A true story about The Great, the ‘new normal’, and 18th-century fashion

Text by Bernadette Gallagher

Normally, when a T.V. show premieres with such success as Hulu’s The Great has, we see the show’s success differently: televised interviews with the show’s cast; red carpet premieres; magazine spreads, and more. But how can we celebrate in this new normal we’re all facing?

I had the opportunity to chat with The Great’s* Charity Wakefield, who plays Lady Georgina Dymov of the Russian Court; or, lover/conspicuous mistress to the Emperor (Nicholas Hoult), and wife to Grigor Dymov (Gwilym Lee). The Great follows the rise of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) in the 18th Century. This *Occasionally True Story is a humorous and slightly fictional story focusing on one of history’s greatest female influencers, how she began to lead the largest country in the world, and how she managed the large Russian court. Charity provides interesting insights on the topic of celebrating your own show’s success while under the new normal, some timely topics of the show, and the stand-out, opulent fashion which 18th century Russia both inspires and boasts.

Flanelle : Congratulations on the show; it has been a huge success. What has it been like as the show premieres over periods of lockdown and quarantine?

I think it’s a strange time really across the whole world, which is a huge understatement. In one way, it feels like really unchartered territory having any show come out because you made it in a completely different world than we’re now in. It felt slightly nerve-wracking knowing the show was coming out at this time because you hope that it still feels relevant. I feel like actually it is relevant; there are some parts of it that are extremely prescient – there’s an episode about, ostensibly, a smallpox outbreak, for example – but I think as well what I’ve been getting in terms of responses from people who have watched it is that people have enjoyed the audacity, the comedy, and the kind of giant world that Tony Mcnamara has written. I think because it’s a historical piece, you may assume it may be staid, but I think because Tony writes with such liberation in terms of the truth, it feels entertaining. There are contemporary metaphors you can draw that have nothing to do with Russia, so I’m glad people want to watch it at this time, and that they’re able to connect with it, find it funny, and find it thought-provoking.

The cast and crew of the show are not working and are locked down, so it’s largely a very interesting experience being so plugged into people’s responses in a way that we wouldn’t normally be. We’re able to interact on social media with people in a way because we have more time. That’s been really cool to gauge people’s thought process.

Is Tony’s writing what drew you into the script or the role of Georgina? How did you come across the show?

I auditioned for it and was sent the pilot, and in the breakdown email, it mentioned Tony McNamara and the film The Favourite. The Favourite hadn’t come out yet, but I read about it and thought ‘this guy must be pretty good to have such a great cast.’ I read about the protagonist in The Favourite, and so I thought it was really interesting he was making a show about that, and Catherine The Great- so the subject matter, first and foremost. When you read a script with such good dialogue, it really fires you because it’s unusual to get something that’s both meaningful and really funny at the same time. I just thought it was brilliant. When you audition, you sometimes have to fight to make it work, and sometimes you think ‘this really fits, this type of comedy and this character.’ It felt quite organic. I had a really lovely follow-up meeting with Tony and Matt [Shakman] (director of The Great pilot episode), who has done so much I love (like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). I really enjoyed both of their work and meeting them. I felt really proud to be a part of this show and this cast (Elle Fanning, Gwylim Lee, Nicholas Hoult).

While watching The Great, it can be hard to decide whether or not you like a character and you sort of judge episode to episode. Was there anything about Georgina that stood out to you which you really liked?

She unapologetically is self-serving and I’m quite used to characters who are sweeter, more relatable, and more likely to show their emotions. I’m interested in playing an exception to the sort of normal female traits. I like that fact she is not particularly likeable or relatable. This is a very exaggerated, partly fictional world, but I think that these people in positions of power actually do exist, that they are uncompromising, they are selfish, and at certain points trade in their own morals for their own sense of what they want. That is really interesting to me: how power is corruptive, and how people in positions of great privilege, at a certain point, make a decision to willfully ignore the suffering of others.

The sexual storyline for my character is new territory for me. She’s sort of a sex addict, and she has a real sort of deep and dark need to have a continual boundary-pushing sexual relationship with Peter. She’s never been challenged on it until Catherine arrives at court.

Your character, along with the rest of the cast, are decked out in some fabulous dresses, and very colourful fashion. You’re also not new to period pieces and this kind of fashion. What is this experience like?

I find it really fascinating seeing the costumes being created. The costumes, the dialogue, the structure of the scenes, and the makeup- everything is in a similar space in terms that it is based in history but it has a modern and imagined twist. I think Emma Fryer’s designs are quite plain and simplified compared to what it was really like. The main thing that I noticed was the abundance of fur. It kind of makes it feels quite primal. I love what Emma’s done.

Is the corset as uncomfortable as it looks? Is it that rock-hard when you punch it?

When we were doing that scene I was terrified. I remember saying to her “are you sure it’s not hurting you? Can you punch me so I know what it feels like?” It’s quite a good bit of armour, but you can’t bend your back-you are very constrained, but the dresses are so huge and heavy, that you’d be more uncomfortable without the corset.

I’m interested to know more about your recent photoshoot as well. Are these outfits and shots styled with the show and Russian 18th Century fashion in mind?

It was definitely done with the show in mind, but I’m not trying to represent the character of Georgina. I think that since doing this part one of the things I’m trying to challenge myself with is to be brave enough as a female in this industry to play characters who are not A: rated for beauty, or B: are not likeable or relatable. I found Georgina’s character challenging to play in some ways, which helped give these photos an element of truth about them. This is also true about the experience of lockdown. We shot these with no professional lighting, I styled it, the makeup designer was in full mask and visor, and we were in my back garden. These pictures are more about Liam Bundy (photographer) trying to find something that is there, as opposed to trying to manipulate an image. I think there is something more truthful about them.  It was a joy too because I bought the clothes myself, the white dress and pink dress are both organic cotton as I try to support sustainable and ethically-minded designers. I think lockdown has really given me the time to think I can do more for the environment.

Photos :
Photographer – Liam Bundy
Hair and make up – Justine Jenkins
Agency – Beaumont Communications