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 to look like Queen Elizabeth I - the 16th-century monarch left scarred and half bald by 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. But Elizabeth, the so-called Virgin Queen, might be her most dramatic transformation yet.

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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). When Mary announces she technically has claim to the English throne, too, the women become rivals.

When veteran theatre director Rourke was approached in early 2016 to direct the project, which would become her first 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.

"Particularly coming from theatre, 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."

Jenny Shircore. Photo / Getty Images
Jenny Shircore. Photo / Getty Images

We encounter several stages of Elizabeth's heavily made-up look, 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, 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. Shircore counts about nine Elizabeth wigs total, some of which were stacked.

Shircore 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 of Mary Queen of Scots.

"Being on set and watching it all happen [made this] one of the most exciting films to work on."

Mary Queen of Scots is released in New Zealand on January 17.