, because our show is classified as a comedy. After such a big death, the show can’t become somber, so we had to find something to keep the energy high. Tony had listened to an episode of the “This American Life” podcast about this father and daughter who had lost the mother, and the father went into this manic grief and was acting in very irrational ways.
Tony took inspiration from that, because I think in that moment, Catherine is completely in denial and has told herself that it hasn’t happened. … It was an interesting thing to calibrate, but the mania was great, because that can also be funny. Our show really sings when it’s really sad and tortured but also funny, and you’re confused why you’re laughing. That’s what I think we do best.
Apart from their final moments together, what are some of your favorite Catherine and Peter scenes of all time?
Hoult: Always towards the end of the seasons, the stakes of each scene that Tony would write would be really fun.
Fanning: Like the end of Season 1.
Hoult: Yeah, I think there were two longer scenes in Peter’s bedroom, and both of those scenes were so fun because there was just a tornado of emotion and twists and turns. All the breakfast room scenes — which set up their opposing trajectories through the episode — were always fun and brought a lot of laughs.
One of the scenes I really loved was where Peter has been plotting to take back the country from you, and he bursts into the state room to take everything back. And then you are sitting on the floor crying. It was such a heartbreaking scene and so unexpected for the moment. But for Peter, that was one of those moments where you’re like, “Oh, he actually really cares for her and puts all those plans on the back burner.”
Fanning: Clitty bitty is also great.
Hoult: Clitty bitty! And dancing. I was thinking the dance in the bedroom.
Fanning: Oh, God, yeah. That’s one of my favorites. I liked filming all the [crocodile] episodes because we were just walking through dark hallways in old country homes.
Throughout the last three seasons, you’ve made it a habit of trying to raise the stakes and make each other break in any given scene. How would you describe the way you work together? What do you think you bring out in each other professionally?
Hoult: In scenes, I’m just trying to be a better actor than her. [Laughs]
Fanning: Everyone’s like, “Ooh, this chemistry, the banter!” We’re literally trying to out-act each other. That’s it. It’s a competition.
Hoult: We’re trying to steal the scene! What’s great is that within the scenes, we operate on a level where we’re doing the scene and being completely honest and true to the characters. But we can step outside of it once cut is called, and we’re like, “Ah, that was really good.” You can sometimes catch a glimpse [of it in the show]. I think my giveaway when Elle does something unexpected or purposefully perfect is that I take a beat longer to react. In my brain, I’ll literally say, “God, that was good.” And then I’ll be like, “Oh, you just gotta keep acting.”
Fanning: I think you can see it too, especially if I’m off camera and it’s your closeup. I can feel myself …
Hoult: Willing [me on]. You’re like a stage mom.
Fanning: [Laughs] I’m like a stage mom! He’s doing something, and I’m like [whispers and nods], “Keep doing it …”
You’ve both expressed a desire to work together again. What exactly are you looking for in a project?
Fanning: We talk about it all the time.
Hoult: I think as long as the scenes are as fun a dynamic as this because that’s when we really get joy. It’s just that battle between characters. We’ve spoken about finding a rom-com in the vein of ... “His Girl Friday,” is that right?
Fanning: Yeah, but “His Girl Friday” is also kind of like what we do in this.
Hoult: Yeah, yeah. You said earlier “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” right?
Fanning: Oh yeah, we could do that easy. They’re already remaking it. We didn’t get it, Nick.
Hoult: I didn’t even audition. What do you mean we didn’t get it? This is the first I’ve heard of it. I’m livid.
Fanning: [Laughs] We have our road trip comedy that we’re gonna write, which I think is a great idea. It has to have some humor in it, of course, but I think we need to also find maybe an iconic couple in Hollywood or an iconic duo that we can do — maybe Paul Newman [and Joanne Woodward]?
Hoult: You’ve got a couple of ideas for that, so we’ll figure something out.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.