The Great star on jaw-dropping death: 'I was upset by it, to be honest'

·9 min read

Warning: This article contains spoilers from The Great season 3.

"Actually, I..."

It's with these final words, packed with so much meaning — or not, this is Peter we're talking about — that Nicholas Hoult said goodbye to his utterly offensive but somehow still lovable character on The Great.

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After a long and heartbreakingly romantic confrontation with Catherine (Elle Fanning), where she pleaded with him to give up his stupid idea of taking her army and invading Sweden, Peter stubbornly took his horse back across the frozen lake. Only, at the last second, he turned back to her and said the aforementioned words just as the ice around him broke, and he and his horse plunged to their icy deaths.

Was he going to take back what he said? Say something offensive? Neither? Below, Hoult breaks it all down.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When I talked to you before season 2 came out about what you thought Peter's death would be, you said, "Maybe it'll be a complete freak weird death, and it will leave everyone shocked and rocked by it because it was something that people didn't want in that moment in terms of the characters." That feels pretty prophetic — did you know everything then?

NICHOLAS HOULT: I mean, that does sum it up. I don't think I completely knew then. But perhaps [showrunner] Tony [McNamara] and I had spoken about it briefly. I don't think I knew the ins and outs of how Peter died, but it felt very in keeping with Tony's writing to keep it unpredictable, both physically in terms of what happens, but also emotionally. And I think it was never going to be something that was going to be clean cut and simple to deal with. And that's why I think it's so beautiful about how he's written Peter's death, but also the kind of fallout from it and how it affects Catherine and everyone around us. Because it's something that's really pretty messy. And that's the truth of it, I guess. And that's what's funny and bizarre and also heartbreaking about it, I think.

So when you did find out all the gory details, what was your reaction?

Honestly, I heard a couple of murmurs. And then reading the script, the scene that builds up to Peter's death, it so perfectly encapsulates everything that's wonderful about [McNamara's] writing, and that relationship and their dynamic throughout these years. And how they are just opposing forces, Catherine and Peter, and they have this love, but ultimately, the core of them as people is kind of doomed. And then right at the end of all that and once it's all laid out, there's this moment where we think perhaps Peter has come to his senses and realized that all the things that he's built up, and people have made important to him, aren't important. And life can be simple and happiness can be simple. And you think maybe he's just figured that out. Then boom, nature gets in the way, and fate changes the course of that. So my first reaction reading was that it was perfectly timed, and beautifully written.

I was upset by it, to be honest with you. It's very strange, because it's a character that I loved playing. And it felt like I was saying goodbye to him. Even through shooting and knowing it was coming, and when we did the read through, I think Elle and I both had like a box of tissues on our table while we were doing the read through. We were all miked up so you can hear everyone when they're reading or whatever, and you could hear us sniffling through the microphone. Then it gets back to this idea that I was then sat next to Elle and listening to her performance as Catherine from that moment on, and the energy she brought to it and how it transformed everything from the show then on, I was like, "Oh, this is fantastic." I was sitting there as a fan, and I was like, this is great. So then I was just excited about the prospect of it.

So it's safe to say with those final words of Peter's, you think he was coming back to her? Tony joked with me that it could have been anything, like, "Actually, I think that terrine was great."

Yeah, emotionally I think that [he was coming back to her]. I mean, true to Tony as well, it could well have been, "Well, actually I'll have another bite of that terrine." [Laughs.] And turn around and come back and then maybe all the things would have been sorted out just because of the terrine. In the moment for me, I was believing more the sense of "actually, I perhaps don't need what I think I do, and I can figure a way to continue and work this for us" and things like that. So that was perhaps what was going on in his brain at that point.

You also got to play Pugachev, Peter's lookalike, through the end of the season...

That was the nice thing that softened the blow for me. I think if I finished that day [of Peter's death], and that was it, I would have been fairly distraught, but it was kind of a softening of the blow for me that I got to go back occasionally as Pugachev and then do a little bit of that character. That kind of made me feel like I was still part of the family.

