Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Kaitlin Fontana

Promotional poster for THE GREAT.

Kaitlin is joined remotely by Tony McNamara—the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning screenwriter and writer-creator of the satirical Hulu series THE GREAT—to discuss The Great’s journey from theater to television, how smart women take on the status quo, and why the show’s depiction of sex is so refreshing.

Tony McNamara wrote a number of critically acclaimed films and TV series in his native Australia before receiving international attention – as well as an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win – as the screenwriter for the 2018 period piece/black comedy THE FAVOURITE.

His latest project, THE GREAT, is loosely based on the life and times of Russian monarch Catherine the Great. The series, which stars Elle Fanning is the titular Catherine, and Nicholas Hoult as her caddish husband Emperor Peter, is available to stream on Hulu, and was just renewed for a second season.

Listen here:

OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. Seasons Four and Five of the podcast are hosted by Kaitlin Fontana. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

If you like OnWriting, please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to rate us on iTunes.

Read shownotes, transcripts, and other member interviews at

Follow us on social media:
Twitter: @OnWritingWGAE | @WGAEast
Facebook: /WGAEast
Instagram: @WGAEast

Thanks for listening. Write on.


Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media discussing everything from pitching, to production, from process, to favorite lines and jokes and everything in between.

Kaitlin Fontana: Today, I’m joined remotely by Tony McNamara, the Oscar nominated and BAFTA winning screenwriter for The Favourite, and creator and writer of the new satirical Hulu TV series, The Great, loosely based on the life and times of Catherine the Great. The great stars Elle Fanning is the titular Catherine, and Nicholas Hoult as her caddish husband, Emperor Peter. Today, we’re going to talk about The Great’s journey from theater to television, how smart women take on the status quo, and why the show’s depiction of sex is so refreshing. Hi Tony.

Tony McNamara: Hi, Kaitlin.

Kaitlin Fontana: How are you?

Tony McNamara: I’m very well, thank you.

Kaitlin Fontana: Great. So where are you? I can’t see you. I don’t know where you are. Where are you spending your time?

Tony McNamara: [inaudible 00:01:01] serious. I’m in Perth, in Western Australia.

Kaitlin Fontana: Great. Have you been there the whole time for the quarantine?

Tony McNamara: No, not really. We were doing posts in London, but we left there in March and then went back to Sydney for a few months quarantined and then came to visit family. So back in quarantine.

Kaitlin Fontana: Okay. So you’ve traveled maybe more than most have in this time.

Tony McNamara: Yeah. I think so.

Kaitlin Fontana: So, the eternal question I’m getting it a lot, I’m sure you’re getting a lot too, are you finding it easy to be creative during this time? And what tools are you using to find creativity or to write while the world is in this state of arrest?

Tony McNamara: I wasn’t finding it that easy at the start. I was still doing remote posts on The Great to March through half of April. So, that was keeping my busy. And then, I’d promise myself a month off. I started working maybe two weeks ago, actual writing, and I’m finding it okay. I write in coffee shops a lot, so that was hard because no coffee shops were open, or they were open, but they wouldn’t let you sit down. So, that was weirdly disruptive to my routine that I didn’t realize how routine my process was. So for a while, I was like, “If the coffee shops don’t open, I’m going to have to go become a lawyer or something. I don’t know how to write without a coffee shop.” Turned out-

Kaitlin Fontana: What is it? Is it the ambiance or what do you think it is about the coffee shop?

Tony McNamara: I think so and I write by hand, so it feels a bit looser than trying to stare at a blank page in the deafening silence at my office.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s interesting. Have you always written by hand? Is that your way?

Tony McNamara: Yeah. Yeah. I always have. I always write the first draft by hand.

Kaitlin Fontana: Of TV scripts, plays, doesn’t matter what format you’re dealing with?

Tony McNamara: Yeah. Everything, yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: I feel like I would find that frustrating for myself because I’m a much slower writer by hand than I am typer. I feel like my ideas would come faster.

