How The Queen's Gambit star Harry Melling went from Harry Potter to prolific character actor
If you think Harry Melling looks familiar, know that you may well have seen his face if you’ve watched anything on Netflix in the past few months. (Or if you’re familiar with a certain boy-wizard franchise.) After appearing in The Old Guard and The Devil All the Time earlier this year, the British actor has been getting renewed attention of late for his role in the streamer’s acclaimed limited series The Queen’s Gambit. Melling plays Harry Beltik, an analytical but warm-hearted chess player who helps Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth get back in the game at a low point in her life.
It’s the latest entry in an expanding resumé of compelling roles for Melling, who has been building his character actor pedigree for a while now. Since wrapping his role as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter film series, he’s attended drama school in London and immersed himself in theater roles before re-emerging on screen, all but unrecognizable as Harry Potter’s spoiled cousin after a considerable weight loss.
“I think I was very lucky that I was allowed to move away from Dudley,” says Melling. “When you start as a child actor, I think there are certain stigmas you get from that, and I never really wanted to engage in them. I just wanted to continue doing work, and go into drama school as a sort of, not a conscious way of doing it, but maybe a way of bridging that gap.”
The actor also cites his performance as a limbless monologist in the Coen brothers’ 2018 Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a key turning point for his acting career. “Working with Joel and Ethan [Coen] was a massive moment for me, in terms of their commitment to saying, ‘I think you can do this,’” says Melling. Indeed, he adds, it was this role that drew the attention of The Queen’s Gambit writer-director Scott Frank.
“Since seeing that, he just wanted to make contact,” the actor says. “We met over Skype, and Scott told me this wonderful story about this young girl called Beth and how we follow her into adulthood, and the characters she meets along the way. It just sounded to me like the biggest no-brainer; I think I said yes over Skype. Without even reading it, I was just hooked.”
Melling’s Beltik first enters the story as a particularly skilled opponent during Beth’s rise to the top ranks of competitive chess. When the young upstart bests him in a Kentucky tournament, “she does burst his bubble somewhat, not only in terms of the game, but in terms of how he sees himself,” explains Melling. “It kind of spirals him into this questioning of whether he's good enough, really, and beyond that, I think, bigger questions, in terms of the important things in life.”
When the two cross paths again years later, both have changed a great deal: Beth has become a confident, self-possessed young woman, and a humbled Beltik wants to help her succeed — and perhaps a bit more.
“There is a real dance in terms of Harry trying to work out what their relationship is — still being amazed at her genius, but at the same time, feeling this strong attraction to her,” Melling notes. “I think there's a real innocence to that, and those qualities were things that felt very exciting to try and excavate. I found the sort of toing and froing between them very interesting.”
That wasn’t the only dance Melling had to master. Like Taylor-Joy, he compares the series’ intricate chess moves to choreography, and like Taylor-Joy, his knowledge of the game coming into the project was essentially nil. In fact, he didn’t even know how to play.
“I did spend a lot of time trying to make sure that I was doing those moves in a way that looked like this guy had been involved with chess his entire life,” he says. “I didn't need to necessarily know why I was moving them, I just needed to look like I was good at moving them.”
Though admittedly nervous about filming the chess games, Melling was helped along by the show’s chief chess consultant, famed teacher Bruce Pandolfini. He helped teach the actors not just how the pieces move, Melling says, but how moving the pieces “tells the story of firstly, who the chess player is, and secondly, how well they're doing in the game. If they're losing, they might use one of the pieces to slam the clock or something. All those little details were really useful to start building up who these characters were.”
Looking ahead, Melling has much to look forward to, including what benefits may come from The Queen’s Gambit’s popularity (the series has been at or near the top of Netflix’s daily most-watched titles since its debut), which he attributes to his collaborators’ talent and the story’s “addictive” nature. He’s already reunited with Joel Coen for the filmmaker’s upcoming take on Macbeth, and hopes to continue surprising audiences with his choices going forward.
“I always enjoy playing roles that have an element of transformation to them. I enjoy the challenge of that,” Melling says. “Changing up genre and characters, and trying to transform yourself into qualities of yourself that aren't necessarily on display, I always knew were things I wanted to play with.” Unlike Harry Beltik, Melling is one who can't be pinned.
The Queen's Gambit is currently streaming on Netflix.