Saoirse Ronan first came across the screenplay for Mary Queen of Scots when she was in her teens. Back then the story was presented differently. Before the film went into production last year, with Josie Rourke helming the film and Beau Willimon penning the screenplay, Ronan had read more about Mary Stuart and spent time in Scotland to get into the heart and soul of Queen Mary.
In following her return to Scotland as a young widow, to reclaim her right to the throne, Rourke’s version paints a human side to the Queen who arrives as a threat Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). While the men around them conspire, it is the two women who hold all the power, but alas, in order for one to reign, the other must be sacrificed. Rourke’s depiction of Queen Mary as she walks to her death is a devastating moment.
I caught up with Saoirse Ronan for a brief chat earlier this week.
You first got involved when you were 18 years old and production began nearly 6 years later. In the meantime, what did you do to get into the shoes of Mary Queen of Scots?
I read a lot of John Guy. He had written the book that our script is based on. We had a really great rehearsal with him. I spent time up in Scotland over the time I was waiting to do it. I also didn’t look at anyone else’s version of her.
Wayne McGregor who was the choreographer on the film was really helpful with everything. But when it came to finding her physicality and figuring out how she would move, with dancing, with every move that you do, you have to finish it so there’s a beginning and an end. When he would see a thought come into my head and I’d drop it, he would pull me up on it and he would say, “No. Finish the thought.” Something about him making me do that meant that Mary became this very motivated and driven young girl.
A lot of that just came with working with Wayne. That and the accent as well.
What was the most fascinating thing you learned about her?
I think what I absolutely loved about her was how personable she was and how much she loved to be with people. She wasn’t secluded and she didn’t isolate herself. She loved her friends. She was a girl. She was a young person who, as much as she possibly could, have quite a normal outlook on life. She had her four best mates with her from the age of five. They came with her wherever she went. She fell in love. She fancied guys. She defied the lords around her when she felt that she wanted to go down one path and they wanted her to go down another. She was just a very well-rounded person.
I think sometimes the issues with the adaptation of these characters in any period drama, they can get a bit stiff sometimes and end up being a two-dimensional version of who they really why.
That’s why I loved The Crown and that’s why Claire Foy was so brilliant. She gave her humanity and reminded us that there is a woman called Elizabeth. Reading that book, working with the girls, and bringing myself and Mary together was such a lovely thing. I loved how much fun she had. She loved poetry. She loved to go hunting and hawking. She used to cross-dress when they were in Scotland and she’d go out dressed as a boy so she could enjoy the city. She wanted to enjoy her life and it just gave me so much to add to her.
I loved what Josie did with the film in that we did get to see her let her hair down. We got to see her human side and being “unroyal,” as such.
Josie really encouraged us to make it our own and we became really close friends. We had our London premiere and we were like kids. We were so happy to be back together again. We’re really close now, but when you have that on film, there’s something else that comes out of the performance and you can go a bit further with the scenes.
With me and James McArdle who plays the Earl of Moray, we are so close to each other. I loved working with him. He really pushed me and I hope I did the same for him.
We see Mary on horseback a fair bit. Did you know how to ride horses before the film?
I didn’t really know how to ride. I was meant to do a film years ago and Camilla Napru who was the horse master was also meant to do this other film. I was meant to do this other film when I was 15 and we started prepping but it fell through and we never got to do it.
But, she taught me on this film and we’d go out and ride and chat. I hadn’t learned before but she said that I’m a good movie rider, but I don’t actually know how to properly ride one.
The bedroom scene when he’s going down on her, let’s discuss the significance of that. In those days, sex was intended to produce a baby, a royal heir. This scene is for her pleasure and I sort of loved that. It’s so remarkable.
That’s it. The thing is, yes, sex was part of your duty because it was your responsibility to produce an heir. They were all at it, they were all having sex and living in the Renaissance period. Arse, music, drink, and cross-dressing was fine to do that. They were enjoying their life. She came from France which was probably more liberal. Again, it’s that thing where some period films have that stiff upper lip. We really didn’t want to do that. She was a young girl who had needs. To have a scene like that where it’s purely for her. To see a queen have that pleasure is wonderful because it humanizes her. It’s so empowering to see that.
Talk about the scene with Margot and finally meeting Queen Elizabeth because it was only one day that you had to work together.
We had agreed that we would stay apart. We knew each other and had met before and we knew neither of us would go method. We worked in a similar enough way to be able to do that.
We shot the first half of the scene where we didn’t see each other and then we shot the second half where I pull back the curtain. they shot it in real time so all our reactions and responses to each other and anything we felt was there for the take and it was all usable.
It felt almost play-like. Josie said, they used most of the first takes for the film, so what you see is that.