Our Annual Report continues today with the announcement of Anya Taylor-Joy as our TV Performance of the Year. Stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles in the days and weeks to come about the best music, film, and TV of the year. If you’ve missed any part of our Annual Report, you can check out all the coverage here.
Chess and Anya Taylor-Joy have had quite the year, thanks to The Queen’s Gambit.
One month after its October 23rd debut on Netflix, Scott Frank and Allan Scott’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel became the most-watched scripted miniseries in Netflix history. Not surprisingly, interest in chess skyrocketed with “How to play chess” peaking in Google searches and chess boards being wrapped everywhere throughout this holiday season.
At the center of it all, though, is Taylor-Joy. As orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon, we follow her raucous life from the mid-’50s to well into the ’60s. It’s a multi-faceted role for Taylor-Joy; Beth is as glamorous as she is deadpan. Yet it’s her resilience in the face of addiction and challenge that winds up making her such an invigorating force to behold.
Taylor-Joy has been building towards this role for years. Ever since she turned heads in Robert Eggers’ 2015 Sundance stunner, The Witch, the American-born, British-Argentine actress has been churning out one fascinating turn after the other. This year alone saw two: In addition to The Queen’s Gambit, she also stole the screen in this past March’s Emma.
Both are period pieces, sure, but it’s The Queen’s Gambit that truly pushed Taylor-Joy to another level. “With Beth, she’s the first character that I’ve had to give so much of myself to in order to tell her story truthfully,” Taylor-Joy explains over the phone on a chilly Friday afternoon. “Usually, it’s me figuring out how to be a different person.”
That’s just the first round of insights from the young star on her TV Performance of the Year. Read ahead as Taylor-Joy speaks to Consequence about the difficulties of playing a woman so complex, the rapid success of The Queen’s Gambit, and, of course, what she’s been watching while on lockdown (she’s watching Succession right now, and it’s stressing her out).
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On playing Beth, the complicated and driven redhead chess prodigy
What drew you to Beth and The Queen’s Gambit?
I just fell in love with her. As soon as I opened the book, I felt this strange pain, which was a very sweet pain, but it was a pain of, “Oh, this hurts because it’s true, and because you are supposed to tell the truth via the character.” We’re also very different in the way that we present, I think. Beth is a lot more deadpan than I am. I’m a bit softer, but we’re very similar at our core. I just felt like I was the right person to tell the story. I feel so lucky that [creator] Scott Frank thought so, too.
Beth is a fully realized and very complicated character, which is, sadly, still pretty rare for female roles in film and television. Is it pretty rare for you to find roles like that are this nuanced?
I think I’ve been very, very lucky with the characters that I’ve got to play, but I am aware that that is a rarity still, unfortunately. So I just feel so, so lucky that the women that I’ve been able to play have all been very complicated, real people. I think that’s the thing. All human beings are complicated. It blows my mind that people are like, “Oh, no. Men are complicated. Women are cardboard cutouts, or can only be one thing or the other.” That’s just so irrational to me.
But I will say that I got into acting because I wanted to, from a place of empathy, give a voice to people that I thought were viewed as quote, unquote, undesirable, like the underdog, the weirder characters. The people that, I don’t know, people find difficult to have empathy or sympathy for. With Beth, she’s the first character that I’ve had to give so much of myself to in order to tell her story truthfully. Usually, it’s me figuring out how to be a different person. With Beth, it was like, “Okay. I have to give her a lot of myself in order to tell her story right.” That’s been a different experience, but a really rewarding one.
It was really rewarding to see a woman like Beth, so deadpan and sure of herself, but also broken in many ways and portrayed so intricately and thoughtfully. What would you say your biggest challenge playing her was?
I think it was the separation — or lack of separation — that I had with her. It’s a combination of where I was when I played her. I’ve always worked back to back but I had never worked literally back to back. I did Autumn de Wilde’s Emma; I had a day off. I did Edgar Wright’s Last Day in Soho; I had a day off. And then I had Beth.
There was no time. Shooting a movie is a very exhausting experience. After shooting two back to back, the level of exhaustion that I came to the project with meant that I had no way of creating a wall or a boundary between what the character was feeling and what I was experiencing.
There were many days where I would show up on set, and I would think, Oh. I feel so uncomfortable. I feel so sad. I feel so stressed out. What is this? This isn’t mine, and understanding, “Oh, it’s Beth’s, but you’re going to have to go through it now.” That was great, as a performer, because it meant I was never reaching for anything, but tricky as an individual, to try and separate emotions you’re having, and realizing that they’re not yours.
Do you have a favorite scene from The Queen’s Gambit, or one scene that you still think about?
Selfishly, I loved the speed chess, because it was so much fun. I’m completely geeking out now, but I had so much fun. One of my favorite pictures of me ever taken, and I don’t like pictures of myself … I don’t know a lot of people who do.
Oh god, I don’t like it either. I hate it.
But there’s a picture of me immediately after the first take of the simultaneous speed chess. Honestly, the expression on my face is one I have never seen before. I was so happy. It was beyond. It was like a three-year-old at Disneyland meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time. You know what I mean? It was that level of, “That was amazing!”
On chess, because The Queen’s Gambit is a show about chess
Were you familiar with chess before you took this role?
