Elle Fanning has spent most of her 12-year career making movies. Now, at 22, she’s jumping into television, starring as Catherine the Great in Hulu’s 10-part satirical comedy series “The Great,” which debuts on May 15. Written by “The Favourite” scribe Tony McNamara, the show follows Catherine’s rise to power, from her arranged marriage to Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) to becoming empress of Russia in 1762 after having her husband assassinated.
“I didn’t know much about her. I knew the she-had-sex-with-a-horse propaganda,” Fanning says. “That’s what I knew about her, which is extremely sad. But I came to learn that she’s this kind of feminist icon, and she brought enlightenment to Russia and brought female education and art and science, and really did amazing things. She invented the roller coaster as well. She’s quite fun.”
What have you been doing during quarantine?
I’ve been with my sister [Dakota Fanning] and my mom and my grandmother cooking and baking a lot. My sister has been doing paint by numbers, and also this kind of bedazzling thing. Everyone’s embroidering. We’re getting creative. I’m doing a jigsaw puzzle of the “Top Gun” movie poster.
I love the paint by numbers.
She did a giant, a really big one of a flamingo. I got one. I haven’t done it, but it’s of spotted dogs.
Let’s talk about “The Great.”
It starts when Catherine is quite young and she arrives in Russia. She’s extremely optimistic and open and romantic and slightly naive to what is about to happen to her life. She’s going to marry Peter, who is the emperor of Russia. She meets him, and he is definitely not anything that she thought he was going to be. Reality hits her in her face, and she quickly realizes that she needs to kill her husband for her life to be OK. We’re not here trying to give a history lesson to anyone, but there are elements in each episode that are true, slightly based on what Catherine did. It was a play that was put on in Australia that Tony had done years ago. Then it was going to possibly be a movie. I read the movie script that actually spanned much more of her life. It was her young, up until her death. Then there was talks of, “Hey, there’s so much information, TV is so hot right now, or whatever.” Let’s do a TV show. Tony asked if I would help kind of develop it with him and come on as a producer, which was huge for me. Also, I felt a lot like Catherine in finding my voice in that space as a young woman.
In your more intimate scenes with Nicholas, how did you not break with the words that were coming out of his mouth?
In the crazy sex scenes where he’s spewing nonsense and I’m just lying there, I would be literally munching on a pillow laughing so hard. We always wanted to make the scene funnier or better. For the good of the scene, we were trying to go for it. That was a big thing for me because it’s a comedy. I’m not used to comedies where it’s a specific rhythm and there are jokes. I had to learn to not be embarrassed. Throughout the months of filming, my walls kind of went down to be able to not be as embarrassed with myself.
And you got to wear some outfits.
That’s for sure — corsets! I’d be like, “My boobs aren’t big. What is this? What have they done? They look great, but wow.” [Laughs] But they do change your body, those corsets. You’ve heard so many actresses talk about it, but your body does change, even your breathing pattern, especially saying those long speeches.
I’m sure you and your sister have had plenty of scripts thrown your way. You finally decided on a project to do together, “The Nightingale,” about the French resistance during WWII. Why was this the right one for you? [Filming was postponed because of the pandemic, and Sony has slated the release for December 2021.]
I think it’s the right timing in our lives now. It’s really going to mean something because it’s not like we’re just super young doing it. Right now we’re women. Our relationship too is also more friends at this point because we’re only four years apart. When you’re young, your sisters and you are fighting all the time and stealing each other’s clothes. I’d heard about the book for a while, and it’d been kind of floating around for a bit. The book is so powerful. Also, we were curious: If we did something together, would we play sisters? Or would we not play sisters? People are like, “Well, you look similar.” We think we look nothing alike, but this is a true sister story. I can’t get through the script without sobbing.
You’re a producer on “The Great.” Do you want to direct next?
It’s something that I do want to do badly. You’ve just got to find the right story. What is it that you want to tell? Is it going to be personal? Is it not? Are you going to write it? Are you not? A lot of big questions. I will for sure one day.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Hear it in its entirety below. You can also listen to “The Big Ticket” on iHeartRadio or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.