Anya Taylor-Joy’s Gambit: “Chess is like having a mini war on a board”
Anya Taylor-Joy plays fiercely independent characters in three movies this year: Emma Woodhouse in Emma directed by Autumn de Wilde from the 1815 novel by Jane Austen, Marie Curie’s daughter Irène in Radioactive by Marjane Satrapi with Rosamund Pike, and Marvel Comics’ superhero Magik/Iliana Rasputina in The New Mutants. She also plays teenage chess prodigy Beth Harmon in the limited series The Queen’s Gambit, created and directed by Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank from the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. We interviewed the Argentinian actress remotely from Ireland, where she is shooting The Northman by Robert Eggers.
Could you please describe what The Queen’s Gambit is about, a cautionary tale of obsession and addiction?
The story is set in the world of chess in the late 50s and the 60s, it chronicles the growth of a young prodigy, who, at the same time that she figures out that she’s very good and very gifted at chess, unfortunately, she is also given tranquilizers in the Kentucky orphanage where she’s staying. And that sets off a chain of reactions of her trying to cope with unfortunate circumstances in the way that she was brought up, her addiction and then her commitment to the game of chess.
What are some of the similarities between yourself and Beth? Could you identify with some of her feelings?
Absolutely. Both Beth and I felt very lonely as children and we were searching for a world that we could feel like we belonged to and could contribute something to. She found it in chess, I found it in making art as an actress. Beth has a slightly different way of being and that causes her to feel a bit isolated, but in the end it turns out to be her greatest strength. And I identify with her determination, because I can be determined, sometimes to a fault, but usually it works out in my favor.
Can you explain the kind of intelligence required to master chess, a game where you have to visualize several moves in advance?
I can understand why people suggest that playing chess is like having your own mini war on a board, because you have to make decisions on what losses you are willing to take, in a way that is quite different from most other games. Often you are sacrificing chess pieces for a larger technical gain later on, and you have to always be weighing that up in your head. But at the same time it’s also a mind game, because you can fake people out with it, like you do in poker, and you can play it so many different ways, that I found it really fascinating. Whenever people ask me, ‘how do you make playing chess games look so interesting and so filled with tension,’ I reply, ‘because they are.’ When you are playing a game of chess, it’s very tense between two people, because you are outwitting and out maneuvering each other constantly.
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The Queen’s Gambit is a fiction based on a novel, not the true story of a young chess prodigy, because in reality women have never beaten men at chess championships. That probably has to do with the condition of women in society, but what is your opinion as to why?
There is something to be said for the dreams that women have been told they’re allowed to have and the things that they’re allowed to want. That was particularly the case in the 60s, but it still is today. We are hopefully moving towards a society where your gender or how you identify does not designate the dreams that you are or are not allowed to have, but you will be allowed to just want what you want. So I think it’s a mixture of opportunity and of not having seen it before, because, if you see something, then you know it’s achievable, but in order to see it, the opportunity needs to be present.
What kind of relationship does Beth have with the three young men who play chess with her, Harry, Benny and Townes, and with her best friend Jolene?
That’s the benefit of having such a wonderful script, because Scott Frank really knows how to write truthful relationships. The truth is that, with most of the people we have in our lives, there’s something quirky and interesting about the way that we gravitate to one another. Beth’s relationships with Townes, Harry, Benny and Jolene are entirely different, but they each give each other something. And to me one of the most beautiful parts of the series is that at the beginning, because of her childhood, Beth feels allergic to letting anyone close to her, she doesn’t really feel like she can trust them. Then, as the series progresses, she figures out that her friends’ intentions are pure and that she is deserving of love.
I was intrigued by the unusual relationship between Beth and Alma, her adoptive mother, who is played by director Marielle Heller. How do you see it?
It’s interesting, because whenever I watch the show with somebody, I’m amazed at how strong of a reaction they have to Alma, either way. They either say, “Beth found a friend,” or, “run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.” I found this relationship between the two of them fascinating, because it’s bizarrely honest. They have an actual transaction take place, they say, “I’ll put you first if you promise to put me first” and “I’ll take care of you if you promise to take care of me.” And I think that’s pretty decent, because the two of them are broken in different ways, so they share the same vices (alcohol and Librium), and they offer each other temporary relief to feeling completely alone and isolated. And I loved playing out that relationship with Mari, it was wonderful.
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You played another mother-daughter relationship, opposite Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie in Radioactive. What do you think of this young nurse who was so committed to helping wounded soldiers in World War I?
Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie are the only mother-daughter duo to both win Nobel prizes for their work, so their intelligence is staggering. At the time that Irène gets involved in the war, I think that Marie was tired of fighting with people all the time to have her position be respected, because obviously she was a woman and everyone needed to be convinced multiple times of what they let her do. So what Irène facilitated is that she allowed her mother to see that her gifts were necessary in order to solve unnecessary suffering in many people. They were the first to take X-ray machines out into the battlefield to stop people having unnecessary amputations. I really think that was so impressive, Rosamund and I were both saying, “I can’t wait to tell this story, this is incredible.”
What are your concerns about the state of the world?
I’m very passionate about global warming and attempting to keep the species in our planet alive, I’m very connected to nature and to animals, so I am just trying to figure out what the best way should be, because it’s desperately sad what we’re doing to the planet.
You are a vegetarian. Is it because it’s a healthy diet or because you don’t believe it’s right to kill animals?
I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 8-years-old. I’ve always loved animals, so I could never wrap my head around eating them, I just couldn’t do it. Then I managed to be vegan a few years ago, but I while I was shooting a movie in Spain, I basically starved for a couple of months, so I started eating eggs and cheese again. But I’m recently vegan again now. I think it’s something good you can do for the planet, so I’m going for it.