Josie Rourke: ‘I’ve always been Irish in my own, quiet way’

Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Back in 1976, Sean Rourke, an old school friend of mine from our class of 1957 at De La Salle in Salford, and his wife Viv, produced their very talented daughter, Josie, who went on to be a very accomplished director of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London’s Covent Garden. She moves on from the Donmar in March after eight years at the helm.

Now, Josie has just directed her first feature film, Mary Queen of Scots, a lavish production which stars Ireland’s Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart, the Catholic Queen of Scotland, and Australia’s Margo Robbie as her cousin, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth l.

It is scripted by Beau Willimon based on John Guy’s biography My Heart is My Own: the Life of Mary Queen of Scots which chronicles the 1569 Anglo-Scottish conflict. It opens here in the UK on 18 January.

We spoke to Josie to talk about her remarkable first time directing a major motion picture – and about her Irish roots in Salford.

Taking on a £25-million feature film, and all that goes with that as well as having the creative vision to put the script on the screen takes courage and conviction for anyone and Josie, 42, is not lacking in bravery.

She was the first woman to direct the Cambridge Footlights and the first woman, and the youngest person, to be artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse theatre in Convent Garden.


Irish World: Josie, it is good to see you here with your new ‘Hollywood blonde’ look. There are two old age pensioners in Amersham I know who are bursting with pride at your achievement.

“They are very excited and have always been very supportive of me.”

IW: It was a remarkable achievement when you were the youngest person (and a woman) to be appointed Artistic Director at the Donmar but to get your first Hollywood feature, being so young and a woman, puts that into the ‘ha’penny place’. Was it hard to transition from stage directing to film?

“I’m not that young – I’m 42. But, yes, taking on the Donmar, which is such a famous institution, was a challenge. It had been run by Sam Mendes when I was training there and Sam’s move into film gave me that confidence.

“It is not uncommon for British and Irish directors to move from stage to screen, if you think about John Crowley, Sam or Philippa Lloyd, so I think I took confidence from my mentors.

IW: It must have been very scary with all that film crew responsibility on location and lots of people involved all looking to you for direction?

“Indeed. There were hundreds of people on location, I found myself on the side of one of the Scottish Highlands directing a bigger crowd of extras, for a battle scene, than you could fit into all of the Donmar, so that was quite intense.

“It is true of theatre too, it would be weird if you did not experience nerves, but at the same time, there is only so much of that which is helpful for you to let show. I just had to absorb it in some way.

Josie Rourke

IW: You got a wonderful performance out of all the cast, but Saoirse Ronan was exceptional.

“Thank you. She is an exceptional actor and that is right, it is the first time she has really played a woman on-screen, I think.

“She signed on to play this role when she was still a teenager. I have only been on the movie for a couple of years, but she was attached to Mary Queen of Scots for much longer, as it was a precious and important thing to her.

“She was 23 when she made it with me, so she has kept the faith with it for a long time. That’s partly because she wanted to play a Celtic queen.”

IW: Was swapping her Irish accent for a Scottish one a challenge?

“Yes, but she has got a fantastic ear as an actor and an exceptional gift for accents, as has Margo, and that is part of the actors’ tool kit – she also learned French for this movie which is even more remarkable.”

IW: And she had to learn to ride a horse?

“Yes, she had to have an intensive course, so she looks great on the horse on camera.”

IW: There has been some criticism that you have messed with history a bit like the meeting between the two Queens that did not actually happen even though all the previous films have them meeting. Does that bother you?

“That’s true but so did Frederick Schiller in the 1800s with his play Mary Stuart, so I am in a two hundred-and-eighteen-year tradition of doing that, it has happened so many times before.

“There is an essential truth in that meeting as they corresponded so much, and it HAS happened many times before on film.

“A lot of that criticism came out at the time we released a trailer.

“Look, this is the world we live in and I’m totally sympathetic with people that wanted to grab a headline with that.

“Now people are getting to see the film and it has distilled and people have a chance to reflect on it and to realise we were not setting a precedent and that there is an absolute need for it for the drama.

“It would be boring if it had been done just through letters.”

IW: How does a kid from Salford or Eccles get to be a director? Were you inspired to love theatre by a particular teacher, or do you owe it all to your mother Viv and her trips with you to the theatre?

“It’s mum really. She studied Theatre and Drama at teacher training college and took me to the theatre a lot. I don’t think I ever thought of it as a viable career until I got to university.

“I had read a lot growing up in Salford and went to a lot of talks at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and I began to think about it.

“At university, I was surrounded by people who had been to public school, or private schools, with parents involved in the arts or media so I began to think of it as a viable career.

“Then I was the first woman to direct the Cambridge Footlights pantomime starring John Oliver and Richard Ayoade.

“But I really have my parents to thank for giving me enormous confidence and never doubting my ability to try something.”

IW: Did growing up in Salford, with an Irish Catholic background, make you feel part of the Irish diaspora?

“It did and through my dad as well. I think some of that issue of Irish culture is two-fold. One is not to be a ‘plastic Paddy’. He’s very pragmatic with a very dry sense of humour, my dad.

“He did not necessarily want to do ‘that thing’ but, at the same time, he is someone who speaks very softly, and is very moving, about his antecedents, his sense of what his Irish grandfather was like and his Irish grandmother, Austin and Totty.

“It was very much part of my life as I grew up. Our church was Irish, my school was Irish, and perhaps those people, those other families who we grew up around, were much more embracing of that part of Irish culture but it was there for us too.

“There were a lot of Irish teachers at school and I have done it in my own, quiet way.”

“At the Donmar, I’ve staged four Brian Friel plays and the first time I met you I was at the Royal Court doing The Prison Officer, an Irish play, for which I was looking for music.

“If I count them up, I’ve probably staged about eight or nine plays by Irish authors at the Donmar and have at least done one a year.

“People talk about Sam Mendes having staged American plays and Michael Grandage having staged European plays, nobody appears to have noticed that I have done at least one Irish play a year.

“What that says about the awareness of Irish theatre or drama in London I don’t know, but it interests me that nobody has picked that up.

IW: Will you be getting the call from Barbara Broccoli, the producer of James Bond films, to follow the lead of your predecessor at the Donmar, and mentor, Sam Mendes, and direct a 007 movie?

[Laughs] I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know about a female Bond but I get asked this question so much I feel if I answer I may jinx the possibility of it ever happening, who knows?


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