Queen Elizabeth I has been played by a murderers’ row of actresses over the years: Judi Dench won an Oscar for the gig in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Cate Blanchett nabbed a pair of nods for starring in two Elizabeth biopics. Helen Mirren scored an Emmy for the 2005 miniseries Elizabeth I.
And those are just three out of a very long list.
The Virgin Queen, therefore, is an intimidating mantle to pick up — and Margot Robbie nearly chose not to, when asked to play the young Elizabeth in Mary Queen of Scots. “That [history of portrayals] was definitely something that ran through my mind many times,” she admits to EW in the video above. “I’m not going to lie, I was terrified, and I initially passed on the role.”
Luckily, director Josie Rourke was “relentless” in pursuing Robbie, the actress says. After all, the part wasn’t about teaching a history lesson or living up to previous performances, but about playing a young woman who struggles with power while surrounded by men — just like Mary (Saoirse Ronan), her cousin and rival for the English throne. “It was a completely male-dominated society,” Robbie explains. “If all the men pissed off for one second and let them talk and let them just catch up and chat it out, I think all of this would have been very different. But alas, it wasn’t to be.”
Based on John Guy’s 2004 biography of Mary, Mary Queen of Scots chronicles the deterioration of Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship in the years after Mary returns to Scotland. But if their onscreen counterparts’ friendship eventually crumbled, Robbie makes it clear she and her costar have no such conflict. “She’s incredible,” Robbie effuses about Ronan. “She’s so charismatic and warm and lovely and fun and smart — really smart.”
Watch more of Robbie’s interview above, along with insights from Rourke and screenwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards). Mary Queen of Scots is in theaters now.