'The Great' star Phoebe Fox approached her role as Catherine’s servant Marial as show pony ‘put into bondage’
Revisionist historical comedies are tremendously fun. Don't take our word for it. Just ask Phoebe Fox who recently starred as Marial, Catherine's handmaiden in the Hulu series 'The Great'. In an exclusive interview with MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), she revealed why she is fascinated by them: "Whilst there are so many wonderful things about doing period drama, sometimes in a bid for historical accuracy, the language can feel a little stifling. With this you get all the pomp and ceremony but you get to say f***, too."
Playing the "disgraced noblewoman who has been forced to become a servant", her character forms an unlikely friendship with Catherine (Elle Fanning), the new Empress of Russia, when she becomes her personal maid. Angry, haughty, and completely unused to being subservient, Marial is also Catherine's first confidante in a court full of women out to get her. "I was drawn to the role because she’s very funny! I was attracted to the scope of playing someone who seems, still sees themselves as a person of importance and influence whilst essentially being a serf," she said.
While many of the characters on the show are drawn from real-life figures, Marial was fictional with no historical counterpart. So Fox relied on the script. She also revealed that the actors on the show were not "actively encouraged to research the period" as it was "very loosely" based on the real events. "I took my cues from the script in hand. I have no hard and fast rule for how to approach each character I play, but with this one I kept thinking of Marial as some sort of show pony -- fundamentally a wild animal that has been put into bondage. I think the long wig I wore may have influenced that as it did seem like a mane! Not to say that I walked around pretending to be a horse... But I just kept it in the front of my mind."
In addition to that particular note she gave herself, she also found the beautiful but restrictive period costumes the fastest way to get into character. "Although I have been known to complain long and hard about wearing a corset, fundamentally it’s an asset. It’s the fastest way to pull you out of your current time. I personally always get a lot from my costumes. They very often dictate the way my character will walk for example. For this job, the headwrap I wore, with its tight restriction around my neck, made me push my chin up. This revealed to me how to physically show how proud this character was," she said.
One aspect of the production that threw her a little was the changing roster of directors for the episodes. "Different directors will encourage you in different ways and will open up different dialogues about your character. But actually, I found it a little frustrating because just as you were starting to vibe with someone and had figured out their process and how it worked with yours, they were gone, and you were onto a new director!"
But through it all, Fox shared most of her scenes with Elle Fanning, sometimes almost stealing the show from her with her quips and sense of comic timing. But she also hobnobs with the other co-conspirators -- Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), and Leo (Sebastian De Souza) -- along with other key characters like Marial's ultra-Orthodox but caring uncle, the Archbishop (Adam Godley), and, of course, the mad-bad, Tsar Peter III (Nicholas Hoult).
"The cast were a dream. I would absolutely have to give credit to the team who worked on the casting. They assembled one of the most hard-working and outrageously talented groups of actors I have had the privilege to work with," she told MEAWW. But Fox especially cherished the moments that involved Louis Hynes, who played Vlad, Catherine's young manservant who dies of smallpox. "The scenes that involve Vlad and his demise were particularly poignant to act and it made a nice change from the sassy, sarcastic stuff my character usually delivered."
The cast also knew how to let their hair down to relieve the pressures of a tough shoot. "We were in the middle of shooting a particularly grueling scene with lots of people in a small room that was as hot as the sun. When the cast was finally allowed to step off for a breather, we launched into an impromptu dance-off that got very weird, very quickly," she shared.
However, dancing in a small room with many people is something of a distant memory for Fox right now, who says that "like everyone, my whole life has gone on hold!" So, in the meantime, in true Marial spirit of keeping one's chin up in adversity, she is honing her "DIY and cocktail-making skills".
'The Great' is currently streaming on Hulu and premiered on May 15.