From Russia with love! Elle Fanning on her Great role as Catherine

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in The Great.

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in The Great, which can be seen on Channel 4 from January 3, 2021. - Credit: Ollie Upton / Hulu / 2020 ViacomCBS

In December 2018, a TV production crew arrived in Hatfield to shoot scenes for the pilot episode of a new Russian period drama with a difference. 

The show, The Great, is a satirical, comedic drama about the rise of Catherine the Great from outsider to the longest reigning female ruler in Russia’s history.

It is a modern love story that incorporates historical facts... occasionally!

Written by the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Favourite, which was also filmed on location at Hatfield House, the series starts on Channel 4 on Sunday, January 3 at 9pm.

The Great stars Elle Fanning as Catherine, who arrives in Russia for an arranged marriage to the mercurial Emperor Peter, played by Nicholas Hoult.

Best known for playing Aurora in the Maleficent movies, Hollywood actress Elle Fanning plays the idealistic, romantic young girl who becomes Empress Catherine. 

Describing the 10-part comedy drama, Elle said: "The Great is a historical satire that follows Catherine the Great’s rise to power in 18th century Russia.

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"Catherine is an idealistic young woman who finds herself in a backwards world, married to a tyrant.

"She quickly realises she would be a better ruler and plots to take over the throne.

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great running through a garden

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in episode two of The Great. - Credit: Ross Ferguson / Hulu

"Catherine is romantic and naive at the start, but throughout the series her ruthlessness grows."

Elle signed up for the project after reading Tony McNamara's script. The Australian also co-wrote The Favourite starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Nicholas Hoult. 

"I was drawn to Tony McNamara’s singular voice," said Elle, who also executive produced the first series of The Great.

Catherine the Great and the Archbishop walking along a corridor

Filming of The Great in the Long Gallery of Hatfield House with Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great - Credit: 2020 ViacomCBS All Rights Reserved.

"The tone and world he created was one I had never read before. The effortless blend of dark, bizarre comedy and emotional realism.

"I read the script before I saw The Favourite so I really had nothing to compare it to. The elaborate period setting, over-the-top situations, yet still grounded characters all set in a high stakes environment. He truly is a writing genius!

"Above all, Catherine as a character was what made me have to be a part of the show. She is such a dichotomy of a person.

Catherine the Great and her servant watch a building go up in flames

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great and Phoebe Fox as servant Marial in The Great - Credit: Nick Wall / Hulu / 2020 ViacomCBS All Rights Reserved.

"Each page surprised me with what she was willing to do. Tony captured her struggle as a woman trying to navigate a patriarchal society and not always succeeding.

"She isn’t a perfect character. She is learning as she goes along with the guidance from the court."

Catherine the Great watches a building in flames

Catherine the Great, played by Elle Fanning, watches as her plans go up in flames in The Great - Credit: 2020 ViacomCBS All Rights Reserved.

From Civic Center Media in association with MRC Television, The Great is a fictionalised, fun, rude and anachronistic story. The script knowingly plays fast and loose with history.

"Very early on, Tony told us to put away our history books," said Elle. 

"I wanted to create my own version of Catherine. I still approached her like I would any character.

"I guess the most different was it being a 10-hour series instead of a two-hour film.

"Having the luxury to explore and pace myself with a character was a blessing. Tony is also super strict with our lines. There is absolutely no ad libbing!

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great wearing her crown

The Great starring Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning can be seen on Channel 4 from January 3 - Credit: 2020 ViacomCBS All Rights Reserved.

"In a way, being married to the words makes for a whole other kind of freedom. Freedom in the movement and in the rhythm of scenes."

Elle wasn't fully aware of the real Catherine's achievements before filming.

"I knew she was the Empress of Russia, but I did not realise all the amazing things she did for her country. 

"Sadly, the world has reduced her legacy to a false rumour about her and a horse. She brought art, science, and women’s education to Russia. 

Catherine the Great lying flat out in the garden

Douglas Hodge as General Velementov and Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in the first episode of The Great in a scene filmed in the West Garden of Hatfield House - Credit: 2020 ViacomCBS All Rights Reserved.

"And she invented the roller coaster! I stopped there once I learned that. Anyone who invents the roller coaster has got to be fun! 

"The Great does play loose with history. Our show is by no means a historical document, but hopefully captures the essence of the real Catherine the Great and what she achieved and stood for."

Description: Episodic Photo - Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great Actor: Elle Fanning

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in a scene filmed in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House - Credit: 2020 ViacomCBS All Rights Reserved.

Then there's the terrific period costumes, although wearing the corsets were a chore.

"The costumes are drop dead gorgeous," said Elle. "I wish I could say they were as comfortable as they were beautiful.

"The corsets take some getting used to. I do not envy the ladies of the time.

"All of us women were so jealous of Nick [Hoult] and the other guys because they would saunter around shirtless or in robes!

Peter, Emperor of Russia, and Catherine the Great at banquet

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult as Peter, Emperor of Russia - Credit: Nick Wall / Hulu / 2020 ViacomCBS All Rights Reserved.

"Corsets aside, the way my costumes tell Catherine’s journey is vital.

"Her silhouettes stay pretty simple and practical compared to the ladies of the Russian court.

"My main colors were pale blue and green. But of course, at the end there is an electric pink dress (my favourite) that summarizes Catherine perfectly.

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in satirical, comedic drama The Great about the rise of Catherin

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in satirical, comedic drama The Great about the rise of Catherine the Great from outsider to the longest reigning female ruler in Russia's history. Picture: Jason Bell/Hulu/ViacomCBS - Credit: Hulu

"It is her birthday dress and the dress she’s going to kill her husband in! It encapsulates her femininity, youth, and boldness."

  • The first episode of The Great airs at 9pm on Sunday, January 3, 2021, on Channel 4.
Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in series The Great

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in new Channel 4 series The Great - Credit: Jason Bell

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in pink dress

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great - Credit: Jason Bell


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