The actress, who plays Russian empress Catherine the Great in Hulu's cheeky historical fiction, tells PEOPLE what was so "poignant" about the final moments of her on-screen leading man
Warning: This post contains spoilers from season 3 of Hulu's The Great.
Fanning, 25, is both producer and star of the show that fictionalizes how a young Catherine the Great maneuvered her way to power in 18th century Russian, simultaneously abetted and obstructed by her husband Peter III (Hoult).
In the series' third season, which dropped in full on Hulu last Friday, Peter took his horse across a frozen lake after a fight with Catherine. He turned back to her and began to say, "Actually I—" before falling through the ice to his death.
Unlike viewers, Fanning admits she wasn't totally blindsided by the character's abrupt demise, telling PEOPLE: "I knew in season 2 that probably in season 3 [show creator] Tony McNamara was going to make that big decision."
What the actress didn't know was how exactly Pete's goodbye would, ahem, go down.
Drowning was mentioned, but "I thought that I would kill him somehow. It would be by my hands," Fanning says. "But I think the death is so much more poignant in the way that it was almost an accident, but it was Peter's own demise in a way — his ego got in the way and it was just a perfect send-off for that character."
Peter's death was fitting — but the feeling of losing Hoult, 33, was sad for the cast.
Hoult continues in the role of Peter's look-alike Pugachev, Fanning admits, "There was so much crying. That day was incredibly emotional. I felt like the whole season for me personally, was very emotional. What Nic has created with Peter is so iconic. Of course we'll work together again, it's not as much about Nic as it is about Peter and Catherine and never knowing that I'll never have a scene with Peter again. We push each other and challenge each other in so many ways."
While filming the second half of the season without her leading man, Fanning felt she had "big shoes to fill."
"I put a lot of pressure on myself," she admits. "Normally Nic and I, we carry the show together. … I was quite nervous and aware of the fact that I had to really bring my A game."
Having overcome that adjustment, the actress is looking ahead confidently: "I do hope we go for another season because I do think it would be nice to wrap it up in the way that we want to. And there is a final chapter to Catherine because now she is such a different person at this stage."
The role, Fanning says, has impacted her work.
"I can feel myself willing to take more risks," she says. "We did the pilot when I was 20 and now I'm 25. The most formative years of my life, I've been playing this character. And I think she's informed me in a lot of ways and grown my confidence in a way. I'm a little bit more outspoken about sticking up for myself because I play this character [and I'm] a producer. The first season as a producer, I definitely was learning still, and maybe wouldn't speak up as often. But now I'm very comfortable in that role. And I think it's partly because I play such a powerful character."
Working in front of and behind the camera, the L'Oreal Paris International Spokesperson is thankful the brand continues to honor female filmmakers with their Lights on Women Award.
"It's so important to empower women in their art and make space for that," she affirms. "I think we're forging ahead and we're carving out the space that [women] rightfully deserve. I've been very lucky to work with a lot of female directors — Sofia Coppola was kind of one of my first big films when I was 11. She was in that leadership role, which was inspiring to me, being such a young age and seeing a woman in charge."
Fanning continues, "It's important to keep having that and also to not say because you're a female director, you have to just tell women's stories. We need to get past that point. Give them the big franchises. They can tell stories about anything. That's something that I'm very conscious of."
That idea is the inspiration for Lewellen Pictures, the production company she and older sister Dakota, 29, launched in 2021. "We're interested in producing things that people wouldn't necessarily think that we would produce. That's why we wanted to start [the company], to be able to tell stories that we couldn't be in and stories that fascinate us and that we want to watch."
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The Great season 3 is now streaming on Hulu.
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