The star of Netflix period drama The Queen’s Gambit, Anya Taylor Joy, says it helped to play the drug addict chess prodigy Beth because she saw “a lot of parallels” with her, especially the loneliness.
“I think Beth is an inherently lonely person, and that was something I definitely struggled with growing up,” she told Netflix Queue. “She’s desperately looking for a place where she fits in and where she feels like she can contribute something. For her, that’s chess, and for me, it’s acting. I felt very connected to her on that front.”
Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon in Scott Franks’ seven-part drama, a tale of a child orphaned in Kentucky in the 1950s who discovers a talent for chess and a taste for the medication they used to tranquillise the children at the orphanage.
Beth becomes a chess sensation and her difficult ascent in the male-dominated world, plus her descent into addiction and alcoholism form the narrative in series.
Taylor-Joy explained that understanding Beth’s habits was crucial to knowing her character.
“Whatever it is that the addict is looking for in a substance, at some point it worked, because otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing it,” she said. “I think discovering what it was that Beth first got out of these substances was very important to me, and fascinating in its own right. Is she drinking to escape loneliness? Is she drinking as a punishment? Is she taking pills to be numbed out?”
Taylor-Joy’s career is escalating quickly. She has just been cast as the lead in Mad Max spin-off Furiosa, while in 2019 The Queen’s Gambit was filmed back to back with Emma and upcoming Edgar Wright horror film Last Night in Soho.
“I knew how I wanted to play Beth so immediately that I just had to push her away for enough time to be able to walk in and embody her. As a performer, that was wonderful because it meant I was never reaching for any emotion, but it was also taxing in the sense that if Beth was having a bad day, I was having a bad day. I had to learn how to understand that those weren’t my feelings.”
The Queen’s Gambit is based on the 1983 novel of the same name, written by Walter Tevis, with Frank (Logan, Out of Sight) on board as writer-director. Taylor-Joy’s initial meeting with Frank in London to discuss the role didn’t quite go to plan.
“I’m not a runner, but I ran to meet Scott,” she said. “I was at the end of Hyde Park and I ran to meet him in Mayfair. I thought I was going to walk so I could show up and be cool, but I got too excited. I was so passionate about the character and story. When I got to the restaurant, I was like, ‘It’s not all about chess! And she needs to be a redhead!’ and he was like, ‘I agree! Sit down, let’s have this discussion!’”
So how forensic was her preparation for the chess matches she plays on screen? Not very, she says, and explains that she and co-star Thomas Brodie-Sangster were coached and choreographed by chess consultants Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov.
“Having them around made me feel like we weren’t going to disappoint people,” says Taylor-Joy. “It’s an entirely different world, and people care about it so much. I wanted to make sure we were telling the story right.”
The Queen’s Gambit launched on Netflix on Friday 23rd September.