Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming, and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
The Snapshot: Anya Taylor-Joy plays an orphaned chess prodigy with big dreams (and a few demons) looking to master a man’s game in the Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit. (Premiere date: October 23rd)
The Performer: Anya Taylor-Joy
The Series: The Queen’s Gambit
Let’s get one thing out of the way from the get-go: You do not need to love chess to love The Queen’s Gambit. But it should be said that if you do, you’ll appreciate this series on a level I couldn’t even begin to grasp (I was more of a Checkers/Connect Four player in my day).
At the center of the story is Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, who we first meet as a little girl (Isla Johnston) in late ’50s America, and who ends up at an orphanage when her mother dies in a car accident. Upon being sent out of the classroom one day to clap a few chalkboard erasers, she discovers the custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing a game alone in the basement:
Her curiosity leads to questions, and those answers lead to books given to her by the janitor. Soon, and with the help of the mind-altering tranquilizers the orphanage gives to children to calm their temperaments, Beth starts playing chess games in her head (and on the ceiling at night), envisioning all the right moves like a beautiful mind trying to unearth all the patterns at age 9.
At this point, we meet the older version of Beth (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a 15-year-old teenager still at the orphanage winning basement battles with Mr. Shaibel — before he invites a local chess club over to witness Beth’s incredible ability, where she beats them all firsthand.
There’s obviously so much more that happens in this series (which I won’t spoil here), but Taylor-Joy’s performance is one to be marveled at. Not because she plays the character “big.” It’s actually quite the opposite, with Taylor-Joy capturing Beth’s discomfort around people in non-verbal ways with an understated brilliance. Taylor-Joy’s performance is also to be marveled at given the addiction problems her character deals with, which seem quietly controlled at first, before they’re not. Taylor-Joy nails Beth’s caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation — from girl to woman, from novice to expert, from recreational user to addict — as her global prominence as a chess player unfolds.
For many of the same reasons The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel became a hit — brilliant writing to go with dazzling set, production, and costume design — The Queen’s Gambit is a beautiful 1950s-60s period-drama journey well worth taking. And Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon is at the center of it all.
If you’re wondering how a 24-year-old American-Argentinian-British actress originally from Miami, Florida ended up portraying Beth Harmon’s complete character arc (starting at age 15), it’s a story of smart casting (by industry vet Ellen Lewis) and Taylor-Joy’s instant buy-in based on her love for the book the series is based on, The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis.
In fact, in the show’s production notes, Taylor-Joy reveals that she “fell in love with Beth immediately and there was a really strong kinship. Even though I knew nothing about chess whatsoever, I understood her really well and I cared about her.”
As for where you’ve seen the talented Taylor-Joy, she landed on the scene as the star of A24’s The Witch (2015), where she won rave reviews after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The horror film, for which Taylor-Joy won a Breakthrough Actor Award at The Gotham Awards, is about a family of Pilgrim settlers in the 1630s New England who encounter, well, a witch.
Then came a couple of notable lead roles in films as the title character in Morgan (2016) and M. Night Shyamalan’s horror-thriller Split (2016), where she played the kidnapped victim of a man with 23 split personalities. After surviving those roles, Taylor-Joy went on to star in series of note such as The Dark Crystal (2019) and fifth season of the gangster epic Peaky Blinders (2019) before doing another notable film, reprising her role as Casey Cooke in Shyamalan’s Glass (2019). In this year of all years (2020), Taylor-Joy has starred in two feature films as well – playing a mutant in The New Mutants in addition to the lead in the latest Jane Austen adaptation of Emma.
None of the previous roles, however, are destined to be celebrated as much as her latest in The Queen’s Gambit, which will likely see some awards action come 2021 as it’s currently trending up on Rotten Tomatoes, critics’ lists, and your Facebook feeds in between political posts.
As for what’s next for the talented actress, she’s currently shooting The Northman, Robert Eggers’ Viking revenge saga set in Iceland at the turn of the 10th century with Nicole Kidman.
In the chess game of life, it seems clear the star of The Queen’s Gambit is making her move.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.