Gemma Chan plays Bess of Hardwick, one of Elizabeth I's (Margot Robbie) closest advisors (and a friend to Mary Stuart much later). Adrian Derrick-Palmer plays George Dalgleish, a member of Elizabeth's court who's tasked with delivering messages to Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Ismael Cruz-Cordova, a Puerto Rican-born actor known for his work on Sesame Street, plays Mary Stuart's secretary David Rizzio. For director Josie Rourke, this type of casting is routine.
"We know that the characters that Gemma and Adria and Ismael Cruz Cordova [play] were white," Rourke told Refinery29. "So those are people of colour playing those who were historically not people of colour."
Rourke added, "That is very influenced by my theatre background, where that sort of thing is done. When I sat down with [the studio] early, before we got down to a lot of stuff, I said to them, ‘Just so you know, I’m not doing to direct an all-white period drama. That’s not something I’m going to do.’ And they were really hugely supportive of that."
Rourke, 42, is the current artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where director Sam Mendes (Away We Go, American Beauty) was her predecessor. As artistic director, she oversaw the theatre's 2012 all-women production of Julius Caesar, which was directed by Phyllida Lloyd. In 2016, two of Rourke's productions at Donmar moved to New York City: Privacy, an interactive play about the perils of modern technology, arrived at the Public Theatre, and Les liasions dangereuses appeared at the Booth Theatre with Liev Schreiber in a lead role. Mary Queen of Scots is Rourke's first feature film, and it is noticeably theatrical. Scenes are longer and more tense; the set itself acts as a part of the story, especially in the movie's most climactic scene.
Chan, who earlier this year appeared in Crazy Rich Asians, told Marie Claire last week that she never would have expected to end up in a move like Mary Queen of Scots. "I was warned when I left drama school that a lot of the U.K.’s film and TV output is period drama, and there was absolutely no way [I’d get roles]" she said. She compared the movie to Broadway's Hamilton: "I think Hamilton was described as 'America then' played by 'America now.' This is 'England then' portrayed by 'England now.' It’s about time."
Not to mention, more often than not, having a diverse cast is historically accurate. "There were people of colour in England particularly during the Renaissance," Rourke said. (She recommends the book Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufman.) And, in the end, all of it is pretend, from the costumes to the sets to the way the lighting hits the actors.
"It's absolutely a restorative piece," Rourke said of the movie, "[but with] the presentation, the past becomes the present."
Mary Queen of Scots is in UK cinemas 18th January 2019