Tony McNamara: Yeah. I think I’m the opposite way around. That’s why I do it. I’m a very slow typer. So my brain gets a little like, “Oh, come on man. Faster.” I’m like, “Sorry, can’t do it.”

Kaitlin Fontana: I feel like there must be some [inaudible 00:03:26] recording or something of coffee shop noises that you could like pipe a smell in that could fake it.

Tony McNamara: Teach my seven year old to be a barista. I could replicate the whole thing. It’s a great idea.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, sure. Seven-year-olds and hot liquids is always a very good combination.

Tony McNamara: Exactly.

Kaitlin Fontana: Well, congratulations on The Great, which I’m watching right now and I’m really enjoying, which is adapted from a 2008 stage play that you wrote. So can you tell me a little bit about first of all, what led you to this story in the first place as a play way back then, and then what made you want to revisit it now?

Tony McNamara: Yeah, as a play, I’d always written sort of contemporary comedies and I had a relationship with Sydney Theater Company and Robyn Nevin who ran it is a great Australian actor and she was like, “You should write me something.” And so I was casting around thinking… I’d done contemporary for a while and I was thinking about doing something different. And then I just caught a little bit of… I can’t remember if it was the doco or a bit of radio. I don’t even remember, or a bit of newspaper, I can’t remember how I found it, but it was really tiny. And it was just a tiny bit about Catherine the Great that peaked my interest. I think is all I knew was the whole scurrilous rumor about the horse, about her.

Tony McNamara: And then I found out that she started women’s education and she’d brought science and invented the roller coaster, and was a very complicated and funny person. And so that seemed like a great character to me. And then it was just like, how would I tell it? Because I wasn’t really a historical drama writer by any stretch. So, it was just like, how will I tell it so I can actually write it? So it just started like that really.

Tony McNamara: And then, making it TV was… I’d been a playwright for a while and I’d done a little bit of TV with friends and I slowly had started to really like it, and had started to run a show and another show and I was sort of into that in a big way. And for a while, Maryanne McGowan, who’s AP on the show, her and I had tried to get it up as a screenplay, as a film, but the play was sort of young Catherine, old Catherine.

Tony McNamara: So it was a difficult thing for a screenplay. And so then I think my wife said, “You love TV, this is an obvious thing for TV.” And I was like, “Oh yeah.” Because the struggle was always like, “There’s so much story, and it’s so much fun.” And I was like, “Oh, 10 hours or 20 or 30. I think that this character has that in them.” And I really had become to like really love that long form of 20 or 30 hours writing.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Yeah. So, on a craft level, how did you go about taking that original stage play, you mentioned just now that there’s young Catherine, old Catherine, and obviously this first series of the show is young Catherine. It’s pretty much chronological, shall we say. How did you go about adapting the story on a craft level, and how did you decide where the story should live for the TV show?

Tony McNamara: I guess I thought I’ll start at the start because it’s easier for my slow brain. I just started where the play started more or less. And I think the first scene of the play is the first scene of the pilot. So I think I just was very interested in terms of the TV show I was like, “Well, what is it that’s interesting, that’s content?” What is this young woman who comes to a country she doesn’t know the language and just drops in and somehow decide she needs to take it over.

Tony McNamara: And I was like, “”Well, that’s just the first couple of scenes for sure.” And then from there it was… The play is only like 45 minutes long, or that section of it, even though there was a screenplay that was obviously longer. And then there was always events in her life I really liked. And so I knew a rough arc of what season one would be and season two. And I knew there were some [inaudible 00:07:30] of things I wanted to hit. And then it was a mix of creating new characters and just feeling out the shape of a much longer way of telling the story. So it was just that really.

Kaitlin Fontana: There’s something interesting that you said in the beginning of that answer, which was, “I had grown to love TV.” So do you feel like that was something that wasn’t immediate for you? TV didn’t peak your interest at the start?

