'Queen's Gambit' Star Marielle Heller on Her Surprising Return to Her Acting Roots

Marielle Heller
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The Netflix series features a breakout performance from Heller — a career pivot for the director, who already has three critically acclaimed films under her belt.

With her turn in The Queen's Gambit, Marielle Heller proved that she's just as talented in front of the camera as she is behind it. The director of such critically lauded films as The Diary of a Teenage Girl and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood returned to her acting roots with a surprise part in Netflix's record-breaking miniseries about fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). The role came about through Heller's friendship with the show's creator, Scott Frank, a longtime collaborator who served as one of her Sundance Lab advisers. Over the years, they'd visit each other's sets or look at cuts of each other's movies. After Heller did a one-day part in Frank's 2014 film A Walk Among the Tombstones and was ultimately cut, Frank grew determined to cast her in another project. He tried unsuccessfully with his earlier Netflix miniseries Godless — Heller was too busy making Can You Ever Forgive Me? — but luckily, The Queen's Gambit came about at just the right time. Heller initially was cast in the much smaller part of Beth's biological mother, but when the actress set to play her adoptive mother, Alma, dropped out, Frank asked if she'd be up for a much larger role. "I was like, 'Are you crazy?' " Heller says. Surely, Netflix wouldn't let him cast someone who last acted in earnest 10 years ago, she thought, nor could she afford to spend three months of her life in Berlin, where the show was largely shot. But Scott was nothing if not persistent. Says Heller, "It was a circuitous, weird path to this part I would've dreamed of."

You started out in theater but hadn't acted in 10 years. What made you say yes to this part?

When I got that phone call, I was on a scout for a commercial I was directing. I’m a pretty busy director and it’s pretty hard for me to have three months where I could just leave the country and go work on someone’s else’s project. But I happened to be just finishing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and I didn’t know what my next movie was going to be. I was also about to turn 40 and I was in this moment of searching for adventures in life, and it felt like a fun, scary adventure to say yes to. So I went back to him and said yes. I also never decided to stop acting; I just started writing and directing and acting sort of fell away — but I was also still missing it. And when I went to my husband to talk about this idea, he was like, “Are you kidding me? This is an incredible part. You have to say yes to this.” So even though it felt like a bad career decision because it felt high risk and probably not what would be good for my directing career — which is what I’ve been spending so much time working on — it just felt like something I had to say yes to.

Did you fear people would think directing was no longer a priority for you?

Yeah, it was something I was always fighting with at the beginning of my directing career. I was worried if I was acting that it would make it seem like I was not as serious of a director — and directing is such a difficult job and takes so much of you; I never wanted to take away from that. I also felt like if I failed, if I didn’t do a good job, then I was going to lose some credibility when I’m directing actors like Tom Hanks or Melissa McCarthy and I say, “Oh, well, I’m an actor, too. I know what this is like.” If then they saw me in something and I was terrible, it would be like I couldn’t use that anymore. I couldn’t have this cache as an actor turned director to help with my directing. So it felt like high risk, and could have possibly been low reward but ended up with high reward.

Now that the show has come out and the consensus is that your performance was, to say the least, not a failure, do you feel like it actually helps your directing career?

I think acting helps me as a director no matter what. There is something about being reminded about the vulnerability it takes to be an actor and what I’m really asking of actors every day when I’m on set as a director that I think it’s a really good reminder. It’s advice I always give to directors when they’re starting out: Take an acting class to really see what it feels like to be an actor. And I have always felt like one of my strengths as a director is that I share a language and a vocabulary with actors. So, in so many ways I feel like this project is going to help my future directing because it flexed those muscles that I hadn’t flexed in a long time and put me back into that position of what that feels like to be that vulnerable player in the band. It was also just really fun to not be in charge and not be the one responsible for everything that was happening.

Did you have to rein in directorial feedback at all and tell yourself, "No, this is Scott's show?"

