Saoirse Ronan is the lead of another film looking at Oscar prospects this year, “Mary Queen of Scots,” in which she plays the titular role. She also got to work with her Best Actress competition at last year’s Oscars, Margot Robbie, who plays Queen Elizabeth I in the film.
Ronan recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Joyce Eng about the evolution of “Mary Queen of Scots” through the years, the misconceptions about Mary Stuart and working with Robbie on that one climactic scene in the film. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Saoirse Ronan, you had been attached to “Mary Queen of Scots” for six years, since you were 18. So what does it feel like to finally have filmed the movie and for it to be out for the world to see?
Saoirse Ronan: It’s amazing. It’s really exciting. As you said, it’s something that I’ve been attached to for a long, long time and I think just finally seeing it all put together and see everyone come out so well and all the cast are so great, we’ve all become really close. It’s just been a wonderful thing to share it with them as well, just because we’ve had such a lovely experience. It’s nice.
GD: How had the project evolved in those five years from when you first signed on to when you filmed it last year?
SR: It was a concept when I came on at first and I think they might’ve had a draft at the time but it was subject to change. The great thing about it taking quite a while to come together is that if anything, I was just growing into the role even more. I think when I was 18 they were looking at Mary around that time. She was still in France. She had gotten married at 16, and then when she was 19, her first husband, the King of France and her mother back in Scotland died. There was an awful lot that happened at that point in her life, and as I got older, you could make it more about her marriage prospects and how she used that as a way to gain power and how she came into her womanhood, really. That’s quite a big part of it as well and that’s something we could only do at the age that I was at now, so the script was always changing and transforming as I got older. Then just when different people came onboard they had their own take on it. I’ve watched so many drafts come to Working Title and they were all crazy different. It just took time, really.
GD: The film is a great rumination on women in power and the challenges they face to this day, still, including to put it simplistically, “men are trash,” as the film portrays. Mary and Elizabeth had these men around them conniving and scheming for the men’s benefit, so did you and Josie [Rourke] and Margot talk about what Mary and Elizabeth could have maybe accomplished together had they had a chance to meet and sit down and just talk it out?
SR: Yeah, we did. We spoke about that a little bit. More-so than anything I think we just needed to really talk about that emotional element that would come out of the meeting, so the need and closure I thought they both had when meeting one another, that they knew they would have when they met one another. I think that’s what we needed to focus on more than anything. I reckon that one of the reasons why I think Elizabeth was so hesitant to get in the room with Mary is she knew that Mary was very good with people and she was very good at getting people to see her point of view and coming around to her side of thinking, because she was just a very personable woman, and Elizabeth wasn’t. I think Elizabeth knew that she could be manipulated by her if Mary wanted to. So there was a danger for her there as well, but I think if they did get in the room, Mary would’ve completely charmed her, and also she was at a point where everyone had turned against her. Everyone close to her who she really trusted had betrayed her, including her own brother. The two of them had a very complicated relationship anyway. We don’t know what would’ve happened but it was certainly a big conversation to go, “Okay, what are they hoping to get out of this? What are each of them hoping to come away with at the end of this meeting?” So that could drive us forward emotionally.
GD: It’s one of those things you see time and time again, “What if these two people could’ve been friends?”
SR: Yeah, exactly, or at least be civil to each other. I think there’s something as well about when you’ve actually met someone in the flesh, it’s much harder to hate them. It’s much harder to dislike them or be critical towards them or anything like that because you’ve been with them and you see that they’re just a real person. I think that’s why people sometimes get so freaked out when they meet celebrities and they realize that they’re actually just people. They’re like, “I don’t know what to do now.” It’s very easy to cast your opinion when they’re in the newspaper or on a TV screen ‘cause they’re kind of not real.
GD: Yeah, you just put them on a pedestal.
SR: Yeah, so when they’re in the room it’s like, “Oh, you’re the same as me.”
GD: I know one of your goals was to re-litigate Mary’s legacy ‘cause history has kind of slut-shamed her and positioned her as incompetent. In your research, what do you think was the biggest misconception about her?
SR: I think it was that. I think the [Lord] Bothwell marriage — that was the third person that she married — she was pushed into that. She was duped and she was basically named a whore in Scotland, and people turned against her like that, because they felt that, first of all, she had killed her husband, [Lord] Darnley, which I don’t think is true either. I don’t know if she maybe necessarily knew something was happening or he was being given a slap on the wrist. I don’t know. But there was a huge misconception about her killing him. There’s loads of misconceptions, also that she plotted to kill Elizabeth. That was the ultimate fake news, where [William] Cecil took letters that she had written to different confidants and basically re-edited them to look like she was plotting to kill Elizabeth. So her execution was something that came out of a lie.
GD: When you were doing your research, what surprised you the most about her?
SR: I loved finding out that when she was in France, her and the Marys dressed up as “normal girls” and they’d cook in the kitchen and they had 20 dogs or something that were their pets. They had this amazing, fun, young atmosphere around them and then when they went back to Scotland and when they were in Edinburgh especially, they used to crossdress and they’d dress as boys and sneak out into the city so that they could be a part of it all. I loved learning that sort of stuff about her. What I also found really surprising is that even though she was a Catholic queen and she was a practicing Catholic, I don’t know if she was necessarily as religious as she was made out to be and I think she cleverly used that as a ploy to get people’s sympathy and to be seen as a Catholic martyr. There’s such a strong image of her at the end of her life where she’s wearing red, which is the color of martyrdom and she’s dying for her sins and sacrificing herself. There’s something really romantic about that and I think she rightfully so played up to that so as that she could have the upper hand, even at the very end.
