“I’ve had probably more fun playing this character and being in this world than I had for a long time,” says 32-year-old Nicholas Hoult as he considers the impact of portraying the often-impulsive, venal, cocksure and imperious yet increasingly evolving Russian Emperor Peter III on Hulu’s The Great opposite Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great. “And I think that’s something that audiences can pick up on.”
Indeed, the second season of Tony McNamara’s (The Favourite) pseudo-historical period dramedy — which veers from staggeringly funny to painfully moving in seemingly effortless brisk turns — has earned accolades aplenty, including Primetime Emmy nominations for both Hoult and Fanning, due in large part to the lively sense of fun that pervades it.
“Someone said that it seems like all the cast are having the best time, and we are!” Hoult tells THR with a laugh as the English actor (who lives in L.A. but travels to the U.K. frequently) reflects on the delights and challenges of the season. “I feel fortunate to do what I do, but I also care about it a lot. And sometimes when you care about things too much, that could actually hinder in a way. When you’re having fun, you end up doing your best work, and there’s a freedom that comes with that as well. I would like to think that’s something that I can take forward working from now, where there’s just a joy and a fun in it.”
As you dug into this season and all the different shades and colors of Peter that you got to play, tell me about making your own mental road map and all the adjustments you made throughout the season.
Peter is someone that on first impression does a lot of terrible things and is a horrendous human being to be around most of the time. But Tony’s got a fantastic way of really exploring all the grays within all of his characters and creating a world where they can make mistakes. But Peter is someone who’s always trying, in some ways, his best, despite the fact that he’s been brought up in such strange circumstances that he can’t quite empathize or feel what other people would. It’s been really fascinating, to be honest with you, because Tony writes as we go. As the map unravels in front of me, I gain it as you would as an audience member, I suppose.
Peter’s hyper-attention on his unborn child was a constant delight: “Hi, Paul,” always aware of Paul’s coming and going and when Paul’s in the room with him. Did you find that those small but key things like that helped you explore and give him some path toward potential redemption?
Yeah, the thing about Peter is he is a very redemptive character but can always return to that base level very quickly. He can turn on a dime, which is also something from first reading this character when Tony first [showed me] the script that I loved — because I loved watching those kinds of performances, when you watch someone turn a 180 completely without expecting it. Peter really gave me the opportunity to do that, where one moment he could be with Paul and being a completely doting, caring, wonderful father. The next second, if the wrong person walks into room, he’s immediately threatening to murder them. Also, that was part of the development of Catherine and Peter as well, them becoming parents: watching Catherine and how Russia has become her baby and everything all-consuming to her in terms of who she is and what she’s about as a person. Watching their different parenting styles is also really fun to unpack and just see how they differ in that regard.
The relationship between Catherine and Peter is such a delicate but pliable soap bubble in season two. Great writing helps you get there, but you and Elle make it believable. What’s the rapport like between the two of you as actors in bringing that constant back-and-forth of love and hate and everything in between to life?
The simple thing is that we really love each other and care about each other and enjoy acting together. We’re very similar in how we work. I think we’re both very instinctive, and Tony gives such good framework for us to have fun within, that then we can really push and pull in a way that is just a joy. There are these great scenes that Tony writes, normally in the breakfast room set, and they’re normally quite early on in an episode and set up the butting of heads or whatever the two different paths we’re going to take through the episode are going to be. And those scenes are always just something that I really look forward to. It’s always a fun day to watch what Elle brings to it. Particularly season two because Catherine’s evolved so much since that naive young character that arrived at the palace and was completely out of her depth, to suddenly this leader who can be quite venomous and fight back and actually has wants and needs that aren’t always pure and how she goes about getting them and her failures and dealing with that. All of that, Elle brings to life so wonderfully that I just love sitting opposite and seeing that come to life because I love reading the words on the page, and I get a front-row seat to witness it.
Was there anything in the season two journey that you had to stop and think your way through, and how did you solve it?
There are definitely key moments where you just have to understand the show is very funny, but it’s also got this very … not always dark but emotional undertone that you just have to pick those moments. Which I think is what Tony saw in Elle and I for this —that we can hit comedy beats and be truthful in the jokes. But the thing is that it’s the honesty of the emotional side of it that’s important. Elle and I are always pushing each other for that. For Peter, it was an evolution. The arc, as Tony saw it, was him becoming a man, somewhat. He’d been this playful boy that never had any consequences to his life and then suddenly there were, and he’s actually developing real passion and kindness and compassion. How you come back from killing your wife’s mother after having sex with her; how you turn that around is obviously … when [I] say that out loud now, I’m like, of course that doesn’t seem like a logical thing that could work in a relationship! And we’re shooting season three at the moment, and obviously there’s still a lot of unpacking to do with that. But at the same time, that’s the brilliance of Tony: That crazy event can happen that you would think is irredemptive, and yet at the same time, the character can somehow open up and be purer after that and it can work. It’s more looking back that I’m like, oh, that shouldn’t really work in some ways, but it does.
This is the longest you’ve ever played any one character, with no soon end in sight. What’s been the big reward or surprise for you?
I didn’t expect to want to play a character for a long time. The longest I played a character before was two seasons of a show. We’re in our third now of this, and I still get great joy out of playing it, and that all comes back, obviously, to the writing. Also, the more you inhabit them, the more you learn through them, the more you get to know them and the more the world makes sense, in some ways.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.