In the past two years, Gillian Anderson has played two of the most influential female figures who ever lived. First, there was her performance as Margaret Thatcher on Netflix’s The Crown, which won her an Emmy; next, she’ll star as Eleanor Roosevelt in Showtime’s limited series The First Lady. Sandwiched between those parts is another historical character: the scene-stealing detour Anderson takes on season two of Hulu’s The Great, playing the “shockingly manipulative and self-serving” Joanna.
Joanna is mother to Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great, a woman who brands herself the “maestro of marriage” for orchestrating her daughters’ high-profile unions. But Catherine’s recent coup has complicated her next advantageous match—another daughter’s betrothal to France’s Louis XIV. As it turns out, overthrowing one’s husband (Nicholas Hoult’s Peter) doesn’t do wonders for the family name.
Her arrival “brings out this teenage side of Catherine that we haven’t seen where she’s just striving so hard to be perfect for her mom,” Fanning tells Vanity Fair. “She can’t ever quite impress her the way that she wants to. Even though she’s like, ‘I’ve taken over this whole country and look what I’ve done,’ it’s still not enough.”
That very coldness is what attracted Anderson to the role. “I found her incredibly enigmatic and disturbing, and I didn’t feel like I’d really played someone quite like her before, which is always a plus in my book,” Anderson says. “I’ve played very serious characters for most of my career, so anytime there’s an opportunity to play and have fun and push boundaries and exploit, I like to jump right in there.”
It was clear from the start that Anderson was ready to shed Margaret Thatcher’s helmet-like hair and cobalt blue power suits. “It was funny, because everyone on set was a bit like, ‘Oh, my gosh, like Gillian Anderson’s here,’” Fanning says. “I would realize when Gillian was on set, everyone was kind of on their best behavior and we’re all being more proper. But that quickly dissolved because Gillian was just as silly and crazy with us.”
There’s a dearth of information about the real Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, but Anderson says one fact encapsulates the character’s warped priorities. When Joanna finally went to Russia to visit Catherine, she had “used up her own daughter’s clothing allowance, or dowry” in order to “outfit herself in the latest clothes.” Says Anderson, “The real-life Joanna did not have her daughter’s best interest at heart.”
For series creator Tony McNamara, bringing Joanna into the fold was a way to showcase Catherine’s mommy issues as she herself prepares for motherhood. But he opted to use the “famously bonkers” Joanna sparingly—and as a way to propel Peter and Catherine toward a shocking season’s end. “I didn’t want Catherine’s mother to sort of dominate the season,” he explains to Vanity Fair, “but I knew it would provide us with a turn. And [for] poor Peter it would be like his great failure.”
Just as Joanna pulls Catherine’s strings—oscillating between maternal love and icy disapproval—she also begins to toy with her son-in-law. “She’s pretty much in full manipulation mode,” Anderson says of Joanna’s fliration. “I feel that’s the main reason why she goes and follows through with the seduction of [Peter]. Prior to that, it’s all completely an act.”
Shortly after Catherine realizes that she can’t live for her mother’s acceptance, Joanna makes her way to Peter’s quarters, intent on luring him into bed. Instead, the pair has sex against a nearby open window—thrusting so wildly that Joanna topples out to her sudden death. “I was so delighted to read that on the page,” Anderson tells me with a laugh. “Then also to learn the word defenestration—I’d never heard the word before, which means dying by falling out of the window.”
The scene required strategic choreography and shooting in three different locations—inside and outside the real house, and at a studio. “I’ve got bruises on my shins still, I think, to prove it,” Anderson says of the complex filming process. “[But] at the end of the day, it was fun—the flying backwards through the air.”
Had Joanna survived the forbidden rendezvous, what would her next move have been? “I seriously don’t think that she would give up trying to manipulate the situation,” Anderson says. “I think she’d do anything in her power because she wants Louis XIV to be in the family.” The actor says she’s open to returning via flashback or dream sequence: “If they write it, I will come.”
Joanna is the second in Anderson’s unofficial trilogy of three women with vastly different ideas about power. “I have to say Eleanor did not feed off power at all,” Anderson says. “She actually didn’t like to be in the limelight. She would stand in the back and was only there to be of service, and did not want to be the center of attention. So she would absolutely give power over to whoever she thought was really, truly warranted it in the room.”
Then there was Thatcher, the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century, and perhaps most divisive prime minister in U.K. history. “Obviously, Margaret Thatcher relied on the power that she had over the country—the power that she had over the men specifically, who were surrounding her at the time that she was in office,” she says. “When she would go and visit other countries, she walked around ahead of them as if she was the leader of their country.”
As for Joanna, Anderson says, “She doesn’t even know how much she’s not winning from the get-go. And so it almost feels like her power is a grasping rather than an attaining.” She compares each character’s influence to a literal award. “It feels like [Joanna’s] never actually the one holding the trophy at any time during those two episodes,” Anderson says, “Whereas Eleanor doesn’t want to be holding the trophy, and Thatcher is holding the trophy and hitting people over the head with it.”