The Great -- "Sweden" - Episode 305 -- Peter is once again tormented by his father, Peter the Great's expectations and his failure to continue the legacy of his empire. Catherine must decide what to do about the unrest being stirred up in the regions, but Velementov is in no state to help her. Velementov (Douglas Hodge), Peter (Nicholas Hoult) and King Hugo (Freddie Fox), shown. (Photo by: Christopher Raphael/Hulu)
The Great -- "Sweden" - Episode 305 -- Peter is once again tormented by his father, Peter the Great's expectations and his failure to continue the legacy of his empire. Catherine must decide what to do about the unrest being stirred up in the regions, but Velementov is in no state to help her. Velementov (Douglas Hodge), Peter (Nicholas Hoult) and King Hugo (Freddie Fox), shown. (Photo by: Christopher Raphael/Hulu)

Christopher Raphael/Hulu Velementov (Douglas Hodge), Peter (Nicholas Hoult) and King Hugo (Freddie Fox), shown in season 3 of 'The Great.'

Elle told me she really doesn't like Pugachev, that she prefers it when you play Peter. What was it like for you balancing those two characters?

Elle doesn't like Pugachev. That's really funny. They're just different people and thought processes and Pugachev lacks some of the charm, I think, of Peter. The difficult thing about navigating that was that it obviously has to be a character that's close enough but then dissimilar, and then at times also has to be able to do an impression of Peter that's somewhat believable, perhaps for people that know well enough that he clearly isn't Peter. So that was kind of a really fine line to straddle, I think. [There was] Tony with the writing in terms of the words, or the mispronunciation of words, and the slightly different dialogue, but then also the makeup and hair team and the kind of switching my look to be somewhat close to Peter's, but not the same, that was really well done I think. So it was difficult at times to do a version of Peter in this scene, because he is doing an impression of him — but it's not him — so then it does have to be different. So it was a little bit of gymnastics in my brain.

It's the inception of Peter. Peter within a Peter within a Peter. Pugachev dies also, at the end. You died twice!

It was very fun doing all the attempted deaths or murders of Pugachev. People constantly trying to stop him and then kind of being indestructible was great.

I'm assuming filming Pugachev's death was not as emotional for you?

No, I don't think so, and in fact, I wasn't there to play my head. I wasn't actually there when you see it confirmed that he is definitely dead. I would like to get that head. I'd like to keep that as a little memento.

Where would you put it?

On the mantel. On the bookshelf.

Are you open to coming back as a constant stream of lookalikes, or as a Peter ghost?

I think the lookalike thing is probably done now. The ghost thing is interesting because obviously it's something we've explored in the show before. Particularly for Peter this season, his father's ghost coming back and influencing him is a big part of his downfall ultimately and what led him to that. So I think the fact that that happens in the show means that maybe the door is open, and I would happily go back and do some Peter ghosting, if it made sense, and that's what Tony wanted.

You've told me before you don't really watch things that you're in because you don't enjoy watching yourself. Now that that's not a problem, will you be able to watch the show as a fan?

Yeah, I look forward to that. I enjoyed being a part of it. Each time we got a script was kind of like being a fan of it, in a way. It was laced with the anticipation of, "Oh, I get to do this. This is going to be really fun." But then also just enjoying what it is and the characters. So now I'm looking forward to being able to watch that on the screen. I'm very excited about that.

Are you anxious about how people will receive the news or will you not be paying attention to that?

I tend to stay away, but then occasionally if there's something nice some people will send it to you. It'll be interesting to see what people's reactions are to [the death] because I feel like over the course of the show, he's a character that was very much set up to be hated and was very distasteful to a lot of people, but I think became in a way quite endearing and cared about. So it'll be fun to see how that goes over. I hope it's very similar to Logan Roy's death in Succession, because they did a great job of it in that show as well. Where it's like, you kind of feel sad, and then there's the fallout of it, and then I think the next episode after that was the clip of him talking about his kids and saying horrible things about them. [Laughs] You know, I think that's similar to our show a little bit, where you feel bad, but then it's a reminder that he had sex with and killed her mother at times, and things like that. So he certainly wasn't all good.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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