The Queen’s Gambit premiered on Netflix at the end of October, earning the title of the streaming service’s most-watched limited series ever. Its story of the rise of a chess prodigy is notable for the impressive group of supporting players who contribute to Beth Harmon’s meteoric rise through the world of competitive chess. Among them was the confident, cowboy hat-wearing Benny Watts, played by actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster. I talked with the London-born actor, known previously for roles in Love Actually and Game of Thrones, about being part of this smash sensation, whether we might see a second season, and how he feels about being recognized by diehard fans of his most famous projects.
Abe Friedtanzer: How are you today?
Thomas Brodie-Sangster: Very well, how are you?
Good, thanks so much for talking to me today. My first question for you is: do you like chess?
I was always aware of chess. Actually, as a child – I think it was my third job – I did a two-part miniseries in France. I don’t really know what happened to it or where it went. It was called Daddy and then eventually called Entrusted. I was playing a young prodigy chess player then, so it wasn’t my first venture into the world of chess. At that age, I didn’t really care about it so much. The story was actually about something else, World War II, the French Resistance.
Has your interest in it changed since starring in this show? Do you feel like you’ve gained a greater understanding of it from staging so many games?
Being on this, I did know how to play chess. Working with some really quite fantastic chess players from around the world and seeing their enthusiasm for the game and love for the game, and looking into it and realizing what it takes to be just good, let alone amazing, let alone a grandmaster, is an insane amount of memory, and understanding of previous games dating back a hundred years ago. And realizing what an ancient game it is and how long people have played it. There is a real beauty to it. It’s kind of infinitely complicated. And it’s just two people sat around a board moving wooden pieces around. I certainly learned a new appreciation for it. I still play. I’m not very good at all, but I did learn the beauty that is in chess.
How would you describe Benny? Sometimes he seems like a really nice guy, and at others, he seems so self-involved. Do you like him as a character?
I do, I really like Benny. I think he’s beautifully written. Scott Frank just writes so beautifully. Every character in the show is meant to be there and is there for a reason. You really feel that. There’s not just little bit parts that come in and help the story progress and help the protagonist’s journey. They are there for a real reason, and you feel that they really exist. Benny is a cocky, confident, arrogant guy, very self-assured. He knows where he stands, he knows his morals and his talent as well. His cockiness is somewhat justified by his talent. As the series progresses, you realize there is a sensitive side to him. He genuinely cares about Beth, and about chess too. He wants Beth to go on, and sees that she can become quite a celebrity in the chess world. She can do great things for American chess, particularly as a woman. His cockiness and arrogance is slowly replaced by caring and nourishing for this raw, somewhat untapped talent he sees in Beth. He puts aside his competitiveness of wanting to beat her and be better than her when he realizes that she has the potential to be a lot better than him and go a lot further than he could.
Did you have any input into his signature look?
I had worked with Scott before on a show called Godless where I played a deputy sheriff, a cowboy. I was in a cowboy hat, and I had my facial hair back again. The first thing he said was that he wanted me to start growing my facial hair again, and he definitely saw me in a big-brimmed hat. When I got into the costume department, I picked my jewelry and I picked my hat. Obviously it was Scott’s final choice, but I did make some choices as far as his costume and mannerisms.
Anya Taylor-Joy is so terrific in this role as Beth. What was it like working with her, and do you have any favorite memories?
Ah, it was a joy. Pardon the pun. It was lovely. It was great. She’s just fantastic. I had only ever seen her in one thing before. I went to the cinemas and saw The Witch and thought she was fantastic in that. When I spoke to Scott and he said she was on board, me and Anya got together in a hotel bar in Toronto. We hadn’t started shooting yet. We sat around and chatted, about the script and about Scott because I’d worked with him before, so she was asking questions about him. We talked about the bizarreness and the wonderfulness of being an actor, and how much we enjoy getting to delve into these bizarre people that we get to bring alive. From that moment, I was like, okay, cool, she’s in this world for the same reasons I am. This is going to be fun, working with her. She takes command on set. As the lead actress of the story, it’s all about her. In a very positive way. She’s very open to experimenting and playing around. She’s very talented in terms of intelligence and memory. She did all those speed chess sessions where she’s playing all three of us. She was able to do those at speed, memorizing three games at the same time. It was quite impressive. There became a slight competitiveness between me and her when we were playing the speed chess. How many moves can we memorize? How fast can we actually play? I really enjoyed working with her, and she’s a lovely girl.
I want to ask about the first role I remember seeing you in – it was Love, Actually so many years ago. I’m curious if that’s something you like, or something you’d rather move on from?
Oh, I don’t mind. The questions come up all the time, so I’ve answered them for nearly ten years now. No, nearly twenty years! It was my first-ever feature film, my first experience of a big movie with a big cast. I had no idea – I don’t think anyone did – about the scale of the movie and its longevity. It comes around every Christmas now. It’s something I’m hugely proud of. I don’t mind at all. It’s lovely to be part of a project that people to this day genuinely love. The audience is really everyone. Everyone seems to like it.
You were also part of another wildly popular phenomenon, Game of Thrones. Do you have any memorable stories from that, and are you still as excited about your association?
I joined that not really knowing what it was. I had heard of the name but I had never watched it or read the books. I came home and I told my girlfriend at the time and my friends, and they were the ones that freaked out. I said, I’ve got this other job, it will be quite fun. It was then that I realized what I was part of. Then they sent me seasons one and two, which I watched back-to-back in a week and fell in love with the show. It was the first time I had ever joined something not really knowing what it was, and then proceeded to get very excited by the prospect of it once I had already got the job, which is quite funny.
Did you anticipate that the response to The Queen’s Gambit would be so favorable and huge?
No, I mean I knew it was going to be good. Like I said, I had worked with Scott before, and I thought Godless was beautiful, very well-written, great ensemble. Steven Meizler, our DOP, was the same person, and he’s very talented. I knew it was going to be good. But it’s a show about chess and addiction, a long-winded show where not much actually happens. There’s no baddie. The drama is all very much internalized. I thought it would be a success within quite a cliquey, small world, and that people who actually managed to see it would really like it. I knew it was going to be quality, but no, I didn’t think it would hit the levels that it has, and that people around the world would really sink within it. It’s lovely – it shows that there’s a really big audience for high-quality drama, which is a really nice thing to be aware of.
Without giving much away, I do think it wraps up pretty neatly, and that it was always intended to be a limited series. If there was more, would you want to come back for a second season?
I mean, I’d love to revisit that character, and work with Scott and Anya and the whole team again. I think it would be great fun. It was never intended to go on any further. What I like about it is that it’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. It wraps up very nicely. I don’t see how it would continue. It could, always, but I think it’s quite nicely complete.
I agree – I’d like to see more but it did end in exactly the way that it should have. What’s next for you?
Christmas! (Interviewer note: we spoke last month before the holiday.) And then, I don’t know, looking for a job, basically. The world’s a bit mad at the moment. There’s a nasty virus going around, apparently. It’s just kind of figuring out how to go back to work and do it safely. I also think that it’s such a turmoil time for everyone. Entertainment seems a bit trivial, but actually it helps people get through the dark, horrible times. I’d love to get back on set and start portraying characters again, and working with people again. To create content for people to escape into and get inspired by. I look forward to it though. I look forward to the next year.
Stream all seven episodes of The Queen’s Gambit now on Netflix.
The Queen’s Gambit image courtesy of Phil Bray/Netflix