It’s hard to imagine that the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit wouldn’t have gotten similar attention during normal circumstances, but when it happened to be released to a world in lockdown, the critically-acclaimed series about a drug addicted female chess prodigy in the ‘60s captivated a nation and is expected to dominate the upcoming Emmy nominations.
The Queen’s Gambit owes much of its success to its stellar cast, led by the mesmerizingly talented Anya Taylor-Joy. Often overlooked or underappreciated are the casting directors who put all the pieces together for large ensembles like the one that surrounds Taylor-Joy and makes The Queen’s Gambit so perfectly tuned. Series creator Scott Frank was smart enough to hire legendary casting director Ellen Lewis, who knows a thing or two about assembling perfect ensembles, having worked on every Martin Scorsese film since Goodfellas. In addition to working with Scorsese, Lewis has cast some of the most prestigious and popular films of the last thirty years for directors such as Steven Spielberg, Spike Jonze, Sam Mendes, and Mike Nichols, including films such as A League of Their Own, The Birdcage, The Devil Wears Prada, The Post, and Best Picture winners The Departed and Forrest Gump.
Lewis knows a thing about prestige television as well, having cast for The Leftovers and Godless, and having won Emmys for Boardwalk Empire and Angels in America. The Television Academy may be calling again, as Lewis’s work on The Queen’s Gambit is a big part of what makes it so successful.
I had the opportunity to chat with Lewis about the casting process for The Queen’s Gambit, but we touched on a few other things as well, including audition scenes, the Friends reunion, and what frustrates her the most about working on Oscar-winning films.
Catherine Springer for AwardsWatch: Congratulations on the incredible success of The Queen’s Gambit. It seemed to strike a unique chord for everyone last year. What do you think it was that made it so perfect?
Ellen Lewis: It’s hard to say. I don’t ever think about anything I do as perfect, but I think Scott Frank made an incredibly compelling and visually engaging, unusual story that I think people hadn’t really seen. It’s very original, The Queen’s Gambit. And I credit Scott for that. It’s fantastic.
CS: You had mentioned that you found a shared aesthetic with Scott when you worked previously on Godless. Tell us how that shared aesthetic translates to casting.
EL: Well, I think that having some shared vision with any director is so important to the casting process, and probably the head of every craft feels that, but it’s just we’re the first ones on, and so much comes out of casting. Generally, a casting director is one of the first people that a director is speaking to, if not the first person after the writer. Scott wrote it, with Alan Scott based on Walter Tevis’s book. Casting is so instinctual in so many ways, so it’s always hard to speak about it. I talked to Scott about the flavor of the piece, and he had sent me the book quite early, so you start getting a sense of the world that he wants to create. Obviously, Beth is the lead of the film, and so it was very important to know who would be playing Beth. I know you haven’t asked this yet, but I had met Anya when she had come to the States after she did The Witch. And I had also seen her in a wonderful movie called Thoroughbreds that Cory Finley directed and loved her and so as we were discussing different actresses for Beth, I told Scott that I thought he should watch Thoroughbreds and he just was captivated by Anya, and flew to London to meet her.
CS: She is captivating. Did you build the rest of the cast based on a chemistry with her or were they cast based on the right casting for the role, or a combination?
EL: Well, I mean the people who were based around her were obviously the two young women who play her at a young age. So we have Tiny Beth, as I call her, the youngest Beth, Annabeth Kelly, who’s from Texas, and then Isla Johnson, who was also very important. And I just also want to say I did this with Kate Sprance, who’s worked with me for many years, and then Olivia Scott-Webb in London. When we knew that the series was going to shoot in Berlin, I knew that we needed a British casting director and Olivia was recommended and she’s amazing, but we had cast Isla Johnson before we knew this. We weren’t working with Olivia quite yet at that point. We spoke with Scott about the fact that Anya is, obviously, specific-looking but has different photos of the way she looked and said to Scott, how do you see this? When we were looking at the young actresses who were submitted, you really want to try to be as truthful as you can, you’re not going to of course get an exact look-alike but I think that Isla embodies some of Anya’s features, as well as the depth of who Beth is and the complication of who Beth is, as did Annabeth Kelly. There was something haunted about that little girl. It’s always very visual, the work, I think, you’re always kind of looking for the unspoken and then that leads perfectly into Bill Camp, who played a man of few words.
