If there’s one legacy that Phoebe Fox’s role in The Great has given her, it’s a begrudging respect for the Kardashians. Specifically, their commitment to waist trainers – the modern day equivalent of the corsets the RADA-trained actor had to wear every day, for eight months straight while reprising her leading role in season two of the Hulu comedy-drama (airing on Channel 4 this month), which is set in the royal courts of 18th century Russia.
“I veer back and forth about the question of, you know, are [the Kardashians] just being autonomous and sitting in their power – thinking, ‘I like to look like this, so f**k you I don’t care?’ Or are they playing into patriarchal constraints of what a woman’s body should look like? Personally, I think life’s too short to be in pain,” Phoebe, 35, says, talking to me today looking blissfully comfortably in a baggy white T-shirt and scraped back hair, a mile away from her character Marial.
A disgraced noblewoman turned servant to Catherine The Great (played by Elle Fanning), Marial spends the first season wearing a tightly-bound headdress and equally tight corset – ”Your breathing is so restricted, your movement’s restricted – you can’t eat because it’s pinching into your stomach. Even getting out of a chair – it’s a negotiation!”
While she’s been spared the full corset treatment in the past, Phoebe, whose previous gigs include playing Emilia in the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night and starring in The Hollow Crown, a mini-series based around Shakespeare’s history plays, is no stranger to period dramas. And she certainly brings this experience to her portrayal of Marial, from her clipped elocution to her Shakespearean comic timing.
Yet, as fans of the SAG-nominated show will know, The Great is not your average historical drama. In fact, suffocating costumes aside, it pegs itself as “anti-historical” – forfeiting accuracy for creative licence. Then there’s the show’s glorious irreverence: modern-day obscenities are shot out left, right and centre (“I am of gentle heart and massive c*ck” is a typical line from Nicholas Hoult’s character, Emperor Peter III.) What’s more, Fox’s co-stars – which include Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult and, for this upcoming season, Gillian Anderson – are much more known for their film roles, bringing an air of Hollywood glamour to the production. All this makes Phoebe, with her classically ‘thespian’ stage/television background, the perfect counterbalance to the show’s absurdity.