Few directors have the pedigree of Josie Rourke.
After university, she went on to work at the British theatre the Donmar Warehouse under the tutelage of Sam Mendes [American Beauty, Skyfall]. She began directing next, working with actors Helen Mirren, Daniel Radcliffe, Tom Hiddleston and Kim Cattrall in a series of productions.
Now Rourke dives into the biggest gamble of her career: the movies. This winter, she makes her cinematic directorial debut with Mary, Queen of Scots. Based on John Guy’s biography of the same title, the film offers a revisionist take on one of Britain’s most reviled monarchs. The film stars Acadamy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan [Lady Bird] as Mary and Margot Robbie [I, Tonya] as Elizabeth I, Mary’s chief rival.
We tracked down Rourke just ahead of the American opening of the film to talk about her work as a director, her take on history’s most famous women, and queerness lost to history.
Mary, Queen of Scots opens December 7 in cinemas.
This is quite a different take on Mary than any other I’ve seen in the movies. She’s this sort of proto-feminist heroine, albeit a tragic one. What is it about her that you find so compelling?
I think that Mary is one of those women who has been unfairly pigeonholed by history into someone who was so much driven by emotion that she lacked political judgment. What’s fascinating about that is the “fake news” narrative that dates back to the period the film is set in. So William Cecil, who Guy Pierce plays in the movie, was completely obsessed with not only removing Mary from the picture but also besmirching her reputation. So one of the thing that John Guy’s terrific book does is show how Cecil started to mettle in the archives, and create these fake pamphlets that he had published saying that Mary was this kind of terrible femme fatale who murdered Darnley because of her lust for Bothwell…
Oh my goodness.
And what we see David Tennant’s character, John Knox, put in the movie has really adhered. It’s helpful to think of the Victorians who did so much to malign the history of women through that time period. So what I really wanted to do was set the record straight. And when I got on board with the project, Saoirse Ronan was already attached. So it was a two-part mission really: One was to make this film with and for Saoirse, and the other was to try and reposition Mary in what is her rightful place in history, which is someone who is actually an inspiring leader and very, very capable, and, as you say, tragically was pulled down in the end by forces that overwhelmed her just by their sheer number.
It is simply amazing: The number of queer characters—bisexuality, outright homosexuality, cross-dressing, etc. Was that something that existed in John Guy’s biography, or was that something you added?
It’s all those things. I’m really glad you brought it up because some people have kind of evidenced surprise about that. I always say “progress is not linear.” As a theatre director, I’ve done a ton of plays set in this period, written in this period of history. I’ve read a lot of the poetry and literature around it. And you know, we think that Shakespeare’s famous love sonnets were addressed to a man.
Yeah. And this was a period of history where people would not have identified as being gay. They just would have also or sometimes slept with men. I mean, there’s less evidence of women having relationships with women around that period, although one’s almost certain.
This is the Renaissance for a number of reasons. It’s the Renaissance because we see this great classical revival in painting and architecture and thought, but this is also a time that reached back to classical civilization and Greek and Roman history, which, you know, we know was an incredibly queer period. So yeah, it just happened. Darnley’s nickname in court was, “the great cock chick.”
Seriously. And there’s certainly evidence of him and Rizzio having a relationship. The other really interesting thing about that period of history was that it was not illegal to be homosexual. Sodomy was a crime, but there were hardly any prosecutions for it. And if you were prosecuted for sodomy, they were generally trying to get you for something else. It’s a bit like getting Al Capone for tax.
It was not a thing that was, you know, thought of as particularly illegal. The French king during this period was homosexual on Sundays. On Sundays, the French Court turned into a court for the king and young men to hang out and be gay.
It’s good to be the king.
So it’s very present in that period of history.
Up until recently, films seemed unwilling to acknowledge that fact. Some historians couldn’t even acknowledge that fact.
I think that really goes back to the Victorians, in British history, certainly. There was this sort of clamp-down of identity and expression in that period. We’re still sort of clawing our way out of that.
And with that comes a certain sexism, which is also a major force in the film. We get the idea that Mary could have been a much more successful monarch if she’d been a man and had different pressures. Yet Elizabeth is able to navigate this world and become a very successful queen.
Yeah, although not without sacrifice.
A lot of this is about the cost to her. And in another way, this is also about Mary’s part in the creation myth of Elizabeth. Mary does stuff, Margot [Robbie, who plays Elizabeth I] would say, that Elizabeth dare not do. And Elizabeth is happy to sort of observe that and see what happens. I think that Elizabeth’s decision not to marry and have a child, which is quite clear in the movie, was a political choice. She understood the extreme danger that put you under, that what people actually wanted was a male monarch. If you produced a male heir, what would happen [to Elizabeth] would be what happens to Mary: a powerful man gets a hold of that child and says, “I don’t need you anymore. I’m going to govern on behalf of this child until he’s old enough to be king.”
Do you think that’s the big difference between Mary and Elizabeth—the choice to have a child?
