Though Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie appear together on the movie posters and billboards for Mary Queen of Scots -- standing side by side in their 16th-century gowns and ruffs -- they only share a single scene in the costume drama. Instead, Mary Stuart (Ronan), heir to the Scottish crown, and Elizabeth I (Robbie), Mary's cousin and rival to the throne, spend years corresponding by letter while scheming behind each other's backs. (See an exclusive clip from the film, above.)
To make their one scene as impactful as possible, director Josie Rourke kept her actors apart throughout rehearsals and production, until the day came to film the centerpiece meeting of the two monarchs. "When Saoirse rips down that curtain, they are looking at each other as Elizabeth and as Mary for the first time," Rourke says. "That is part drama, part fiction, frankly part documentary, watching them [lay] eyes on each other for the first time as these two queens."
With Mary Queen of Scots in select theaters, Rourke phoned ET to discuss why it was important for a woman to tell this story of dueling women and how the cast and crew reacted to Robbie's Elizabethan transformation.
ET: How did this project come to you, and what drew you to want to make this your directorial debut?
Josie Rourke: There are two words, and they are: Saoirse Ronan. She was attached to the movie, and it is my strong recommendation that if anyone ever offers you anything with Saoirse Ronan attached, you should do it immediately. That's the thing that really pulled me in. And then, Saoirse's passion for Mary. She'd been attached to the project for five, six years at that point, so it was something she was really captivated with. I went to visit her in Dublin and we went for this long walk by the sea and she slipped her arm in mine and said, "I've been waiting for so long to play this queen. You will make this movie, won't you?" That gave me a mission. I'm very driven by that as a woman and as a director, [by] a passion for Saoirse, a passion for the story, finding this terrific book by John Guy that just allows us to take Mary much more seriously than previous accounts. I managed to get Beau Willimon on board to write this amazing screenplay, the screenplay got Margo attached and we were making a movie.
Do you know what drew Saoirse to you, then? Why she wanted you for this?
I know that one of the things she really enjoyed was me bringing some of my expertise in the theater to our process. We rehearsed for two weeks. We worked very intensively with this amazing choreographer who's become a collaborator of mine, Wayne McGregor, to just put everyone in their bodies and work out how to move like these monarchs in that period of history and in those amazing clothes. That was all very enjoyable in the prep. I think she was keen to work with a woman filmmaker on this woman's story.
What was your research process like once you'd signed on to the project?
I'd already read some biographies of Mary and what I really needed to find was the take -- the historian and the book that would make sense of this queen -- and [then] I found Dr. John Guy's book, which is so extraordinary. He writes very vividly, but he's also a forensic historian, who went very carefully into the archives and actually managed to show how there's been a lot of "fake news" about Mary. She's been really maligned, I think, through history. She's been painted as someone who was a hopeless leader or a bit of a femme fatale, and he found out how that really wasn't true and [how] from even the time in which Mary was still alive, Cecil, Guy Pearce's character in the movie, was trying to paint her in a terrible light and show that she was incompetent. And she absolutely wasn't. She was brought down by a series of conspiracies.
I appreciate that this film takes a genre that has largely catered to men and not only puts women at the forefront, but does so not at the expense of femininity. Especially in the character of Mary, who displays such duality of femininity and formidability.
You know, just a little tour through IMDb, I think you would be surprised how few period movies have been directed by women. It's simply not very many.
I'm not surprised by that. It's unfortunate, but I'd figure as much.
But things are changing, aren't they? That's the great thing about a first-time director being interested with a movie of this scale by Working Title and by Focus [Features], that actually they took confidence and had a need for a woman to tell the story of these two women. If that has brought out, as you say, femininity, the humanity, the nuance of those two queens, that's simply because that's a woman telling the story of two women.
There's a queerness to the film that I appreciate, too, that you haven't shied away from representing queer characters of the time period.
And they've been a little strangely absent from period movies in the past, haven't they? Specifically this period, which was an incredibly queer period. For example, there was a French king -- actually the one who reigned one king after Mary's first husband -- where the French court was entirely gay on Sundays. That's just, like, a thing that they did. [Laughs.] I think we can sometimes presume that the further back in history we go, the less liberal we are, but actually that's not the case, at all.
You know, Henry Darnley's nickname in the Scottish court was the Great Cock Chick. People cross-dressed a lot in the period -- think about Shakespeare plays and all that cross-dressing, men dressing up as women. Mary and her Maries, the four women around her all called Mary, would dress up as boys and go in disguise through the streets of Edinburgh. It was an incredibly fluid period in terms of gender and sexuality. We think Shakespeare's sonnets were written to a man, like, that's just an aspect of that period that I think we have a responsibility to share.
