How Anya Taylor-Joy mastered chess and her craft for Netflix's The Queen's Gambit
When Anya Taylor-Joy arrived in Berlin last year to shoot Netflix’s limited series The Queen’s Gambit, she had just finished filming Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, with only one day off in between. Before that, she had just finished filming Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, with only one day off in between. Needless to say, she was a bit worn out.
“She came to us exhausted,” says The Queen’s Gambit co-creator Scott Frank, who also wrote and directed every episode. “She was really worried because she was so tired, but her first take of her first scene, she just nailed it. I was so relieved. She instantly switched gears, and she could do that on set all the time. We could be talking and laughing, and then the camera could roll, and she could be devastated and in tears. She's a real pro.”
Good thing, too: Taylor-Joy’s performance as Beth Harmon, a young orphan who discovers a prodigious talent for chess, anchors the seven-episode series. The actress is in almost every scene, portraying Beth from ages 15 to 20, and often conveys a great deal without dialogue or even much motion, spending long sequences seated at a chessboard. It was a challenge, to be sure, but one Taylor-Joy was eager to tackle from the moment she read the novel on which the show is based.
“I devoured the book, and then I was supposed to meet [Frank] that afternoon,” the actress tells EW. “I told myself, ‘I'm gonna walk, so I can get myself together, and when I meet him I can present him with a semi-normal human being.’ And maybe five minutes into the walk, I started running, and I do not run. I was bursting with ideas, and passion, and excitement, and I just ran into the restaurant. Luckily Scott was totally into my unbridled enthusiasm.”
A coming-of-age story at heart, The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth as she rises through the ranks of competitive chess in the 1960s. As the story continues, we watch Beth grow from an awkward outcast into a confident woman, but it’s hardly an easy journey, as she battles sexism and her own personal demons along the way.
“She's the character that I've had the least amount of skin between,” Taylor-Joy says. “I understood her so immediately, and she came forth to me so quickly that it was like, this is slightly harder to handle, because it means that when Beth has a bad day, I will have a bad day. And I have to learn how to say, ‘Okay, this is not mine, this is the character's.’”
Adds Frank, who thought of Taylor-Joy for the role after seeing her in the 2018 indie Thoroughbreds, “The thing about Anya that's amazing is that she's in control of herself in a way you don't often see in actors. Even moving chess pieces, she found interesting ways to do that. Even the way she crosses her arms, or the way she looks away, she's very, very expressive and can do a lot with a little, and there aren't many who can do that.”
That physicality was key to depicting Beth’s growth over the course of the series. Explains Taylor-Joy, “When you first meet Beth at 15, she waddles. She’s got a very distinctive flat-foot, side-to-side way of moving. And then in my head, she watches her first Audrey Hepburn movie and she sees the way that Audrey Hepburn moves, and that's when the turtlenecks start to come in and the walk starts to become a bit more graceful. It's little things like that, that you just hope people notice.”
Of course, that only went so far: “One of the first questions that Scott asked me was, ‘How young can you play her?’ And I was like ‘Not eight, dude,’” Taylor-Joy says with a laugh. (Another actress, Isla Johnston, plays eight-year-old Beth in the first episode.)
She also strove for authenticity and variation in depicting Beth’s episodes of substance abuse, which reoccur throughout the series as she struggles with alcoholism and an addiction to tranquilizers developed during her youth in an orphanage.
“It was very important for both Scott and I that each episode of binging or partaking in substances was different,” Taylor-Joy says. “You had to understand what it was that she was running to or from, and what it was that she was looking for in the substance. Like, is she drinking because she's lonely, is she drinking because she's celebrating, is she taking pills because she feels so overwhelmed with emotions that she feels like she needs to numb out, is she taking the pills because she thinks she's not brilliant without them?”
As Taylor-Joy points out, Beth discovers chess at the same time she first encounters the pills that will plague her for years to come. “And so forevermore, there's this question of, am I brilliant, or am I a conduit for these things?”
Then, of course, there was the chess, which Taylor-Joy “knew basically nothing” about before being cast. The actress worked with a “sensei,” as she puts it — famed chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini — to familiarize herself with the game and learn the extremely specific moves for each of Beth’s many intense matches.
“It was important to me to understand the theory of chess,” Taylor-Joy notes. “I didn't think I could, in any good conscience, show up and not know what I was talking about. But then the actual reality of playing the game, I couldn't hold all of those sequences in my head without going insane. So I would learn the matches five minutes prior, and I kind of saw it as dance choreography for my fingers.”
Looking back on her packed 2019, and with a full slate of exciting projects ahead — including taking over the iconic role of Mad Max's Furiosa from Charlize Theron — Taylor-Joy feels overwhelming gratitude for the opportunity to bring so many compelling characters to life. But Beth Harmon will always be uniquely close to her heart.
“To borrow a 2020 phrase, I felt very seen by Beth,” the actress says. “We're very different in a lot of ways, but at our core, we've struggled with a lot of the same things, and one of them [is] being inherently lonely. I think some people just have that thing where they're like, ‘I am separate,’ and it takes finding a place where you feel that you're not separate for you to understand that. So for me it was my art, for Beth it's chess.” And at its core, that's what makes The Queen's Gambit work: You don't need to know a rook from a pawn to relate to it.