Phoebe Fox‘s Marial is a highlight of The Great. The irreverent period comedy tells the (sometimes) true story of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), and in Season 2, the Empress finally unseats her husband, Peter (Nicholas Hoult), as ruler of Russia.
Post-coup, Marial’s life is on the up and up. At long last, she gets reinstated as a Lady, she finds an unexpected romance with Grigor, and she’s part of the small group of Catherine’s confidants who help run Russia. Marial has never had more power, but her life isn’t devoid of struggles. To keep her position and secure her safety, Marial must help codify Catherine’s power. But the friends reach an impasse when it comes to Catherine and Peter’s relationship.
Be it strategy or foolish brashness, Marial tells Catherine that Peter slept with her mother (Gillian Anderson), which led to her death. And in a shocking finale twist, the unhinged (yet unsettlingly level-headed) Catherine orders a string of arrests at Marial’s wedding to her child cousin (oof) — Marial included.
Here, Fox talks all things Season 2 with TV Insider, from what drives Marial’s behavior to the ridiculousness of her marrying her child cousin. Plus, a sneak peek into The Great Season 3, which Hulu ordered in January 2022.
Marial gets her comeback in Season 2 and now Catherine and Marial are basically in charge of Russia. I love that they’re a bit of an Odd Couple, in that they have distinctly different takes on how to run Russia. Does Marial actually like Catherine’s vision of Russia, or does she like how it could benefit her? Is it both?
Phoebe Fox: I think it’s always important to consider with Marial that she really thinks of everything through the prism of how it will help her. She’s sometimes wonderfully self-centered in comedy value. She absolutely would call herself a feminist if she knew what that meant, so she chimes with Catherine’s view about equality of the sexes for sure.
But Marial is a dry cynicism. Her world view is everyone is out to get you or come level you, and you have to scrape and scratch to the top and hold on for dear life. And Catherine has this wonderful optimism. She embodies the glass half-full mentality. There’s something about those two things that when they come together, they balance each other out.
Marial is so anti-Peter. Is there any part of her that likes him at all or likes him and Catherine together? I wonder too if’s she ever like, “Damn it, he’s charming.”
Nick Hoult is completely charming. But it’s funny you ask that, because I was mulling over this question yesterday. It’s like a driving force in Marial’s life, this loathing of this man. I think it’s irrational in some respects, and I was thinking, “What is that?” Yes, he is kind of detestable, but he also is lovable and charming.
I think that actually, her time as a servant was really dark. You can’t underplay just how brutal it would’ve been for an aristocratic lady to become a servant and the kind of treatment that she would’ve been subjected to by the other servants when that happened.
I haven’t, in my mind, characterized exactly what happened to her, but I think she probably blames him for some sort of trauma that she’s carrying from that period of her life. Until she has therapy, I don’t know that she’ll ever get past them.
And I don’t know that this century of Russia would provide that.
Yeah, no. Tricky! [Laughs.]
Her feelings about Peter are understandable — he is the reason her life went the way that it did. But I think she also has a hard time realizing when warming up a little bit to Peter would benefit her.
She also has a really skewed idea about what love is. I think she doesn’t understand that all-consuming love Catherine has for Peter, because she is incapable of that at the moment. Her heart is closed. Grigor is trying to, and there’s elements of her trying to open up. But at the moment, in Season 2, she’s still very much a closed book.
It’s going to be harder to work through that in Season 3 now that Catherine had her arrested in the finale. Do you think she was surprised by that? I feel like Marial expects the rug to be pulled out at any moment.
I think she was surprised. She’s kind of in denial about how badly her behavior with Catherine has sat on her. She can’t really look directly at that, because she would have to admit that she hasn’t been a very good friend and that she’s responsible, in some way. She’s kind of living in willful ignorance, so I think it comes as a surprise, which makes it even more devastating, actually.
What I love about playing this character is that she has this fierce energy, but she’s also incredibly vulnerable, which is a great light and dark to play. These moments come like when she gets arrested, and I think she’s actually devastated because she didn’t see it coming. And I think that’s a more interesting choice than the other.
Catherine’s ego almost thwarted everyone’s plans in Season 2. Does Marial truly trust Catherine? Does she really trust anyone?
She doesn’t trust anyone.
How fun was it to have an adversary in Gillian Anderson?
She’s a fantastic actress, so it was a pleasure to have her on set. We have this wonderful, acidic relationship, which is nice because so much of Season 2, for Marial, was delightful. She was coming into her own, being reinstated as a Lady, flirting with Grigor and maybe falling in love, and all of that. So it was quite nice to have the sharp Marial back, the a bit more fierce Marial.
Do you think Marial told Catherine the truth about Peter and her mother for Catherine’s sake, or out of hatred for Peter?
I think she would say that she told her for Catherine’s sake, because that’s what’s happening on her conscious level. But on her unconscious level, I think it’s from a desire to wound him and destroy that relationship. Kind of dark, but she hasn’t had that therapy yet, obviously, so she hasn’t come to that conclusion herself.
I think a lot of the ways that she hurts other people is actually some way of actually hurting herself. It’s a form of self-flagellation. She has a self-destructive quality to her.
Marial and Aunt Elizabeth [Belinda Bromilow] seem like such an unlikely alliance. What about their dynamic do you think works?
On a really basic level, they’re united by their shared affection for Catherine. But also I think they’re both really savvy. They have sharp minds, although they use them in completely different ways. In a way, Aunt Elizabeth is more honed and politically savvy. Marial is intelligent, and I think they see that and appreciate that in each other.
The ridiculousness of her marrying her child cousin. Let’s talk about it.
It’s just endlessly funny. I can’t quite communicate how funny it was to have Henry, who plays Maxim, around on set. Everyone would make sure that they reminded me all the time that he was playing my husband. [Laughs.] It’s comedy gold, isn’t it? You give him all these adult lines to say and make him kind of the responsible parent, and I’m kind of like the child. It’s a really funny dynamic.
What can you tease about what we’re going to see with Marial moving forward?
I think I can safely say, because it’s probably quite obvious at this point, that she hasn’t taken being arrested well. The levity that we see in Season 2, she’s landed back with a thud on the ground. I’m back to sharpening my claws.
I feel like Marial could win a fight, like she could really throw down.[Laughs] I agree.
I’m excited by the prospect of Marial and Catherine being adversaries in Season 3, which seems likely. I feel like even being in prison won’t hold her back from being able to strike some kind of blow.
The Great, Seasons 1 & 2, Streaming Now, Hulu