Hulu’s The Great is brimming with hilarity, fascinating characters, and powerful commentary. One of the potent storylines involves the budding relationship between Catherine (Elle Fanning) and her lover, Leo (Sebastian de Souza). What begins as an ambivalent dynamic, mostly on Catherine’s end, turns into an undeniable connection that unifies them in love.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of Catherine and Leo’s romance is their requited reverence for each other. Sure, Peter (Nicholas Hoult) begins to develop real feelings for Catherine once he moderately embraces her strength and character. But, let’s face it, he’s no Leo. From the get-go, Leo respects Catherine as a person and is content with being her plaything. And when they grow closer, eventually teaming up for Catherine’s coup, he has no problem taking orders from the HEIC (head empress in charge). He really is a ride or die — in more ways than one.
I had the honor of speaking to de Souza about his charming portrayal of lover boy Leo, as well as his on-set experience with Fanning and Hoult. Thankfully, he was completely aware of my high regard for Leo (having read my thirst post prior to our chat), so I didn’t have to play it cool. Instead, we mutually raved about the easygoing character while delving into thought-provoking scenes, the challenging task of keeping a straight face during filming, and hopes for a second season.
POPSUGAR: First, congrats on the success of both Normal People and The Great. What’s it been like seeing such positive reactions to these stories that you were a part of?
Sebastian de Souza: It’s been extraordinary. I feel enormously grateful to have played a very little part in Normal People, which is seemingly and rightly a phenomenon. Given that we’re all in lockdown and glued to our screens, it’s been literally overnight. Thanks to Lenny [Abrahamson], Hettie [Macdonald], Daisy [Edgar-Jones], and Paul [Mescal] and all of their extraordinary genius, it’s entered the lexicon of the classics. And people have been very sweet about The Great, so I’m incredibly pleased about it all. It is always gratifying to see that people are enjoying stuff as much as we enjoyed making it.
PS: I’d love to get into The Great. It’s such a fun and powerful show, and Leo easily became one of my favorite characters. What was the most meaningful part about playing him?
“It’s truly a human story about destiny and getting what you want and whether it’s worth the sacrifice. That’s something that we face on varying degrees every day as human beings.
SS: Thank you! If I’m honest, the most meaningful part was being furiously jealous of Leo’s ability to glide through life like a boy on a rough sea. He’s very happy bobbing along, recognizing that he can’t change the tide but that he can ride it, and, in that, he finds this great comfort. I’m not that guy. The experience was a deep one for me because I was struck by the fact that you can live your life like this — the fundamentals of being good, loving as much as you can, living as much as you can, and leaving the rest to fate and destiny and the universe. He gets it. He’s got it right. It was a great joy and a privilege to play that part.
On the other side of it, I think what’s really lovely — and I was blown away and grateful for what you wrote on POPSUGAR — is how people have responded to the way we turned the male gaze on its head and made it a female one. It’s marvelous, and it was glorious being able to explore that with Elle.
PS: A lot of the themes and topics that are discussed are actually quite modern. Do you think that’s one reason why this story is resonating with people right now?
SS: Yeah, especially as you get to the pox and the plague-like thing that runs through Russia and the palace. It’s dangerously topical right now. But, overall, it’s a great example of how the story is well-written by Tony [McNamara] and hopefully well-represented. It doesn’t matter if there are bears or people eating moose lips. It’s truly a human story about destiny and getting what you want and whether it’s worth the sacrifice. That’s something that we face on varying degrees every day as human beings.
PS: Why do you think telling these historical stories with a comedic twist is so effective?
SS: Phoebe Waller-Bridge said this and put it brilliantly — I think that truth will always be very powerful, but if you can get people to laugh, you break down a barrier that you otherwise can’t break down. You’re able to get to their truth quicker and people, therefore, can connect more to the characters that they’re seeing on screen and feel that their own experiences are reflected. If you’re in side-splitting hysterics — which Nick Hoult makes everyone be in most of the time — you let in by osmosis these very profound things underneath the off-the-cuff, comedic writing. It’s a useful tool that Tony employs well.
PS: One of the things that I loved about this show is how each actor has such exceptional delivery, especially when they’re saying these hilariously outlandish lines. How hard was it trying to keep a straight face during some of those scenes?
SS: It’s fairly impossible. It’s always hard not to laugh, but I suppose you have to do it. The thing that I will say about delivering the lines is there’s such specificity to Tony’s writing, and he’s a stickler for that. When you come from a background of television and film, very often, people are quite relaxed about the “and” going here and the “the” being there. But Tony is very specific and clear about it, and it makes the delivery much easier. He’s aware of the rhythm and the pitter-patter of his scenarios and scenes, so you’re able to get into the character.
PS: Were there any scenes that you were especially fond of?
“I think that truth will always be very powerful, but if you can get people to laugh, you break down a barrier that you otherwise can’t break down.”
