The actor talks us through his role as Grigor, working through the pandemic, and how he turned his hobby into a career.
With the way the world is currently set up, we’re in need of a good light-hearted drama to get us through the holidays and season 2 of The Great is providing the goods. set way back in the 1700s were Catherine the Great and Emperor Peter ruled the scene, the show takes us through Catherine’s struggles with Peter III of Russia’s dogmatic beliefs and customs. Through their trials and tribulations, the couple navigate married life while trying not to kill each other.
“It’s always a fun, often raucous affair,” Gwilym Lee describes as he breaks down the show. “It sounds a cliché, but it’s true to say that every day was a highlight when you’re working with people and material like this. It’s hard to keep a straight face with a lot of the absurd, often crude, hilarious things we have to say or respond to. The party scenes are always a highlight.”
Starring as Peter’s right hand man Grigor throughout season one and into season two, we see the star take the comedic and satirical approach to a new level with bouts of dry humour and hilarious sequences. With the show now airing, we caught up with Lee talking everything form his performance as Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody and navigating the filming process of The Great in a global pandemic.
Check out the interview below now…
Hey Gwilym, how are you, how has 2021 been for you?
I mean, it’s been less than average for everyone hasn’t it. But it’s made me very appreciative for what I have – most importantly my family and friends. And I feel very lucky to have been able to work through a large part of it.
The pandemic led people to try out loads of new skills, did you try-out anything new?
I ticked off all the lockdown stereotypes! I learned to bake sourdough bread (and have kept it up) and banana bread. I made ramen (wasn’t that a thing for a while??) And I rekindled some old interests that I had let go dormant – I did some writing, I kept a sketch pad again, I dusted off my guitar, I got my hands dirty in the garden, I did some carpentry. But my proudest achievement was demolishing and rebuilding my front garden wall. Bricklaying is a skill I certainly didn’t think I had in my locker, but more than a year on and the wall is still standing!
Talk us through your beginnings, what made you want to get into acting?
It started out as a hobby as a kid – one of many because I was a very active child. I spent a lot of time playing team sports when I was younger and acting felt similar to this in a strange sort of way. It was collaborative, it was a team effort, it was playful and sociable. I absolutely loved it and I felt I could truly let loose and be most myself when I was acting. I was also better at acting than I was at rugby, for instance! So, I joined a drama group where I grew up in the Midlands and through that I got a couple of professional jobs as a teenager. It was all still an adventure and a bit of fun for me, not a career option at all at that stage. But one of the jobs was more of a turning point. I was in an RSC production of Richard III at the age of about 16 and some of the other actors weren’t too far away from me in age – they were perhaps in their early 20’s having just graduated from drama school themselves and I really connected with them. For the first time I saw acting as a viable career path and I saw a route to getting there. So, from that moment onwards it became my focus and I hatched my plan to make my passion my profession.
And now you’re in season 2 of The Great, what was the casting process like?
It was very chilled out! That’s probably got a lot to do with our very laid-back Australian writer and producers, Tony McNamara and Marian MacGowan. Initially, I was sent the script by my agent and I thought it was completely brilliant and original. It was at once hilarious and absurd and in the next moment, profound and poetic. It really excited me. So, I taped for it and that lead to a meeting in the room with the creatives. I assumed this would involve playing some scenes out and taking a few notes on board, but it was really just a chat. It felt like we were just hanging out and getting to know each other rather than working. I’ve since found out that a large focus for Tony and Marian was getting together a group of like-minded people and finding the correct chemistry amongst the actors – it was as important that we should all want to go for a drink after work together as it was that we bring the best performances to the characters. And I think that’s really evident in the show. There’s an openness and playfulness and trust amongst the actors that brings the story to life.
Filming the show, did you face any challenges?
I suppose the biggest and most obvious challenge was filming through a global pandemic. It slowed things down at first. Departments were kept separate and socially-distanced to that made it more difficult to communicate. And it affected the social side of filming as well. But it quickly became normalised and we found ways to work affectively under the restrictions. And I’d say that those challenges can really bring a group of people together in the face of adversity and we found levity amongst it all.
What do you think was your favourite moment when filming?
With a show like this, it’s so hard to pick out individual moments. It sounds a cliché, but it’s true to say that every day was a highlight when you’re working with people and material like this. It’s hard to keep a straight face with a lot of the absurd, often crude, hilarious things we have to say or respond to. The party scenes are always a highlight. Very often we are filming in our character’s little niches –Peter’s crew and Catherine’s crew, for instance. So, when we all get together for the big ensemble scenes, it’s always a fun, often raucous affair. The baby-shower sequence was a personal favourite for the outlandish and hilarious way it was imagined and realised by our production, costume and hair and make-up designers – we were all in the most ridiculous get ups and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
How did you approach your role as Grigor? Was it different to others?
It’s all in the writing with this project. Tony writes with such precision – it has a musical, rhythmical quality. There’s very little improvisation or ad-libbing. So it’s about being absolutely accurate and faithful to the text and knowing that the character is contained within the writing. The challenge is always striking the right tone – not overplaying either the humour or the seriousness of any situation, but trying always to commit to the truth of a moment. The more genuinely upset Grigor is about his best mate so openly sleeping with his wife, for instance, the funnier it is.
Who would you want to play you in a biopic?
Maybe I should return the favour and let Brian May play me?
What are you most excited for? What is next for you?
I have begun to think more and more about developing my own projects and I have a couple of really interesting real-life stories I’d like to tell. I can’t really share what they are yet and it’s a long process, but we’ll see where that goes. In terms of acting, it’s been a while since I performed in the theatre (the last play I did was in 2017) so I don’t want to leave it much longer before getting back on stage. But I’ve been really lucky to have a very varied career working in theatre and on screen with some brilliant writers, directors and actors and I want to continue this (I keep a list of all of the people I dream of working with) I want to continue to learn and to challenge and push myself as much as possible. I’m very greedy – I just want to do it all!