When she signed onto “Mary Queen of Scots,” British makeup artist Jenny Shircore knew she had a great task ahead of her. How do you get Margot Robbie, a woman so Hollywood-beautiful that she might soon play Barbie, to look like Queen Elizabeth I, the 16th-century English monarch left scarred and half bald by a vicious bout of smallpox?
Simple. You change “her skin, her eyebrows, her nose, her lips,” Shircore recalls telling director Josie Rourke. You change everything.
Heavy makeup is nothing new for Robbie, the Australian actress known for disappearing into roles like Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad” or Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya.” But Elizabeth, the so-called Virgin Queen who led England through its golden age, might be her most dramatic transformation yet. Beauty and power “in those days went hand in hand,” according to Shircore, so Elizabeth wore elaborate wigs and a thick layer of white makeup to cover her scars and exert her dominance over others.
That includes her fiery Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), who assumes the Scottish throne as a teenager at the start of the film. Both women are criticized by men who disapprove of female monarchs and, due to some confusing politics — Elizabeth once lost her status as a legitimate heir when her father, King Henry VIII, annulled his marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn — Mary announces she technically has claim to the English throne, too. Once somewhat friendly, the women become rivals.
When veteran theater director Rourke was approached in early 2016 to direct the project, which would become her first-ever film, Ronan had already been attached to it for four years. But Rourke lacked an Elizabeth. Robbie immediately came to mind, as her performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street” had put her on Rourke’s radar a few years before.
“Particularly coming from theater, one of my key jobs as a director is not only to understand how you’re brilliant in the types of roles you’re playing, but to look at you in a role and start to work out what else I think you could do exceptionally,” Rourke explains. “A certain kind of emotional range and physical dexterity in an actor, I saw that in Margot. It was drawn out in ‘I, Tonya.’ I thought, that’s a transformer.”
We encounter several stages of Elizabeth’s heavily made-up look in “Mary Queen of Scots,” but one element remains constant: her nose. Shircore considers Robbie to be a modern beauty and believed a prosthetic nose would give the actress a more regal, old-fashioned look. So she drew different noses onto Robbie’s face using Photoshop and had a few test models made. The final selection? A slightly sharper nose with a prominent bridge.
The first of Elizabeth’s looks is what Shircore calls the “young, pretty” stage. Robbie wears a wig of soft curls meant to be Elizabeth’s natural hair, worn long.
Then, tragedy strikes.
The queen contracts smallpox, causing boils and blisters to cover her face. The blemishes took Shircore the longest amount of time to create — before those scenes, which are among Elizabeth’s most vulnerable, Robbie would sit in the chair for about three hours.
The dried-out boils and blisters came next, and then the scars. Elizabeth covers them “like anyone does with a pimple,” Shircore says. But in those days, the makeup was much less sophisticated and much heavier. As she ages, the amount she cakes on increases. Eventually, Elizabeth’s face is as white as a sheet. Robbie recently told Harper’s Bazaar that when she walked out of her makeup trailer looking like this, her castmates “wouldn’t even get close to me. It was very alienating.”
The smallpox also makes Elizabeth’s hair fall out, as seen in the film’s trailer. Shircore counts about nine Elizabeth wigs total, some of which were stacked.
“In the scene where she meets Mary Queen of Scots . . . she’s wearing a proper wig on top of her ‘real hair’ wig,” Shircore says, the latter referring to a brittle piece that covers a bald cap that covers Robbie’s real hair.
Mary, the film’s protagonist, and Elizabeth, the most prominent supporting character, only meet that one time, in a powerful and entirely fictional scene that takes place at the climax. Tension primarily builds between the cousins via letters and hearsay, which writer Beau Willimon, who drew from a book by British historian John Guy, expertly weaves into the plot. In an early scene, Elizabeth gazes at a small portrait Mary mailed to her and nervously notes how pretty and young her cousin appears in it.
“Jealousy and fear between the two women was about power, and they were both very aware of each other’s beauty,” Shircore says. “When Elizabeth was losing her beauty because of the smallpox scarring, she harnessed what was left with makeup. She started using more and more.”
Shircore initially hesitated to join the project, having won an Oscar almost 20 years earlier for the makeup and hair styling in “Elizabeth,” starring Cate Blanchett. But once she actually began work on “Mary Queen of Scots,” she never thought of the 1998 film again.
“You never go back to what you’ve done before,” she says. “Margot Robbie was very, very, very much the Elizabeth I was working with. . . . Being on set and watching it all happen [made this] one of the most exciting films to work on.”