Tony McNamara on The Great: ‘Historians have to know we’re making mistakes on purpose’

Ahead of the season two premiere, the Australian screenwriter explains his fresh, bawdy and wilfully anachronistic take on Catherine the Great

Bright, bawdy and occasionally blood-splattered, the first season of Hulu/Stan’s The Great crashed on to screens last year with a defiant “huzzah!” as viewers met the young future Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) fresh off the carriage from Germany. The sweetly idealistic noblewoman can’t wait to meet her new husband, Russian Emperor Peter III (Nicolas Hoult, having the time of his career), but soon finds her Prince Charming is a hedonistic man-child, and his court a colourful free-for-all of smashed champagne glasses, open marriages and regicidal intrigue.

“I like the stakes of the era, the life and death stakes of the court world,” creator Tony McNamara says. “I also like that they’re dealing with stuff we’re still freakin’ dealing with … We’re still dealing with privilege, and how to give people equality, and all that kind of stuff. I’m interested in the parallels – and I’m also interested in the freedom I get.”

McNamara had been working as a playwright and screenwriter in Australia – turning in scripts for television shows like The Secret Life of Us and Love My Way, and helming 2003’s Ben Lee-starring film The Rage In Placid Lake – when he first tackled Catherine’s life on stage, for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008.

He later rewrote it for the screen, which found its way to director Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought McNamara aboard 2018’s The Favourite: a critically acclaimed, Academy Award-nominated film that McNamara calls “career-transformative”. While Hulu had already greenlit The Great’s pilot when The Favourite hit cinemas, the latter’s ribald and modern take on the costume drama certainly primed audiences for Catherine and Peter’s arrival.

“In my head I’m kind of making a contemporary show that feeds off an era in history,” he explains. “But really, for me, I’m always like, ‘What’s the contemporary version of what we’re telling at the moment?’ Oh it’s a woman in Chicago and she married the wrong man and how does she get out of it? Or, she’s now running the business and all her advisers are these old men who are fools.”

The result is a show that often has more in common with Succession than The Tudors. With its first season culminating in Catherine’s coup d’etat against her husband, its second finds the power dynamic inverted: Catherine is now Empress, while Peter is left deposed and under house arrest. They’re also about to have a kid, while still working through the baggage left by their own parents (Gillian Anderson almost steals the season as Catherine’s mother, Joanna).

Gillian Anderson and Elle Fanning
Gillian Anderson and Elle Fanning as mother and daughter. Photograph: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

McNamara injects this fraught state of affairs with all the charm and tension of a will-they-won’t-they, love-hate romantic comedy – both between Catherine and her husband-cum-prisoner, and a country that seems to have deep compatibility issues with its new ruler.

“We saw Peter, in a way, as Russia – he’s a guy who’s sort of trying to change for her,” McNamara says of Hoult’s new arc. “In the same way that she’s trying to change this country that can’t quite change.”

As the real Catherine discovered, squaring Enlightenment values with a system built on the exploitation of serfs is easier said than done. The weight of history, it seems, hates to see a girl boss winning.

“She’s stuck in this place where she expects her idealism will be rewarded at some point, through sheer force of charisma and love for him, and on some level, the country,” McNamara says. “And that’s what this season’s about: it’s a much harder road to hoe than you think it will be.”

His own road has continued its upward climb, reuniting with The Favourite’s Emma Stone to co-write the 101 Dalmatians prequel Cruella. How does remixing history compare to the sacred cash cows of Hollywood reboots?

“It’s a different experience because it’s a big piece of Disney IP,” McNamara says.“But in a way the job was exactly the same; Cruella’s like a piece of cinema history, and it’s an important thing to a lot of people. [But] within the boundaries, they sort of let us be pretty freewheeling with it.”

Tony McNamara and Elle Fanning on the set of The Great’s second season.
Tony McNamara and Elle Fanning on the set of The Great’s second season. Photograph: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

McNamara is already attached to a Cruella sequel along with Poor Things: another collaboration with Lanthimos and Stone, this time set in Victorian-era England with a few nods to Mary Shelley.

Beyond that, there’s still plenty of conflict to mine in Catherine’s reign – whether it’s drawn from the history books, or dreamt up by McNamara.

“When we made The Great, there was someone who questioned some of the big mistakes that I was making with history,” he says. “And I was like, ‘They have to be big’. People have to know we’re making mistakes on purpose, rather than ‘we’ve made a few changes’, [and] then it’s poor history professors tearing their hair out. At least with ours, the history professors can go: ‘They don’t know what they’re doing!’”

• Season two of The Great premieres on 20 November, streaming on Stan in Australia and Hulu in the US


Walter Marsh

The GuardianTramp

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