When we first meet chess player Harry Beltik in episode two of The Queen’s Gambit, he’s an overconfident nemesis for Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth to take down. But as the show progresses, Harry becomes an unlikely friend and teacher for Beth, taking on an unexpected role that finds him contemplating his own worth and skill. I talked with Harry’s portrayer, British actor Harry Melling, about playing – and in this case, not playing – the villain and what stands out to him from the process of making this extraordinarily well-received series.
Abe Friedtanzer: How did you first hear about this project?
Harry Melling: I just got an email from my agent saying that Scott Frank’s got this new project. Iwas a huge fan of Godless and he said he’d like to meet to talk about the project. And so I met on, I think, Skype, before the days of Zoom, and I just immediately thought this man is incredible. Everyone says this about him, but his genius of handling the story is just remarkable. The tonal shifts he manages through The Queen’s Gambit are just brilliantly executed by him. So yeah, we spoke about the character, and he ended up by saying, do you want to do it? And I just knew then and there it was a yes. I had to try and work with this man.
AF: And are you a fan of chess in real life?
HM: No, I’m not. I am now, I am now! But I must admit, when Scott was saying all this about chess, I thought, gosh, I’m not sure I can help you out on this one. I knew nothing about chess whatsoever. I wouldn’t know what pieces did what, what could move where. So I had to study up quick. But that’s part of the joy of acting, I think, all these new challenges you face along the way.
AF: So what do you have to do in order to simulate a very skilled chess game? Do you need to actually know what you’re doing? Or you just need to play things and react as if it’s something major?
HM: I would argue, yes, you need to learn how to play it, somehow. There’s actually a chess shop down the road from where I live, and so I would visit that regularly, because obviously the guys that worked there were very much into chess, and I’d pick their brains about certain things and certain moves, trying to understand the Queen’s Gambit move. I did that for a while, got some books about chess, which were, to be honest, beyond my understanding. But it didn’t matter. I just tried to take in as much as possible. And then we had this brilliant chess coach called Bruce Pandolfini, who started working with us quite early on, I think it was before we even arrived on set, which is really great, because he started teaching us the choreography of the different sequences. All that work of understanding why certain moves went certain places helped, but it did turn out to be very much a routine that you’d do in front of the camera. I’m glad that I had a very base-level understanding of chess.
AF: Obviously they’re enhanced by the editing and the music, but is it as exciting to shoot these dramatic matches as it is to watch them?
HM: Yeah, I was really nervous for the first chess sequence because it’s just a camera on your hand as you move pieces, and I was like, gosh, this is going to be a nightmare because your hands are going to start to shake and you’re going to put the pieces down wrong or something’s going to go wrong. But actually, it was a real joy and it was a lot of fun, because you understand how intense those games really are and how competitive they are. Channeling that intensity and concentration was actually really interesting, and unlocked a lot about how these different characters in the chess world work.
AF: Did you model this portrayal on any real chess players?
HM: I did, yeah. I think it was Bruce early on who said you should try to find a particular player that you want to model on. I quite liked Magnus Carlsen. I modeled how he moved the pieces, because there’s lots of variation. You can be very at a right angle as you move the piece, or it can be a bit more loose or flowy. I remember at one point when I went to hit the clock with one of my pieces, I thought it was quite an extravagant flourish, and then Bruce came over to me, the chess expert, and said, would Harry Beltik do that? I thought, yes, good point, he’d be far more contained. Hitting the clock is very Benny. All those little details really helped to build the character. It’s crazy that how you move pieces can inform scenes that aren’t even chess-related, but you have an understanding of the physical life of this person.
AF: Aside from the chess piece, when we first meet Harry, he does not seem like a nice guy and seems like a villain, but obviously you were aware of his character arc when you started. How did you choose to portray him at first and then soften him as the series went on?
HM: I think when we first meet him, he’s very plucky. He’s in his arena, and he’s ready to take back his trophy. I knew that I had to be quite bold in that decision in order to eventually, like you say, go on the journey you go with him and soften him. But also that’s really exciting to play as an actor, those journeys that change. From my understanding of when I first read it, it’s all about the impact that this woman has on him. She walks in, and not only is she very intimidating because she’s not a man, and those chess arenas were purely a male sport in those days, so that’s unusual. But also how good she is. That’s the thing that really bursts his bubble, so much so that he has to question his entire life. Not only his game of chess, but who he wants to be. Does he want to be this plucky arrogant kid swarming in the Kentucky tournament or does he want to be someone else? In a way, I think that Beth makes him confront that.
AF: I remember seen that I had seen The Keeper probably two or three weeks before I watched this.
HM: Oh, weird!
AF: You play another mean, mean villain and so I wasn’t expecting that positive redemption here.
