‘Mary Queen of Scots’ star talks LGBTQ allyship, coming out scenes and naked men in movies
By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Focus Features
Name a 24-year-old Oscar nominee more qualified to take the throne as a crown-donning, queer-friendly queen than Saoirse Ronan. The Mary Queen of Scots star’s own life is rich in queer-adjacent roles and gay besties, and as powerful progressive Mary Stuart, the Irish actress sees her real-life allyship translate to a supreme role based on the Scottish royal who precedes her by, oh, 500 years.
Then and now, leave it to rascally men to get in the way of reigning women, as Stuart requests to succeed her cousin Queen Elizabeth 1; egos clash in the name of peace, and the queens wind up in a tempestuous and fatal feud. This was the 16th century, but here we are hundreds of years later: women are asserting their power and uniting to disband centuries of oppression, the kind Elizabeth and Stuart, together, never could.
Given her masterful and awards-honored work in other sublime periods dramas like 2015’s Brooklyn and 2008’s Atonement (resulting in her first Oscar nod, at just 13), Ronan’s precocious acting career could very well go down in history too. In Greta Gerwig’s 2017 dramedy Lady Bird, as a true-to-life awkward teen, the actress shared a tender moment with a gay boy she’d fallen for named Danny (Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased) that ranks as one of cinema’s great coming-out scenes.
In 2015, when you could vote for the first time in Ireland, you voted in favor of the same-sex marriage referendum. You also spoke at a campaign event in Dublin organized by the Yes Equality group. Why are LGBTQ issues important to you?
So many of my friends are gay. And especially in the arts, I’m surrounded by people of all different sexual orientations all the time. The best thing about the experience of being in this world is that everyone just becomes this one thing and, for me anyway, there’s never been any sort of separation at all or segregation. So yeah, that’s why. I also just feel like as much as it’s important to tell any sort of love story if it’s between a man and a woman, it’s equally important to shine a light on gay relationships too.
Which Mary Queen of Scots does. The film’s emotional core is really the result of Mary’s relationship with her private secretary and confidante David Rizzio, who’s portrayed as just one of the girls. Reflecting on the LGBTQ people in your life, how did that scene personally resonate with you?
I guess it goes back to just what I was saying: That there’s no difference for me at all, and we’re all together working and being friends and supporting each other. And actually, the thing is, at that time there was a lot of sexual fluidity because it was pre-Victorian era, where everyone got a bit poker-up-their-arse, and so everyone was quite open. I don’t know whether you could say accepting, necessarily, but certainly sort of nonjudgmental. Also, marriage was a separate thing to love and sex back then. So Mary really was that open; she came from France, she came from a very culturally rich Renaissance country and, yeah, I feel like the arts still embody that.
You know, I’ve even noticed with one of my best friends, because he’s a little bit younger than me, but all of his friends were coming out from such an early age in a way that even mine weren’t, and I’m only a few years older than him. He’s grown up with just being around everything and everyone, and it made him a much happier person.
Without giving too much away, you walk in on two men in bed together. Were you as happy as I was to have a period film acknowledge that men slept with other men during that time?
Well, yeah – especially when they’re both so beautiful! You know what? The thing was, for me: I was quite excited that – like, more often than not it’s the women who are naked in the bed, and it’s the woman’s arse that you see. Usually the man is completely covered up. And so, what I loved about it being two men together in bed is that you got to see them in all their glory and beauty. It was two male bodies being exposed in a lovely way, which I really, really liked. There was something about that that as a female actor I found quite exciting.
Piggybacking off a major plot point that I won’t spoil for readers: Have you ever been in love with a gay man?
(Laughs) Have I ever been in love with a gay man? I think I’m in love with every gay man I know, probably! I think most women have been in that situation. But yeah, so many of my friends are gay and I love them to death. And what I’ve experienced with, specifically, the gay men that I’m close to is that there’s just a safety as a woman, a real safety that you feel. And a security. It’s a safe space.
And you’re that same place for them?
Yeah, I hope so. Luckily, the friends that I have who are gay are very confident anyway and they sort of don’t give a shit, but you want all your friends to feel supported, and I think we all do support each other. I think it’s one of those things: Their sexual orientation or mine doesn’t really come into it because we’re just people and friends, and so it’s got a real purity to it.
You’ve said that you don’t take gender into consideration when choosing roles, but yet you’ve not played a man.
No, I haven’t. None have been offered to me. But I would! I would, I would. I’ve always liked the idea of playing someone from the opposite sex just because of what you get to do with it. I love the idea of being able to blur lines in such a kind of extreme way, but then also just from a pure actor point of view being able to work out somebody’s physicality and really embodying someone who would just move in a completely different way to you, and their voice register would be different and how they communicate and interact would be different and their gestures would be different. So yeah, I would love to do it. Even just for that alone.
You’re starring in Greta Gerwig’s upcoming remake of Little Women as Jo March. Jo was a tomboy, and some have speculated that she might be queer. Are you portraying Jo with that in mind?
I can’t say much about what we’re doing at the moment because we’re still shooting, but I do know there was a lot of speculation that (Little Women author) Louisa Alcott, who Jo is obviously based on, was probably at least bisexual. Whether you want to put a label on it or not, (she) fell in love with whoever, regardless of their gender. She was very forward-thinking in that way, and she was liberal in that way. And Louisa came from a very Bohemian, pretty radical background – her family was amazing and really forward-thinking, so Louisa certainly explores that part of herself.
In both Lady Bird and Mary Queen of Scots, the approach to the gay reveal has been refreshingly played without blame. Queerness isn’t framed as betrayal. Are these situations handled as delicately as they seem to be?
Yeah, I think so. I think in both cases the directors are close to gay men themselves and have been in similar situations with mates of theirs; so they know how delicate a thing that is and how important it is to honor that and be as sensitive with that as possible because it’s such a huge thing for a person. It’s certainly been a lovely thing to be a part of, honoring that and shining a light on that experience for someone.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).