The real Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart probably never met. But when you cast a film with Margot Robbie as Elizabeth, and Saoirse Ronan as Mary, it seems only right that they come together, if only for one scene. Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots may briefly put the two monarchs face-to-face, but otherwise, staying true to the characters’ separate lives, Ronan and Robbie didn’t meet on set at all until they were on camera together—a decision Ronan calls a mutual “experiment”—and one that turned out to perfectly serve a tale of rivalry, isolation and oppressed female power.
Saoirse, you signed on to play Mary six years ago, but what did you know about this story going into it?
Saoirse Ronan: I didn’t know much, really. I learned a very small amount about Mary Queen of Scots when I was in school, and there was so much about her that had been entered into the history books that just wasn’t really true. So my perception of her was that she was this young girl who was way in over her head and didn’t really know how to rule, and consequently, she got executed eventually, which of course isn’t the real story at all. So when I finally did start to do research when I signed on to do the film years ago, I realized she came from a very well-respected yet very fiery family, the Stuarts, who had been ruling for hundreds of years. It was very exciting to know that there was another side to the story that hadn’t been told.
Margot Robbie: I knew very little. I had an image of Elizabeth in my mind, the way we see her at the end of this film with the white face and the red lips and elaborate dresses. That tableau existed in my mind but I had very little context for it, so I really was starting at the beginning, and Josie was incredible at helping me put together a timeline, and gave me a catch-up of the history up until that point. It was fascinating because I just thought about the time period in a very different way. I’d assumed Elizabeth must have had a very easy life as a monarch, and quickly discovered that being a monarch actually meant your life was constantly in danger. And I think for Elizabeth that knowledge was deep-seated, and grew into paranoia over the years. You get to see that in the film as she does play her hand very cautiously. She is constantly calculating and mitigating the risks.
Both women were often dismissed or controlled by men. Did you and Josie discuss this as a modern, topical piece?
Saoirse Ronan: One of the things that Josie had said to me pretty much right away was that she wanted the film to feel quite young and youthful. And I think so often these films can feel a bit stodgy; something that isn’t really relatable to young people. What was really important for all of us to remember, especially for myself and the girls playing the four Marys [her ladies-in-waiting], was that they were 19-year-old girls, and they came back to Scotland and just took over. They had parties, music and dancing, and Scotland and the Scottish court wasn’t really ready for that. So that was something she really wanted to incorporate into our version of it. Also the idea—and I know Margot had this discussion with her too—that even if they were rulers, they were female rulers, and they were considered more so than anything to just be something that can produce an heir that will then take over from them, which is exactly what happened to Mary. As soon as her son was born, all of her power was taken away from her, but Elizabeth had the smarts to know that would be the case. I suppose it’s shining a light on women in power, and how it’s a much more complicated thing, even nowadays for a woman.
Margot Robbie: It was clear that Josie wanted to inject an element of youth and acknowledge that they were very young people, but with huge responsibilities. But at the same time, they are exploring their sexuality and they’re falling in love, and they’re feeling insecure. On top of the high stakes of being a monarch at that time, there was the more simple problem of, “I’m in love with this person, are they going to love me back?” Which I thought was really fun, and I had a lot of fun exploring the relationship Elizabeth has with Joe [Alwyn]’s character [Robert Dudley]. In history, it’s recorded that Elizabeth made a weird request for her lover to go and marry Mary, which you see in the film. It was interesting to look at it through a political lens and try to understand, was there a calculated move there, or was she young and in love and feeling extremely insecure, and did something a bit stupid. When you have those conversations, you’re humanizing them, and realizing that they’re not so different to you and I, that they’re making mistakes and messing up, and that’s what makes them relatable.
You had totally separate shooting schedules, except for your one scene together. How did that help you?
Saoirse Ronan: It really helped me. It was Margot and I that both agreed from the very beginning that we didn’t want to see each other, and we thought it would be quite a fun experiment to try, because I had certainly never tried that before. Margot started before I did, and our meeting scene was the very first thing that I shot. To know in the three weeks that I had off, all of the English court stuff was being shot, and that this whole world was existing that I didn’t really know anything about was exhilarating. You were sort of guessing what they were up to, and who was in alliance with who, and it just meant that when we did finally do that meeting scene, we were acting definitely, but it was personal. It became a very, very emotionally loaded day for us.
