White Makeup, Wigs, & Smallpox Scars: How Margot Robbie Became Queen Elizabeth I

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
The new film Mary, Queen of Scots, in theaters today, is not really about Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Margot Robbie). As the title implies, the story centers around Elizabeth's cousin and rival, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), the supposed rightful heir to the Scottish and English thrones, and the brewing clash between the two. But it's Elizabeth's depiction in the movie that has gotten the biggest amount of buzz so far — with good reason.
The first photos of Robbie on set dressed as Elizabeth I surfaced online in August, and without a trailer for context, the public had only an image or two of Robbie's Virgin Queen to put a face to the latest iteration of a character who has been reimagined on screen nearly 20 times before. Wearing a frizzy red wig, with chalk-white skin and a cluster of facial scars covering her cheeks and chin, Robbie was unrecognizable, and poised to pull off the most dramatic interpretation of the role since Helen McCrory in 2015's Bill.
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When Refinery29 asked Josie Rourke, the director of Mary, Queen of Scots, about the decision to make this Elizabeth more unsettling to look at, Rourke said it was to find the vulnerability and humanity in a woman that would go on to reign over England for 45 years. But how exactly does someone turn Robbie, a Hollywood It-girl and Oscar nominee, into the pockmarked, heavily made-up Queen?
As the film's hair and makeup designer Jenny Shircore told us, the transformation required fake boils, scars, and lots of makeup. We asked Shircore for the behind-the-scenes details you need to know before witnessing Robbie's smallpox-stricken Queen, and her opponent Mary, on screen. Her secrets, ahead.
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Beauty Was Power — But Not For Long

Although Shircore has created her fair share of British monarchs before — specifically, Elizabeth I twice with Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age — it was Rourke's version of the character that proved to be more revealing than ever.

"We begin Elizabeth with a very young version of the Queen, going through the various stages of love and political unrest," Shircore recalls. "The white makeup was a symbol of her virginity in the film. Essentially, a Protestant Elizabeth substituted herself for the Catholic Virgin Mary. She also cut off her hair and wore a wig."

Nearly two decades later, in Mary, Queen of Scots, Shircore says the makeup and hair were more directly connected to the Queen's experience with smallpox and its side effects, like deep scarring and alopecia. In the early scenes of Rourke's version, we do get a glimpse of Robbie as young Elizabeth I, fresh-faced and naturally flushed, boasting a full head of strawberry-blonde ringlets. In the Tudor period, Shircore explains, beauty translated into power. This is something both Mary Stuart and her cousin possessed — until one (that would be Elizabeth) no longer did.

Regardless, Shircore says no matter what story anyone chooses to tell of Elizabeth I, "One must always keep in mind the iconic portrait of her as a powerful Queen, her face made up in very white paint and wearing a bright-red wig."
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Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
If Elizabeth Never Got A Break From Scarring, Neither Did Robbie

As Rourke previously mentioned, showcasing the Queen's scars was crucial to her on-screen persona — and Shircore took that one step further. "I had [Robbie] wear fake scars I made using prosthetics all the time on set," Shircore recalls. "Whether she would be wearing heavy makeup or not in a scene, it was important for her scars to always be there."

Robbie has hinted throughout the film's press tour how "isolating" that experience was. "It was very alienating," she told Harper's Bazaar of her experience shooting the movie. "I felt very lonely. It was an interesting social experiment."

As the movie progresses, the Queen's white, pasty makeup grows heavier and heavier (a signature trait most people will recognize from Elizabeth's portraits) — as does her power. The two are directly proportionate. "[Elizabeth] never goes back," Shircore says. "She just continues to apply the makeup and wear the wigs for years. This look symbolized Elizabeth's power."

It's no wonder that with the scar prosthetics, white makeup, wigs, and addition of red lipstick and blush, it took Shircore nearly three hours each day to prep Robbie for the camera. Although Rourke and Shircore chose to include some of the most vulnerable physical qualities of Elizabeth, they did leave out one distinct feature: her rotting teeth.

"Yes, eventually Queen Elizabeth also suffered through her rotting teeth," Shircore says. "But this didn't happen until a bit later on in her life. The film ends at the execution of Mary. If we had gone further on into her life we would have made her look older, and also would have shown signs of gum disease."
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Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
Mary's Beauty Is Her Downfall

In the film, there is only one scene where Mary and Elizabeth come face-to-face. Shircore says that, in that tense moment, Mary is purposefully striking in comparison to Elizabeth, who eventually pulls off her red wig in tears to reveal a balding hairline.

"Historically, Mary was known to be very beautiful, but [Ronan] is so naturally striking in real life it wasn't that difficult to turn her into Mary," says Shircore. While Robbie would spend hours in hair and makeup, Ronan only had two wigs on set (for the record, Robbie had nine). While she'd be painted in Elizabeth's iconic heavy white makeup, Ronan would get a lightweight foundation and not much else.

But this part is crucial: In the aforementioned scene, Elizabeth — in all her vulnerability — mutters to Mary, "Your beauty, your bravery... your gifts will be your downfall." Depending on how you interpret your 16th-century history, it may well have been.
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