Yeah. It’s a political move as much as anything on Mary’s part. What she wanted to do was secure succession, and she knows that she’ll massively summon her power if she produces a male heir. But you sort of amplify your power and amplify your jeopardy in this case. What Mary is, is a much greater risk-taker than Elizabeth. Elizabeth is much more vulnerable, much more cautious, much more calculating. She takes advice and believes in her advisers much more than Mary does. So that’s a key distinction there, I think.
Totally. So I’ve written a successful historical novel myself.
The big issue throughout writing it was how to balance historical accuracy with drama. Needless to say your movie, as with any historical film, takes liberties with history. What was your approach to the philosophical problem?
I think there are a couple things there. I think that there are choices to make with Mary’s story that not all historians agree on. So, for example, many historians think that Mary was in love with Bothwell, and conspired with him to assassinate Darnley. I don’t believe that, and I believe that she was kidnapped and forced into that marriage and didn’t take part [in the assassination]. So you’re not only navigating drama and history, but you’re also looking at the source materials, looking at different views of different historians and taking a view on that.
So that’s a big part of it—what account will you give among these varied historical accounts of this woman. I think then, very simple things like compression of time frame, the adjacency of events, in order to craft what is essentially a biography into a story. And we’re pretty careful with that. We worked very closely with Dr. John Guy who wrote the biography. I think, my question for myself is, is this very eminent historian content with what we’ve done? And he’s deliriously happy with it.
So that’s good for me. There is, within the story of the movie, a scene which certainly did not happen, which is a meeting between Mary & Elizabeth. And the thing about that scene is that, for me, that scene has a dramatic history that is part of our culture. So, you know, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins have played that scene. Helen Mirren has played that scene. Katherine Hepburn has played that scene. Janet McTeer and Dame Harriet Wolf have played that scene on the stage of my theatre and then on Broadway. As a woman theatre director, you are continually looking—or I am, anyway—for these moments and scenes and parts that women can play which are actually on a continuum or a path trodden by other great women before them. So even though that scene didn’t happen historically, that scene is part of our dramatic history—having two great actors of their generation face off in this imagined encounter between these two women and who did have, of course, a detailed relationship, in letters, a relationship which is documented. So that liberty, I think is not only a liberty I’m taking in service of the story, but also in service of a great dramatic tradition.
The catharsis of the two battling it out face-to-face. One thing that I found surprising about your film was the level of diversity. We don’t generally think of 16th century England or Scotland as having so many people of color. Adrian Lester plays Lord Randolph, who gives one of the film’s best performances.
Of course, the real Lord Randolph was white. Gemma Chan plays Elizabeth Hardwicke. This is a convention we’re more used to in the theatre. You know, in theatre, the actor plays the role and you don’t question it much.
So I’ll say a couple things about that, really. First, thank you for recognizing the brilliance in Adrian’s performance.
Well, that’s easy.
Yeah. Adrian’s an interesting case in point. Adrian Lester was born and grew up 40 miles from William Shakespeare.
I didn’ t know that.
But Adrian is one of the greatest classical actors in England, and in the world. He was Hamlet for Peter Brook. He was Othello on stage in the National Theatre. He knows more about his period of history and the plays and the writing in this period of history than any person in this movie except for maybe Simon Russell Beale, who reads the death warrant at the end of the film. And Adrian said to me after we’d made the movie, “Do you know I’ve played all of these roles in theatre, and I’ve never, ever played in a period drama on film?” And that’s just wrong. Neither has Gemma, neither has Ismael Cruz Cordova. None of these great actors have done that. And you know, the denial of talent, I think, is the driving force in just wanting to be able to cast these great people in these great roles. I can’t think of anyone better in the part.
So yeah, I am familiar with that from the theatre. I was also very clear with Focus Features and with Working Title [the studios which produced the film], and they were very supportive, that I would not direct an all-white period drama. And although these actors—although we have people of color playing characters that were white, historically—it’s really important to say that England itself was not entirely white in that period. But yeah, Margot Robbie is an Australian actor playing an English monarch. Saoirse Ronan is an Irish woman playing a Scottish woman. Jack Lavin is Scottish and playing English. There are many, many stretchings of people’s identities within that drama in order to bring these people to the screen. And I just kind of think it’s time, isn’t it, to do that on screen?
This is your first film as director, though you obviously have a remarkably prolific history in theatre. What made you want to transition to film after such a prestigious theatre career?
Oh, thank you. Well, I’ve always wanted to. The theatre I now run, I trained there as well when Sam Mendes was running it as artistic director. So I’m following in Sam’s footsteps. He went on to direct American Beauty. There’s a big tradition of British stage directors becoming British film directors. Stephen Daldry [The Hours], Danny Boyle [28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire], Phyllida Lloyd [Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady]. We tend to make that move. In a way that’s kind of the root for a lot of us. So it was always a hopeful part of the plan, and I’m really pleased to have made the progression.
The film hasn’t opened in wide release yet. What’s the reception been so far? Are you nervous?
It would be impossible not to be nervous about opening my first movie. And hopefully, I’ll be nervous about opening my second and my third as well. I think that the important thing is that we really feel and keep hold of our excitement and our vulnerability about our work.
That’s what keeps us fresh, and keeps us alive.
Mary, Queen of Scots opens December 7 in cinemas.