Parisa Tag/Focus Features
December 08, 2017 at 02:00 PM EST

A version of this story appears in the First Look issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

The 16th-century rivalry between the Queen of Scots and the Virgin Queen was personal — though it didn’t have to be. “They were both, in their own ways, making huge sacrifices to try to operate in this male-dominated world,” explains Josie Rourke, a theater director whose feature debut, Mary, Queen of Scots, examines the rift between the young cousins. “It’s not one against the other. It’s both of them against a particular environment that pitted them against each other.”

Penned by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon and based on a biography by historian John Guy, the film explores the rulers’ lives after Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland a widowed former queen of France. Her arrival threatens the English throne — then held by Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) — and ushers in a fraught political period during which the dueling crowns are surrounded by scheming counselors. “Everyone manipulated their relationship,” Robbie says. “It’s complicated, it’s tragic, and it’s bizarre. The only other person in the world who could understand the position they were in was each other.”

Liam Daniel/Focus Features

On set, Robbie got a taste of that solitude. Playing the smallpox-scarred monarch meant layers of prosthetics and makeup so thick she felt “inhuman,” which eventually led the crew to avoid her gaze. “It was nothing intentional,” she recalls, “but I could see that it was uncomfortable for them, and the less they looked at me, the more isolated I felt.” “Queen for a day” suddenly sounds less appealing.

Mary, Queen of Scots arrives in theaters Nov. 2, 2018.

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