Talking with show creator and screenwriter Tony McNamara about the importance of food in his “occasionally true” series about Catherine the Great
On Hulu’s The Great, Peter (played with equal parts pomposity and likability by Nicholas Hoult) must decide between ruling and roast pork. Surprising to no one who’s watched the show and familiarized themselves with the emperor, he chooses the pork. Though in all fairness, it has been prepared with cognac, apples, and marjoram — a particularly appetizing combination.
The series, an “occasionally true story” about Catherine the Great (played by Elle Fanning), has always dallied in decadence that not only borders on hedonism, but invades hedonism’s lands, evicts hedonism’s heads of state, and moves into hedonism’s castle to throw parties. No one embodies this more than Peter, a petulant brat of a ruler equally happy committing a murder or throwing darts at a servant as he is throwing back shots of vodka and openly having sex with his best friend’s wife. But in the second season, the power has shifted. Catherine’s coup has been somewhat successful and Peter’s escape is foiled, all because he got too hungry. Condemned to his quarters after abdicating, Peter’s obsession with delicious food only intensifies.
We reached out to Tony McNamara, creator and executive producer of The Great, over email to talk about the role of food in the show, what dining says about royalty and class, his movie The Favourite, and why Peter, if alive today, would make an amazing chef.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Eater: Peter has always been a bon vivant, but this season he seems particularly food-obsessed. Was making him so hungry mostly a plot device to get him under Catherine’s control or were there other reasons for having him constantly talking about food and eating?
Tony McNamara: I think I’ve always regarded Peter as a hedonist and into food. My idea of him being so hungry and it eating away at him so much was, in a way, thinking about Catherine at war with him and what would be his big weakness. He’d hate to be hungry because he’s an emperor and he’s never had to go hungry.
Mostly, he’s obsessed with food because I’m obsessed with food. I grew up in a family that were bonded by food. My dad travelled a lot and the first question when he came back from wherever he’d been in the world was what did you eat? He brought back menus we’d pore over, my mum taught my three brothers and I how to cook, and we’ve all either worked, owned, cooked, or somehow been involved in restaurants at some point in our lives. We just love food and wine and how it creates community and family and joy.
Also [co-prouder] Marian Macgowan [and I] have a 30-year friendship based around lunch. The big question of any day is where and what we should eat. Shooting the show in London and Italy, food is never far from our minds, so I guess anyone who knows me is not at all surprised how present food is in the show.
Both Leo (may he rest) and Peter are very epicurean and seem to value life’s pleasures and brevity in equally intense ways. Why did you set them up to mirror each other in that way? How are they different? I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Leo gives Catherine a peach in the first season vs. Peter trying to feed her an apricot in the second season; were those moments supposed to echo each other?
Leo was the guy who approached life philosophically and that meant a kind of zen hedonism — enjoy the moment, nature, food, be present to the small things. Because in Peter’s kingdom there was, in his mind, no change possible and death could come at any moment. So his revenge was to live well. Peter’s is more a thoughtless hedonism, and a glory in tastes and flavors and things that are crazy and exotic.
Peter is the more serious about cooking and good food. I do think of him as a frustrated foodie who was born into the wrong job he’s not cut out for. His true love, and why it always makes him so happy in the show, is food. When I think of him as a character in present-day terms, he’d be an amazing Michelin-starred chef somewhere like Mugaritz or Alinea, happily creating insane delicious dishes.
Did you do a lot of research into the food of the 18th century Russian court and the ways the royals ate? Or is it as — or more — important that it look decadent and delicious to modern viewers?
We didn’t really do too much food research. A little bit: For instance, peanuts arriving at court, moose lips as a delicacy, things like that. It was more important that it reflected Peter’s character and looked as amazing as he demanded. Our art department is full of amazing Italians, so of course it’s going to be important to them that it looks good. And that when roasting a pig over an open fire on set, we’re all there that day.
In The Great, food seems to represent extremes like hope (the macarons served to soldiers on the battlefield) or weakness (Peter abdicating because he smelled pork) or greed (the sheer amount of food and alcohol consumed at court while the serfs starve). Catherine, interestingly, seems largely interested in food only as a means to an end (like filling a pregnancy craving). Could you share some insights on distinguishing food that way?
Food has been a political thing forever. From Marie Antoinette’s [wrongly attributed] “Let them eat cake” onward, it can show a kind of dangerous cluelessness of the upper class to what the rest of a society is struggling with. In that regard, it seemed a good way of showing how Peter was a bad leader and didn’t care for his people. And yet cared about a good semifreddo.
I noticed something similar in The Favourite. Abigail wins Anne over with cake while Sarah scolds her for eating something that will make her sick. In the end, Abigail is surrounded by as much food and champagne as she could possibly consume and yet there’s a sort of grotesque tragedy to it. What does food say about characters, in general, but especially in these depictions of royalty and class?
In The Favourite, food represents safety to Abigail; she’s got herself out of poverty and is literally making herself sick by consuming. The queen is empty and can’t find the love she needs to fill herself with, but will try to eat a very blue cake instead. I think for Catherine [in The Great], it’s a means to an end. She’s not that into it as a character choice. For her, ideas are the thing that feed her, not clothes, food, or parties.
I think the way people consume or don’t consume food is often a telling aspect of their personality. We eat three times a day for 70 years. What we eat, how, who with, and when is going to be a real telltale to who we all are individually and societally.
All episodes of The Great are currently available on Hulu.