Anya Taylor-Joy can do more with just a stare than most actors can with a ten-page monologue. That’s the thought that continuously runs through my head while watching the actress decimate grown men over a chessboard during the seven-episode run of Netflix’s upcoming drama mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit.
As Beth Harmon, an orphan with a troubled past who begins as a chess prodigy and grows to become one the most talented and controversial players in Scott Frank’s re-working of the Walter Tevis classic novel, everything rests with Taylor-Joy. More specifically, with her face. It’s there we see the aftermath of a cutting knight-rook combo, the desperation of a Sicilian Defense, the turmoil after being forced to resign to a steely Russian opponent decades older than her. We see things other than chess in Taylor-Joy’s face too — like her character’s addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers, one that begins at a young age; her loneliness, her otherness as a woman competing in a male-dominated space in the ’60s, her genius, her madness.
Taylor-Joy’s mastered that non-verbal style of acting – it’s what’s elevated her performances in films like Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split – but she doesn’t rely solely on it for The Queen’s Gambit, instead carrying the series with the quiet charisma and solid assuredness of someone who’s discovered what she’s supposed to be doing. The “how” of doing it though continues to evolve, and when we caught up with Taylor-Joy to talk about the show and her insane schedule — she’s back with Eggers filming The Northman, she just finished a stint on Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, and she’s about to board George Miller’s Furiosa spin-off — the actress describes her rise to fame as a kind of homecoming and, maybe, a lesson in setting boundaries.
Even for someone who knows nothing about chess, this show was more than a bit addictive. What about this story hooked you?
I heard that Scott Frank wanted to talk to me about a project. There was no script, but there was a book. I was like, “Oh, Scott Frank. Incredibly talented. I’m down.” I also love to read. I inhaled that book so quickly and there was something… To use like the 2020 expression, I felt seen by this character. I was just like, “Whoa, okay. I really think I can tell this story with sensitivity and empathy.” Then Scott and I met. I ran to the meeting, and I don’t run anywhere. I was so excited that I had to run to meet this man. As soon as the door was opened, I was like, “It’s not all about chess and she needs to have red hair!” Scott was like, “I agree.” It was a very passionate, breathless discussion the first time that we met. I have to say, he, as a filmmaker and as a person, is incredible because we decided that we were going to do this, knowing that I would have played two characters prior to that, with basically no time off. I was going to do Emma, have a day off, do Last Night in Soho, have a day off, and then arrive to play Beth. Scott was so respectful, so cool and so caring for me as an individual, that I can’t imagine a better collaborator.
Beth is a genius, but her talent makes her “other,” and I think the nature of her lifestyle just adds to that. Did you identify with that part of her?
Big time. I think her inherent loneliness is the first thing that I was like, “Oh, this hurts to read, but also, I get it.”
I mean, we’re all a bit lonely right now.
Oh, absolutely. But I also think most people are inherently lonely it’s just, a lot of people don’t talk about it. Which is why I’m the first to stick up my hand and be like, “I was very lonely as a child.” I just had this deep faith and desire that there was a world one day where I was going to be able to inhabit it, I was going to have something to contribute, and the people around me would like me for the way that I was. I think Beth finds that in chess and I was lucky enough to find it in art. It did feel that way. I stepped onto my first set and I was like, “Oh, it all makes sense. This is where I’m supposed to be. This is where I feel safe, wanted, and cared for.” I think I love the scene where Beth sees a professional chess tournament for the first time, because she’s like, “Oh my God, I found my people.”
You’ve kind of mastered the art of non-verbal acting over the years, and that really comes into play here. How do you tap into such a complicated character while also making note of all these moves you need to be making.
I’m not a chess prodigy. I did not know how to play chess prior to this. I think one of the best pieces of advice I ever got with acting, particularly in screen acting, is if you’re having the right thoughts, then you do the right things. I am not an actor that goes and — with all respect to the actors that this works for, it just happens not to work for me — I don’t learn my lines at night, reading into a mirror, seeing the way that my face moves. I just learn the lines in the morning, connect the thoughts, and then if you’re having the thoughts your body naturally does what it’s supposed to do. So if the thought is, “Oh, you have no idea that I’m about to massively screw you right now with this rook move,” your body naturally gives off all those signals. It makes it super fun. The game of chess is like a mini-war on a board, so it makes sense that if you stick a camera between the two people that it’s going down with, it’s tense and exciting. Then it’s performed and you get the added kick of punctuating your feelings with chess moves and that feels great.