Tony McNamara: No, it wasn’t even that. It was more like you just go where the action is I suppose, and I was at film school, and I had a Sydney Theater Company picked up my first play and then I’d write a play every year or so. I was lucky because the audiences liked them and the artistic director liked them. So I did nine plays in a row there. So it was more like that was my main focus, not that I didn’t love TV because I grew up loving TV. And Australian TV industry is quite small and was very specific at the time about what was possible. And cable started to come in at that time, so I started doing some cable shows and so I began to [inaudible 00:08:43] as possible. So it’s not that it wasn’t instant, it was just my focus was theater for a long time.

Kaitlin Fontana: Well, I think it’s really interesting to see it play out in this television format because as with all royal-based storytelling, it does touch on a lot of these themes that we’re always looking at as a society, power and who gets it, and who doesn’t get it. But I think what this show does on a really interesting level is it goes one level deeper, which you touched on with what Catherine was about, that there’s this war of ideas versus ideology and something that I keep seeing through it that I’m really enjoying, is the ways in which smart women specifically are sidelined by dumb but loud men, particularly when it comes to politics. So I’m wondering obviously those are somewhat universal, but they seem very specific at the moment. So tell me about navigating those themes as you wrote.

Tony McNamara: I was always interested in a historical show that didn’t feel like the audience were just watching something that happened 400 years ago or something. And I’d written the first two episodes and once a week got a room together after that, one of the things I said to the room was, “We always have to think about what is this to a contemporary young woman? And what are the basics of basically I’m in Chicago, I’m in an apartment I woke up and I realized I married the wrong man and he’s an idiot. What do I do about it? But I think it was that. It was always thinking about her in a contemporary sense as a political activist, because she was.

Tony McNamara: She came and she was a catalyst for change. And so a lot of the thematics of the showroom was through that prison. We were like, how does she change things and how she’s surrounded by this basically, patriarchal society to the point where the head of the church is called the patriarch. We were like, “What is that? And what are these guys who’ve just had power handed to them,” including mainly Peter. I was like, “What is that, when a guy gets power handed to him with really no criteria to govern, and really no point to it other than he’s got it, and assumes he should have it.” And she assumes, she knows better and has thought through ideas that he doesn’t think are even worth thinking through.

Tony McNamara: So while I was never super, the show has to be… It’s not an examination of contemporary society, because I think these things have been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was more like, what are those elements of change in politics and ideas and just assumed power, a group of these guys who just assumed they should have the power and have no particular reason to have it, or no particular drive to change anything. So it was all those things fed into it in a way.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, it’s interesting too, I think that obviously an overarching theme and it comes up quite a bit, especially in the early episodes and in the title and in its historical basis is this idea of greatness. And I wonder if you could speak to from own perspective, what do you think makes someone great, and what is greatness to you? Because I found myself kind of interrogating that as I was watching the show, and I’m curious how that came up for you when you were writing.

Tony McNamara: Well, I think it’s something in the show, like in a long game of it, more seasons hopefully explores a bit more, two things I was thinking about with it was what is greatness? Why does she think she’s great, and what is that? And it’s key to a character because it brings with it as sort of delusional optimism, which Al plays with a lot, even in it is this kind of blithe arrogance with it. And so you can’t be great unless you are sort of delusionary optimistic and arrogant and think you know best. And they’re all in a way, if you write them down, they’re not the best qualities in the world for a human being, but it’s how you temper that. And I think as the seasons go on, we look at that and how you deal with that.

Tony McNamara: And, also I think we talked a bit about this idea of a hero myth that there’s a a hero comes along and saves society. And even in the first season, she gathers people to help her. You can’t just come in and save society. It’s that idea. It’s the idea we’ve all got of the King who comes and saves, until the hero rides into town and saves everyone. And it’s like in a way I was driving towards, “Yes, there is that person who can catalyze people, but you still need all those people to change.” If she wants to change the court, she can’t do it unless she gathers support and unless she has ideas, and unless she… So I think we were thinking about those kind of things.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I find those themes really interestingly placed both in, The Great and The Favourite, which you also wrote, which I loved, and they both also share this kind of spirit of playfulness and anachronistic vibes around the ways people speak to each other, particularly in emotional moments and this profane satire that undercuts some of what you were saying before.

Kaitlin Fontana: You don’t want to just watch something that happened 500 years ago. It gives it a little bit of life. It injects it with something new. So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about finding that tone as a writer, how did you arrive at… Because it’s a very delicate balance and I think particularly in the series, there are episodes in which insane, to use a technical term, bat shit stuff happens that is very funny and very rawkus and very lively. And then it toggles between that and some very serious, very dark things. And I think that the tone kind of helps manage that. But I’m wondering how you found that as a writer?

Tony McNamara: Yeah. I think I always wanted it to have a exactly that tone in a way that it could shift between the [inaudible 00:14:46] in a way is mad and batshit, but they’re all human beings at their core with very simple personal desires. So I didn’t want it to play on just one level. I wanted us to be able to shift between the two. So I think it’s mainly like… For me, the time manages itself on a couple of levels. One is the way I write the language and the fact that I only really write, like all my decisions about how we do things, are through character. So that for the actors and that also comes to the casting took a long time and was very, very particular because of the time, because I knew I needed actors who could manage this crazy comedy and had easy chops with that, and just be great dramatic actors as well.

Tony McNamara: And they could shift between the two. If everything I wrote for them was truthful to who they were, they’d be able to do it, because I wouldn’t be asking them to be dishonest in scenes, and just reach for comedy or reach for… So, that was sort of the principle of it. And then it just becomes this slightly relentless day to day managing of not so much script and acting, more like then it’s about what are the costumes? What is the tone of the look of the thing? So then it becomes a hundred different things. How to choose the food, all this stuff. So there’s all these minimum tiny things that you’re always managing about, whether it’s too far or too funny, or whether it’s too dark and too… So you got parameters that you’re trying to keep within that you feel like won’t tip it either way.

Kaitlin Fontana: Even so, I feel like in the end, speaking as a writer myself, and most of the people who listen to this podcast, I feel like there’s a certain point where as you say, you’re managing all these different elements that carry that tone for you. But at the end of the day, I would imagine it has to be a gut check more than anything else. It feels right. It feels like I didn’t go too far one way or another.

Tony McNamara: Yeah. I think that’s why because I trust the actors. I really didn’t have to manage that, because I felt like they were on the same page as me, as well as we spend time casting of course, but we would have coffee and talk. And so I got a sense of where this sense of comedy was and as a person, whether they… So all the actors are in our world of how they view the world in a way. So, that made it easier. And yeah, but a lot of it’s just instinct, which is just me thinking that’s too far and that’s not. There’s no real science to it. It’s just like, yeah, I think that makes sense to me in the world I’ve created. And that doesn’t make sense to me. So there’s a lot of that in terms of design and background and just saying, endlessly that kind of stuff.

Kaitlin Fontana: I think the point about meeting with your actors and speaking with your actors is a good one. I think it’s not always possible, but also a lot of writers are I think sometimes reluctant to give themselves over in that way or to make it that dialogue. And I think that’s just this work and the favored too, is a good lesson and what it means to actually speak to your actors and make them part of the writing process.

Tony McNamara: Yeah. I think it was important because I wanted them to know where I was coming from as well as they read the pilot, I guess. But also, that they’re on board, what I was going to try and do. I do agree about the you want to go, “I’m going to be with these people for nine months. So I want to like them and be happy to get drunk with them at night.” So I want that because you want people you like around you who can do it. And I think the theater thing helps. That helped me really be very comfortable with actors and really understand what they needed to know to help them. So I do think it’s a good thing to be able to know them and know where they’re coming from and just meet in that way, rather than just see the tape and cast them and not really know. And they don’t really know. I mean, I wanted us all to them to be happy with where I came from.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. So one of the things that I think is interesting is that the show has a very interesting way of treating sex and partnership in that they’re not mutually exclusive as they usually are, particularly in period pieces. It’s this destined partnership, love affair, but that The Great has this complicated nuance to who one has sex with, and seeks pleasure from versus who one partners with for political reasons, or for safety. And I think I really admire the freshness with which that is handled. And I wonder if you could speak to the process that went into to that particular aspect.