Luckily, Scott and I are such close friends that he really included me in all parts of it and asked my advice all the time. But he also mercilessly teased me. There were lots of jokes on set of like, "How would Mari film this scene? How would Mari set up this camera?" But truthfully, I had to keep convincing him and the DP that I wasn’t backseat directing in my head, that I was just thrilled that I wasn’t the one who had to work out all of these problems. So if we were running behind and there was a scene that needed to be cut for the day in order to make the day, it was such a relief to me that I didn’t have to decide what scene had to be cut. But I know that there were times where it was nice for Scott to have another director on set to talk things through with, and we did do a lot of that. There were times when I could see that something had come up and wasn’t working and I could say, like, “OK, how do we solve it? Let me help.” And it made both of us think, like, “Wow, it would be so nice to have another director around always when you’re filming.” Because you really don’t have anyone to talk those things through with [normally].

Any scenes in particular come to mind as examples?

I remember a day where it was raining and we were supposed to film a scene outside. So we were trying to film it outside under a covering while it poured rain, and the language wasn’t working. I could see that he was sitting off in the corner, thinking in that way of like, “Something is not working, something is not working.” And I just sat next to him and said, “How can I help you solve this? What if I said this, what if I did this?” And we just worked out little shifts to the dialogue that helped make the scene make sense. So we did things like that a lot. Often he would take it if I said something seemed off. He would go “Oh shoot, I think you’re right. Something is off. Let’s try something else.” And every once in a while, I would be like, “If I was doing this, I would shoot it like this …” and he would go, “No, no. I’m shooting it like this.” And he was right. It’s his show, you know? That was the thing: At the end of the day it’s his show.

When the show came out, did you get a lot of feedback from other collaborators, like, "Oh shit, Marielle. We didn't know you could do this"?

Yeah, that’s been the general consensus. I've been hearing from a lot of the actors I've directed over the years going, "Oh my gosh, it's so fun to see you in front of the camera." I think all the actors I've worked with knew that I was an actor. Like, I get into the dirt with my actors and we figure out the rhythm of the scene and how it needs to sound and what the blocking is, the way you would with another actor. What I love about directing is the working with the actors. I ride my actors a little bit hard, so I'm sure there was a little bit of like, "All right, Mari, show me your stuff. You give us such a hard time, let's see how you do it."

In that sense, it sounds like there was a little more riding on it for you.

I did have this thought going through my head, which was that I needed to be the actor that I want every actor to be. I found myself having to be incredibly accommodating because I was trying to pay it forward in karma or something. So when Scott said, "How do you feel about cutting all your hair off for this part?" Well, I always want actors to cut their hair for my movies, so I was like, "OK, I have to say yes to this." And when he said, "I know you're not supposed to be in Berlin for a week, but it would really help my schedule if you could fly here today." I had to be like, "OK, I'll fly to Berlin today and film tomorrow." (Laughs.) That's the kind of flexibility [I'd want as a director]. I was trying to manifest the type of actors I want to work with.

When you initially read through the script, what drew you to Alma?

She was hard to figure out for me at first, and that's what I loved. I think, unfortunately, female characters tend to be written in really one-dimensional ways where you can sum them up in one sentence. Immediately, I had questions for Scott. How do you want the audience to feel about her? Do we like her, do we not like her? Do you want us to feel really trepidatious about her when we start and then warm to her? Is she manipulative or is she kind? Where is she coming from? He really didn't answer all my questions. He liked the ambiguity. I liked that challenge and that she was a complicated character and that we were not going to know how to feel about her.

What about her did you relate to?

I really connected to her pain. She's somebody who has these unfulfilled dreams. She had wanted to be a pianist but never was able to. She had wanted to be a mother but was locked in this loveless marriage. Watching Beth find her passion unlocks something in her, and she realizes she is not dead yet — and she decides to rejoin the world of the living. That was such a fun arc to get to play. I think Beth and Alma develop a true love and a relationship that is really meaningful. In many ways, they are the love of each other's lives.

Given the fact that you've had a successful creative career, was it difficult connecting with someone who has so many unfulfilled artistic dreams?

I think that is exactly what I related to her about. If I had been born in a different era, I wouldn't be able to be doing the things that I'm doing. I feel like I had this great benefit of when I made my first movie, the tides were starting to change within Hollywood. And I was so aware of the fact that I was standing on the shoulders of all the female directors who had come before me who had opened the door for me. But because I work in an industry where there are so few of us, I really can imagine what it's like to not be able to do my art, to not be able to fulfill my dream. That felt very accessible to me. It was also helped by the fact that every day I would have to show up on set at 4 a.m. to put my hair in single pin curls and sit under a dryer and then put on this girdle and hose and this mess of stuff that women had to do back then, which I feel so lucky that I don’t have to do. I roll out of bed and put my hair in a pony tail and go do my work. And I came home with this great appreciation every day saying to myself, “Oh my God, I am so glad I wasn’t a woman back then. I am not cut out for this. This is crazy!” So it was just a lesson about all of the things that I feel really grateful for in my own life.

