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Anya Taylor-Joy And Scott Frank Of 'Queen's Gambit' On Making Chess Mesmerizing


"The Queen's Gambit" on Netflix is a miniseries in which the cold, logical clacks on the board of competitive chess are increasingly interrupted by the disquiet of anxiety, addiction - little bottles of booze from the minibar and little green pills. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Beth Harmon, who goes from an orphanage to being a chess prodigy. The series is written, co-produced and directed by Scott Frank. And they both join us now from separate, socially distanced locations. Thank you both very much for being with us.


SCOTT FRANK: Thanks for having us.

SIMON: Anya Taylor-Joy, what made you want to play this brilliant, determined and afflicted character?

TAYLOR-JOY: I mean, I think all of the words that you just said. I was fascinated by her. I read the book in about an hour. And I'm not much of a runner. I don't tend to run for fun. And I ran to meet Scott Frank. That's - it's still the only job that I've ever physically run to. I was so excited.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Frank, let me ask you. It's based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. This sounds like an old showbiz joke, but has this story been through development hell?

FRANK: It hasn't been through development hell. It's been - it's one of those that's almost been made many times since it was published. Heath Ledger was going to direct it as his directorial debut. And when he passed away, the project just languished for a while. And I was always haunted by it. It was one of those novels that just stayed with me.

SIMON: Anya Taylor-Joy, could you tell us about the look? We see it in 8-year-old Beth's face when her mother dies in a car crash, not to give too much away. And then later, we see that look across the chessboard. How did you refine that look?

TAYLOR-JOY: Oh, gosh. I don't tend to be somebody who thinks about their face very much. I think that would drive me absolutely insane. But I would hope, and I have been told by people who are very talented, that if you have the right thoughts, it is communicated on your face. And if you stick a camera very close to that face, the audience will understand what it is that you're wanting to convey. So I think that killer attitude that Beth can have when she feels that she's being pushed into a corner or that her intelligence is being questioned in any way, shape or form, that is the look that you are referring to.

SIMON: Indeed. She's a little girl in an orphanage when she sees the maintenance chief of the orphanage playing chess in the basement. What does she see in that board? What does she see in the game?

TAYLOR-JOY: The first thing that excited her was the board. She was excited by a microcosm world that she could see and that she wanted the answers to. And she obviously picks them up very quickly. And I think it just gives her a sense of control. Like, if you can imagine being that young, having your entire world exploded and suddenly being in an entirely different place, I think you would look for something that you could control so that you could feel that you had at least a little bit of input into your life.

SIMON: Scott Frank, we made a mention of the little green pills. Little pills were a fact of life in the 1960s, weren't they? They were freely prescribed by doctors. Some very prominent people took them. They were all over.

FRANK: They were pretty ubiquitous in a lot of situations. And the phrase mother's little helper comes from a lot of what was happening then. And these pills were like the equivalent of what I would say Valium. They kind of evened you out. And in best case, they enabled her to kind of unleash her imagination, and also that she can visualize chess in sort of normally un-chesslike settings and places.

SIMON: I have read that the, of course, the grandmaster Garry Kasparov was a consultant. That must've been intimidating.

FRANK: That was enormously intimidating, but also hugely helpful in ways I didn't expect. Garry, who I had originally asked or begged to play the role of Borgov, the bad guy, he would've been great. He turned me down. But he became an adviser. And what he did, aside from designing the chess games in Russia, the big final match, he gave me insight into how a chess prodigy might feel. And there's a lot of conversation in the story that comes straight from him - the Russians discussing how she can't lose because if she lost, you know, she's an orphan. She's like us. What would she have?

SIMON: And may I ask, Anya Taylor-Joy, you know, you make a baseball movie, and a great star like the late Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson, has to look like they know how to play baseball. You have to look like you knew how to play chess, right?

TAYLOR-JOY: Yes, absolutely. And, I mean, I had to have a good theoretical understanding of chess because I didn't feel confident or arrogant enough to show up on set and pretend like I knew what I was talking about. I felt like I did have to understand it, obviously.

I didn't find it intimidating having such wonderful chess players around because it made me feel safe. These people care so much about us getting it right. They're not going to let me mess this up for them. They're going to want to help me make chess shine, essentially.

SIMON: Let me ask you both, Beth finds something in chess, but, of course, she has to contend with a lot of other things that are roiling inside of her. What does Beth not find in chess? You're pointing to Scott Frank.


SIMON: One of the advantages of these Zoom - yeah.

FRANK: You know, I think you start with somebody who's very isolated, who's disconnected from the world. And chess - she believes that winning and safety is what's going to help her. And by the end of the story, you know, she leaves the chessboard, that thing she says that keeps her safe, but she'll always be - using this word deliberately - addicted to the game.

SIMON: Yeah. Anya Taylor-Joy?

TAYLOR-JOY: There's this massive pull for Beth between wanting to be close to people and feeling desperately lonely, but also having an understanding from her history that people will only ever let her down and people will only ever leave her. So I think what she doesn't get from chess is a sensation of being loved, is a sensation of being accepted exactly as she is. She only thinks she has that acceptance because she wins.

SIMON: Anya Taylor-Joy, who stars as the prodigy who becomes a troubled champion, and Scott Frank, one of the creators of "The Queen's Gambit," thank you both very much for being with us.

TAYLOR-JOY: Thank you for having us. That was fun.

FRANK: Thank you. What a treat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.