Saoirse Ronan, 24, has accomplished a great deal in her short career — receiving her third Oscar nomination just last year — but she’s lived a rather uneventful life compared to the woman she plays in Mary, Queen of Scots.
By the time Mary was Ronan’s age, she’d been married, widowed, ticketed for the throne of England (and France!), and plotted against by people willing to kill her to see that England was ruled by her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie).
Mary grew up in France under the protection of King Henry II, who wanted to unify France and England by matching Mary with his son Francis II, but both men died within the span of a year (1559-60), and Mary was alone and unprotected.
“She’d lived an entire life before she turned 20,” said Ronan. “There was the awful tragedy of her father-in-law dying, and then her husband, and suddenly she found herself faced with a tough decision — return to Scotland, which was dangerous, or give up every title and claim that was rightfully hers.”
Even if that meant confronting those who wanted her dethroned or dead. Scotland and Mary were in the middle of a deadly battle between England and France, Protestant and Catholic, for control of England and Scotland.
Ronan loved that Mary didn’t back down.
“She chose to go back, where she suddenly is confronted by these enormous responsibilities and duties, and she took to it like a champ. She learned on the job, and was actually a brilliant ruler, by all accounts very emotional but also very shrewd.”
The account Ronan relied on was historian John Guy’s Queen of Scots, the True Life of Mary Stuart, a book focused on the intrigue surrounding her return to Scotland. (Guy has also written a fuller biography, My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots).
“I think he literally knows everything there is to know about this subject. Literally everything. And after all of that research, I think he developed a real affinity for her. He has such passion for her story, and, really, any of the passion that I was able to bring to the role was put there by him.”
The film pits Mary against Elizabeth as rivals for a true claim to the throne of England, occupied by Elizabeth. The life-and-death stakes and the actions of meddling politicians, relatives, and religious figures add urgency to the intrigue.
Ronan, though, was trying to look past all the machinations to find Mary, the individual. Reading Guy, she discovered a young woman who was “very naturally charming, very open emotionally, a young woman who found it very easy to relate to all kinds of people. And that wasn’t Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a great ruler and politician, but she didn’t have Mary’s gift with people,” Ronan said.
The film conjured a meeting between the two women — a historical improbability, but a dramatic necessity. It also follows Guy’s lead in showing the power of the two women compromised by interfering men pursuing political and religious agendas, all ending in Mary’s beheading at age 44. So there’ll be no sequel.
The movie has a feminist tilt heightened by director Josie Rourke, one of several women Ronan has been privileged to work with in her developing career.
“I’ve actually worked with a lot of women directors. It’s not a new thing for me, “ Ronan said. “I’ve been happy that other people are catching up. Above all, you want to work with people who are great storytellers, but it’s also true that there are aspects of the female experience that men just wouldn’t have the same understanding of, so it’s great that more woman are getting a chance to direct.”
One is Greta Gerwig, who directed her in Lady Bird, which Gerwig also wrote. The two have just finished shooting Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, with Ronan as high-spirited Jo March (Florence Pugh is Amy, Emma Watson is Meg, Meryl Streep is Aunt March).