Playing Fast and Loose with History: The Inspiration Behind Hulu’s “The Great”

The Tribeca Film Festival celebrated Hulu’s newest original series, The Great, on May 18th with a virtual event that included actors Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, creator Tony McNamara, and executive producer Marian Macgowan. From the creator of The Favourite, The Great tells the story of Catherine the Great’s unlikely rise to power in Russia through a comedic retelling over the course of ten episodes. But as each episode makes clear, this version is “An occasionally true story.”

“Even with the chronology of events, I would change them around,” shared series creator Tony McNamara. “As long as they felt true to her and true to the essence of what we were telling, then it was okay to play fast and loose with history… Even though we are pretty loose with it, we did use it quite a lot. We would just bend it to our foolish whim.”

The Great was originally written as a play, which was optioned for a feature film by executive producer Marian Macgowan. “One of the things that was so interesting about the play is it was in two parts,” she shared. “The first part was young Catherine and the second part was old catherine.” Her ideas for a feature film were to just adapt the first half of the play, but she soon realized that there was too much story to get through in two-hours and set her sights on a series.

Actor Nicholas Hoult plays Peter and had worked with Tony McNamara before on The Favourite, which has a similar tone to the series. “I loved Tony’s writing from the moment I read it on The Favourite,” the X-Men: First Class actor shared about feeling lucky to just get to read the script for The Great. “I read this character and I just thought he was so idiosyncratic and strange and fun, but also evil. And I just thought I could have a lot of fun playing him.” Nicholas didn’t feel the need to do any research on the real Peter III because Tony’s writing gave him all the tools he needed to bring his version of the character to life.

“Did I google Catherine the Great? Yes,” Elle Fanning shared, who plays Catherine in the series. “But I also find, I don’t know if a lot of those facts would’ve been extremely helpful. It’s all in the script for me.” The Maleficent: Mistress of Evil actress shared some of her favorite facts about Catherine the Great that didn’t make it into the series. “She invented the roller coaster, I don’t know if I saw that or Tony told me, but that tells you a lot about a person. That must’ve been a really good time…. We wanted to create our version of Catherine. I try to think about it more in terms of our version of the character and also in real life… Yes, things are absurd, but how would I feel going into this? She starts out as this romantic optimist and that’s all beautiful, but when she gets to Russia reality hits her in the face… She was a feminist icon for sure, which I didn’t really know going into this.”

The show approaches this moment in time through a contemporary lens, finding humor in some of the significant ways things have changed. “The lemon top contraception is probably my favorite,” Tony McNamara shared about a real device used in Catherine’s time that becomes a moment of comedy in the series. “I think it’s one of those things in a writer’s room you’d go a long year before anyone would come up with that, but when we did the research it was great, it fit the character… The pregnancy test was so bizarre. A lot of the details helped fit the world and shape the tone. When we looked at history, it had to fit the tone. So things that were really dull, like how to change a shoe on a horse… were really dull. But lemon contraception, that’s great.”

Another way The Great marries contemporary themes with historical facts is through the costumes. “We started off the costumes with a wonderful designer called Holly Wormington and then for the bulk of the episodes we worked with Emma Friar,” executive producer Marian Macgowan explained about how they used very contemporary fabrics on the wardrobe. “At one level, it was trying to find the 17th century equivalent of track pants… But giving those costumes a contemporary twist so that they were unconventional in their detail, but they did abide by traditional shapes.” The goal was for a modern audience to not only relate to the wardrobe, but also want to wear them.

“You can’t help but feel of that time or feel the constrictions in those outfits,” Elle Fanning added. “It definitely added hours to my morning to get picked up and add layers of fabric each day.” Over the course of the six-month shoot, Elle got to experience Catherine’s character change through the costumes she wore. “It was nice because we had a certain color palette for her. She lived in blues and greens… So then when we brought in a little more fun colors… that’s exciting because you get to really show her change through the clothes.”

For Nicholas Hoult, playing a Russian Emperor wasn’t that constricting. “The fun of breaking up that period drama, we dressed them down a lot. He’s at home, Peter would wear his dressing gown.” The character also gender bends by wearing his deceased mother’s jewelry and wearing dresses to air out his nether regions. “That was my main request, costume-wise, was to bring the dress back more.”

As Marion mentioned, this season of The Great was based on the first half of Tony MacNamara’s play. “I think in the first season, it was really like how do you come from another country as a twenty-year-old and barely speak the language and how do you decide you’re going to take over an empire when you’re only twenty, which is great because there’s such a delusional optimism about that,” the creator shared, alluding to plans for a second season if Hulu picks it up. “And also what she didn’t know about the court. You land there and have to discover it for the audience as well.” As they filmed, Tony actually changed where the season would end after discovering that the chemistry between the characters was too good to rush through. “It’s sort of weird with TV because we had a strong idea and as we watched it unfold things became more interesting than we expected… So we sort of shifted when Catherine would take power because it became such an interesting idea.”

You can watch Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great take power away from her cruel husband Peter, played by Nicholas Hoult, in The Great on Hulu. All ten episodes are now streaming. The entire Tribeca Film Festival conversation can be viewed on their Facebook Page.

Sign up for Disney+ or the Disney Streaming Bundle (Disney+, ESPN+, and ad-supported Hulu) now
Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).