In the wake of the massively successful and culturally weighty Lady Bird, there was only one option for Saoirse Ronan’s next role: royalty. In Mary Queen of Scots, the Irish actress plays one of history’s most compelling queens, the exiled royal who went to war with her own sister, Elizabeth I, for the throne. The film takes creative license fleshing out the drama between the sisters, making the argument that these two powerful women could have overcome the tension between them without the interference of the scheming, politically impotent men around them who strove to undermine them at every turn. It’s a story that resonates today, as women are speaking out about the structural inequality that has kept us silenced and oppressed for centuries — even women who sat on thrones had to deal with the unending bullshit of male egos.
“The more I read about Mary, I realized she'd been so misrepresented,” Ronan told OUT. “I felt like it was important to be involved in the definitive telling of her story.”
Part of that definitive retelling is something refreshing for a big-budget, awards-bait flick: depicting key figures in Mary’s life as queer. Her confidant David Rizzio and husband Lord Darnley have a steamy affair, but in the 2018 interpretation of the queen, she isn’t appalled by their queerness. She’s just pissed that they’ve thrown a wrench into her political and deeply feminist machinations — Ronan’s Mary is pretty woke. During a conversation in New York City, OUT talked to Ronan about this new take on Mary Stewart’s story and why it’s so relevant in 2018.
We're at a point where for the first time, period films are centering women and telling their stories in a way they haven't before.
It's exciting. Selfishly I was just so happy getting to play a character that had so much to her and I got to go through so much with that role. The camaraderie I felt between myself and the other girls was wonderful. If anything it just made our work better because we felt so supported by each other. There's so many unsung female heroes from the past and the fact that we really feel like there's a platform to tell those stories now is really exciting.
One of the things I really appreciated was the inclusion of queer characters, David Rizzio and Mary's husband. Why is it important for mainstream films to be imagining a world in which these important historical figures could have been queer?
Yeah, actually they probably were. In that time, sexuality was very fluid and very liberated. Especially in France — and you have to remember that she came over from France and she brought that French, European Renaissance culture with her — they were very, very open and very accepting, which is why it was so wonderful and really important to have that scene where Ismael [Cruz Córdova]'s character [David] says, "You know I feel more like a sister to you than a brother," and she doesn't flinch at it all. She goes, "Yeah you are and you can be whoever you want to be."
That was the mindset at that point and it wasn't until the Victorian era came along where everything became very stiff upper lip and reserved and stigmatized. So we really wanted it to be as truthful as possible. I think we're definitely living in a time now where we're encouraged to represent all of walks of life as much as possible. And if you have the opportunity to do that and it's keeping with the story, then absolutely, you should
Even Mary's relationship with her husband, when she finds out that he's had sex with David, in a film two, three, five years ago, that would have been a much different scene. And what she's angry about is that he has fucked up her political alliances, she's not mad that he's queer, she's mad that he's a douchebag.
Exactly, that's exactly it. And she wants to get pregnant and the only reason why she even sticks with him is she's a Catholic and marriage is very sacred for her but she wants an heir to her throne and that's her way of one-upping Elizabeth and gaining more political power. She feels more betrayed by Rizzio, only because he's her friend and because, as you say, she knows that Darnley is a douche. Yeah, it has nothing to do with the fact that she found two men in bed together.
Mary is sort of a woke queen.
What is that like to play, and what do you think it says about the world we live in today? That you get to play this character who may have been a lot more liberal than the people who are in power today.
It's wonderful that I got to play someone like that but it's also really disheartening that she was much more forward than a lot of the members of government we have now. In Ireland, our Prime Minister is gay and we've made so many advancements over the last few years and it's taken us so long to do so. It's meant so much to the people at home. For everyone whether you're gay or straight, for the newer generation to see someone in power who represents a world that a lot of us haven't celebrated or welcomed up until recently as much as we should have done: It's changed the psyche at home. [So it's been] so nice to have that on screen as well. But yeah, it's pretty fucking depressing that it doesn't exist as much in real life as we'd want it to.
So much of this film is about women asserting their power and men being angry and unable to reckon with it, doing everything they can to undermine and dismantle their power — something that’s still happening today. What can we learn from looking to the past?
You'd think that you'd be able to learn from the mistakes that have been made because what comes out of that is a mess. And maybe if they had, in Mary's case anyway, allowed her to rule freely, they wouldn't have ended up in the mess that they were in. If Elizabeth and her were allowed to meet and discuss and align with one another, there probably would have been an awful lot more peace, at least on the island of Britain and Ireland. And it would have meant that there was less death and danger and unpredictability for that nation.
Is it important that we look back at these women who have been misunderstood, who have been vilified, and finally give their stories the proper, honest telling they deserve?
Well I mean, I guess it definitely ties in with the talk that's come out of Time’s Up.t's a safe space now to make a film like this one. It makes sense that a film like this would be made now and it's great, it's exciting to see what else will come out of that discussion.