The Cost Of Being Queen: 'Mary' Explores The Sacrifices Of Women In Power | Texas Public Radio

The Cost Of Being Queen: 'Mary' Explores The Sacrifices Of Women In Power

Dec 2, 2018
Originally published on December 2, 2018 6:53 am

When she was first given the opportunity to play Queen Elizabeth I in the new film Mary Queen of Scots, Margot Robbie declined. "I found the prospect too intimidating," Robbie says. "I didn't really feel worthy." But after multiple conversations with director Josie Rourke, she changed her mind: "Eventually I was like, 'Look I trust you, I'm willing to give it a go,' " she recalls.

Much has been written about the relationship between Elizabeth I of England and Mary Stuart of Scotland — two queens ruling at the same time in rival, neighboring countries. The new film reinterprets that history in a feminist light.

"We re-examine history as a way of understanding what's happening in our present time, and where we're heading in the future ..." Robbie says. "That's the reason we've told stories since the beginning of time. ... Now, more than ever, the examination of what it's like to be a woman in charge and a woman in power is a very important thing to examine in our society."


Interview Highlights

On learning about Queen Elizabeth I's background

There were a lot of things about Elizabeth I didn't understand when initially reading the script. And it wasn't until I went back and looked at her childhood and her adolescence that I finally understood why she would say something like "I am more man than woman" or why she would say ... something like "I know have a feeble body of a woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a man and a king." ...

Ever since birth she was a disappointment simply because of her sex. And then she had a very tricky time in her adolescence — by some historians' accounts she was actually abused and then was labeled a "harlot." ... Finding out these pieces of trauma in her childhood really helped me understand why later in life she said "I'm the Virgin Queen. I will not get married." It did help me understand this deep mistrust in men and why she so closely linked her survival with not getting married and not being in the vulnerable position of being controlled by another man.

On the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth

I feel like if they'd just caught up for a cup of coffee at the beginning, you know, maybe things would have really gone differently and they could have worked this all out. But there was just this constant interference and meddling by their male advisers around them ... they went to extraordinary lengths to keep these two queens apart.

But they had this bond, I think. I loved that Josie so wanted to lean into the sisterhood between them, because you read their letters between each other and they're very intimate. ... I think they really were the only two people that could understand what the other was going through in a way that no one else could.

On trying to portray Elizabeth as living vicariously through Mary

They ruled in two very different ways. I think Mary ruled with her heart and Elizabeth ruled with her head. And I think Elizabeth thought Mary's choice of course of action and her way of ruling was dangerous and risky and I think she feared it would ultimately lead to her demise. But at the same time, I think she admired her for it, and was almost envious that she herself didn't have it within her to rule in that way ... to live with her heart, and to marry, and have a child, and go to battle, and all those things that Mary did.

On Elizabeth's dramatic physical transformation over the course of the film

It was almost like a social experiment. ... Being on set in the different stages of hair and makeup depending on where we were in the story, it was fascinating to see how different everyone around me acted. I could walk to set, do a rehearsal, be chatting with everyone about the weekend ... and then come back in my full royal regalia and people would almost do a mini bow ... speaking to me totally differently. And then again when I had the smallpox makeup on people kind of avoided me a little bit. I think that they found it almost uncomfortable to be looking at me when the prosthetics looked so painful.

On the scene in which the queens meet

In real life Mary and Elizabeth by historical accounts never met. ... Saoirse [Ronan, who plays Mary] and I never saw each other in character until that moment with the cameras set up and it was incredibly moving. We just totally broke down. ... I was completely overwhelmed emotionally and I mean I could feel my whole body shaking and I was just sobbing and she was sobbing as well ... There was something so tragic and moving and intimate about it. It was a very strange and surreal moment.

On what she hopes audiences will take away from the film about the queens

I don't want people to think of them as rivals. I guess what I want modern audiences to take away is just the chance to kind of examine what it is like to be a woman in power and the cost of that — and realize that at the end of the day no matter what position you're in, we're all human, and we all we all feel basic human emotions.

Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Two queens ruling at the same time in two rival but neighboring countries - much has been written about the relationship between Elizabeth I of England and Mary Stuart of Scotland. But a new film called "Mary Queen Of Scots" reinterprets that history in a feminist light. Saoirse Ronan plays the title role of Mary. Elizabeth is played by a fierce but vulnerable Margot Robbie, here dressing down her male advisers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS")

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Queen Elizabeth I) What have you produced in all your travels between our kingdoms - discord, war, death? And now you have the boldness to doubt my judgment. You had better question yours.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robbie says she kept passing on the part until director Josie Rourke finally convinced her to take on a role played by the likes of Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett.

ROBBIE: We talked for a long time. And then I think I passed again. And then, eventually, I was like, look. I trust you. I'm willing to give it a go. I just don't know if I can pull it off. So it was terrifying.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

ROBBIE: Yeah (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's somehow comforting to me that this was so frightening to you because your portrayal is extraordinary.

ROBBIE: Oh, thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I want to talk about your portrayal of Elizabeth. In many ways, this is a film about power, who gets to keep it and why and what women sacrifice when they get power. Your Elizabeth in this film says she is more man than woman. But we also see her love and need.