GD: She’s definitely very clever. You could see the wheels turning in the movie with what she’s thinking and plotting herself. One thing I loved about your performance is how you communicated her thoughts with very subtle body language when Mary wasn’t saying what she wanted to say. Just some glares or you just sit back in your seat. How did you go about developing that kind of physicality to your performance?
SR: We had an amazing choreographer called Wayne McGregor, who works at the Royal Ballet in the U.K. and just puts on these really incredible shows all over the world. He’s this really brilliant, very avant grade choreographer, and he worked with us on choreographed sequences for the film but he also worked with us on movement and how they would have moved and how we think that our characters would move. That was a really, really great way for me to use the space as Mary. We would do exercises with the four Marys where, “What would a look mean?” So if I glanced back at someone, does that mean for them to come to me or does that mean for them to stay where they are? We just experimented with that quite a bit, which was really fun.
GD: You could tell she has different relationships with the Marys and then just with the court, and the way she acts around them. It was a very subtle but I loved that. I talked to your amazing costume designer, Alexandra Byrne, and she used denim for your costumes. What was your reaction when you walked in and saw you were gonna be wearing denim in a 16th-century period drama?
SR: At first, I was like, “Sorry, what?” She brought me in and she showed me reference photographs of Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg and all these people wearing Calvin Klein denim and stuff and I was like, “Do you know we’re making ‘Mary Queen of Scots?’” She was like, “Yeah, I know.” She’s like, “I’ve done this before.” She made “Elizabeth,” knew exactly what she was doing, and made everything entirely out of denim and my outfits in particular really have a story and a narrative to them. As the film goes forward and the drama becomes greater and greater, the dresses progressively get darker and darker and mud and salt from the water, when she arrives, starts to gather up through the dress and make its way up through the dress closer to her head, basically. It was just a really, really clever thing to do, so Alex, in my eyes, she’s a genius. I love her.
GD: Yeah. She said it was cheap and she also said the guys were very happy ‘cause they thought they were gonna be wearing tights and then they saw they were gonna be wearing jeans. I know you and Margot went to great lengths to not cross paths until your one and only scene together at the end, but did you have any close calls on-set when everyone was trying to keep you guys apart?
SR: Yeah, we did. She did her section first for the first three and a half weeks and they were shooting in a cathedral and I was coming in for one tiny scene that I had to do before we properly started all of our stuff. She was walking down the corridor as I was going into the cathedral, and we were both like, “Ah!” And I just sort of blocked my eyes and was like, “Don’t look! Don’t look!” And she ran past me. But they were really good. All the ADs kept us apart and everyone was into it.
GD: You needed that moment on film when you meet. Was there any discussion of not including that scene since we know they never met in real life, or did you all think it was necessary to take this poetic license to have that cathartic climax?
SR: The film went through so many changes before everyone was onboard. There was a time where Elizabeth wasn’t even in the film and then she came into it. So I kind of watched it go through all these different stages, but I think once she was in it, just for the audience you needed that moment where they have some closure, or at least have the two of them together in one room.
GD: Everyone compares it to “Heat” but I’m like, “It’s like ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ where they meet at the end.”
SR: (Laughs.) Just like that.
GD: Well, you and Margot filmed this and then you guys went on the award circuit together last year for “Lady Bird” and “I, Tonya,” so what was that like? I feel like you guys spent more time together at those shows than you did on-set.
SR: Yeah, we did. We had that one scene together and then she was gone and she went off and did press for “I, Tonya.” As I was shooting “Mary,” “Lady Bird” started to do well and so I went off and started promoting that. When you’re doing that stuff, you don’t know if you’re gonna get to the end, get to the final big show, so it was always a very special thing whenever we’d see each other and get nominated for stuff, ‘cause we were just sharing it. The whole group that year was amazing. It was such a nice group of people. We’ve spent loads of time together for press for this as well so we’ve spent more time together off-set than we have on-set.
GD: You guys need to do another movie together so you can have more than one scene.
SR: We do, maybe like five scenes instead of one.
GD: Speaking of reuniting with co-stars and directors, you’ve reunited with Timothée Chalamet and Greta Gerwig on “Little Women” recently, so what was that experience like?
SR: It was great, yeah. It’s lovely working with the same people again because you just know how they work and you’ve got a really good rapport with them. It was nice doing this with the two of them ‘cause it was big. It was such a big film to take on, and Timmy and I had loads of scenes together this time as opposed to just one awkward scene on a bed. Ahem.
GD: He’s a little nicer to you in this go around.
SR: If anything I break his heart, so yeah. We had loads of fun. Everyone was really great. Really good group of people.
GD: And you just recently signed onto a new film with Kate Winslet. Is there anything you can share about that?
SR: Yeah, it’s called “Ammonite” and it’s being directed by Francis Lee, who did “God’s Own Country.” Kate plays this woman called Mary Anning who was a paleontologist, a fossilist, and I play a woman who comes to stay and they develop this very close, intimate relationship that turns into love. That’s it. It’s basically just the two of us for most of the film on a beach.
GD: Not just one scene.
SR: Not just one scene, no.
GD: Well Saoirse, thank you so much for your time. It was great speaking with you and congratulations.