Tony McNamara: Well, I think it just made sense that we would treat sex different. I just was like, “I don’t want the sex to be all TV sex.” Everyone’s relationship is incredibly dynamic, is different. And everyone’s having sex for different reasons. And you know, Peter and Catherine it’s purely functional. So I wanted that to be sort of comically functional in a slightly dark way. But, when she’s in love, that’s a different kind of sex. And then what Peter has with Charity, who plays Madam Dymova.

Tony McNamara: That’s different because that’s sort of political, but sort of real. And so everyone… I just wanted all the sex to have its own character driven, like everything in the show should be character driven, I was like, “Why isn’t the sex character driven? And why don’t we shoot it in?” When Francesca and I talked about it, we were like, “It’s like basically a giant apartment building you’re not allowed to leave.” So essentially you’re just going to be drinking and having sex with people all the time, because nothing much else to do except go ride your horse. So we were thinking of it in that way, I guess.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that brings up another thing, saying that all these, these people are essentially trapped in a giant apartment building. You put your characters in such peril all the time and really let them dig their own way out, which I find really fascinating. I think it’s a piece of feedback I’ve given other writers before like you made this too easy for your character. And I get it because you love them. You want them to be okay, but there’s a real riskiness and perilousness to this. No one feels safe and not in a Game of Thrones way, in something different. It’s more like they’re not emotionally safe, which is a really interesting way to position your characters. Is there a philosophy at work there, and how do you find that peril for those characters?

Tony McNamara: There’s a philosophy in the sense of it’s not like Game of Thrones, I guess. It’s always like it’s a smaller world and it’s a more… I think the philosophy is what’s fun? When I write, what’s fun to do to a character to me? And what’s also what illustrates the dilemmas of this court. Because in a way, it’s not like a blood… There’s blood, of course, and there’s violence, but it’s pretty casual. And I think it’s like how do you show that the court is a dangerous place, because it’s not also not just physically dangerous, it had to be emotionally dangerous.

Tony McNamara: It had to be emotionally difficult. It’s like Grigor the best friend, it’s emotionally difficult for him to live in this place, despite his level of privilege and his level of… It’s like that’s a more interesting thing to me as a writer to write about. A guy who has to put up with his best friend, sleeping with his wife and not really understand what it is, and also still love his best friend and be on the edge all the time, just seemed fun.

Tony McNamara: A lot of it’s driven by you think it’s fun as a writer. You’re like, “That would be fun to write.” So a lot of it’s driven by that, but on one level, it’s also driven by if she’s going to change these people, we have to understand who they are and what their pressure points are and what their dilemmas are, I guess.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. On that same note, this show has a rather comfortable relationship with death, which is Russian in a certain sense, it’s very Russian lit, and it’s also something that I found kind of oddly cathartic during a global pandemic, which I know was not obviously not your intention because you wrote it before that, but I’m curious about whether that arose out of the back story, the history at work here, or was that something you discovered in the writing or something that you knew you wanted in there from the get?

Tony McNamara: I knew I wanted the world to have this casual brutality and that a human life didn’t mean as much in a way to us. And because people were used to as they were, it’s historically true. There was a kind and there was a sort of fatalism, which is I guess, the Russian fatalism, but it’s like they often say in the show, we had this thing, which we used to say too in the room. I was like, “This is Russia.” Things aren’t going to go well sometimes and you can’t expect them to, which I think is a Russian thing.

Tony McNamara: I think that’s also slightly an Australian, we have a fatalistic sense of humor in a way. So I think it’s probably that as well, coming from my side, when a writer or two in the room who are Australian.

