'The Queen's Gambit' Star Anya Taylor-Joy on Making Chess Riveting TV
“It’s about chess, but it’s not about chess,” Anya Taylor-Joy recalls saying when she met Scott Frank, writer and director of Netflix’s stylish seven-part drama The Queen’s Gambit (premiering October 23). In just a few hours, the actress devoured the Walter Tevis novel that Frank was adapting, then literally ran, she says, to their lunch meeting. She knew she had to play Beth Harmon, whose rise from Kentucky orphan to international 1960s chess superstar is as wild as it is hopeful. Taylor-Joy sets the stage.
Why did you connect with Beth?
Anya Taylor-Joy: At the time, I was working very intensely [on back-to-back films] and really felt like I could understand her level of obsession, but also her level of loneliness. I think that if you transfer chess to acting, there are elements between me and Beth that are very similar — there are elements that are very different — but I really felt for her and cared about her deeply, and wanted to be the person to tell the story. Scott and I described our vision to each other and both had the same dream.
Her presence is striking.
The second thing I said was, “She has to have red hair, because that says a lot about the character.” And Scott said, “I love it. I want her to have red hair because I want her to stand out everywhere she goes, even if she’s trying not to. I want her to be impossible not to ignore, even from an aerial shot.”
How did you make chess matches such compelling TV?
Scott and I would talk a lot about how we would make each of them different and keep the audience engaged. We approached each of them almost as if they were a battle. We wanted each of them to be completely different. If you attached the emotions of whatever Beth’s going through, and obviously whoever her opponent is, that naturally makes it different. You would think that it wouldn’t be that dramatic, and yet when you add all of the subtext and layers into it, it does become riveting. Some of my favorite chess matches are when Beth plays Townes [Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, below with Taylor-Joy], and it’s the first time she hasn’t actively wanted to thrash someone because she likes him — and so she feels conflicted about undermining his intelligence and his skill in the game, whilst also still wanting to win. I thought that was really interesting.
Had you played chess before?
No. I had always been interested in it, but I’ve never been invited into the world in that way, and then when I found out I was doing the project, I had this fantasy that I was going to become really good at it and do all this training. Unfortunately because of how my schedule was — I shot Emma, I had a day off, and then I did Last Night in Soho with Edgar Wright, and then had a day off, and then was filming The Queen’s Gambit — I did not have the time to train as much as I could have. I have a very good understanding of the game, and the thing that actually helped me the most was that I come from a dance background, so I would learn the chess moves almost like a dance routine for my fingers. I learned all of the matches five minutes prior [to filming], and it did become something I really enjoyed. I like testing myself in that way, especially when it comes to the speed chess sequences; when you get that right that first time, it feels absolutely amazing.
Beth often looks up at the ceiling and visualizes a chess match. Executive producer William Horberg told me it took about a year of trial and error for them to get the visual effects just right on those sequences, so it didn’t look too Harry Potter magical when the board and pieces appear and move. Did they have anything for you to look at during filming?
No, I just had my very active imagination, which to be fair, is like living in a Harry Potter movie. I tend to visualize things a lot anyway, that’s left over from when I was as a kid, so I can really understand Beth doing that. The way that Beth looks at the ceiling, to be able to figure out what her next move is going to be, I kind of do that with dance in acting where before a take, I’ll sort of dance through the beats of the emotional scene — but actually dance through it and understand it rhythmically in that way. So Beth’s visualization of that is something that I do in my own acting.
The majority of the series was filmed in Berlin for the vibe of films from the '50s and '60s. Where did you film the climactic Soviet Union tournament?
We shot that in Berlin City Hall in the middle of the night and it was amazing, absolutely incredible. Shooting in Berlin gave a real sense of authenticity to the show, which is bizarre because the show takes place basically everywhere but Berlin, but we were all living near each other and living this experience together. It is one of my favorite places in the world, naturally, and so to be able to explore the city after dark and specifically buildings that you wouldn’t necessarily be let into as a tourist, that was very cool.
The Queen's Gambit, Series Premiere, Oct. 23, Netflix