With two decades in Hollywood under her belt, Elle Fanning has read her fair share of scripts. But none has ever blown her away quite like the one for The Great. “It was the best script I had ever read, honestly,” she says of the Hulu series created by The Favourite’s cowriter Tony McNamara. Now in its third season, the historical comedy follows Catherine the Great on her quest to enlighten Russia and free it from the brutish reign of her husband, the emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), whom she at first loathes, then learns to love. Like the show’s Catherine, Fanning wasn’t even old enough to legally drink when she took on the role of the empress of Russia. “I started doing the show when I was 20,” she says. “Now I’m 25, which is nuts.” In the years since its debut, Fanning has mastered McNamara’s whip-smart, laugh-out-loud dialogue. “You have to be word perfect, like punctuation perfect,” she says. “I’ve put a lot of myself into Catherine. She’s so fun to play, but she kind of has a big ego.” Just as big are The Great’s extravagant 18th-century costumes, designed by Sharon Long, who took home the 2022 Emmy for Outstanding Period Costumes for a Series and is nominated again this year. Here, Fanning discusses the importance of her wardrobe in the series’ raciest scenes, as well as her surprising childhood infatuations.
Your portrayal of Catherine the Great is quite funny. What was it like taking on that genre?
She’s extremely funny. I finally get to stretch my funny bone because I feel like I’m the Chandler of my friends. I really am, and I’ve grown so much comedically. Now comedy feels like home to me. I feel more comfortable to embarrass myself, be vulnerable, and make the oddball choice.
There are also a lot of sex scenes, but everyone tends to keep their clothes on—why is that?
The way that sex is treated on our show is that it’s not an afterthought. There’s just sexual tension in the air—it’s a pulse. Normally we have thousands of layers on because we have so many corsets and so many petticoats. So the only thing to do is just flip the skirt up. If someone is like, “Can we please undo the corset?” the costume designer’s like, “No, no, they would have to have a handmaid in to do that.” It really kills the mood if she’s coming in and saying, “One second, let me undo this for you.” So the sex scenes were always fully clothed, pretty much. We had one where I wasn’t, because we wanted to make it intimate and passionate and make that scene different than the others.
Did you have any TV crushes when you were growing up?
I loved Danny Zuko, and I loved Johnny Cash. My mom was a huge Johnny Cash fan, so growing up, in the car, that’s all we would listen to. I think I imagined who this man was without knowing what he looked like.
Did you have any posters in your room?
I actually had Bob Dylan posters in my room, and I had Marilyn Monroe. I wasn’t technically allowed to have posters, but there were a select few. I also wrote “Bob Dylan” on my hand every day in middle school.
Why was that?
It was from Cameron Crowe, actually. On We Bought a Zoo, he introduced me to Bob Dylan. I remember every day going to set, I would listen to “Buckets of Rain,” and I became obsessed. I am someone who, when I like something, I really like it.
What’s your astrological sign?
Do you feel like it fits you exactly?
I do. I’m extremely fiery. I do have an angry side, which I know is nuts when I’m smiling big. I can get angry. I guess it’s the passion.
Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
We did karaoke on the set of The Great for Halloween. We did Alanis Morissette. I used to sing “No One,” by Alicia Keys, but that’s an obnoxious choice because it’s a strong power ballad. My sister and I, we sing “Before He Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood. I love country music.
Is there anything that scares you?
I would say I’m very fearless. Elevators used to scare me for a long time, but now I’m someone who’s like, if it’s my destiny to die this way or to… I mean, it’s very morbid, horrible. But there is something inside me, which I think probably scares my mother. But it’s like, if it’s my destiny, that’s okay. I’m not afraid of planes. If it goes down—I don’t want it to—but also I’m like, you know what? It’s out of my hands. And you can’t live your life in fear. So there’s nothing that rings out that is really scary to me. I mean, other than losing the ones you love.
Hair by Jenda Alcorn for L’Oréal Paris; makeup by Erin Ayanian-Monroe for L’Oréal Paris at Cloutier Remix; manicure: Mar y Sol Inzerillo for Essie; Set Design by Spencer Vrooman.
Produced by AP Studio, Inc.; Executive Producer: Alexis Piqueras; Producer: Anneliese Kristedja; Production Managers: Anna Blundell, David Duque-Estrada; Production Coordinator: Ellen Kozarits; Photo Assistants: Matt Yoscary, Josua Jimenez; Retouching: Matty So; Fashion Assistants: Tori López, Tyler VanVranken, India Reed, Tori Leung; Production Assistants: Linette Estrella, Ariana Kristedja, Alan Bell, Nico Marti, Ryan Qiu; Tailor: Lindsay Wright; Set Design Assistants: Will Cragoe, Christina O’Neil, Joseph Ahern.