Kaitlin Fontana: Sure, sure. And to that point, I wanted to ask you about the process of choosing the writers to be in the room, because as you said, you wrote the first few episodes, it’s obviously based on your play, but a lot of people listening to this are going to be writers who want to be staffed on shows. And I wonder if you could give us some insight into what you in particular, are looking for when you’re trying to choose someone to write on a show, or this show in particular perhaps?

Tony McNamara: Well, I guess you’re trying to create a brain bigger than your own. On this show in particular, obviously I was looking for a really strong female perspective on the show, and young. I really wanted a very young perspective and also political. So you’re doing this mix. So I wanted to a young, really fresh voice and a take on the world that was very much attached to being that age.

Tony McNamara: Because she was very young and I wanted that to be important in the show. And then people who were really good, quite political I wanted and who are good at research, because I don’t do any. So, with an writer’s eye, they can bring things in and throw things on the table and then we can chop it up and see and filter it, and see if any of that works in the tone of the show.

Tony McNamara: And then you’re looking for experienced people who know our room and can keep a second watch on a bunch of things you’re always looking for, structure and overall arc and where things are going. I didn’t have a big room, but I just had three or four I think. And I was just that I’m just trying to bring all the things on I’m half really.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Yeah. I like the idea of constructing a big brain as being a metaphor for a writer’s room. I’ve never heard that before.

Tony McNamara: I think I noticed it when I was just staffing and not… I was like, “Oh, when this works, it’s like we’re a better brain than anyone in this room could be even working on a show that had really great writers who all went on to do great things. I was like, “Oh, we’re much better sometimes.”

Tony McNamara: And you know what a room is like, sometimes it’s a joy and sometimes it’s the schizophrenic mess. So, it’s just those moments where you built something and you go, “Well, I could never have thought of that by myself.” And we’ve built this idea that’s really great. I mean, that’s what you’re looking for. I mean, there’s sort of rarer than you want, I guess, but that’s the concept anyways.

Kaitlin Fontana: As I said before you wrote the screenplay for The Favourite and I saw that you are working with Yorgos Lanthimos again, this time on a Western adaptation. So I’d be curious to hear the relationship between the two of you as writer and director, and how that developed over the The Favourite and what it was like to craft a relationship with someone who has this obvious, very specific voice. And how that’s playing out with this new project?

Tony McNamara: Yeah. Well, it’s just a lucky accident, for me anyway. We found each other, we just hit it off straight away from our first phone call, we knew, it was a quick phone call, I think, which freaked the producers out, because he was like, “Yep, he can do it.” I was like, “I’d do this.” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” And then from there, we just spent a long time writing the… I’d write the script and I would go to London or Italy and hang out with him and we would just have lunch and walk around and talk. There’s a lot of lunching, so we’re both big food guys.

Tony McNamara: So, I just did that. And at the same time I was adapting another book for him at the time. So we’ve worked on two movies together now and just the Western’s the third one, which is just a good relationship. It’s just like we get each other. We’re different. He’s obviously brilliant and he’s free. He’s just the person who’s got great freedom. There’s never in himself. He’s never conscious of anything except what he thinks is cool to do. And what he thinks makes sense to him and how he wants things to be. In the best version, he’s an auteur, but he’s certainly not a dictator. People misunderstand that about him. He’s a person who, I guess he would say, gathers like-minded people around.

Tony McNamara: So there’s a lot of freedom working with him. In a way it’s like creatively really for me, it really unlocked a lot of creativity in me, and a lot of try anything. And so he brings that in and he brings that with everyone in a way, but he knows what he wants. So it’s a nice mix of that I suppose, creatively of he knows what he wants to do and you’re doing it with him and you [inaudible 00:29:50].