You could’ve opted for a wig like Anya Taylor-Joy did.

You know, I could’ve and I should’ve, probably, because everyone thought I was wearing a wig anyway. And I cut off a good foot and a half of hair. But I donated it.

And next time you ask an actor to cut their hair, you can tell them you did it.

Exactly, I was just wanting to be that actor that I always want actors to be. And I also thought, “It’s just hair! It might be really freeing to just switch everything up," you know? And it was.

What was like be in Berlin for almost three months?

It was a joy. I had never spent any time in Berlin at all. My family came with me. We put my kid in school there and we lived in the little neighborhood. In hindsight, it was this wonderful adventure right before the world shut down. We just had the best time and really took full advantage of Germany. We went to naked spas. I don’t know if you know but in Germany they are really into naked spas.

Oh yeah?

Yeah, we didn’t actually know, but I turned 40 while I was there and my husband tried to plan a weekend away where we went to a spa. The whole website was in German, so he booked it and we took our 4-year-old son, and when we showed up and went to go out to the pool, we realized the whole thing was totally naked. Everyone is just sitting around the pool, entirely naked, and you’re not allowed to wear a bathing suit. So we looked at each other like, “Are we doing this?” And we just went for it. We embraced it and just got into the whole German way of being.

Anya Taylor-Joy has said that she would go out dancing after her night shoots sometimes, just to have a release from the role, but I think the naked spa might top that.

That’s the difference between Anya and me. The naked spa was my release.

Did you anticipate that a period drama about chess would receive this sort of attention?

No, and because Scott and I are friends, I saw so many early cuts and was able to give him my own thoughts. So I was involved in the post process and got to see the show come together, and I felt like it was really, really good. However, I also thought it was for a small audience. I don’t know, I just thought it was a show about chess, a period drama about chess, and I just couldn’t imagine that it was going to have this wide of an audience. It just didn’t even dawn on me.

Do you get recognized now?

It's funny, my kid started to take chess lessons back before the pandemic began, and then they obviously got shut down. But we were back in Brooklyn, where we live, and I heard a couple sitting out at an outdoor cafe saying, "Have you watched The Queen's Gambit yet?" And I turned around, thinking, "Oh my gosh, this is the one time in my life I might actually be recognized!" But, of course, I had a mask on, and they didn't recognize me. And then a few blocks later, we walked past the chess club where my kid had been taking lessons, and we saw his teacher out front putting out a sign. He'd drawn a picture of Anya, and the sign said, "Loved The Queen's Gambit? Come take chess lessons." We stopped, and he said hi to my kid, and I go, "You know, I'm in that show." And he was like, "Oh my God!" I just realized how much it was affecting the world of chess, how chess sets are impossible to get now and how everyone is signing up for Chess.com. I never could have anticipated any of that. It’s just crazy.

Were you into chess before The Queen’s Gambit?

No, I didn’t play chess prior to this and I still don’t play chess. (Laughs.) But my son and my husband are both learning and practicing. My husband keeps trying to play chess against Scott on Chess.com but he keeps losing. Scott is a good chess player. Scott and Steven [Meizler], our DP, would play chess on set. They would play with the props.

Lastly, how does this part fit into your overall career? Can we expect to see you onscreen more?

For me, it’s so much less about what my role is within a project and so much more about what the project is and how it speaks to the work I want to put out. In many ways, when I started writing, the way I justified not acting anymore was that I just wanted to make things and I didn’t care what I had to do to tell good stories. I’ll do whichever part of the job to do that. This felt like it fit in with the types of stories I want to tell in so many ways: the women I want to show onscreen in my own films, the exploring of human relationships and things that feel really tender and tough. So we will see. I can’t imagine I’m going to take a huge number of acting jobs because I have so many projects I want to direct. I joked with Scott that he can put me in something else in 10 more years. (Laughs.) Then I’ll say yes again.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in a January standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.