CS: I may have been imagining this, but the show takes place in the 60s and we are sort of used to the Mad Men vibe, where everyone is beautiful and perfect. In The Queen’s Gambit, it almost seemed the opposite, like they were an island of misfit toys almost, everyone is wounded in their way.
EL: That’s so interesting! I think that I really like misfits, so I’m drawn to them. [laughs] I don’t like making the right turn, I like taking the left turn. And then I’ve never thought about it and I’ve never had anybody bring that up before and I revere Mad Men, but I always do kind of tend to take that left hand turn. And I find beauty. I mean, I obviously I think Anya is amazing looking, and I think Bill Camp is one of the handsomest, sexiest guys I know! [laughs] What can I say? He is that left-hand turn. And Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the same thing!
CS: And Harry Melling, who I’ll never forget in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
EL: Exactly! I so agree with you and I will say also from the get go, that Kate and I are huge Harry Potter fans. So I loved him as Dudley, and then Buster Scruggs. Amazing. So absolutely, it was Buster Scruggs, which my friend Ellen Chenoweth cast, who did such a beautiful job casting that. It absolutely was Buster Scruggs and it’s just like, let’s try Harry Melling for something, you know, people wouldn’t have normally thought of him, though he’s clearly a very good actor.
CS: He’s brilliant and he was perfectly cast.
EL: Thank you. It was so lovely. He was so committed to doing this, and Scott, you know, it’s just so great that to be able to have creative conversations with the director. What I hope for always is to be able to open my creative imagination, and have the director open their creative imagination and kind of take the journey together and be open. Open to ideas, I mean. Basically: you didn’t think of it this way, but what do you think.
CS: And speaking of doing it a little differently, how did Marielle Heller come to the project? She’s definitely known more as a director than an actor.
EL: Scott Frank. He said what do you think about Marielle Heller, and I went, wait, Marielle Heller, the director? He said, “Yeah! She’s a wonderful actress.” He had cast her in A Walk Among the Tombstones, a previous film that Scott did that I hadn’t worked on, so I had no clue. And he said, “I think she would be fantastic,” and so I was “Well, I’m with you. If you believe in it, then I believe in it.” Again, I think that is the beautiful thing sometimes of working with someone. It’s Scott’s vision. And so I supported that, of course I would, I mean, why would I not. How fascinating. I had no clue that she was an actress.
CS: Me neither. I love her movies.
Exactly, as do I.
CS: How many of actors came to the project that way, and how many came through the audition process?
EL: So many people come through the audition process. Thomas Brodie Sangster we had cast in Godless, as you know, playing a much different role, and Scott had been totally open to that. That was an unusual role for him as well. I don’t think Harry Melling read, there are several people in this movie who had been in Godless, we have the Lewis twins, Matthew and Russell Lewis and Christiane Seidel, who plays Mrs. Deardorff, who runs the orphanage, and I had cast her in Boardwalk Empire. Actually, I don’t think that I did cast her in Boardwalk, I think that my friend Meredith Tucker cast her in Boardwalk, but that’s how I got to know Christiane and we cast her in Godless. So Scott will be thinking about people that he worked with before and do they fit into this world. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd came out of London. Different people read for that part here, as well as in in London, and he got cast—Olivia did a fantastic job casting him out of London. And then, of course, the role of Jolene. There were wonderful actresses who read for that part, but Moses [Ingram] is so special and so talented and I feel so lucky. She was right out of Yale Drama School, and I just feel so lucky that she had done the Yale showcase, an agent had just signed her, and Kate Sprance had seen her showcase and called about her, found that she had an agent, and I feel so lucky that we cast her in the first thing she did because she is a star.