HM: Oh yeah, that’s good to know. The Keeper is very much down that line, but Harry does sort of u-turn, which is nice.
AF: Would you consider this a departure from the kind of roles you tend to play?
HM: No, not really. Obviously, when I was really young, I played a fairly despicable person in Dudley Dursley, so maybe that initiated all those appalling characters, those villainous characters, but saying that, I also had my fair share on playing innocent people in my times. Part of the joy of acting, I think, is trying to portray as many different people as you can. Not get stuck in one kind of thing. That’s what I’m trying to do. Fingers crossed that I can continue to do that.
AF: I think you’re doing great. On the note of great acting, you share most of your scenes with Anya Taylor-Joy. What can you say about her as a scene partner?
HM: She’s amazing! She’s absolutely amazing. Sharing all of the scenes with her was just incredible. She’s so generous. She’s so playful. She’s so instinctual as well. So it was very easy. Which is often I think when it really works when you just kind of fall into a rhythm, when the scenes just kind of happen without even really having to sort of screw your head around why are they doing this, why are they saying that. They just sort of happen. And so, yeah, I just loved working with her, I really did.
AF: We talked about what it’s like to shoot some of the chess scenes and I’m also curious about the rest of the filming. This show feels very appropriately dated and mood. Does that reflectwhat the onset experience is like?
HM: Hm. There was a level of focus there that the series definitely has, the series has the concentration of those chess sequences, the way the camera slowly moves or the energy to the camera movement. All that stuff was very much there on set. But it wasn’t moody [laughter]. I wouldn’t call it a moody experience. It was a lot of fun. It was a really amazing bunch of people working on it, the cast and crew. And we were in Berlin, which is a pretty cool city, so it was a lot of fun. I wouldn’t say it was too somber and moody. Obviously that level of intensity was there when it had to be.
AF: I use those words moody and dated positively here.
HM: Oh, yeah, absolutely! I think Steven Meizler, the DP [director of photography], has done such an amazing job with the look of it. But I completely see it’s very cleverly-crafted, the world of it.
AF: Did you ever expect that this to show was going to be so popular?
HM: No, I don’t think that anyone did, to be honest. That’s part of the whirlwind that has been The Queen’s Gambit. It felt from reading it that it’s a very specific story for maybe a specific group of people, but the appeal has just been huge, huge! Like I said, the chess shop down the road. I was in there in pre-production, then obviously went away, filmed it, came back and when it was released, I was walking down the street and the chess guy who runs the shop was running down the street towards me, just going, thank you, thank you so much! Our website broke down for the first time in fifteen years because so many people were buying chess boards. And I went, wow, this thing has really taken off. And he said, the most amazing thing is the amount of young girls buying chess boards, it’s just blown his mind. The fact that a show can do that, and yes, it’s not just about chess, there’s so much else going on. But the fact that we’ve managed to tell a story through the genre and themes of competitive chess, the sport, is really, really exciting. I’m really proud to be a part of it.
AF: Have you gotten any other memorable reactions from either people you know or don’t know to your involvement in this?
HM: No, I think the man running down the street was quite something. I thought I’d done something or maybe he thought I’d stolen something. I didn’t recognize him from the beginning, and when he said he was from the chess shop, I said, oh, of course. So that was probably the biggest reaction I’ve had from a pedestrian, certainly.
AF: I know you’ve done a lot of film and stage work and of course, a little bit of TV work. Do you enjoy doing TV, and is that something you’d like to do more of in the future?
HM: Oh yeah, absolutely. I love it. I love being able to go between those different mediums, because they do all feel different. Even from TV to film, there is a slight difference, I think. The momentum, and temper, and rhythm. And I love stage work, so if I can continue to slide between all of them, I’d be very happy.
AF: Do you have any projects lined up?
HM: Not concrete, no, unfortunately. Not that I can talk about yet. When I will, I’m sure I will.
AF: Is there anything that you think audiences would enjoy knowing about The Queen’s Gambit that they don’t already?
HM: Ah…I’m always amazed that people go to me, where did you film it, in the States? And I went, no, no, we filmed it in Berlin. And I think that’s pretty incredible, that, as you say, it feels so much like that. I guess there is a moody sort of Germanic feel to it, but I find that a bit rad. It was filmed in Berlin and yet somehow feels like Kentucky and New York, all those places that Beth goes to in her story.
AF: It’s been really great talking to you today. Let’s do it again for one of those next projects you can’t talk about just yet.
HM: Absolutely, yeah, that would be great. Thank you so much.
All seven episodes of The Queen’s Gambit are available to stream on Netflix. Henry Melling is eligible in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or TV Movie.
Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix