Mary Queen of Scots
by director Josie Rourke
When Mary Queen of Scots arrived on the shores of her native Scotland to retake her crown, she was eighteen years old. She had already been Queen of France, and was now the young widow of the French King. In seven short years of reign in Scotland, she endured more trials and battles—literal, emotional and political—than most leaders cram into a lifetime.
I wanted to tell the story of this remarkable Queen, and I wanted to do it with Saoirse Ronan. Saoirse had been attached to the project since she was eighteen and—like Mary’s reign in Scotland—has waited seven years to bring that story to the screen. She kept faith with Mary, and through her patient waiting, she matured as an actor. One of the great joys for me, as a director, was discovering the huge range of expression and feeling to which Saoirse has access. Like all great actors, Saoirse can travel 1,000 emotional miles with you in a single scene.
I’ve always loved acting, and actors; that’s what drew me into theatre directing. In theatre, you get the rehearsal time to explore and build a performance. We managed to rehearse for two weeks before shooting Mary Queen of Scots. Both Saoirse and Margot Robbie (who plays Elizabeth) spent time working with me to explore Beau Willimon’s script and the characters. For Margot, this performance is a physical transformation. Like Queen Elizabeth I, Margot spent up to three hours in hair and make-up each morning! But there was also a deep build from within. Margot’s Elizabeth is surprisingly vulnerable, uncertain, dependent on the advisors around her and—unlike Mary—she delays rather than decides. This is a very young Elizabeth, only three years into her reign. The contrast between these two women is at the heart of the story.
We’re talking here about two of the great women of history, and the countries that they governed while incredibly young. This is a big movie, with an epic scale. For a theatre director, this was large project to take on as a debut film but I’ve always been driven by big challenges. My work in theatre has always been cinematic. I tend to work in either very intimate or gigantic theatre spaces—one show I directed was in a drill hall the size of a New York block. I’ve put an entire tenement building on stage. I've directed a Shakespeare play in 7,000 gallons of water. So when it came to film, the chance to march 300 soldiers through the majestic Scottish Highlands, led by Mary Queen of Scots, was a glorious moment.
In theatre, or in film, it’s either great scale or extreme intimacy that drive me. My own theatre in London is tiny. It’s the closest I can get to an actual close-up. For me, the key moments in Mary Queen of Scots are a handful of close-ups, in which both Saoirse and Margot do some of the finest acting I’ve witnessed in a rehearsal room, on stage, on screen—just about anywhere. And as a theatre director, coming to film for the first time, it’s incredible to see those moments captured forever. That is a huge revelation and joy to me, and it has got me hooked!