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The Great Expectations of Nicholas Hoult

With the debut of the new Hulu series The Great, about the rise of Catherine the Great, the actor makes the small-screen leap

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There are characters you love to hate, and then there’s Nicholas Hoult’s Peter III in The Great, a new Hulu comedy based very loosely on the life of the young Catherine the Great.

This Peter III is a buffoon who enjoys more than the occasional sexual escapade. He is a terror to his lovely and intelligent wife Catherine, whom he imported from Germany (played here by the 22-year-old actress Elle Fanning). He has no problem walking through the palace, observed by many, in the Full Monty (save for his mother’s jewelry); unceremoniously killing his wife’s new pet bear in court; or threatening to execute an advisor for refusing to shave.

But, despite Peter’s sometimes absolutely rancid behavior, you still kinda like him.

“He’s incredibly dumb, insensitive at times, and a bizarre human, but one that’s endearing in odd ways,” says Hoult from his home in the Hollywood Hills, where birds are chirping in the background. “He’s outrageous and obnoxious, but he’s also a broken, sweet little boy who’s trying to fill his father’s footsteps. He never censors himself. That’s likeable in a person. You know exactly where you stand. But he does say things that are bewildering.”

That his Peter comes off alluringly is due to the fact that Hoult himself is charming, dashing and charismatic. The 30-year-old British actor appeared at age 11 in 2002’s About a Boy and has worked ever since, in films as varied as 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the 2019 biopic Tolkien and 2018’s The Favourite, which won Olivia Colman an Academy Award for Best Actress.

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It was Hoult’s role in The Favourite that led him to The Great. The Favourite was co-written by the Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara; The Great is based on McNamara’s play of the same name.

Hoult was filming The Current War, in which he plays the inventor Nikola Tesla, in London, when he got a call asking him to audition for The Favourite. “I loved the writing,” Hoult recalls of the script. “Typically, period drama stories are a little bit dull, but this made me laugh out loud.

“I had the best time playing the character of Hurley,” Hoult adds of his role as the leader of the opposition, complete with an overflowing wig. “Each line of dialogue was a real treat.”

Near the end of filming, McNamara told Hoult about The Great, which the writer had originally envisioned as a feature but decided to pitch, with Fanning, as a streaming series. And the rest is, well, a kind of reconstructed history.

“I’m not going to lie: I didn’t do any research on Peter III,” says Hoult with a laugh. “That wasn’t something that was encouraged with The Favourite, either. It’s very much taken as a fictional story. There was a moment when I asked Tony if I could do a Russian accent, but I tried it one night and it broke up the rhythm of the dialogue and I decided, this isn’t what needs to be done.”

Hoult calls both experiences “singular.” “It’s outlandish and wild and then there’s this underlying heartbreak to it as well,” he explains. “Tony has the ability to completely hit you with unexpected things that you didn’t see coming. It’s very freeing how irreverent and fun it is. I don’t want to be empathetic to Peter. He does terrible things. But if you’re enjoying playing the character, people enjoy it as well.”

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Besides The Great and two movies recently made available for streaming—The Banker on Apple TV+ and True History of the Kelly Gang from IFC Films on VOD—like the rest of Hollywood, Hoult is essentially on hold. He made Those Who Wish Me Dead, based on the electrifying thriller by Michael Koryta, with Angelina Jolie and Tyler Perry last year in New Mexico, but it’s unclear when it might be released.

Hoult is trying to keep up the training he started for the action sequel at home with a jump rope, some resistance bands and the help of his trainer friend. But mostly, his time involves taking care of his 2-year-old son with his model girlfriend Bryana Holly Bezlaj.

“Everyone else is picking up new habits and doing DIY, but the reality with parenthood is most of the time you’re busy feeding him, making sure he’s entertained, and then at the end of the day you just want to sleep,” Hoult says.

To pass whatever time he has on his own, Hoult has rediscovered video games, in particular God of War on Playstation 4. “I got hooked on that pretty quick,” he says. He’s been reading a bit, with the novel Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari on his current list. There’s been a lot of cooking, “but not anything I haven’t cooked before,” he notes. “Last night we made macaroni and cheese, and I like to do a roast on Sunday if we can, but mostly it’s whatever we can find.”

He stays in touch with family and friends back home in London with a regular weekend pub quiz. He and Bezlaj hosted a recent event on Zoom and came up with multiple rounds of questions themselves. “Whatever knowledge or interesting facts you can,” Hoult says. “You make them up.”

Despite the strange state of the world, Hoult recognizes the break may have been a needed one.

“I’m kind of enjoying it,” he says.

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