Great script sees Sacha Dhawan play Catherine's partner in crime

Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) in The Great. Scenes of the TV series were filmed at Hatfield House. Picture: Ni

Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) in The Great. Scenes of the TV series were filmed at Hatfield House. - Credit: Hulu

As new series The Great arrives on Channel 4 this weekend, we take a look at the supporting cast in the satirical period drama loosely based on Catherine the Great's rise to power.

While Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult play the leads, Catherine and Peter, Emperor of Russia respectively, the series also stars Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Douglas Hodge, Sacha Dhawan, Sebastian de Souza, Bayo Gbadamosi and Belinda Bromilow.

Playing Count Orlo is Sacha Dhawan. Breaking down his character in the series partly filmed at Hatfield House, Dhawan explains: "Orlo is Russia’s first geek of books.

"A mostly ignored advisor to Peter [Nicholas Hoult] whose job it is to bring some intellectual and legal framework to discussions. Under all that neurotic anxiety beats the heart of a lion. He becomes Catherine’s [Elle Fanning] partner in crime."

He adds: "The Great is an unexpected period show, loosely based on the life and rise to power of Catherine the Great.

"It's unique because it respects the period whilst throwing it out the window at the same time.

"For starters, I’m a British South Asian actor playing a character that is Russian from head to toe, and that’s what the show does so well.

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"It challenges the audience's perception right from the get go! I like to think of it as an ensemble of contemporary characters in a period setting, and the challenges and dilemmas they face are as vital as our dilemmas and challenges today."

Dhawan adds: "I felt immensely proud as an actor of colour to not only wear a period costume, but a costume that gave the character status at court.

Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo in The Great

Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo in The Great - Credit: Jason Bell

"I was dressed to be ‘seen’, right on the front line as it were, and I loved that. Not only was there a real attention to detail, but our brilliant costume designer, Emma Fryer, was also really collaborative to ensure that we created a period costume that was totally unique to Orlo; from the way his neck scarf was tied, right down to the style and colour of his shoes."

Viewers may have seen Dhawan before as Davos / Steel Serpent in Netflix's Marvel series Iron Fist.

He also appeared as Prasad in three episodes of season two of crime thriller Line of Duty, and as Jimmy Dillon in the fourth series of ITV period drama Mr Selfridge. 

Dhawan is also the latest incarnation of The Master in BBC One sci-fi series Doctor Who, appearing opposite Jodie Whittaker's Doctor

On the big screen, he starred as Hesper Pilot alongside Will Smith and Jaden Smith in 2013 movie After Earth.

He was drawn to The Great by the script penned by Oscar-nominated The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara. Like The Great's pilot episode, scenes of The Favourite were shot on location at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.

"I was a huge fan of Tony McNamara’s writing even before I read the pilot for The Great," says Dhawan. "I thought The Favourite was sublime.

"For me, I see Tony as a playwright first and foremost. His dialogue is naturalistic, but it never feels general. In fact, it’s incredibly specific, as are the characters he creates. The Great strikes that perfect balance between comedy and drama, which makes it a complete joy to play.

"I also loved the energy of it, it felt both fast and furious. And of course, I was totally drawn to the character of Orlo who was complex, multi-layered, and had real heart.

"I could also see the potential of the character evolving and changing over the course of the season as Catherine continued to grant him the permission to exceed his own expectations.

"It was also the perfect opportunity to challenge myself. I love playing characters that flip my last part on its head. My last being a martial arts villain in Marvel’s Iron Fist, the polar opposite to the ‘loveable’ Orlo."

The Great starring Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning is coming to Channel 4 in January 2021. Picture:

The Great starring Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning is coming to Channel 4 in January 2021. - Credit: TM & © 2020 ViacomCBS All Rights Reserved

With The Great being a genre-bending, anti-historical ride through 18th century Russia, Dhawan was able to play Count Orlo without having to worry about any historical accuracy.

"As The Great is loosely based on the life and rise to power of Catherine the Great, it was a relief to know that I didn’t have to try and imitate or replicate a historical figure, I could make the character my own.

"Tony was also keen for us not to get bound down by the history or etiquette even, which was incredibly refreshing. I hadn’t seen or been part of anything like it.

"Everything I needed to know was in Tony’s writing, not in history books, which can often get in the way sometimes making you less instinctive."

He adds: "You never know what turn your character might take next on The Great because Tony’s always adapting storylines from what he sees on screen or in the edit.

"He’s totally open to us asking him about preliminary character arcs etc., but it's constantly evolving, and I kind of like that. The unpredictability. The not knowing. His storylines never fail to surprise me, and as daunting as it can be at times, it keeps me on my toes.

cha Dhawan as Count Orio and Phoebe Fox as Marial in The Great

Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo and Phoebe Fox as Marial in The Great, which can be seen on Channel 4 from January 3. - Credit: Jason Bell

"It also forces me to be as spontaneous and in the moment as possible, because I genuinely have no idea what may be in store for Orlo next…

"I guess because the script plays fast and loose with history it gave me the total freedom to approach the script like I would with any other; to start with a blank canvas and put my own stripes on the character as it were.

"The Great isn’t a historical period drama, in fact, I see it more as a contemporary drama. Yes, it’s based on Catherine the Great’s rise to power, but at its heart, it’s really the story of a young woman.

"And the wonderful world that springs out of that feels just as relatable in today’s world not only from a political stance, but from an emotional one too."

The Emperor of Russia, Peter (Nicholas Hoult), Archbishop (Adam Godley) and Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan

The Emperor of Russia, Peter (Nicholas Hoult), Archbishop (Adam Godley) and Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) in the first episode of The Great in a scene filmed in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House. - Credit: Hulu

While scenes from the pilot were filmed on location at Hatfield House in December 2018, the bulk of the 10-part series was made on sets at 3 Mills Studios in London. Other locations include Castle Howard in Yorkshire and The Royal Palace of Caserta in Italy.

"I loved filming the sequence where Orlo heads to the front line to speak to Velementov in episode six, but doesn’t quite get there," says Dhawan.

"Instead it becomes a catalyst of events that change Orlo forever. To be fair, I always felt his ‘lion heart’ was going to rip from its seams at some point and this was the perfect opportunity to tip him over the edge.

"Also much as I love filming in the palace, which is actually a huge studio in East London, it’s always nice to venture beyond and film on location.

"Whenever a character or group of characters leave the palace grounds I know we’re about to embark on a mini adventure or excursion, and there’s always a genuine feeling of excitement amongst us all, depending on the weather that is!"

Channel 4 viewers will be able to see the first series of The Great from Sunday, January 3 - but work has already started on season two.

Dhawan reveals: "Orlo comes back a changed man after those catalyst of events in episode six and I’m excited to see how the character evolves going forward.

"I’m also excited to see how the dynamic between Orlo and Catherine develops in the next season.

"Not only are they partners in crime, but the two are like siblings who love and care for each other but are also prone to be at loggerheads as well. And they’re not afraid to challenge each other but never fail to have each other backs in times of crisis."

"I can’t wait to get back on set especially after such a turbulent year that has affected so many of us. There’s no doubt this will bring a new energy into Season 2, which will only take the show to even greater heights."

  • The first episode of The Great airs at 9pm on Sunday, January 3, 2021 on Channel 4. The series will also be available to stream on All 4, the on-demand channel from Channel Four.

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