Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie square off — in one royally dramatic scene, anyway — as feuding cousins Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I in Working Title’s latest 16th century period piece.
Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan spent most of their time on the set of Mary Queen of Scots avoiding each other like the plague.
In fact, the stars of Focus Features' $25 million period drama (which opens Dec. 7) about the 16th century rivalry between royal cousins Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I went to such extreme lengths to stay out of each other's way before filming their one and only scene together, they had teams of assistants make sure the actresses entered and exited sets from different doors. The idea was that when the women finally did meet for the film's climactic encounter — like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in what director Josie Rourke describes as "a kind of Renaissance version of Heat" — their reactions would be spontaneous and genuine. Or at least as spontaneous and genuine as possible while wearing ruffled neck collars and inch-thick layers of white face paint.
"It was an incredible moment where life kind of met art," says Ronan, 24, of the scene. Adds Robbie, 28, "We were pretty much sobbing the whole time."
Of course, Mary and Elizabeth have appeared on screens before. Katharine Hepburn and Florence Eldridge played the parts in 1936's Mary of Scotland, and Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson took their turns in 1971's Mary, Queen of Scots. More recently, Samantha Morton and Cate Blanchett played the feuding royals in 2007's Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It was around the time of that film in fact that producer Tim Bevan (who'd also produced Blanchett's first go as queen in 1998's Elizabeth) got the idea to make a movie focusing on the cousins' dysfunctional relationship. "There was unfinished business," the Working Title co-chair says.
It remained unfinished for several years, as Bevan and his co-producer on the project, former Working Title head Debra Hayward, gradually picked up various elements of the production. The first piece, in 2012, even before a script had been written, was attaching then-18-year-old Ronan to star as the title character. At the time, the actress was still most famous for playing Keira Knightley's 13-year-old little sister in Working Title's 2007 drama Atonement (and getting an Oscar nomination for the turn). "We'd known her since she was a child," says Bevan. "And very luckily, it then took us about four more years to get Mary Queen of Scots together, so she was the perfect age when we got to it."
At one point during those four years, Bevan and Hayward attended a stage production of Dangerous Liaisons in London and picked up the next piece — the play's director. Initially, they talked to Rourke, 42, about doing a film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, but when that didn't materialize, they pitched Mary Queen of Scots. Rourke, who'd never directed for the screen before, loved the idea and quickly rang up her screenwriter pal Beau Willimon, who knew a thing or two about political drama from penning House of Cards. Rourke and Willimon saw the film as an opportunity to correct long-held misconceptions about the cousins. Mary, says Rourke, was "maligned by history" as incompetent and inexperienced in a "gigantic misinformation campaign against her that has endured until this movie." Elizabeth, says Willimon, is popularly thought of as "this armored regal facade of a monarch, more symbolic than human."
For their telling of the story, Rourke and Willimon humanized both women, zeroing in on seven years, from 1561 to 1568, after Mary returned to Scotland from France and began a tug-of-war with Elizabeth over rights to the British throne in a battle that involved several palaces full of scheming men (Jack Lowden as the vain, alcoholic Lord Darnley; David Tennant as fanatical Protestant cleric John Knox) and ended with Mary's head on a chopping block.
By 2016, a draft of the script was finished and Ronan, now 22, had indeed grown to the perfect age for the part of Mary (and had picked up a second Oscar nomination, for 2015's Brooklyn). All they were missing was an Elizabeth. It was Rourke who suggested Robbie, a choice that raised a few eyebrows at Working Title. "None of us had seen I, Tonya at that point and we thought, 'Oh, that's interesting,'" admits Bevan. But Rourke had been struck by the fresh face she saw in The Wolf of Wall Street. "I presumed she was much older than I found out she was at the time because her performance had such maturity," says the director. "I found [her] completely fascinating."
Robbie, though, didn't want to be queen, at least not at first. "I remember initially thinking, 'Absolutely not, I couldn't play Queen Elizabeth,'" says the actress. "My team was like, 'What's the problem, is it the script?' And I was like, 'No, the script is amazing.' 'Is it the director?' 'No, she's incredible.' 'What is it?' 'It's me, I'm not good enough!'" At a meeting in L.A., Rourke tried her best to convince the young star she was good enough, even writing Robbie a letter explaining why she was the "essential person" to play Elizabeth. Eventually, Robbie came to her senses.
Had she known how involved her makeover was going to be, Robbie might have stood her ground. Unlike Mary, who wears simple French-inspired 'dos through the film, Elizabeth sports a hair-and-makeup look that is practically a special effect all its own. Scarred by smallpox in her 20s, Elizabeth compensated by slathering herself in white face-paint and covering her thinning locks with a tightly curled red wig. Robbie spent hours in the makeup chair as makeup artist Jenny Shircore meticulously drew scars and then covered them in face paint, just so Robbie would know they were there. "Method makeup," Shircore calls it.
Meanwhile, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, who'd worked on both of Blanchett's Elizabeth films, got cracking on the wardrobe, using the least historically accurate fabric imaginable — denim. "Elizabethans would have sweated, got wet and dried out in their clothes, which would have been molded to the body," Byrne explains. "Denim does that." It's also cheap, so Byrne could design to her heart's content. Still, it was a bit confusing for some of the actors. When Ronan first saw Byrne's mood board, filled with photos of people in jeans, she thought she might have wandered onto the wrong set. "I was like, 'Er, what am I making?'" she recalls. "And Alexandra just said, 'Trust me, it's going to work.'"
Following two weeks of rehearsal, the eight-week shoot began — in August 2017 — in the English countryside, at ancient landmarks such as Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire and the 11th century Gloucester Cathedral, before moving to the castles and glens of Scotland. About three weeks into the production — just as most of Robbie's scenes in England had been shot and Ronan's in Scotland were about to begin — the two actresses met at a thatched cottage in Buckinghamshire to film their much-anticipated scene together.
They had deliberately avoided any communication with each other in the weeks leading to that moment. Even during the day of the shoot — even when they were in the same room — they stayed out of each other's eyeshot by hiding behind white sheets draped over beams. When the time finally came for them to come face to face, they were seeing each other for the first time.
"It was a personal high because we were kept apart from the very beginning," notes Ronan. "It made the scene we had together even more powerful."
One thing it isn't, however, is historically accurate. As any English history buff can tell you, Mary and Elizabeth never actually met in real life. Not even once. As far as Bevan is concerned, though, history, schmistory. "It wouldn't work if they didn't meet," he says. "You'd feel complete coitus interruptus because you wouldn't have had the payoff. If we didn't have them meet, we'd have to [add drama by shooting] some huge battle scene. But shooting a scene of Margot and Saoirse going at each other — in a scene written by Beau Willimon — that's pretty juicy. And considerably cheaper."
Willimon puts the matter in somewhat more philosophical terms. "There's historical truths and there's essential truths," he says, "and sometimes you have to take some liberties."
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.