With its punchy scripts and feminist gaze, the subversive period drama has become a word-of-mouth hit. As it returns, stars Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult talk racy Russians, randy frogs – and the weird things they’ve robbed off the set

At the top of the stairs in his Los Angeles home, a portrait of Nicholas Hoult in military regalia hangs on the wall. “That’s very, very normal,” the actor deadpans, before breaking into a laugh. Gladly it isn’t some kind of big-headed shrine to himself, but rather a prop he took from the set of The Great, the gory and garish TV show in which he stars as the Russian emperor Peter III. His co-star Elle Fanning giggles as she admits pinching a sculpture of herself made of butter (“I receive a lifesize version in the show, but I just took the little one”). In fact, as they recall other decorations – a baby’s teddy bear said to be “made from a real bear”, and the mummified remains of Hoult’s onscreen mother, wheeled around in a glass case – the portrait and sculpture start to sound normal, even mundane, by comparison.

Created by Tony McNamara – co-writer of the Oscar-winning film The Favourite – The Great isn’t your average period drama. A racy, raucous and not-at-all historically accurate comedy-drama shot through with feminist revisionism, it tweaks and embellishes the story of how Catherine the Great (Fanning) overthrew Hoult’s Peter to become Russia’s longest serving female leader. Hoult, 31, was cast after nailing the “flamboyant, cruel egotist in a wig” role of the Earl of Oxford in The Favourite. Meanwhile, Hollywood star Fanning is perfectly cast as Catherine, appearing much older than her 23 years, but always with an air of youthful mischief.

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