No, not at all. I knew that there were pieces. I knew there was a board. But I feel so lucky that my introduction to this wonderful world came from such incredible teachers, and that their passion just really rubbed off on me.
Did you feel like you came out of this having an understanding of chess now? One of the funniest things that people who’ve seen the show say is that they watched the whole thing and they’re like, “I still don’t understand chess, but I loved all the chess scenes.”
The first two things I ever said to Scott Frank was, “She has to be a redhead” and “It’s not all about chess.” Because when it was first pitched to me, it was like, “Scott Frank wants to talk to you about a project. There’s no script, but there is a book. It’s about a chess prodigy.” In my head I was like, Huh, chess prodigy. You read the book, and you’re like, “She is a chess prodigy, and the chess is very interesting, but it’s not about that.” I think that’s why people connect with it so much.
In terms of playing her, I had to have an understanding of chess — a theoretical understanding — because people care about the game so much that I didn’t feel like I could, in any good consciousness, show up and blague it. I had to understand what it was that I was doing. However, having a theoretical understanding of chess, and then actually being able to execute that, are two very different things.
On the massive success on Netflix
This show has really taken off on Netflix to the point where it’s had pretty significant cultural influence. People are buying chess sets and learning how to play now. Why do you think The Queen’s Gambit resonated with so many people so quickly?
I hope it’s a combination of factors. The idea that sometimes your worst enemy can be yourself is one that I think is very universal. I know that’s certainly the case for me. I also think for people being locked up with themselves, they’re probably connecting with that quite a bit now. I know I did. So I think there’s a bit of that, but there’s also a wonderful message that overcoming your personal demons is achievable. You can do it. But also we’re stronger together than we are apart.
Did you ever get a sense while filming the show that it was going to be as big as it became? What was the feeling on set?
It’s interesting that you ask that, because there’s a two-part answer to that question. The answer to what set was like, it was the most wonderful, collaborative, supportive environment you could imagine. Every member of this team is somebody that I have completely kidnapped for my own life. They’re such wonderful people. I feel so privileged to work with them, but also to have them as friends. That’s what set was like.
But a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to Scott [Frank] . . . we talk a lot. He’s a very, very dear friend of mine and a wonderful mentor. I said to him, “You know, if you had asked me the second I finished the book, ‘Do you think people are really going to connect with this?’ I would have said, ‘Yes, 100%, absolutely.'” But that is genuinely the last time I could be objective about this story. From that moment on, I was Beth. From that moment on, it was my life.
I lived in Berlin, and I played this woman every day. When it’s your own life, you never think that people are going to be interested in it, because why would they be interested with what you do in your day to day life? So, it was genuinely the last time I could be objective.
Look, it’s no secret how weird I am about characters. They’re very, very real for me. The way that Beth has been held by so many different people, and understood, that makes me genuinely emotional. It makes me so happy that people have opened their hearts to her and her journey, and understood her.
I am so, so grateful for the consideration that people have put in this piece of work, that so many people poured their hearts and soul into. We made it because we were obsessed with this story, and obsessed with this character, and obsessed with the messages behind it. So, the fact that it’s been held in this way is just above and beyond.
On Josh O’Connor and boar on the floor
The Queen’s Gambit has resonated with a lot of people who have been stuck at home practically all year. But what have you been watching? Any TV shows or films in particular you’ve enjoyed over the past, I guess, nine or 10 months of this?
Oh, tons. I’ve revisited a lot of old favorites. But most recently, I watched my wonderful friend Josh [O’Connor] in The Crown. Talk about acting. He is … You don’t understand. He is the sweetest human being in the world. So, when you’re watching him be horrible, that is damn good acting. Because that does not come from, in any way, shape or form, him at all.
It’s incredible how he is so horrible, but also somehow makes me feel sorry for Prince Charles?
I know! He’s a fabulous human being. We have a really wonderful supportive WhatsApp group for Emma. It’s just so nice seeing people vibing off each other’s work. It’s beautiful. So, yeah, Josh O’Connor is amazing. We all know this.
I was very late to the party on Succession. I just started Succession Season 2. I have to say, it’s amazing, but it stresses me out a bit. I’m not going to lie. I think the last show that I felt this way about was Breaking Bad, where the last season of Breaking Bad was genuinely bad for my health. I kept having to pause it, and get up and pace, because I was just so … There’s so much tension. There’s certainly elements of Succession that make me feel very overwhelmed. But it’s really, really good.
I’m glad you’re watching it. You are in for a treat. Like, I am genuinely thrilled for you about this. The second season is special.
They were just doing Boar on the Floor. Honestly, I was just dying. I was just dying.
That’s one of the scenes on Succession where I had to, like you, pause it then pace the room with my arms in the air screaming, “What is happening?”
Exactly. Because you’re watching it, and you’re like, “I feel so deeply uncomfortable.” It’s strange. I can perform uncomfortable things, but as a viewer, it’s difficult. That’s why I miss cinema so much, because cinema is such a wonderful metaphor for enjoying people’s art. You sit down in a dark room, and you just give yourself over to the experience entirely. So when you’re doing that with a show like Succession, you’re like, “Oh, my God. My morals are in pain right now.”