Throughout Netflix’s beloved limited series “The Queen’s Gambit,” Scott Frank’s camera cuts in close, focusing on an elegant hand poised above a chessboard, ready to strike at any moment. When that moment does arrive, the hand strikes with precision, an opponent’s piece captured and replaced with a mere flick of a wrist.
It is the smallest of gestures, but represents the whole of Anya Taylor-Joy’s central performance as Beth Harmon, a child prodigy raised on chess and tranquilizers and trauma, whose triumphs and failures each come at great cost. As Harmon, Taylor-Joy simultaneously embodies the tension of potential energy and the languid grace of an apex predator, a jaguar waiting to pounce, its hubris the only real threat to its survival.
From the first time she picked up the script, Harmon resonated, Taylor-Joy said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “At our core, we are very similar. And I think from the second I met [Beth], it was a weird pain. It was a pain of, ‘Oh God, this hurts so good. And it hurts so good because I know it’s true. And what you need to learn, I need to learn,'” Taylor-Joy admitted.
That kind of bone-deep connection with the roles that she plays is not a new development for the young actress, who so frequently experiences such connection with her characters that she’s determined to stop apologizing for it. “At the beginning, I used to say like, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but my characters are real to me.’ I care about these characters and the relationships that I have with them are as real as the relationships that I have with people that I don’t play,” she explained.
When it came to working out the competition scenes themselves in “The Queen’s Gambit,” Taylor-Joy had been given a “chess bible” containing all the games she was going to play, only to arrive on set for the first day of filming to realize that memorizing her moves ahead of time would be untenable. Instead, she begged instead to be taught the games on the fly.
“I was just like, ‘Can you just show me the game that I’m going to play right now, and I’ll memorize it? I’ll execute it, and then I can throw it away, essentially, and learn the next one,’ she explained. “That ended up becoming the way that we shot all of the games, but also, geekily, I loved it. I come from a dance background where that’s what you do with choreography. You show up to a class and a teacher does something and then expects you to know it the second that you’ve seen it. So it was the exact same thing, but for my fingers.”
“And that was a much more healthy way of me going about it. And actually allowed me to get some sleep, which I appreciated,” she quipped.
But that was hardly the only place Taylor-Joy’s dance training came into play. When grappling with the chess matches themselves, the actress and her co-stars found themselves locked in a very different kind of game. “It was just like a great game where you’re both on the same team because you can’t move unless your partner moves,” she said. “It felt like a really collaborative, fun game to play, almost like tag.”
It’s that sense of collaboration that Taylor-Joy kept returning to in our conversation. When we spoke in December, Taylor-Joy shared that she had just finished work on Robert Eggers’ upcoming film, “The Northman,” which sees the actress united with the director of the 2015 film “The Witch,” which served as her breakout role. “I’ve been so lucky with the people that I’ve worked with, but especially Scott [Frank], Robert [Eggers] and [M.] Night [Shyamalan] have always taken a real interest in me as a collaborator, in a way that I really vibe off of,” she reflected.
“It’s such an electric process when we’re all working together. I just finished working with Rob and we’ve been friends now longer than we’ve been collaborators and being back on the set with him, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is it. This is why we first came together, and this is magic. I want to be here forever,'” she said. “I can genuinely say this: I can stand in the back of shots for Robert Eggers, absolutely freezing cold, no shoes, at the top of the mountain, and I am beaming. Like, beaming. There is nowhere else I want to be. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.”
Even while working with Scott on “The Queen’s Gambit,” Taylor-Joy found another director to work with in co-star and frequent scene partner Marielle Heller, who played Harmon’s adoptive mother Alma Wheatley and is perhaps best known for her directorial efforts including “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” There would be moments, she recounted, when a shot wasn’t working and they brainstormed a way to fix the shot in the moment.
Which isn’t to say that Taylor-Joy doesn’t have a competitive side. If nothing else, the actress is phenomenally driven, with projects lined up back to back to such an extent that she has to be very strict with herself, committing to the project at hand.”I read Beth before I played Emma and before I did Edgar’s [Wright] movie, and my first thought was like, ‘OK, this is going to be an exercise in saying, ‘Wait your turn,’ to Beth, otherwise I’m not going to be able to focus on the other two.”
The same goes for Furiosa. In October it was announced that Taylor-Joy had been cast in the titular role in George Miller’s “Mad Max” prequel centered around Furiosa, a character originated by Charlize Theron. With her slate full, the time for digging into the character has yet to come, but she remains beyond excited for the opportunity to work with Miller.
If nothing else, she already has Furiosa’s killer instinct down pat. The highlight of Taylor-Joy’s time making “The Queen’s Gambit” was her speed chess matches, particularly those against co-star Thomas Brodie-Sangster, with whom the actress has a “very sweet sibling relationship with a healthy dose of competition.”
“I really love problem solving on set. It’s one of my favorite things to do as an actor. I love showing up and them going, ‘Oh, we want to do this scene, but it doesn’t work with your entrance’ and then I’ll be like, ‘Oh, OK, well that’s fine. I just have to take it four steps further behind and you need to start the camera two seconds before, and then we’ll meet in the middle,” Taylor-Joy explained for context. “That’s the analytical part of my brain that unfortunately doesn’t come out a lot in my real life. But on set it’s very present.”
“And speed chess was like, I don’t know, my analytical brain on speed, to not make a very hyper analogy,” she laughed. “It was everything that made me feel satisfied, all wrapped up into one thing. I just loved it. I think one of my favorite photographs of me on set was taken by Scott the second after we did the first take of the speed chess in Benny’s apartment, and I was just over the moon. Over the moon. So pleased with myself.”