CS: I notice you’ve now called The Queen’s Gambit a film twice. Is that how you think of it?
EL: Did I? That’s so funny. I don’t know–it’s just a longer film! And some of the films I work on are really long too! [laughs]
CS: What is the bigger driving force for you to say yes to a project, the director or the script?
EL: I met Scott through Casey Silver who I had met years and years before, when he was the head of Universal Pictures years before and he came to me and said, I want you to meet Scott Frank, he’s got this limited series and I think that you should meet him. So I would say, even more than script, that it’s about the human beings who are involved. If there’s a producer that I know, or somebody who reaches out to me, that’s really what I base my decisions on.
CS: Your films have produced five acting Oscar winners, is that right? Mark Rylance being the most recent?
EL: Wow, I’ve never even thought about that in any way.
EL: Never. Is this leading to another question?
CS: Well, I was just going to ask how it feels when an actor you cast wins an Oscar, but you say it’s never something you’ve thought about.
EL: Here’s what my thought is: it’s not about the actors that are being nominated as much as–of course I’m incredibly proud when any actor is recognized in something that I worked on–but what is more telling to me is when every other craft is nominated but we don’t get an Oscar nomination. I think everybody’s contribution is so important, but, without the casting director, well, it really just doesn’t even make any sense. It’s unbelievable that we even have to discuss it, because when I watch every other craft of something that I’ve worked on have a nomination, I’m very disappointed.
CS: Casting has always been so underappreciated and there’s been a push to get casting added as a category. Don’t you think casting is one of the most pivotal parts of the final product?
EL: I think we’re the most pivotal! I think that, next to the writer and director, we are the most important part of a film or a television show. Fortunately we are recognized with an Emmy, and that is fantastic but, I absolutely believe that we deserve an Oscar. But we’ve said it so many times.
CS: Casting and stunts I believe are definitely long overdue, as are motion capture and voiceover performances. Do you believe those should have categories as well.
EL: Absolutely, you are so right, that is an amazing skill. The SAG Awards are always great to watch, but, look, I understand that we’re not a member of that union, but when an ensemble gets nominated and the casting director is barely even acknowledged by the actor, it’s shocking and disappointing. The actors might not even be aware of the work that the casting director has done. I just watched the Friends reunion, which was a lot of fun to watch. They did, what, 20 minutes about the casting process? And not a single mention of the casting director. I mean, I found it fascinating when they talked about the million actors that they saw for those six characters and I thought, wow, if you saw a million, the casting director must have seen three million!
CS: What do you think when you watch an audition scene in a movie, like in La La Land, for example? Do they make you cringe? Do they make you laugh? Are they accurate?
EL: I think they probably make me cringe because I don’t know how accurate they are. But I think that all offices and all casting offices are different. I was taught by Juliet Taylor, who came down through Marion Dougherty and the most important aspect of our job is making the actor feel good in the audition process.
CS: That’s not shown too often.
EL: Well, the moment an actor walks into my office, they are greeted. This is what I was taught to do, they’re greeted warmly, and they are greeted warmly by myself and by Kate, or whoever’s working with me. They are thanked profusely for coming in. It is a very, very tough profession, being an actor, because it is filled with rejection,
CS: And that’s what makes you a legend.
EL: I don’t think it’s about being a legend, I think it’s about courtesy and politeness. We want every actor to do a good job. We want to cast the part, and only one person is going to get the role. So, it is very hard, but it’s just important to have a friendly and warm room, or Zoom as we now do, but it’s the exact same thing, greeting people. We’re all human beings. I’m happy to say that after all these years, I still love casting so much. I am so glad that people responded to The Queen’s Gambit. It’s thrilling. We have all heard from more people through months that were so difficult, as you said. I’m just so happy for Scott, he deserves this and I’m happy for all the actors, they’re fantastic. I’m really proud for Kate, and Olivia and myself and Anna-Lena Slater, who worked in Berlin. It was a good group.
The Queen’s Gambit is currently available to stream on Netflix. Ellen Lewis is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.