Tony McNamara: As a writer, I’m with him a lot. And then both of us were living in London for the last year or two. So, we saw a lot of each other working on this new thing. So, it’s just like a good… I just think sometimes you get lucky and you get a relationship that makes a lot of sense to you. And I think when I first, he hadn’t made Lobster or Deer when we started Favourite, he’d just moved to London. But I’d watched Dogtooth and Alps. And even then I was like, “Oh, well that’s the director I just want to work with, because he’s just got his own view of the world and his own voice.” And that is a great thing to see, and he’s a good guy. We’re very good friends now.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. So who are your writing heroes when you were growing up? Who did you look to? Who did you admire?

Tony McNamara: I suppose in television, I really admired Larry Gelbart a lot and he was a big hero of mine and then theater-wise, the sort of angry men, Edmundson, John Osbourne, and Albee and people like that. Probably Albert Albee, I really, really loved his plays. I think any writers with rhythm, was a big deal for me. So in a strange way, it’s a weird thing to say. I sometimes didn’t care what it was about as long as the rhythm was amazing, because that was a real obsession to me when I was a younger writer was how to create rhythm with writing.

Tony McNamara: And I think because of theater as well, you sit with an audience and you know if you’ve got them or you haven’t got them, and it’s a brutal experience at times when you haven’t. So I was sometimes like, “Oh, rhythm is really important because it keeps them in.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I feel like that plays out in the writing that I’ve seen of yours, that there’s an obvious rhythm to The Favourite, of course. And then I think The Great, it has its own. I think the characters each have their own kind of little rhythms and they bump up against each other. Do you have other heroes now? Are there people you’ve sort of stumbled upon along the way that people that have come into your… And I know one of the things we’re doing here is tearing down the idea of a hero, as you said earlier, people that you look to or you’ve learned things from along the way?

Tony McNamara: Yeah. Well, I think it’s like Joan Didion’s a big hero of mine and Mary Oliver and for similar reasons in a way. And also just that clear eyedness in a way, and there’s sort of sharpness, I guess. Jenji Kohan when Orange is the New Black, I thought it was at the time, such an amazing show for a comedy drama. They’re strange. They come out when you need them, I think. For me, I sort of grow out of people and into people depending where I’m at, I suppose.

Tony McNamara: And it’s like when as a young kid, of course as a young guy, I liked Charles Bukowski and then I hadn’t read any for 20 years. And then I found a poem of his the other day. I always liked his poetry more than anything. And suddenly, I’m like, “Ah, that’s amazing.” So, I think when I was young, I liked the toughness of it and now I get the tenderness of it underneath it. So it’s just so those things change, I guess, as you get older.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. You interact with it as a different person at different points.

Tony McNamara: Yeah, exactly.

Kaitlin Fontana: Obviously, there’s a big political movement and moment happening in the United States specifically, but it is happening across the world, as we speak. And I wonder what you, as someone who now you’re a show runner, you’re someone who has “power”. One of the themes we’ve been talking about, and I wonder what you see your role personally, as in this new moment, it’s not a new moment, but this moment we’re all moving towards together. What do you see as your role in crafting this new world?

Tony McNamara: Well, I guess I don’t really know. I guess it’s like the grade is about change. So I guess my thing has been politically is that how do we change because we need to, and how do you affect change that’s effective, I guess is what the show becomes about as it goes on. So I think for me, it’s like that. It’s transforming this rightful passion and rage into actual change that’s meaningful because I think it’s that thing of… Well in the show, we’re always like, these guys don’t go away easy. You know what I mean? They’ve had it for a long time. People who have power like clinging onto power. And even if they cling on make people change things. And so I’m interested in that.

Tony McNamara: I’m a big student of the sixties in America and civil rights and how change… And we talked a lot about activism and change in our room. We had two boards running. One was history and one was contemporary activism because we saw her as a kind of activist. So I think for us as writers, it’s just how to reflect what’s going on in the world, through your prism and your point of view, I suppose, as much as possible.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. Well said, thank you very much, Tony, for being here today and talking about The Great. Congratulations again, and I hope there are many more seasons to come.

Tony McNamara: Oh, thanks very much. Me too.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at You can follow the Guild on social media at wgaeast, and you can follow me on Twitter @Kaitlinfontana. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.

Back to top