(Image courtesy of Focus Features)
UC Berkeley

How ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Director Josie Rourke is reimagining rivalry for a deeper understanding of women in power

Ask any kid shakingly gripping their Scantron before a history exam (it’s a plea for help). Ask any adult, even those whose years of immersing themselves with memorizing trivial dates, or names of dead white people in history, have since been lodged deep in the recesses of their brain. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants, the enormous dresses, the betrayal, still manages to readily roll off one’s tongue, recited even.

It’s a story with a sense of familiarity in modern storytelling. The strained relationship between cousins Mary and Elizabeth has often graced screens of the present day, with many posing the question: how could cousins wage a bitter and violent war against one another? Even in the most meticulous of dedicated adaptations and reenactments, one could wonder, would pop culture ever grow tired of the history lesson unfolding before potentially unwilling eyes? Why is there this yearning, this desire to continue to examine the deadly familial relationship, when a basic, rudimentary reasoning could be employed? Behind the much pondered aspect to their familial betrayal is quite frankly, a bloodthirsty lust for unbridled power.  

However, director Josie Rourke tells me that what makes “Mary Queen of Scots” inherently different from all its predecessors, was it wanted to correct all former portrayals. At its core, the film wanted “to show it wasn’t a rivalry.” She emphasizes, with almost a hint of frustration in her voice, how the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth has never been truly been meditated upon, instead only misconstrued. “I wanted to show they actually had a great instinct towards sisterhood, and towards working together. And actually, what got in the way of that, was the cruelty and the ambition of the men around them.”


How are you doing?

I’m doing good, thank you. Yeah, I’m doing good. I have to get a gift for my family in my office and I’m about to get on a flight to England! I’m in LA at the moment.

How do you like LA?

I’m really into LA. I really like it. Everything about it is warm and inviting. The food is amazing, and it would be a cliche if I didn’t talk about the weather. I’m about to go back to snow in London. The thing about snow in London is that it’s white in the sky then grey on the ground. I certainly will miss the Los Angeles sunshine.  

With this being your directorial debut, what drew you to the project to want to direct a film about this infamous rivalry?

So what drew me to the project was the fact was Saoirse Ronan. I think she is one of the most astonishing actors not only in her generation but around working at the moment, period. That is what made me listen to the idea of Mary’s story. For the second part of your question, to show it wasn’t a rivalry. I wanted to show they actually had a great instinct towards sisterhood, and towards working together. And actually, what got in the way of that, was the cruelty and the ambition of the men around them.

When you first read the book, what elements did you know you wanted to keep to stay faithful and felt had cinematic merit?

Well, Mary had a very big life. Not only is there Mary’s life going on, but all the politics happening in Europe at the same time. That is a big job to work out, what to tell and what not to tell. I think where the story begins, and actually, why I became a director, has to do with character. We were trying to work out what makes these women tick, what challenges they faced, and how we could really make the past shape into the present by sharing the emotional ties with it. We really began with those parts of their history that made the most sense for us to tell that particular story. Without too many spoilers, Mary is taken to the absolute extremes of sacrifice and danger.

She has to go into battle, she has to come to terms with the fact that she married the wrong guy, she has to protect her child as much as she can, and her people, who are taken away from her. There is a lot of high stakes stuff in there. Cinematically what we had was the amazing landscape of Scotland. It was terribly important for us to be able to shoot in Scotland, and in England, on location. It really shows the beauty and the majesty and the totality of the landscape of the British channel.

What is the most important theme of women in power you wanted to convey with the film?

I think what we really wanted to show, and this is all really about Margot and Saoirse and the cost of power. It talks a lot about powerful women, but we really wanted to pose the question: “what do they have to sacrifice, if they want to hold onto those crowns?” And the danger of those crowns. We wanted to show what they had to do and what they had to give up in order to be the icons they became. Mary pretty much gave up her life to enter the pages of history.  

I’ve heard that Saoirse has been attached to the project for six years, what kind of role did she have in the filmmaking process?

We began with John Guy’s great book, and then with a blank page with myself and the script. Knowing Saoirse was attached to it, it was really important to spend time with Saoirse and to understand her as both an actor and as a person, in order to specifically create this version of Mary specifically for Saoirse to be correct. With the behind the scenes stuff, she’s just the most brilliant collaborator. She’s incredibly warm with other actors. Given that she gives these incredible exchanges of emotions, she’s also a really practical person. She’s also a leader, she keeps a great atmosphere on set. She really leads the acting company. She kept everyone’s spirit up even when it was raining sideways in the islands of Scotland. She has great strength and great courage, she’s quite like Mary, Queen of Scots.

She was just perfect for the role.

She was perfect for the role because she kept faith, and wanted to play this role. She had this woman in her mind for a very long time. Saoirse was a bit understanding in the mission on how to play her, and that didn’t come about until we found that great book and that great screenplay. It was a bit of a coming together, I would say.

Has the dynamic been drastically different working with a cast for a theatrical work versus for a film?

You got the chance to rehearse. Being able to understand the characters, and establish them in the films, that was hugely rewarding. I have great fun working with actors, I found we can have just as much fun making a film as when I’m directing a play.  


“Mary Queen of Scots” is in theaters everywhere.