For Netflix’s limited series, The Queen’s Gambit, Anya Taylor-Joy felt compelled to tell the story of Beth Harmon, a young chess prodigy with a sheltered past who struggles with an addiction problem. While dealing with her addictions and navigating a new world, outside of the orphanage she grew up in, Harmon finds her purpose in chess. She aims to beat the grandmasters, while countering everyone’s preconceived notion that only men can be masters at chess. Taylor-Joy connected with the character on a deeper level, as a person searching to find a place where she fits in.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with The Queen’s Gambit?
ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: I was working on two projects at the same time when I was told that Scott Frank wanted to meet with me on a project where there was no script, but there was a book. And so, I remember being really stressed out about trying to read this book before I met him. I wolfed it down in about an hour and a half, and the second I turned the last page I physically ran to meet Scott. I had so much energy and I was bursting with so many ideas that the only way to handle it was to run. So, I ran to meet Scott and then I semi-terrified him because I burst into the restaurant, and I just kind of yelled at him and said, “She has to have red hair,” and he agreed with me and then we were making it.
DEADLINE: And what aspects of Beth did you immediately connect with?
TAYLOR-JOY: I really connected with her inherent loneliness. That’s something that I’ve carried my whole life. And I really do think that her yearning to be part of a world where she made sense. For Beth it’s chess and for me it was the arts. And I don’t think either of us felt like we made any sense or had anything to contribute on the planet until we found both of these worlds. And that was really my in, into the character.
DEADLINE: And what do you think was the most important part of her character arc throughout the series that made you think, “this is her and I have to get this across?”
TAYLOR-JOY: That’s really interesting. I love the fact that her biggest obstacle, despite being a female chess player in the sixties who is an orphan, I think her biggest obstacle is facing her own personal demons and struggling to live with herself, who is her greatest ally and her greatest adversary, and trying to find that level of peace.
I think she’s really uncomfortable all the time, unless she’s playing a game of chess, unless she is attacking or she can see things and they make sense to her. I think she really feels like nothing else makes sense. And hopefully by the time we got to the end, when we filmed that final sequence in Russia, there was such little skin between the two of us at that point. Like I could really… I was feeling far more at peace with myself, and so was Beth, and that was a really emotional sequence to shoot.
DEADLINE: You hadn’t really played chess before starting the series, right?
TAYLOR-JOY: No, no.
DEADLINE: So then how did you go from being a chess novice to playing speed chess with multiple people at once?
TAYLOR-JOY: I love speed chess so much. It’s probably some of the proudest moments in my career. I’m not going to lie. One of my favorite things about my job is being put in situations where you just have to do something and there’s no real… It doesn’t really matter how you do it, you just have to make sure that it’s done. And I think there is something to be said for believing you are a person so much that if something comes easy to them, it comes easy to you. But I do think that my background as a dancer really helped, because I saw it as dance choreography for my fingers. And then I’m also… I didn’t realize this until I played Beth, but I’m very competitive, mostly against myself. So, the competition element of seeing how quickly I could do it and how quickly we can nail it was something that really appealed to me.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about the story’s take on feminism, like from the point of view of an outsider that questions the kind of absurdity of the current system?
TAYLOR-JOY: Yeah, absolutely. One of my favorite things about Beth is that she seems weirdly out of time, it’s almost like she wasn’t born with the rule book of what women were allowed to want and strive for in the late ’50s, early ’60s. Potentially you can argue even today, she’s genuinely baffled by people bringing up her gender. She genuinely doesn’t understand it. And I think that was something that I really enjoyed and wanted to present the audience with, because I think that’s kind of what we should be striving for. The idea that regardless of gender, you’re just appraised on what you’re bringing to the table as an individual. And I loved the fact that Beth didn’t classify herself as a female chess player. She was simply, in her eyes, the best chess player. And I thought that was a good way of presenting that kind of feminism.
DEADLINE: It came across really well when she would question, “Well, why can’t women play chess?” and there was no real good answer. No one could give an answer.
TAYLOR-JOY: I think it reflects upon the characters around her as well because all of them semi-question it to begin with. And then when presented with her skill, that very quickly goes away. You go from the twins meeting her for the first time and kind of rolling their eyes at this absurd, in their mind, little girl that wants to play these people to the next tournament being like, “I am not playing you. There is no world in which I’m going to do that to myself.” And I thought that was a good way of framing it. I just, I feel very, very proud of our show.
DEADLINE: And as you were talking about before, showing her character arc through battling her personal demons, what was it like playing that trope of the genius-with-an-addiction as a female character where predominantly, in older stories, the geniuses-with-an-addiction were men?
TAYLOR-JOY: Well, it’s so interesting to me because you’re right. We’ve been presented with a plethora of male geniuses that are just… “It’s so difficult to be that clever, and obviously that’s why I do this, this and this and that.” Our society’s almost accepted it, like “oh, he’s a genius so he’s kind of allowed to be this way,” whilst women who are also geniuses that have the same coping mechanisms are kind of described as hot messes and are erased from history. That again, kind of goes to our point about being a female anything, she just is, she is an individual who is complicated and who struggles because of her intelligence, because of the places that she’s come from to cope with day-to-day life.
So I felt like we afforded the character the same liberties that male characters have had throughout history, and also kind of prove the point that people will still connect with a messed up person if they are a woman. I think potentially throughout history, that’s not always been what people thought. But although they won’t connect with the character if it’s a young woman, the success of the show kind of proves differently. It again, it makes me really proud.
DEADLINE: Did you expect the show to become such a hit?
TAYLOR-JOY: I don’t think any semi-adjusted person thinks that they’re going to reinvigorate the game of chess. [laughs] So no, not really. All I knew is that I think it was the strongest compulsion that I had felt to tell a story since my first movie, The Witch, since I first was aware of that feeling. And I was obsessed with it, there was nothing… I didn’t even think I really twigged when people would ask me what I was doing next. And I was like, I’m playing a chess prodigy. I don’t think I really twigged the fact that they were like, okay, sure, go and do that.
Just everybody that was involved with making this was so invested and cared about it so much. So, it really did feel like a passion project for all of us. I don’t think we… Scott [Frank] actually said very sweetly in hindsight now… When we finished making it he said, “You know, this is my favorite thing that I’ve ever done, and I kind of don’t care how people feel about it because I am so proud of it and we did what we wanted to do.” So obviously now with hindsight, that’s pretty special.
DEADLINE: What was your favorite moment in the series?
TAYLOR-JOY: Oh goodness there are so many. I think I really enjoyed probably the moment that she realizes that she’s won, probably the moment that you realize that you’ve just taken the final step to the top of the mountain and that you’re there, that kind of shock. That instant feeling of “oh my God I’ve done it, I’m pretty sure that I’ve done it.” That was a very intense thing to feel.
And then for myself, I loved speed chess. I had such a good time. It was so much fun. Especially Thomas [Brodie-Sangster] and I, we’re good friends and we just had a ball. It was just so much fun. I could have done it again and again and again the whole night. Luckily, we didn’t have to, but it was just really dreamy.
DEADLINE: And after living as that character, through that whole journey, where do you think Beth’s story would go from there?
TAYLOR-JOY: I really hope that she’s taking the opportunity to continue to do whatever the hell she wants in the sense of just allowing herself to enjoy it a bit more. I think her life has been a struggle and I want to see her luxuriating a little bit and just being like, okay, I’ve proved what I need to prove, and now I can have a bit more fun with it. So yeah, I hope she’s somewhere in Russia just kind of living it up.