Liam Daniel/Focus Features
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August 09, 2018 at 02:00 PM EDT

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The first time Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie saw each other on the set of Mary Queen of Scots, they ended up on the floor, crying in each other’s arms.

It was Ronan’s first day as the titular royal, and Robbie’s last as her cousin and rival, Elizabeth I. The two actresses had been kept apart throughout rehearsals and production until then; Robbie filmed in England, Ronan would be shooting in Scotland, and at their request, they never crossed paths in character prior to their sole scene together. “We really, really didn’t want to see each other,” Ronan says. “I love Margot and wanted to hang out, but we wanted [the meeting] to be this special thing.”

Yet, when the time finally came for them to perform the queens’ confrontation, well… “We were blubbering like idiots,” Ronan tells EW. “We just held each other for ages, we wouldn’t let go. We were like” — she lowers her voice to demonstrate their sobbing — “‘Huohooouuughh.’” She laughs. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Then again, her real-life counterpart never did either. Historians believe the Queen of Scots and the Virgin Queen never met, but theater director-turned-first-time film helmer Josie Rourke was inspired by the 19th-century Friedrich Schiller play Mary Stuart, in which Mary and Elizabeth talk face-to-face on stage. “The whole conception of the film for me was around that meeting,” Rourke says of the historical drama. “We really wanted to have our version of that famous scene, with these two women looking at each other and being confronted with their choices — their personal choices, their political choices. It’s a moment that’s deeply personal.”

And deeply emotional. The waterworks on set may have been caused by the high stakes (and excitement) of capturing the only time the stars share the screen, but Robbie thinks those tears also stemmed from how much they’d delved into the tragedy of their characters’ histories. (For Elizabeth: Her mother was beheaded by her father. For Mary: She lost her husband before she turned 18. And both were often targeted by religious groups, political conspirators, and marriage treaties.) “I had underestimated how difficult their lives were, and how much pain was wrapped up in this power,” Robbie says. “I think it just meant more.”

Liam Daniel/Focus Features

Based on John Guy’s 2004 biography of Mary, the film (penned by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon) follows the 16th century rulers during the seven years when a widowed Mary returned to Scotland hoping to reclaim her throne from Elizabeth. Though Elizabeth — nearly 500-year-old spoiler alert! — later orders Mary’s imprisonment and execution, Robbie never thought of them as true enemies. “They have this sisterhood, this love for each other, but the love is complicated by the fact that each one’s survival threatens the other,” she explains. “It’s a love story between these two characters. A very, very complicated love story.”

Maybe that’s why Rourke finds it simpler to explain her film’s take on Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship in classic fictional, even comic-book, terms. “If you’re doing Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, you spend more time with Holmes, and if you’re doing Batman and the Joker, you tend to be [sympathetic] with Batman, but to power the story along, the [protagonist] is locked into an amazing psychodrama with a character who is both like him and the opposite,” she says. “What I really wanted to do was a movie in which two women got to do that.”

But wait — does that mean Elizabeth is the villain, akin to a psychopath in clown makeup who just wants to watch the world burn? The heavy makeup’s there, but Mary Queen of Scots isn’t about one queen defeating the other; it’s more about them grappling with circumstances — manipulative counselors, male-dominated courts — beyond their control. “This is a movie about the cost of power, about how often impossible it is for women, no matter what choice they make, to be able to lead,” Rourke says. “It is a plea for us to think deep and hard about that while looking at a part of our history.” Just don’t forget to bring plenty of tissues.

Mary Queen of Scots hits theaters Dec. 7.

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