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Aug 19, 2022
Elle Fanning: “I have an opinion and I’m not afraid to share it”

The actress and producer on the second season of The Great and how she’s taking control in her industry

If you want to make Elle Fanning happy, tell her how good her English accent is. “Oh really?” she beams at me. “I love that, thank you. It’s the best compliment ever when people who have seen The Great don’t believe I’m American. I’m like; ‘Yes, we’ve succeeded.’”

Her English intonation is on excellent form in The Great’s second season, which debuts on Channel 4 this week. The comedy-drama series, which bills itself as an “occasionally true” retelling of the story of Catherine the Great, was a smash hit in its first incarnation, garnering multiple awards and nominations – including a Golden Globe nod for Fanning. While season two has already premiered in the states (and has just earned her another Emmy nomination) the UK release, Fanning explains, is perhaps more meaningful. “We film in this little studio in East London and all of our crew and most of the cast is English, so I feel like we’re ultimately a British show.”

“The set is honestly probably even more fun than you even think it is,” she continues. “We just have become such a family; I genuinely love them with all my heart. And then when you add in the humour of the show, it’s inevitable you’re just going to be laughing nonstop. Wait until you see the blooper reel.” The second season was, if possible, even more fun to film, she says. “A lot of it was shot during lockdown so the only socialisation we had was when we were on set and inevitably you just get so much closer to everyone,” she says. “The party scenes were the best, because it was the only time any of us actually got to go to a party that year!” Her accent, one assumes, is not the only thing she has perfected filming this show; “Oh, the British sense of humour? Absolutely. Dry, very witty, sharp. I love it.”

Fanning is 24, but her general demeanour belies her years. She is confident and erudite while demonstrating a humility that speaks to experience rather than naivety. She has an ‘old soul’, as they say, and it is not hard to see why. Fanning began her career before her third birthday and has accrued the sort of CV that would make a freshly graduated drama student faint with glee – from Disney blockbuster Maleficent opposite Angelina Jolie to critically acclaimed cult films, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and two collaborations with Sofia Coppola: 2010’s Somewhere and 2017’s The Beguiled.

Her work on The Great is, in some ways, her most broadly impressive yet. The show walks the masterfully executed line between comedy and drama that its creator, the Australian playwright Tony McNamara, brought to the Oscar-laden 2018 film, The Favourite. Its shrewd handling of history lifts the material out of predictable period drama beats and injects witty irreverence in its place. Fanning’s Catherine is a thoroughly enjoyable blend of naivety and bloodthirsty ambition, bookishness and deadpan comic chops, opposite the equally hilarious delivery of her on-screen husband, played by Nicholas Hoult.

The Great marked, not only her first ever predominantly comic role, but her first ever foray into television. “It was the writing that drew me in, because it’s so rare, honestly, to read something that really is this well written,” she says. “I actually read the script before The Favourite even came out, so I had nothing to compare the humour to, but it’s very much the same tone and sensibility. The comedic element was a challenge – I hadn’t flexed that muscle before – but I just wanted to live in that tone he created. Every script I read now has to compare to one of Tony’s. He has set an impossibly high bar!”

The chance to play the iconic Catherine the Great – albeit a highly stylised version – was another unmissable draw for Fanning. “I don’t take it lightly how special it is for a character like this to come along, especially at my age,” she admits. “She is so rich and so complicated and not just in the standard tone of ‘a strong female character’. Yes, she has to build her strength, but she makes mistakes, she’s messy, and she’s not always right.”

Fanning’s season two highlights largely comprise of scenes she shared with Hoult. The pair’s chemistry is abundantly clear and only increases in this next chapter. “Nick and I have so much fun together,” she says. “I think Peter and Catherine’s relationship is so interesting and we get to explore that so much more in the second season. Plus, I got to work with Gillian Anderson, who plays Catherine’s mother. I think at first we were all trying to be on our best behaviour for her, but then we realised she’s just as silly as us.”

Fanning may have been in the industry for more than 20 years but she is not jaded. Instead, she exudes an enthusiasm for her craft and an unbridled positivity about the future of filmmaking; taking on increasing levels of responsibility. She is an executive producer on The Great, as well as her latest Hulu project The Girl from Plainville, in which she also stars. Last year she also founded a production company, Lewellen Pictures, with her sister, the actress Dakota Fanning.

“It’s something that Dakota and I have talked about for a long time,” she says. “The people we’ve worked with over the years, especially women, the advice they’ve always given is: ‘Just go out there and produce your own stuff and find your own stories.’ So, now that we’re able to have this company, acquire material and, yes, pick parts for ourselves that we would like too. But I also think it’s also about being able to produce stories that we can’t act in and shed light on things that we couldn’t necessarily play.”

One of their most pressing concerns in this respect is the foregrounding of female talent, in narratives as well as in front of and behind the cameras. “Both of us had been very lucky to work with a lot of female directors and for me, working with Sofia Coppola when I was 11 made such an impression – seeing that big set being led by a woman,” she remembers. “But with the Oscars this year you saw that Jane Campion was one of so few female directors to be recognised. That’s nuts, right? I think we all have a responsibility to get those numbers up.”

Directing is something she herself may pursue in years to come. “I think when you start acting young, you see everyone on set and how the cogs in the machine work. And I want to peek behind the curtain a bit more,” she says, before adding who, ultimately, inspired this decision: “You know what? I really learned a lot from Catherine. In character, speaking my mind and gaining my power in those rooms, I realised I have an opinion and I’m not afraid to share it.” [Source]

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The Great (TV Series)

Role: Catherine
Release Date: 2020
A royal woman living in rural Austria during the seventeenth century is forced to choose between her own personal happiness and the future of Russia, when she marries an Emperor.

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Follows a young man suffering from epilepsy who plots the murders of his dysfunctional family.

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A young Bob Dylan shakes up the folk music scene when he plugs in his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
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