There's something about Mary — Mary Stuart, that is. In Mary Queen of Scots, the titular 15th century Scottish monarch (played by a fierce Saoirse Ronan) forever has a warrior's glint in her eye. Remarkable, considering Mary was just 19 when she landed on the shores of her native Scotland for the first time in over a decade, expecting to rule on her own at last. Miles to the south, Mary's cousin, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie in the film), reigned over England. But according to many Catholics — Mary included — the throne of England was was rightfully Mary's.
At just 19, Mary was a widow, an orphan, and a queen determined to create a modern kingdom, where Catholics and Protestants could coexist peacefully. Only occasionally, when Mary was shed of her corsets and game face, could she just be herself. Clearly, Mary was an unusual 19-year-old — but so was Ronan. At age 19, Ronan had just began filming Brooklyn, a movie that would garner her a second acting Academy Award nomination. Now 24, Ronan has already racked up three Oscar nominations.
Within the past year, Ronan has played a spectrum of characters negotiating the border between girl and woman. Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson of Lady Bird thought New York would bring sweet, sweet adulthood (it did, but was it sweet?); Florence of On Chesil Beach feared crossing that threshold. In Mary Queen of Scots, Mary negotiates a different binary: That of steely queen and human woman, whose need for intimacy renders her place on the throne vulnerable.
Last week, we spoke to Ronan about the many modes of Mary, Queen of Scots, her relationship with Margot Robbie, and going there in the year's most intimate sex scene.
Refinery29: How did you, Saoirse Ronan, a 24-year-old woman, find yourself able to connect to Mary Stuart, an 16th century queen? On what levels could you relate to her?
Saoirse Ronan: “I definitely wanted to get to a place where I wasn’t playing an idea of a famous historical character. I signed on when I was 18, so I had years and years to think about her and visit Scotland and read about her.
“Two things helped me to truly embody her. The costumes, definitely. More than anything, it was Wayne McGregor, who was the film’s choreographer. I had worked a little bit with movement before, but not to this extent. It really started to inform the emotions. In the way you would with a dance move, he encouraged me to finish a thought and follow through with it. Something came out in that rehearsal process with him. I found the essence of who I wanted Mary to be. That’s how I found her.”
Mary holds herself differently when she's with her friends and when she's in front of the men in her court. How did you make that transition between identities actually manifest in her body?
“We made a conscious decision to have a contrast between the two. There is this shift she has to go through as a public figure. She goes from being on, and being a certain version of herself, to who she really is when she’s with the people she’s closest to. When she’s in a public setting she has a corset on, she has a bodice on, she’s got five skirts on. She can’t move. She is this sort of model of a thing. At home, she’s someone who slouches, flops down, deflates a bit, in the way that you do. I even know. When you’ve been at a bunch of fucking event parties that you have to go to, then you go home at the end of the night and you’re knackered and you flop onto the bed — we wanted to show that. That’s what so brilliant about The Crown, as well. You get to see [royals] in that light. We played with that a lot.”
The movie is so intimate in that sense — and in another regard. This year, you’ve played many young women on the brink of sexual discovery. They lose their virginities and have experiences with men. Mary does, too. How did you approach that rite of passage when it came to Mary, this woman who was expected to be more than just a girl?
“They lived in a time when sexuality and sex was quite a fluid thing. Sex was a separate thing from marriage. As a queen, though, sex was performed in order to produce an heir. What was so great about having that moment when Henry (Jack Lowden) goes down on her is that it’s purely for her. That’s a sexual revelation purely for her. It’s not to perform her duty, it’s not to give anything back to anyone else or to the state. It’s for her. It was so important to see this young girl experience this pleasure, probably for the first time, and have that be a real sort of revelation. It was just another element to her humanity.”
Was it tough filming that scene? The camera is on your face the whole time.
“I know, I’d never done anything like that before. I’d done sex scenes but they’re so mechanical that they’re kind of easy to do. Whereas when it’s on your face like that. I just kept thinking about, what was it, When Harry Met Sally. But we had Wayne in there, which was brilliant. We choreographed the whole thing so it felt like a dance. Jack and I are very comfortable with each other. We looked after each other. I don’t think he’d ever done anything like that before either. It was new territory for both of us.”
So much of the movie focuses on the tension that brews between Mary and Elizabeth. There is this tendency to pit women against each other. How do you hope this movie complicates our understanding of their relationship?
“It shows the complexities of a relationship, of any sort of relationship. What I love about their relationship is that it is purely based on power. Obviously, there’s a big thing about who's going to give birth to an heir, who’s going to get married. But I like that it's about their authority and who has the power, in a more professional sense than anything else. It's not about winning over a guy or anything. They wanted to be friends — or allies, at least. They really did want to come together and have some sort of affinity with each other.”
“I do feel very close to Margot. We’ve literally shared a day of filming together. That’s it. Because it was the end of the shoot for her and my very first day, it was a very loaded scene emotionally. We had abstained from seeing one another then had this incredibly emotional moment together. On top of that, we finished this intense, brilliant experience, essentially separately. Then she had I, Tonya and I had Lady Bird, and we were part of this rollercoaster for a few months. We shared in these incredible highs together. Now we’re getting to promote this movie. I really feel like in the last couple of years, Margot and I have had these really amazing, intense points in our relationship. I do feel like there’s a bond there because of that.”
Did you ever play ‘what if’ while you were Mary? What if things had gone differently for her and for England?
“I think about that all the time. Because of Mary’s son, the United Kingdom was created. After the United Kingdom was created, there was a lot of strife between the U.K. and Ireland. I wonder what it would've been like if Mary had stayed in power. Would it have been a more peaceful place? Would it have been worse? Would it have gotten messier? I don’t know. I do think of this an awful lot, just because my country’s relationship with the U.K. has been so complicated.”
“I certainly wish we had more people in power like her today. People who are just genuinely trying to do their best and really want to make a difference. We do have people like that. But maybe not at the height of power.”