Saoirse brought this project to you, but what is it about her as an actress that you knew she was the right person to embody Mary?
Fundamentally, her greatness as an actor. I think she is, although still incredibly young, clearly one of our greats. The idea of how many stunning performances stretch in front of her, given that she's 24 years old, is extraordinary. This is the first time that she's played a woman in the fullest sense onscreen, so the opportunity and the honor of being the first director to work with her on that performance was tremendously exciting. And as an Irish woman, Saoirse always says she really wanted to portray a Celtic queen and there's a very personal, quite vivid connection to her own history and heritage in that that made it very special.
And what was it that drew you to Margot?
You have in Saoirse one of the great actors of her generation, and what I needed was another great actor of her generation to play opposite her. And I've been convinced of Margot's greatness since I saw her in Wolf of Wall Street. Both of those two women have a strength and an ability that I find breathtaking and inspiring, and the idea of putting them opposite each other on screen in this extraordinary scene -- and that is an eight-minute scene that is just on them and just on their acting --was really the thing I was most excited about, the thing Beau was most excited to write, the thing they were most excited to act, and the moment I really wanted to direct.
So, just the vivid imagination as we were prepping of what that scene was going to be was one of the things that really drove me to work very hard to get Margot to come aboard on this project, and she has humility. She said, "Why me?" Like, "Cate Blanchett has played Elizabeth. She's my hero. Can I do this?" Margot's humility, lack of vanity -- if you see what happens to her in terms of getting the pocks in that movie -- and also incredible strength and skill as a performer made her the essential person for this role.
Margot has that incredible Red Queen transformation over the course of the movie. What was the process of figuring out what that look would be?
I love that thing when people compare her to the Red Queen, as if the Red Queen was not based on Elizabeth I. That's got completely flipped around. [Laughs.] That always makes me laugh so much. So, that's a big part of the amazing look of Jenny Shircore, our hair and makeup designer and, like all great actors, Margot has no vanity, so when Jenny and I were like, "We'd like to do this with the pocks," she was like, "Brilliant. I'm in. How far do we want to go? I'm completely up for it." She was fantastic at that.
But also, there's a thing that I find incredibly moving. Once she's had the pocks, on that journey through the film, incrementally you can see her become that figure of Elizabeth I that we recognize so much in that iconic portraiture, with the white face and the vivid red hair. But also what you can see, on a really kind of simple human level, is her skin beginning to heal, is how vulnerable she feels, how she's sort of using cover-up here and there, like we all do if we wake up and have to go into work with a massive zit. There's this basic human detail about how conscious we all are of our skin and how that presents, which is amplified by a thousand when you think that this woman has to stand in front of rooms and be one of the crowned heads of Europe.
What was your reaction the first time you saw her on set in full prosthetics, wigs, costume, makeup...?
I was more observing of other people's reactions, because Jenny and I worked so closely together with Margot. I was in the makeup room testing and building those looks very early on. So, the cool thing for me was to go through the kind of careful construction and experimentation that led to what we were doing and that was part of my process. But it was a visceral shock for everybody, I think, and certainly what happened is I got much more used to Margot as Elizabeth than Margot as Margot. Because that's where I spent the majority of my time with her, so now when I see Margot looking like Margot, part of my brain is searching for Elizabeth I.
What do you remember from that first day you had them both on set shooting the central scene?
The thing that everyone needs to know about that is that was Margot's last day and Saoirse's first day, because we shot all the English stuff then moved up to Scotland to do all those fantastic locations up there. It is probably the most emotional day I've spent as a director. This amazing contrivance that we had to keep them apart all the way through rehearsals and through shooting on that day, so that when Saoirse ripped down that curtain, they are looking at each other as Elizabeth and as Mary for the first time. We made sure to line it up so we were on both of them and could cover both those reactions at the same time, so that is part drama, part fiction, frankly part documentary, watching them absorb and react and respond to each other and lay eyes on each other for the first time as these two queens.
Mary Queen of Scots premiered at AFI Fest and received such a wonderful reception there that people started buzzing about the Oscars. As a first-time filmmaker, what is it like to get that sort of reception?
The first thing to say is that I'm still busy getting over my luck at being handed a feature film to direct with these amazing people in it. The journey that I'm on has had a dream-like quality to it for about the past 12 months. I'm incredibly happy to see the brilliance of these two women and the craft in that movie recognized because one of the things that I know as a first-time filmmaker is that I was supported right to the hilt by people who have incredible expertise and experience. I could not have made a film to this standard without them. So, to see them start to receive buzz and recognition is incredibly gratifying, but we'll just see what happens. As I say, I'm still getting over my luck at being handed a movie to direct.