Why You Should Watch Netflix's 'The Queen's Gambit' Even If You Know Nothing About Chess
Anya Taylor-Joy plays an orphaned chess prodigy battling her own vices in this stylish series.
Throughout The Queen's Gambit, the limited series now on Netflix, you find yourself drawn to Anya Taylor-Joy's fingers, which is just what she intended. Taylor-Joy, the actress best known for the 2015 horror film The Witch, plays Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who rises to incredible heights even as her personal demons threaten to undermine her talent. When Beth moves a piece, it's like she's engaging in a magic trick or a dance, lifting them daintily with manicured nails. It's seductive and slightly terrifying.
"I had this idea that, whilst she's a very aggressive player, I wanted her movements to be very clearly feminine," Taylor-Joy says. "Her two biggest passions in life are chess and clothes. She loves fashion. She loves that whole aspect of it. So I wanted there to be a definite feminine quality to the way that she handles the pieces."
Based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, The Queen's Gambit comes to Netflix adapted by Scott Frank, whose last project for the streaming service was the Emmy-winning Godless. (At one point, the book was set to be turned into a film starring Elliot Page that would mark Heath Ledger's directorial debut.) In seven meticulously crafted episodes, Frank charts Beth's evolution in mid-century Kentucky from a withdrawn orphan who becomes addicted to the tranquilizers her caretakers feed her to a glamorous international star, beating the Soviets at the game they dominate.
As a character study, the show is as intense as Beth's gaze, at the same time being extremely precise about Beth's preoccupation. That is to say, it goes deep into chess in a way that is bound to go over some viewers' heads. Taylor-Joy trained with chess master Bruce Pandolfini in preparation for the role.
"One of the first things that I said to Scott, our director, when we met, I was like, it's not all about chess, but because that passion is chess, I felt the need to understand as much as I could theoretically," Taylor-Joy explains. "Now, that is a very different thing than being able to execute the theory that you know, but I felt like when people love chess they really love chess, and as the protagonist in this story, I couldn't in good conscience show up and not know anything about what I was talking about." She'll admit that she's not as proficient as Beth, but she does now bring along a chess board to sets to play in between takes. (Taylor-Joy has just been cast as Furiosa in the Mad Max: Fury Road prequel, so imagine her playing chess in a vast dystopian wasteland, if you will.)
The Queen's Gambit didn't require an intimate knowledge of chess from all of its actors. In her first on-screen role, Moses Ingram plays Jolene, Beth's first confidant at the orphanage. While a different performer plays a younger version of Beth, Ingram portrays Jolene at all ages.
"I think at the center of younger Jolene is a buoyancy," she says. "Just a lightness—so much freer of the things that we put on ourselves as we get older." Jolene is a foul-mouthed kid who teaches Beth what to do with the pills the adults are forcing down their throats and the word "cocksucker." Assuming that Ingram herself was 14, the other children on set were shocked at her foul mouth. "There was one little girl who, whenever I would yell obscenities, she would run crying to her mother," Ingram says. "It was fun."
Beth is eventually adopted by Alma Wheatley, a housewife in a stagnant marriage played by Marielle Heller, who is best known as the director of movies like The Diary of a Teenage Girl and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Frank, a friend of Heller's, convinced her to return to acting, where she started her career, for the series. Alma and Beth instantly read more like sisters than mother-daughter. Alma has craved motherhood but doesn't know what to do with this strange teen who only cares about chess. Her husband is absent and she passes the time drinking PBRs in a housecoat. When she learns that Beth's fixation with the game can give both of them a new lease on life, Alma becomes her business manager of sorts.
"We talked about Beth and Alma being like two feral animals who had both been alone for so long and when they come together they're sniffing each other out for a long time, and it takes a long time to build trust," Heller says. "Both of them have lived pretty solitary lives for so long and don't trust anybody and then they become each other's confidantes in a way that is I think really actually very sweet. It's not easy. It doesn't happen overnight, and it's not a traditional mother-daughter relationship. But there's something very sweet about it at the end of the day." The prickly rawness to that relationship shines through the pristine 1960s production design, and the garters Heller had to endure.
For Taylor-Joy, the entirety of Beth was hard to shake. "There was like zero skin between me and the character," she says. "By the time I showed up, she was just there and I could feel her emotions so deeply all of the time, and that was wonderful as a performer because it meant I was never reaching for anything." There were challenges that came with that too. "Where it gets tricky is, it was the first time that I had to understand like, 'oh okay, Beth is having a bad day, that means that I'm having a bad day,'" she adds. "But I have to understand that it's not my stuff even though I'm going to be experiencing it." And while Taylor-Joy may not be the chess genius Beth is, you believe every flick of her wrist as she handles a pawn.
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