ROBBIE: There were a lot of things about Elizabeth I didn't understand when initially reading the script. And it wasn't until I went back and looked at her childhood and her adolescence that I finally understood why she would say something like I am more man than woman and why she would say, you know, some of her more famous quotes. I'm probably going to butcher the quote, but I think it's something along the lines, I know I have a feeble body of a woman. But I have the heart and stomach of a man and a king. I always thought, why does she feel that way? And when you go back and look at the fact that ever since birth, she was a disappointment simply because of her sex - and then she had a very tricky time in her adolescence. By some historians' accounts, she was actually abused and then was labeled a harlot and essentially slut-shamed.

And I think all these kind of - finding out these pieces of trauma in her childhood really helped me understand why, later in life, she said, I'm the virgin queen. I will not get married. It helped me understand this deep mistrust in men and why she's so closely linked her survival with not getting married and not being in the vulnerable position of being controlled by another man. I mean, it was just constantly life-or-death sort of stakes. And it all revolved around who would kind of hold that power, like you said. And marriage obviously meant handing over that power to a man and then having to have an heir and hope that it's a male heir because, otherwise, you, again, were a disappointment. Her mother actually was killed for pretty much as much as that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah - her mother, of course, Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded by Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father. What this film, I think, does intentionally is really show how both Elizabeth and Mary were queens, but they were living in a world of men. They were both the pawns of men but also the rulers of men. There was a lot of tension in that.

ROBBIE: Yeah. They - I know. You kind of left - I don't know. I read the script. And, certainly, when I watch the movie, I feel like if they just caught up for a cup of coffee at the beginning, you know, maybe things would've really gone differently. And they could've worked this all out. But there was just constant interference and meddling by their male advisers around them. And, you know, they went to extraordinary lengths to keep these two queens apart. But they had this bond, I think. I loved that Josie so wanted to lean into the sisterhood between them because you read their letters - they're very intimate, you know? They speak to each other - cousin, sister. And I think they really were the only two people that could understand what the other was going through in a way that no one else could.

It's a complicated relationship. Mary ruled with her heart. And Elizabeth ruled with her head. And I think Elizabeth thought Mary's choice of - course of action and her way of ruling was dangerous and risky. And I think she feared it would ultimately lead to her demise. But at the same time, I think she admired her for it and almost - was almost envious that she herself didn't have it within her to rule in that way and to live with her heart and to marry and have a child and go to battle and all those things that Mary did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that I thought was quite clever is the way that makeup and clothes were used in the film. You particularly transformed yourself in this film. We see Elizabeth in the beginning beautiful and young. And then she gets disfigured by smallpox. And she has this terrible scarring. And in the end, the image that we all sort of know of Elizabeth, of a woman in a white mask, you know, this sort of - almost a statue - it was such a dramatic transformation.

ROBBIE: When we started looking into it and started figuring out - OK - to what extent - what did smallpox look like when you're at the height of that illness? - looking at the images, I mean, it was really horrifically painful. And it left most people disfigured permanently, especially on their faces. So it did help us understand why we are left with the image of Elizabeth that we all know today, the white mask and the fiery, red wigs and the receding hairline. And actually, in real life, she also had wooden teeth, but we didn't go quite that far. We thought we'd pushed it pretty far.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you show the vulnerability of that sort of transformation of her face. And I'm curious because, you know, obviously, you're a beautiful woman, currently the face of Chanel. And you must have thought a lot about how the world sees women through the way that they look. It gives women power, but it also carries a huge cost.

ROBBIE: It was almost like a social experiment, not that I meant it to be. But being on set in the different stages of hair and makeup depending on where we were in the story, it was fascinating to see how different everyone around me acted. I could walk to set, do a rehearsal, be chatting with everyone about the weekend - you know, what have you guys been up to? - et cetera - and then come back in my full royal regalia, and people would almost do a mini bow and be like, right this way to set to your first position. Good morning - you know, speaking to me totally differently. And then, again, when I had the smallpox makeup on, people kind of avoided me a little bit. I think they found it almost uncomfortable to be looking at me when the prosthetics looked so painful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a scene when you actually meet Mary, Queen of Scots, played by Saoirse Ronan. And, you know, I understand that the actual scene where you meet was real in a way because, obviously, the entire film - you're both separate, and you don't really play a scene together until one important moment.

ROBBIE: In real life, Mary and Elizabeth, by historical accounts, never met. But Saoirse and I never saw each other in character until that moment with the cameras set up. And it was incredibly moving. We just totally broke down. I don't even really remember how the tape went. But we just - I was just...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What were you feeling?

ROBBIE: ...Absolutely sobbing. I just - I don't know. It was a really strange feeling. And I was completely overwhelmed emotionally. And I mean, I could feel my whole body shaking. And I was just sobbing. And she was sobbing, as well. And we just - - I don't know - there was something so tragic and moving and intimate about it. It was a very strange and surreal moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a pretty feminist retelling in many ways. It's directed by the female director Josie Rourke. And I saw that she said the reason that she wanted to do this film in this way is because it's important for modern audiences to see new accounts of historical figures, especially women. Do you think that's important? I mean, do you think that sort of looking at the history of powerful women like Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots is important?

ROBBIE: Yeah, I do. I think we re-examine history as a way of understanding what's happening in our present time and where we're heading in the future. I think that's the reason we've told stories since the beginning of time. So I think it's important to do that with the female characters, too. And I think now more than ever the examination of what it's like to be a woman in charge and a woman in power is a very important thing to examine in our society right now. We're making a push, I feel, more than I've ever experienced to have more women in leadership roles. So I think to kind of understand the cost of that and the sacrifices involved is interesting and important.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Margot Robbie - she plays Queen Elizabeth I in the new film "Mary Queen Of Scots" out Friday. Thank you so much.

ROBBIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.