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MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS Writer Beau Willimon on Why a 500-Year-Old Story is So Relevant Today

By Shanee Edwards · December 11, 2018

You may know screenwriter Beau Willimon as the creator of the American version of House of Cards, the hit Netflix show that was recently sent scrambling after the firing of its star Kevin Spacey due to alleged sexual misconduct. But Willimon was able to roll with the punches as the show killed off Frank Underwood (Spacey) in his sleep (was it murder?) and moved Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) into position as the first female president. The show, not unlike The Connors, was reborn like a television phoenix out of its own ashes. 

But at a recent press junket for Willimon’s new feature film Mary Queen of Scots, there was sadly no time to ask him about House of Cards. No problem, since Mary is just oh, so savagely brilliant!

It’s difficult to imagine that the game of crowns between cousins Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I that took place in the mid-1500s would be so relevant in 2018, but Willimon is here to tell you it is. It SO is.

(l-r) Grace Molony stars as Dorothy Stafford, Margot Robbie stars as Queen Elizabeth I and Georgia Burnell as Kate Carey in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Parisa Tag / Focus Features

According to Willimon, both Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and Mary (Saoirse Ronan) were women way ahead of their time. 

“They were modern women,” says Willimon, “and the issues they were contending with back in the 16th-century, unfortunately, are many of the same issues that we as a culture are dealing with now. At that time in history, their only counterparts were each other, and they were contending with these huge political tectonic forces.”

The result was that these women became two very different queens. But ultimately, there was only room for one.

“They were looking to undermine or oppose each other at every turn. What they had to confront just to maintain their tenuous power was pretty extraordinary. In some ways what was happening then is what we’re seeing here and now,” says Willimon.

Willimon gives examples from the recent midterm elections.

The first is a photo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that was tweeted by Eddie Scarry, a reporter for the Washington Examiner. The tweet said, “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

“Set aside the fact that [Scarry] referred to a congresswoman as a ‘girl,’” says Willimon, “but think about the scrutiny that’s placed on her looks and wardrobe! Can you even imagine a similar tweet being sent out about a congressman-elect and the cheap suit he had bought from the Men’s Warehouse or something like that?”

No, I cannot.

“The hyper-focus on appearance is something that Mary and Elizabeth had to pay great attention to because literally their dress set them apart from everyone surrounding them.“

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary Stuart in MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

The second example of the film’s similarities to today, according to Willimon, is with Nancy Pelosi, current minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Though things are starting to look up for her, she’s really been struggling to maintain her role as Speaker of the House and facing criticism from members of her own party. 

“Qualities like scrappiness, fortitude, resoluteness, defiance, strength – these are things that are typically used when you’re describing a man, but are often looked upon as insults or liabilities when you describe a woman. I think that’s as true now, unfortunately, as it was then.” 

Though a record number of women will serve in the 2019 United States Congress, there was no happy ending for Mary Queen of Scots. The film opens with a flash-forward to Mary being led to her execution. She spends the rest of the film as an earnest yet tragic figure. But that was Willimon’s plan. 

“With Mary you have this young, vital, ambitious force of nature who’s come back to her native land and, in her present-tense experience of the story, she doesn’t know her head is eventually going to get chopped off. She’s there to have a successful reign and to bring leadership to her country which was at the tail end of a lot of tumult and chaos.” 

Willimon says he thought it was important to remind the audience from the very beginning that Mary would be executed so they would know what’s at stake. 

“For those who do you know the history a little bit more, it’s also a reminder that Elizabeth’s mother [Queen Anne Boleyn] had suffered that same fate.”

Like the recent film, The Favourite, Mary is a compelling look at female power and the sacrifices women must make if they want to get ahead. In so many ways Mary and Elizabeth I were very similar. But their choices to define themselves would lead one to a long prosperous reign and the other to an early death. 

Willimon based his screenplay on the 2004 biography Mary Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy.  Both Willimon and Guy believe Mary got a bad rap from historians.  “Elizabeth had a lot more indecisiveness, insecurity and paranoia than Mary. Elizabeth had only been queen for three years when Mary returned and I think the Elizabeth we’ve come to know – the stalwart, resolute figure – learned a lot from Mary, who had previously been a monarch in France and had the experience of life at court. The whole idea with this movie was for Mary to reclaim her own story and I think that’s the history that John [Guy] and I attempted to dramatize in a way that would be accessible and relatable to the audience of 2018.” 

Mary Queen of Scots opened Friday, December 7, 2018.

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

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