Thomas Brodie-Sangster broke onto the acting scene when he was just a kid, becoming known as the cute tyke from Love Actually with a crush on Keira Knightley. Nearly two decades later, Brodie-Sangster is still acting, though the profession has continuously changed as he’s matured. Now, he’s one of the veteran actors on each set, popping up in franchises like The Maze Runner and acclaimed limited series like Godless and The Queen’s Gambit.
In the latter, the actor plays Benny Watts, the cocky, highly-skilled chess champion who faces off against Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) during her meteoric rise. He’s her rival, her lover, her friend, her teacher, and a step she must climb above in order to become one of the world’s best chess players. His performance stands out because of Brodie-Sangster’s charm, his wit, and his ability to slink into this character based on Bobby Fischer.
We talked with Brodie-Sangster about his experience filming The Queen’s Gambit, his two decades in this profession, his newfound love for the Sex Pistols, and his willingness to watch past work.
Michael Frank: You’ve been acting for a couple of decades now, since you started as a kid. How has your view of this profession, of this career changed?
Thomas Brodie-Sangster: I started out when I was 10 years old. I started out just doing it for fun, and not really taking things too seriously. I just was wanting to have a laugh and not really think about a career. And then it slowly kind of merged and turned into a career, because I kept getting jobs and really enjoying it. When I first started shooting, there was video on actual 35 millimeter film. Yes, the field is completely different, the cost of renting cameras, very, very different than nowadays. I mean, we can actually have really good quality work done on much less of a budget. For the same amount of budget you spent 10 years ago, you can get a phenomenal looking and sounding piece of film and TV. And now a parallel I think, machines like Netflix have changed how we use television. I think everything is for the better. I will look back and go through all the 35 millimeter and real film and cutting and splicing edits. And yeah, there is something quite nostalgic about that. And there is a beauty to film because you’re literally taking real life and exposing it to light and it’s physically burned on. But I don’t think that really affects it as a creative art process to be a lot more liberal with it these days. So I’ve physically and mentally changed and developed to gain as a person, and as an idea and the world and the technology has changed and the media platforms that we now have have all changed. But I think all for only good reasons.
MF: You’ve worked with so many older, classic actors. Has anyone given you advice that particularly stuck out?
TBS: I mean, no one’s actually sat me down and said, “All right, so listen to me. We’ve been doing this a long time.” No one’s ever done that. I think what you do as an actor, you immerse yourself into a scenario, into a situation where you’re surrounded by certain people for a prolonged period of time. And in that moment, we get to know each other quite intimately. And you work side by side every single day. So you end up just kind of picking up quite naturally, and just learning off of everyone, not just the actors, but I mean, absolutely everyone that brings any sense of passion and enthusiasm towards the story that you’re trying to tell. So I’ve learned loads from people, nothing that I could actually put down into words or quotes at all.
MF: How was it interacting with those famous actors as a kid?
TBS: I think they just quite enjoyed seeing me as a young person coming in, bringing something new to the scene for them. Now I am older, and I’m working with people who weren’t even born when I first started acting. So I’m kind of in that place now. But I’m still not sitting down and talking to them. I’m learning just as much from these guys that are pretty new, because they come with their own sense of self and spell out their version of truth to your character, which is a wonderful thing to do. Really. So that’s inspiration in itself.
MF: How was it working on the Queen’s Gambit with actors around your same age? Was it a different feel on the set for you?
TBS: For me, every shoot has a very different personality to it, and those personalities originate from the script and the story that you’re trying to tell. Then they come from the other people who are cast and hired to help tell the story with you. And so it becomes a collaboration that starts with scripts, and then casting and crewing up. If you’ve got a good director, and a good team, and a good producer, and a good group of people that actually want to do good work, they end up just looking for perfect people for the roles. And you end up with this kind of wonderful electric charisma, where everyone is very good at what they do, because they’re just so perfectly cast within their role. That doesn’t matter whether you’re a 75-year-old man or whether you just came out of drama school or whether you’re just a kid. And that’s when I get motivated. That’s what spurs me on to get inspired and try to do a better job.
MF: And what was the personality of this set specifically?
TBS: Well, I’ve worked with that team before. Director Scott Frank and quite a large group of them before on another Netflix show called Godless. It was such a wonderful experience and again, a great script with a great story and fantastic visuals. So I came quite familiar with that environment. I was a little bit rusty in some ways, so it was very nice to feel that way. But then come and work with people who I hugely admire and had worked with previously. They also had a sense of being quite clever and it was somewhat of a serious set, not that we couldn’t have fun. And it felt that it had this kind of heaviness, but in a nice way. To orchestrate this stuff around someone who’s struggling with their own mental health rather than wishing and wanting to be loved, and I think it kind of resonated throughout the whole set in a very positive way.
MF: Do you have any moments in your mind that kind of explain this vibe?
TBS: In the downtime, Steven Meizler and Scott Frank would sit around, and they would play chess and other than some of the other amazing chess champions that were training us, they would probably be the best players. So in the downtime, it would normally go quite quiet and most people would just stay around and watch the director and the cameraman just having a proper good go at each other on the chessboard. And it would take someone to really kind of hound them and poke them saying, “Come on, we have to, we very likely have to go and make movies and make a show and do that.” And they’d say, “Okay, well, wait one more move. And we’re gonna have to take a picture of it. And save it.”
MF: Did you ever jump in?
TBS: No, I was watching more. I’m not the best at chess. I know how to move the pieces around. But I don’t think several steps ahead. But those two could be very good, man. Again, at the end of downtime, those two would just shout out a year and say 1982 and then from that year, they would have to name every Oscar winner. And their knowledge of films is just insane.
MF: Do you ever rewatch any of the movies or TV you’ve made? Have you seen The Queen’s Gambit since you’ve made it?
TBS: Yeah I like watching how things come together. I like seeing the final edit, to see what they cut out. I love seeing what the score does to the final product. I love seeing the difference between what I read and what actually ends up on screen. I love it. I watch things maybe two times and then that’s usually enough.
MF: Are you someone that has the time even to watch a lot of films and TV shows? Do you like to spend time doing that?
TBS: No, not really. I mean, I love working and I love making them but I’m not a big film buff. I don’t know my names and my years and my directors and producers and casting agents. I’m not very up with the business or industry side of things. I love making them, really. I do love to watch good cinema when it’s about. Often, I put on music and start my evening by cooking with some music on.
MF: And what music might you put on?
TBS: Oh, I don’t know. All sorts. A bit of jazz and a bit of classical. At the moment, I’m doing a thing about the Sex Pistols so I’m listening to a lot of them, which is actually quite fun because I was never a huge fan of the Sex Pistols. They’re a bit too angry and noisy for me, but I did always appreciate what they did for music. So it’s been really nice to listen to the rawness they put in their music.
The Queen’s Gambit is currently streaming on Netflix. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Photo courtesy of Netflix