So how good at chess are you now?
I had to have a theoretical understanding of chess, just because I know what it means to the people that really care about it. As somebody who applauds passion, I didn’t feel like I could waltz on set knowing nothing about chess and just being like, “I’m going to pretend like I know what I’m doing.” I do think knowing the theory of chess and then being able to execute it for a full game are two very different things. I can possibly write a good little booklet on chess but I’m not the best player there ever was. For the process of filming, the number of games, the number of sequences that I had to learn… I think the second day I just went up to Scott and I was like, “You have to show me these games five minutes before we play them. Let me log them into my short-term memory. I’ll do it. Then I can throw that away and act,” because otherwise you just get really confused and you never sleep. Unfortunately, as human beings, we need to do that.
It’s almost like memorizing a dance or fight choreography then?
Completely. Thomas [Brodie-Sangster] and I had the best time in the speed chess matches because chess is historically a solitary game. But when you’re learning sequences, you have a dance partner. You cannot move until he moves. So we both felt very chuffed and very proud of ourselves whenever we would finish those sequences, because it was like, “Oh, we achieved something together. You were great. I was great. This was great.”
Did you ever get competitive with the guys off-set, because, from this show, it seems like chess can get very combative?
Again, in terms of playing the game for real, no. Scott Frank is very competitive. We played chess between takes on a couple of days and then we were like, “We need to stop. We need to focus on what we’re doing because we’re getting very aggressive towards each other.” [Laughs]
Right. Yelling at each other over a chessboard might not be the best for on-set morale.
Yeah. With Thomas, I didn’t realize I couldn’t be competitive about speed chess, but I can, and that was pretty fun. Just trying to always be the one that was quicker. I think that really worked for Benny and Beth’s relationship as well, because when they first meet it’s the first time that they’ve each met their intellectual equal, and that makes them both really excited and really ticked off at the same time. So yeah, that was really fun to play with.
It’s also nice that this is a show about a woman competing in a male-dominated space and it doesn’t constantly focus on her gender. It feels more progressive than you’d expect.
It was one of the things I loved most about her when she entered my life. She was like this weird space creature that wasn’t handed a book like, “You’re a girl, this is what you’re allowed to want.” She’s genuinely baffled by the fact that people keep being like, “This is really extraordinary that she’s a girl,” and she’s like, “No, I’m really, really good. That’s the bit that’s extraordinary about me.” I love getting to play that because we’re still dealing with it now. It’s going to take a long time before we figure it out. In the sixties, it was worse. So I love being able to portray a character that… I guess it’s not that she doesn’t see gender, it’s that she just doesn’t think it’s the most incredible thing about her. I hope we’re moving towards a society that doesn’t dictate what dreams you’re allowed to have or not have based on your gender, or what you identify as. I hope that’s where we’re moving to. I hope that audiences, in watching this story, get lulled into the same way of thinking and it becomes less about, “Oh, let’s watch this girl chess prodigy kick-ass,” and it’s more about, “Wow, this human is very talented and we care about her as an individual and not because of her gender.”
You’ve been incredibly busy over the last couple of years, and you just signed on to George Miller’s Furiosa spin-off. You mentioned realizing the need for sleep with this project. Have you learned how to take care of yourself a bit better because of this series?
You really hit the nail on the head there. I learned that with Beth. In January, I was like, I might need to actually eat a vegetable if I’m going to survive this year. That might be something that I need to do. Then by the time I got to play Beth, it was like… I’d never existed on much sleep, and for the first time ever, I was like, “It is 8:00 p.m. I am up at three. I am going to bed. I cannot talk to another individual. I need to sit at home with my thoughts, otherwise, I’m not going to be able to play this character correctly.” Having that enforced on me, as a way for me to play the character, was a really clever way that my brain taught me about boundaries. Because I could do it for Beth, but I hadn’t been able to do it for myself before. Now post-Beth, I’m like, “Oh, I really love people. I am an extroverted introvert, but I require time to read and time to be by myself in nature. If I don’t have that, I’m not as good a friend as I want to be.” It’s what people talk about on the airplane: you have to put on your own oxygen mask first if you’re going to help anybody else. I think Beth taught me about the oxygen mask.
Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ premieres on Oct. 23rd.