Warning: This interview contains mild spoilers for Mary, Queen of Scots.
As the the artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, Josie Rourke has spent the majority of her career in theater. It’s a background that’s served her well for her first feature film, Mary, Queen of Scots, an intimate portrayal of female power that seeks to go beyond what we have been told about the legendary feud between Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and her royal cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England.
In advance of the film’s release on December 7, we asked Rourke why telling stories about the past is especially important for women, her secret to pulling off a difficult sex scene, and Robbie’s extraordinary physical transformation.
Anne Cohen: Margot Robbie has talked about feeling "isolated" on set, in part due to the intense makeup she wore to simulate smallpox. How did it play into the larger feeling of the character?
Josie Rourke: “There are no cameras from that period, so not only can nothing be photographed, everything you do see of those queens is incredibly considered and posed. And if you really want to frighten yourself, you can google smallpox as an image search. And like all truly great actors, Margot Robbie has absolutely no vanity. My sort of terrible, pedestrian comparison for it is, if you get one weird [pimple], you sometimes don’t want to leave the house. As women, I think a lot of us spend a lot of time thinking about our faces and our skin. We wanted to find the vulnerability of this woman within the queen, and to take her through this journey where her face is really attacked and ravaged by the smallpox, and then she goes through the process of it healing, and have to turn up for work, and make yourself look as confident as you can possibly feel.”
A lot of historical films play down how extreme makeup, fashion or living conditions would have been back then, because it’s off-putting. This movie doesn’t shy away from it. Was that purposeful?
“One one of the things that [I’m] trying to do, is to find the humanity within those icons. And one of the most difficult ways to do that — and I also feel like this is difficult as a woman— is to tell the truth about our bodies.
So, with Saoirse [Ronan], anything she wears [is] affected by the Scottish weather. When she goes to walk through a wet glen, her dress gets wet. She has to hold it up in order to hike through that ground, and it gets crumpled to the side. And you see her when she comes back from riding that she is dirty, and her hair is a mess. It felt really important to show that.,One of my ambitions in a historical story –particularly as a woman director – t[in order] to tell better stories in the present, [we need to tell]more truthful stories about the past."
Another thing I found refreshing is the scenes of intimacy between groups of women, which is something that you almost never see in period dramas. How did you approach that?
“Queen Elizabeth was afraid of the dark, and never ever slept alone, and actually being alone in your bedroom is a relatively recent invention. These women always slept with others around. Mary had a squad, and they were called the Four Maries.
“We worked with an amazing choreographer, Wayne McGregor, who was a choreographer at the Royal Ballet. And [he] spent hours on our rehearsal process, working on how those women, both in Mary’s court and Elizabeth’s court, moved as a group and became familiar, and became intimate, and how they interacted with each other’s bodies, having them in close proximity to each other and getting the truth and feeling of what that closeness and friendship is. Saoirse often says when she’s asked what were her favorite scenes to play in the movie, she says ‘the big scene opposite Margot, and any of the scenes with those other women around me.’”
The two queens only meet in person once in the film, and you filmed all their other scenes separately. How did you keep the memory of the other woman alive when you were shooting scenes with either Margot Robbie or Saoirse Ronan alone?
In that big scene with Margot and Saoirse, it was Margot’s last day on set and Saoirse’s first day. We rehearsed for two weeks. We did not really touch the big scene between them — we read it once. But we did a lot of work psychologically, about the obsession that they would have had one with the other. And also Margot Robbie, in her extraordinary humility, says that in some ways, her feelings about Saoirse mirror Elizabeth’s feelings about Mary. You’ve got this extraordinary person who’s exceptional at what they do.”
The movie also runs the gamut in terms of how women experience sex. Mary experiences her first orgasm early in the movie, has a kind of vengeful political sex, and then later, she’s raped. What was your approach to filming those scenes?
“Again, that is me wanting as much as possible to be truthful. I wanted that rape to be not a violent rape, because rape is not always violent, and I think that’s a misconception. It is a violence, always necessarily, the act itself. That was a discussion that we had. But I think it’s also a misconception that this period was not interested in women having pleasure.
“Another thing that’s interesting to me is I read recently that there was this move to have intimacy coaches on film sets. And coming from theater, in which I’ve directed a lot of plays that have had intimate sexual acts in them, I have never done that without having a choreographer present. It is a piece of choreography, in the way that so many things are, which is not to say that it should look like a dance. You want it to look at it as real, and be as intimate as possible, but the best way to do that is if people are comfortable with their bodies, and know what they’re doing.”
What would go into rehearsing those scenes? Can you give me an example of what you would direct an actor to do, or how they would interact with each other beforehand?
"The same way you would block a scene, you would say ‘Why don’t you start over there by the table? Once you do that, why don’t you then come over there to that chair? And then somebody’s going to come through that door and you’re gonna go to the door.’ That’s the same thing in a much more detailed way, when you’re directing an intimate act. You do it in a closed down environment, often it might be just you and the choreographer and the actors and maybe one other person. So, they’re as comfortable as possible. And they would be fully clothed to start with, and you work with them on what their beats are.
What surprised you most about this story as you were making it?
“When I really dug into the research is that these women had an intimate connection and an instinct to sisterhood. Their story has been told as a catfight, and that’s just not true. And to able to tell a more complex story about what sisterhood is, was infinitely important to me, and to liberate these stories.”