By Lucy Allen
Anya Taylor-Joy may be a skyrocketing British-Argentinian actress, but she could have been known as a South Florida actress.
Technically speaking, she is a Miami native, and the city certainly wouldn’t mind claiming her as one of its own. After all, it’s here that she was born in 1996, and she’s emerged these 24 years later as one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising stars — currently capturing fancies as well as kings in The Queen’s Gambit.
Alas, despite her Miami birthright, her time in South Florida was fleeting. While but an infant, her British-Spanish mother and Scottish-Argentinian father left the city for Argentina with Anya and her five older siblings. However, the country’s political turmoil eventually led to the family’s exodus to London six years later.
Little Anya was not happy about the move, to say the least. Having mainly spoken Spanish growing up in Buenos Aires, she refused to speak English for her first two years in Britain, believing it would persuade her parents to return to Argentina. Fortunately for her it did not, for it was ultimately in London that another migration began — her journey to stardom.
Based on Walter Trevis’ 1983 novel of the same name and created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, The Queen’s Gambit is set in the 1950s and 1960s. The Netflix drama follows the life of an orphan chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, played by Taylor-Joy, during her quest to become the world’s greatest chess player while struggling with emotional issues and drug and alcohol dependency.
Taylor-Joy 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 period comedy-drama Emma and the upcoming Edgar Wright horror film, Last Night in Soho. Here, the actress talks about how she became obsessed with her Queen’s Gambit character, Beth’s relationship with drugs and alcohol, working with director Frank and more.
Q: So Anya, tell us how you approached Beth Harmon. How did you come up with her?
A: I mean it was pretty instantaneous. It was like from the second that I knew that [director] Scott [Frank] wanted to meet me, I didn’t have the script, so I read the book, and I read the book in about an hour-and-a-half. And I’ve never run to or from a meeting before. I don’t run. I don’t exercise that way. But I ran to meet him. And I’m pretty sure even before I even said – I think I said – ‘Hello’ and then screamed, ‘It’s not about chess and she has red hair!’ And Scott was like, ‘Yeah, it’s not about chess and she does have red hair!’ And so we were just so instantly on the same page and I felt like I could really understand that sense of loneliness and just trying so desperately to make sense of a world that didn’t come naturally to her and that dependency on chess. The idea that, ‘OK, this makes sense to me and I like this and this makes me feel comfortable and like I’m good at something. This world seems to want me.’ And I feel like a lot of what Beth goes through is her trying out different situations and seeing where she fits, because she comes from a background where every person she’s ever met has let her down in some way, or abandoned her. So she doesn’t trust people. And so she’s desperately trying to find a place to fit in. And I think as a kid I certainly had elements of that. So I was obsessed with her pretty immediately. And I was so lucky that Scott and I got along so well and that he took care of me in the way that he did because I was in Beth very deeply and Scott was like, ‘Take care of yourself as well please!’
Q: She is so intensely focused but it’s also like she’s watching herself from above as well. And you can’t really read her at all, you don’t quite know what she’s feeling?
A: I don’t think she really knows what she’s feeling a lot of the time. I think she’s reacting to what’s going on around her and also reacting from a place of defensiveness. She feels like she’s being attacked consistently, which is I think is why she is such an attacker on the chess board. I think she goes out aggressively because she feels that’s the one place that she can. And it’s interesting actually with the way that the language progresses in the script. She gains the language to be able to talk about her feelings but if you look at the way that she communicates, especially at the beginning, it’s very staccato and like she hasn’t learnt how to open sentences yet so she’ll clear her throat a lot of the time because she just can’t communicate with people. It was wonderful to be in her head but definitely that feeling of defensiveness, that feeling of having your walls up all the time – that was an intense space to be in sometimes [laughs].
Q: You made some bold choices playing her but done very delicately, the way she moves, for example. Can you talk about that?