Margot Robbie: The isolation and the loneliness Elizabeth feels is definitely a huge part of her story, and I think it helped so much to know Saoirse and the four Marys had this amazing bond and they were always having so much fun. My character doesn’t have scenes where she can giggle and have fun. It was great, because I would sit there and just be thinking, “I just want to be hanging out with girlfriends and doing fun things.” I was sitting alone in a room doing things with flowers. It was about imagining what the other one is up to, and feeling that pang of envy.
And I really think, at least in this iteration of Elizabeth, I wanted to play up the idea that she wanted to live vicariously through Mary, and loved hearing the way Mary ran her court. She loved hearing how Mary was falling in love, getting married, having a baby, and had all her friends and all her parties and was ruling in a way she knew she was never going to be capable of. Part of it was that Mary’s way was the wrong way, and was ultimately going to be dangerous to her. But on the other hand, Elizabeth was wishing it could be her.
Did you find people reacted differently to you as the make-up became more extreme when Elizabeth had smallpox?
Margot Robbie: It’s interesting. And it’s not just on this film. I’ve done films where I’ve played someone who’s pregnant, and it’s interesting that everyone unconsciously tries to help you step out of a door, or they move differently around you. They have this instinct to touch your belly, even though they know perfectly well it’s not real and we’re on a film set. And likewise, playing Elizabeth, when I would go to set in my track suit, we’d all chat about our weekends or whatever, and then I’d come back in full royal regalia, and suddenly everyone’s standing a little taller and saying good morning, and being timid. And then on the flip side, when she had smallpox, the makeup definitely looked painful. People looked away a little bit, like it was uncomfortable to look at Elizabeth, which is great, because it was a small glimpse of how she might have felt at the time.
You’ve both consistently chosen complex, unconventional roles, and the only way to get more good female roles is to put more women in positions of power.
Margot Robbie: Yes. It’s one thing to say we want to see women in these roles, but you need to be a part of the conversation when those choices are made, when who’s getting hired is the actual conversation. So, I think it’s really important that we have people in those positions who want to make those choices, and when it comes down to it, they actually do say, “Yes, I’m going to hire this person over this person who’s had more of an opportunity so I’ve seen more of their work.” I love that Working Title gave this movie to Josie. She’s obviously an amazing director in the theater world already, but I think it was incredible for them to say, “We want this to be her film, and we’re not going to make her go do a micro-budget indie drama.” Because that’s generally the only space up-and-coming female directors are allowed, and it’s really hard to go beyond that. I love that they’re like, “Yeah, here’s a movie with battle sequences, and a lot of money behind it, and a broader scope.” We just need people to be brave enough to make those choices, I think.
Was there an inciting incident when you thought, “I’m going to have to become a producer or director to get the roles I want”?
Saoirse Ronan: For me I think it was a slightly different thing because I started when I was young, so there wasn’t that pressure. But one of the things that I did experience during my teenage years, and every female warned me, “When you get to about 18, the roles just stop and nothing comes in and there will be nothing interesting out there.” And they were right.
I definitely had a few years where I just didn’t work, really. I did little things, which was great. Or I took smaller parts, which I absolutely loved, and was so happy to do them. But, I made the decision to basically not work at all instead of taking something on that I didn’t believe in. Having said that, I was very lucky that I could do that because I was a kid and didn’t have bills to pay, or kids to look after, or any of that sort of stuff. But that was definitely something I experienced.
Margot, you have your own production company, do you also plan to direct?
Margot Robbie: Yes, our company is going really well. Next year will be a big year with the introduction of our TV show, and two, hopefully three, films. On an acting level, I really would love to do theater. I say that every year, and every year, somehow, I end up not getting a chance to do it. I do want to direct down the track. I just need a little more time.
You’re also playing Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, how has that experience been?
Margot Robbie: Sadly, I can’t say much. I’ll get in a lot of trouble!
Saoirse, you’re shooting Little Women right now. What fresh ideas did you want to bring to the role of Jo?
Saoirse Ronan: Jo is essentially Louisa May Alcott, and we wanted to honor Louisa as much as we did Jo, and Louisa’s real life. There’s obviously so much written about her character, either in her own work or in letters between her and her family that we’ve had access to. So I think it’s been about incorporating the character of the real-life Jo, essentially, into this version.
And what’s next for you?
Saoirse Ronan: I want to go back to the UK and do some stuff over there, and shoot in Ireland as well, and find really good Irish films to develop with Irish filmmakers.