Behind every great man stands a great woman; in Elle Fanning’s case, behind The Great woman stands a supportive on-screen male counterpart. 

Fanning stars in Hulu’s The Great series as the blushing bride Catherine II, who enters into the vibrantly reimagined Russian court of mercurial Emperor Peter III, played by Nicholas Hoult. The show, co-written and created by Tony McNamara, the Oscar-nominated scribe of The Favourite, is a female-driven 18th century romp that centers on Fanning’s feminist lead. Much like Empress Catherine, the 22-year-old actress, who is also an executive producer on the show,  embodies the idea of female equality by her actions and found a creative partner in Hoult, who supported her on screen and behind the scenes.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the inner workings and the crew and curious about pulling the curtain back and getting behind the scenes,” says Fanning, who grew up on sets starting from the age of three, when she starred opposite Sean Penn in 2001’s I Am Sam

When she got McNamara’s script, it spanned the empress’s entire life. He asked if she wanted to come on board and produce and she jumped at the chance: “I have to do this, I have to do this part. The irreverence and wittiness were right up my alley and sense of humor.”

But, the actress also acknowledges, “I’m not known for comedy.”

Enter her British co-star Hoult, who helped Fanning achieve the pace, rhythm and banter required for the dark and often grotesque humor. Like Fanning, Hoult, 30, also started out in the industry at a young age, breaking out at the age of 12 opposite Hugh Grant in 2002’s About a Boy. In 2014, Fanning and Hoult played a young couple in the romantic actioner Young Ones – “We have this history of bad marriages,” jokes Fanning.    

“We would challenge each other as Peter and Cat; poke each other’s buttons and surprise each other. A big part of it is not being embarrassed around each other,” Fanning explains of their collaboration. “And you want Nick, who was like, ‘do it big, do it crazy,’ and he was always there to support me even if it failed.”

On-set giggling fits ensued. “That would particularly surface during the more physical comedy moments, [such as] when the pair are trying to conceive an heir doing these sex scenes…Those are difficult,” notes Hoult. “On the page, we can see it’s funny in this ridiculous weird environment – but add to that the intimacy of those scenes. Still, working with Elle, we had spontaneity in the moment. Her openness and honesty made it very easy to be present in those moments with her.” 

Catherine and Peter’s  sex scenes, be it with each other or with others, are a central part of The Great, which doesn’t shy away from depicting a raucous court life. “Catherine was the first person to be slut shamed because she was out of her time, open with sex and had multiple lovers,” explains Fanning. “Historically, her furniture is covered in genitalia.” 

What helped smooth over any awkwardness was that, according to Hoult, “We’re similar minded. When we had a big scene, we knew the geography but we wouldn’t necessarily jump into the underbelly of all the reasons. There was more of a playfulness in the moment rather than a planned intention.” 

Fanning says she was conscious that both characters needed to be portrayed in all their complexities. “We didn’t want this relationship to fall flat,” she explains. “She wants to kill him. She hates him. He’s mean and does bad things. That’s one note. We wanted to play all these notes.”

Both actors dove deep into their complex, contradictory characters. “[Catherine] starts out romantic, optimistic, wants love and a great marriage,” says Fanning. In the early episodes, the empress’ youth defines her. But “reality slaps her in the face, she realizes she married the wrong person, her optimism wavers then, and throughout the series.”

Meanwhile, Hoult was interested in exploring Peter’s contradictions. “I look more at the delightful than the mean. I don’t think Peter always sees the cruelty or understands his effect. It’s fun to play because he’s not as straightforward as he first appears and so much happens to create the mercurial strange figure that he’s become. If I’m having fun doing something that hopefully translates onto the screen.”

Fanning set out to humanize Catherine, exploring what the empress was like in her darker moments. Over time, while the empress may not begin as the strongest in the room, or the bravest, she becomes more strategic. The longer she’s at court, her “ruthlessness grows and, at the end, it’s there but her optimism and youth are what enable her to make those big decisions,” says Fanning. “She wants a great life, to fulfill her fate and destiny, and she has to figure out how to accomplish that.”

Hoult adds, “Catherine comes to court naïve and ends up in this backward environment where she wants to take power, fight for her beliefs and lead this country.” He says that Fanning delivers a multifaceted portrayal of Catherine. “She can be strong and well educated and, still, at times have doubts and evolve. That’s what she does exquisitely here.”

In return, Fanning praises Hoult for not making Peter a two-dimensional villain. “When I watch Nick on screen, I love Peter [as] the charming and sweet man-child who wants to have fun. Catherine loves him at times and she can kind of learn to live with him,” she says.

“What makes Peter not horrible is that you glimpse his childlike side and, maybe, enjoy that weird warped psyche of his,” explains Hoult. 

On screen, Peter and Catherine struggle for the power to control the Russian empire, but behind the scenes, Hoult admires Fanning for taking control. “She took the producer role seriously,” he says. “It’s amazing how she balanced those two things. On the acting side, there was a lot of dialog and we shot at a very furious rate. And, yet, going in on a Monday, I’d ask her how her weekend was and she’d spent it watching rough cuts of edits.” He also understands how empowering it is to have a say in production matters; “As a child actor you don’t have that voice.”

For Fanning, finding her own voice in the world is as key to understanding the fallible Catherine as it is to appreciating the star’s evolution. She relishes finding stories and developing projects.

“I love creative conversations,” the actress enthuses. “In a way, my life was mirroring the show; I was finding my voice and gaining confidence like Catherine was. Sometimes you don’t agree with the calls, you watch the dailies, and see the cuts or the needle drop – the details matter. Gradually, I started to speak up. ….I got to a point where I was able to assert myself. Being able to share my POV, I grew as a person.”