Getty ImagesLarry Busacca
Saoirse Ronan’s new film Mary Queen of Scots has it all: super powerful women, glorious royal outfits, gory battles, and a beheading. Plus, it’s a true story. Mary was a sixteenth-century monarch who at just 19 fronted up to all the oppressive male opposition Scotland and England had to offer, claimed her right to the Scottish throne, and enraged a whole bunch of people. Pretty much the original Khaleesi…without the fire part.
Margot Robbie plays Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, who kept her regal powers by refusing to get married and have a child. With an iron will she survived the dreaded pox, didn’t pull any punches, and stalked about her castle with patchy hair (probably caused by her lead-based face powder). Secretly, Elizabeth wanted to be Mary’s friend, but all that courtly scheming got in the way, and poor Mary ended up losing her head…literally. After having a son and losing her Scottish throne, Mary was beheaded at Elizabeth’s request in 1587.
In between shooting the upcoming Little Women (she plays everyone’s favorite scrappy March, Jo), Ronan told us how she channelled all her rage into Mary, the kind of rude behavior she won’t tolerate, and the surprising emotions that erupted the first time she and Robbie saw each other on set.
She’s had to fight to be heard, just like Mary did.
I think we’ve all been in situations like that—hopefully not that extreme—but what I hate is when people talk over me, that really drives me nuts. It was great to be able to channel all of that. For me personally, I don’t allow people to talk over me, but I’ll be in situations sometimes where they’ll certainly try. I believe that it doesn’t necessarily always come down to gender—a lot of these discussions we’ve been having can apply to men and women. But I do know that women are certainly talked over, and their opinions are discounted more often than guys’. But also, you can go, “No, actually, I’m going to carry on talking until you listen.” It’s a shame that you have to put up that much fight, but I think that’s something that we need to do.
Working with a female director, Josie Rourke, was a bonus.
What’s so lovely about working with other women is you do feel that support, and you do get that confidence of having your girls with you, and that is a real thing. I love pretty much all the men that I work with—they’re gorgeous, and I’ve learned an awful lot from them—but there are a select few that definitely belong to a boys’ club, and having your girls with you to have your back definitely does make a difference when you need to fight a bit harder to be heard.
Seeing Margot Robbie in their one scene together was super emotional.
We had shot the first half of the scene without seeing each other at all during the day and throughout rehearsals, so she didn’t know what I looked like as Mary, and I didn’t know what she looked like as Elizabeth. Josie shot us while we reacted to each other in real time. It was Margot’s last day on the set and my first day, so there was the emotion of that—I was starting something I’d waited five years to do, she was finishing something that had been physically and emotionally very demanding, and there was just that adrenalin and the buzz that comes from getting to do it all right now. That’s really cool and that was an incredible feeling, and it came out in tears, with us essentially uncontrollably sobbing and shaking. I’m guessing they didn’t probably didn’t use that first take!
We should be able to make life choices without feeling guilty.
What’s interesting about having Mary and Elizabeth, these two very different rulers, in one story, is that it shows how you either needed to be on one end of the spectrum or the other. In order to stay in leadership and power, or just even to stay alive, you [had to give up being] a mother, to be a woman, to be a lover—all these things that she absolutely had every right to be. Or you had to give all of that up and become someone who’s essentially shut down that human part of herself, and closed herself off from the world—because [being a mother meant] having your power being taken away from you, which is exactly what happened to Mary. She had a son, and all the power was given to a nine-month-old child. It’s insane.
I think there’s definitely still a thing, that is hopefully getting better—and I feel like it will with my generation, but there’s a guilt that can come from being either a mother, or someone who doesn’t want to have kids, or a mother who stays at home, or a mother who wants to go to work. There always seems to be this guilt attached to whatever decision you make, and that still exists now.
Jo in Little Women is all of us in 2018.
Jo is an icon to so many people. I’ve grown up reading [about] her, and I’ve grown up seeing different portrayals of her, and she is such a heroine. She’s more similar to a girl in this day and age, in 2018, than she is a girl of the 1860s… She’s someone who probably behaved more like me, where she slouches, and is loud, and makes funny faces, and all of that, and that’s something that women weren’t allowed to do, and weren’t expected to do.
She has this freedom in her character, and I think women have always really responded to that whenever they read her. And so have I. Getting the chance to play her is a total honor, and the fact that she’s essentially a fictionalized version of Louisa May Alcott is incredible. I feel very, very lucky.
Mary Queen of Scots is out on December 7.