Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Harry Melling knew next to nothing about chess before they took on roles in Netflix’s upcoming limited series, The Queen’s Gambit. Nearly a year after filming, they still wouldn’t label their play as particularly “good.” Of course, creator Scott Frank (Logan, Godless) didn’t need them to be grandmasters to play two men caught up in the unpredictable whirlwind of a young chess prodigy played by Anya-Taylor Joy – their characters Benny (Sangster) and Harry (Melling) end up losing to Joy’s Beth more times than naught. No, he needed them to make the game look good. Exciting. Maybe even a bit sexy.
We can’t believe we’re saying it, but they succeeded. The Queen’s Gambit takes a classic, stuffy boardgame and transforms it into a thrilling vehicle for exploring everything from addiction to obsession to sexism, friendship, and childhood trauma. We chatted with Sangster and Melling about the series, their lengthy careers, and what drives their own obsessions outside of work.
Did you guys intend to make chess sexy with this show because if so, mission accomplished?
Harry: [Laughs] Couldn’t help it. That was, in fact, the only thing I wanted to achieve [with] this entire job, was to make chess look sexy.
The gameplay is so intense. It’s the most chess I’ve ever seen actually played on screen. What’s the trick for memorizing those moves because I’m assuming you’re not all Grandmasters?
Thomas: I’m not entirely sure what the trick to it is. It’s just another memory lesson, really. I mean, the guys that were teaching us chess, mid-scene would try to explain why you moved that bishop is because you’re protecting that queen from the opponent’s knight and you go, “Okay, that’s all really very, very interesting, but that’s not enabling me to memorize it very well. Just show us the moves. That black one goes to that white square there. And that one then moves there.” That was how I did it. I loved all that psychology behind it, but on the day, you’re just trying to move the pieces around the board and look good doing it.
Harry: It’s all pretend.
Who would be the best chess player in this cast?
[Note: Reader, note we said “best.” Harry Melling thought we said “worst.” We blame this next bit of mild trash-talking on the fickleness of Zoom chats.]
Harry: I guarantee you it’d be me.
It would be you?
Harry: Easy. It would be me, easy. Thomas did you play, Jacob [Fortune-Lloyd]? Because Jacob was good. Jacob was really good.
Thomas: I didn’t. He played properly.
Harry, why are you so confident that it would be you?
Harry: Who would lose?
You would lose or you would win?
Harry: No, I’d 100% lose.
Oh man, I was seriously impressed with your confidence for a minute there.
Harry: [Laughs] Oh no. I misunderstood. I didn’t know how to play chess before this so I was really learning from scratch. And as Tom said, it was very much “this bigger piece goes to this square here.” And of course, after that, you get the feel of it and you can sort of talk to the chess team about why certain things would go places. It was fascinating. The number of sequences they have in their head at one time was just unreal. But I would lose. I would lose to probably every single person on that film set I think — happily and easily.
The good thing is this show isn’t just about chess. It dives into obsession and how it can control your life in unexpected ways. Has either of you been as single-minded about something as Beth is about this game?
Thomas: Maybe not to that extent but I will get obsessed about one particular thing. I like to build things and craft things. I’ve got into my mom’s garden or work on my motorbikes, or twiddle away on wood and things. But in that moment, that’s all I will concentrate on. I can’t think about anything else whatsoever, which gets very frustrating if you’re trying to go out with me, or if you’re trying to be a friend of mine, or if you’re trying to be an agent of mine because my mind only kind of really focuses heavily on one thing. But when it’s focused on that one thing, it works very well at that one thing.
Harry: I don’t think I’m particularly good at spinning many plates at the same time. I’m very sort of, I’m doing this now. Please, can everyone leave me alone whilst I do this thing? Maybe it’s a sort of actor related thing? I’m not sure, but [it’s] not to the extent of where Beth goes in the story. The emotional cost of what it is to sort of operate on that level all the time must be really tough.
Beth gets to a point where she questions what’s next for her. You both have been acting for a long time. Have you ever had that thought when it comes to your career?
Thomas: Yeah. I think that’s just a healthy way of looking at it, really. I often questioned myself and make sure that I’m doing things for the right reasons. Whether I still have love for what I’m doing, because that’s all that matters, is whether you love it. And when you’re getting something from it, because as soon as you stop getting that, then don’t put your full effort in. Especially with something that’s as exposing as acting, you have to put everything in because an audience expects that. That’s where you get that trueness from. It comes from a person throwing everything that they have into something. And even if you’re playing someone who’s completely ridiculous you have to have that grounding. That grounding comes from within you as a person and that only can exist if you love it. So it’s very important, I think for everyone to always assess what they do and why they do it, and whether they love it and also, to branch out and make sure that they expand their minds to include all sorts of other things, to exercise their brains in very different ways, so they don’t become one dimensional.
We’re all realizing the need for more hobbies right now, I think.
Thomas: I know. That’s what’s interesting about this moment, actually. I think it’s really cool for all the big agents and producers that just live life at a fast pace — I think it’s great that they’ve all had to just stop for a second. I think that’s healthy for the world.
Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ premieres on Oct. 23rd.