In Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, Anya Taylor-Joy's Beth doesn’t bother to pick up her own chess piece before capturing her opponent’s. She flicks her long fingers across the board, braggadociously ending each move before technically beginning it. Every stop of her chess clock, every topple of a fallen King is a tiny emotional crescendo. “One of my first thoughts was that I wanted Beth to handle the pieces in a way that, while still being aggressive, did feel uniquely feminine,” Taylor-Joy says of inhabiting the bellicose chess phenom at the center of the new limited series. Her chess coach immediately approved the choreography. “He was like, ‘Well, I've never seen a chess player do that, but I totally buy that she would.’”
The show, like the Walter Tevis novel it’s based on, follows orphan Elizabeth Harmon from her early days at the Methuen Home for Girls to her ascent up the ranks of professional chess and simultaneous descent into harmful substance use. She’s a beloved character in the relatively small world of contemporary chess fiction — a neglected child prodigy who knocks down the door of a male world with near-destructive bravado. Part of what fans love about the book is the sharpness of its gameplay: Bruce Pandolfini, a chess national master, proofread the novel for accuracy before its 1983 publication. Nearly 40 years later, he served as Taylor-Joy’s chess coach. “His love of chess is infectious,” the 24-year-old actor says. "Now I have deep respect for the game."
Taylor-Joy is magnetic as Beth, instilling her with the self-belief to recognize her own talent. Despite the character's humble origins — a janitor teaches Beth the game in the orphanage's dingy cellar — she pursues chess with myopic conviction, forgoing high school and a social life in favor of shuttling from tournament to tournament.
"I really had to sit with myself and go, 'What is it about this character that's making me so freaked out?' I'm convincing myself I can't do this."
It's a dauntlessness the Miami-born, Buenos Aires-raised Taylor-Joy shares. Born to a Scottish-Argentine father and a mother she's described as African, Spanish, and English, Taylor-Joy spoke only Spanish until moving to London at 8, which has resulted in a British accent that warbles intriguingly across the phone line. At 16, she wrote her parents an essay declaring that she wanted to leave school to pursue acting; they gave her a reluctant OK. The next year, she was walking her dog outside a London department store when a black car rolled down the window and a business card emerged. Inside was Sarah Doukas, the agent responsible for launching the careers of recognizably blonde Brits like Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne. Taylor-Joy only took a handful of modeling gigs before nabbing her breakout role in the 2015 horror film The Witch, which director Robert Eggers rewrote specifically after casting her. It landed her critical praise and a raft of award show nominations.
The roles haven't stopped coming since. In 2019 alone, Taylor-Joy filmed the Jane Austen dramedy Emma opposite Bill Nighy, took one day off before filming the upcoming Edgar Wright horror film Last Night in Soho, then took one more day off before turning up on the Berlin set of The Queen’s Gambit. Over the last five years, she's built a reputation for playing complicated, willful women: Peaky Blinders’ dangerously deceptive Gina Grey; Thoroughbreds’ murderous Lily; and the titular Emma, an unapologetically meddlesome snoot.
Which is why I'm genuinely surprised when Taylor-Joy talks about the self-doubt that's sometimes plagued her on set. “I had to really psych myself up to play both Emma and Gina,” she says. “Gina terrified me. She was so overtly aware of her sexuality in a way that [I’m just not] in my normal life.” To embody the character, Taylor-Joy adopted a set of rituals. “I had to get into my trailer in the morning and put on my playlist, and sensually dressed myself and literally put on Gina. That wasn't something that I could just do," Taylor-Joy says. Filming Emma was similarly intimidating. “I really had to sit with myself and go, 'What is it about this character that's making me so freaked out?' I'm convincing myself I can't do this,” she remembers.
"The act of being special is inherently a lonely thing. And I think it's loneliness that can drive human beings mad."
Playing Beth, on the other hand, “was just like breathing.” Taylor-Joy knew she had to have the role from the second she “inhaled” Tevis’ novel. On her way to meet director Scott Frank, she literally broke into a sprint. “And I’m not a runner,” she jokes. Instinctively, she says she knew two things about the character: she had to be a redhead, and her story wasn’t just about chess.
Instead, she says it’s about Tall Poppy Syndrome, a concept she learned about from a friend. “People want you to be the same. They don’t want any poppy to grow above the rest. So they'll cut down from below, because the mass is easier to handle,” she explains. “If [someone] is special or unique in a certain way” — that is, they’re a tall poppy — “most people use those words to denote something good, like, 'Oh, that person's really special.' But the act of being special is inherently a lonely thing. And I think it's loneliness that can drive human beings mad.” Beth wants to be the best at chess, but what she needs, and what chess ultimately gives her, is a path to human connection. Taylor-Joy calls her newfound understanding of loneliness “something that's really beautiful that I've learned through Beth.”
A few days after we talk, I finally look up the chess move that lends The Queen's Gambit its name. One of the oldest openings in modern chess, it requires White to sacrifice a pawn to gain early control of the center of the board. “If you enjoy putting constant pressure on your opponent, then the queen’s gambit is a perfect opening for you,” said one article I read on the subject. In its most basic form, it’s about taking a quick risk and having the confidence to control it, not unlike an orphan borrowing money from a janitor for the entry fee for her first chess contest, positive she’ll be able to pay it back from her inevitable winnings.
And not unlike a 16-year-old girl quitting school to become one of the most booked-up actors of her generation.