SS: This is a very boring answer, but I have to say all of them. There were gorgeous speeches, wonderfully romantic scenes, and incredibly sad moments that were really fascinating to get into. Leo really is — and may forever be — the most enjoyable person I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. The way he looks at the world is so refreshing. It’s glorious to be that free. But, gosh, it was also infuriating to be inside of his head. He’s just so easygoing — until he isn’t, of course. That’s what I hope makes him more three-dimensional.
PS: Well, because he’s so easygoing, seeing him get flustered when things between him and Catherine unfold shows how much he cares about her.
SS: Yeah, whenever I talk about how much he loves Catherine, I think about the scene where she says, “You never speak about politics, and you never talk about bureaucracy and poetry and enlightenment.” She gets very frustrated with him, but he says, “What’s the point of throwing oneself at a wall until the wall is still there but you’re bone and mush and a skin bag?” It’s interesting because that’s true. But towards the end of the show, when he’s trying to save the thing that he cares about, i.e. his connection with Catherine, he is holding on to this discovery that life with someone else by your side is heavier with more responsibility, and it’s often more difficult, but it’s better and richer. The way that Tony has written that arc is very effective.
PS: What was it like working with Nicholas and Elle and seeing their dynamic come to life on screen?
SS: Nick and Elle have worked together before, which helped their dynamic. I wasn’t a part of the pilot or the first episode, so I came in late, which is the worst situation to be in as an actor. We’re all insecure and perpetually nervous about everything. It’s like being in school. You’re like, “Oh, my God, I’m the new kid in town. I don’t have any friends yet!” That was nerve-wracking for me, but I was struck by how I was subsumed into their company. It was a very natural process, and everyone was professional and dedicated to telling the story.
PS: I was also enamored with the costuming. I still dream about those layered pearls that Nicholas wears in one scene. Did you have a favorite costume or look from any of the characters?
“I hope there is a season two. I would love to see more about the court. I’m a real nerd, and I love universes like Marvel and Lord of the Rings, so because we’ve set up the court as something like that, I’d like to see that explored more, as well as the characters that inhabit it.”
SS: Emma Fryer, who designed the costumes, has done the most magnificent, superlative job, as has Lou Coles, who designed all of the makeup and hair. I didn’t have a favorite look, but I thought that Catherine’s dresses were all sumptuous and beautiful. I know nothing about costume designing, and I’m the least fashionable person on Earth, but I imagine it would be easy to be derivative. This show was inevitably going to be compared to The Favourite and Marie Antoinette, but Emma and Lou found this extraordinary way of being committed to realism through a color palette and off-beat looks that reflected what was on the page. I particularly enjoyed Leo’s costumes because I got to wear them, of course, and I love being in all green. I used to say to Emma that it was like one of those couches from the ’70s.
PS: Green often symbolizes serenity, which aligns with Leo’s character in a way.
SS: I didn’t know that! You’re full of knowledge. I wish we could talk longer. [Laughs] But that shows how the costumes were well-thought-out. It was such a joy working with Emma. She would come in every morning and say, “This is your costume today. How do you feel about it?” And I’d say, “I feel fabulous, thank you. How do you feel about it? That’s more important.” And we’d just go back and forth.
PS: Now, we both know how the season ends. Catherine has to decide between saving Russia and saving Leo’s life, and she chooses the former. If we’re lucky enough to get a season two, what would you like to see?
SS: Are you sure that Leo dies? No, I’m kidding. I think that’s the way it should end because this is Catherine’s story, and it raises the stakes. I hope there is a season two. I would love to see more about the court. I’m a real nerd, and I love universes like Marvel and Lord of the Rings, so because we’ve set up the court as something like that, I’d like to see that explored more, as well as the characters that inhabit it.
Of course, I would like to see Catherine take power, but I wouldn’t want it to be too easy. There’s something brilliant and glorious about a struggle because she’s against such ineptitude, insanity, and idiocy. It further plots this story in the present. It’s like, “Hang on a minute, what do you mean we can’t all be equal? What do you mean women can’t have the same jobs as men and be paid equally?” The struggle, as they say, is real. And the more struggle there is, the more we’re looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, “Hang on a f*cking second, this is ridiculous. Why is this the case?”
PS: Finally, this is just a fun question that I always like to ask people because I love talking about music: what do you have on repeat right now?
SS: Oh, that’s a great question. I have a very eclectic Spotify. It’s everything from everywhere, but at the moment, I’m actually listening to a new mixtape that was put out by the British artist Sid Stone. The single from it is called “Better Alone,” and it’s extraordinarily soulful and — dare I say — a quieter more introspective Rag’n’Bone Man. I’ve been listening to that a great deal.
The Great is now streaming on Hulu in the US and will be available to watch via Starzplay in the UK on June 18.