A: It was one of the first conversations I had with Scott, where I thought that as a child she would waddle and what it felt like was very awkward and I just kept going up to Scott and going, ‘Am I an idiot? Is this going to work? Does this make sense?’ Because I hadn’t tried it like that before. I’d had the opportunity to play lots of different characters and embody them physically but never for such a long period of time, over seven-and-a-half hours of screen time. So I felt like the way that she moves and the way that she holds herself is very… she takes it from the things around her. So I love the idea of, ‘OK, this is Beth after she’s seen an Ann-Margret movie or an Audrey Hepburn movie’. It’s like, ‘Oh their feet go this way, so this is the way that I walk now.’ She’s just trying to figure it out which is why I think when you finally get to the last episode she’s got this kind of like little butch walk going on but she means business and she’s wearing the power suits and yeah, that felt good.
Q: Can you talk about the relationship she has with her adoptive mother and how that develops?
A: There’s an interesting exchange of power that you can see when they make the decision to lie about their living arrangements and how that’s going to work. And I think for the first time in either of their lives they are looking at the other person and going, ‘I pick you. And I will stay by your side if you promise that you’re going to stay by my side.’ And that is the arrangement. And so they make an actual physical arrangement to do that and then from that I think grows an intimacy and understanding that it’s ‘us against the world’.
Q: This series explores the cost of genius and is genius a madness in some way? For Beth, the worst part seemed to be wanting to be the best all of the time? That was the most destructive?
A: I think it’s two-pronged. I think it’s the fact that, ‘If I can do this then I have proved to myself that it’s not me and that I’m not the problem, I’m not the reason that everybody abandons me, I’m not a cancer’. You know, ‘If I can do this then I am worthwhile.’ But also, the obsession with needing to be the best, with needing to prove that, with needing to feel like, ‘I conquered this. I’ve achieved this.’ And I think it’s very difficult for her because she discovers chess at the exact same time that she’s given her first sedative. So I do think that this idea of, ‘I cannot play’ or ‘I cannot win without this edge’ – that’s where you start to get lost in all of it.
Q: Let’s talk about the drugs she takes and how they dull her mind to the point that she can almost be instinctual when she’s playing. And there’s a freedom she gets from that in some way?
A. Yeah. Well it shuts off the left side of her brain. The side of her brain that’s always at her, all of the time. It just shuts that off. I think any addict can say that it all works – until it stops working. There’s a reason that you pick up that first drink or you take that first sedative is that it does work, at the beginning, but the issue with those substances is they will eventually stop working and they will drive you crazy or kill you.
Q: And Isla Johnston, who plays Beth as a young girl, is brilliant in this…
A: She is incredible.
Q: Can you talk about working with Scott as a director?
A: The wonderful thing about Scott is not every director feels comfortable encouraging you to speak, not every director feels comfortable not being so in control of absolutely everything, while Scott is like, ‘I picked you for a reason – what do you think about this scene?’ And he encourages you to be in it with him so that you can build something together. He’s always in control, he always has the vision of where it’s going and if something is wrong, he will tell you it’s wrong. But it felt so beautiful to be on a set where you really knew that you were valued, not just as, ‘You’re the actor, just act. And like do what I tell you to do’, essentially. It was, ‘What do you think? Why does this not feel right to you? OK let’s unpack that. Which way do you want to do it? One take for you? OK great.’ That ability to have a lack of ego in a role that I think, you know, as a director you’re directing the ship, you can get a little bit drunk on your ego sometimes I would imagine and Scott just doesn’t have that. And he never cracks, he’s always smiling and he’s always there for you in such a … we love you, you’re wonderful. [laughs]
Q: Finally, what’s next for you?
A: I’m currently filming Robert Eggers’ The Northman [co-starring Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, Willem Dafoe and Ethan Hawke]. So yeah, I’m filming right now.
Q: He’s the same director who you did The Witch with?
A: Yeah. Yeah. It’s my original film family. It feels very lucky to be making a movie at all in the current climate – but especially with these people.
Lucy Allen writes for The Interview People. Greg Carannante also contributed to this story.
PHOTO: Anya Taylor-Joy, photographed by Peter Morrison of The Associated Press