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Harry Melling has had a big year. He was seen onscreen as an ambitious pharmaceutical CEO (The Old Guard), a Southern preacher with a twisted relationship with spiders (The Devil All the Time) and now, a chess champion in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. The series stars Anya Taylor-Joy as orphaned chess prodigy Beth, with Melling playing Harry Beltik, the Kentucky champ.
For Melling, the role was his first introduction into the world of chess and saw him train under famed coach Bruce Pandolfini, who taught the cast how to move the pieces with purpose.
“There is actually quite a variation of how you move the piece really does tell a story. Not only of how you are doing in the game, but also who the player is as well. All of that stuff was fascinating to get your teeth into,” says Melling.
With The Queen’s Gambit, the actor relished the opportunity to play in the sandbox created by writer-director Scott Frank, known for his work on Godless and Logan.
“You have such a scope to play with in terms of where he starts and where he finishes in the later episodes,” Melling says of how Frank crafted his character.
The actor came of age working in the Harry Potter films, where he played Dudley Dursley, bullying cousin to Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry. In the years since, he’s attended drama school, written a play, and focused on character roles that are a far cry from his time as a child actor.
“The Old Guard — I tried to get videos of pharmaceutical companies with very young CEOs of companies. I wanted to try and hone in how their brain operated and what made them tick,” says Melling or his preparation process. “With Roy in Devil All the Time, it was focusing in on these preachers back in the day. How they would preach. I would watch lots of videos Antonio Campos, the director, sent me through of these preachers handling snakes.”
If Dudley Dursley defined Melling’s early career, the role of The Artist in The Coen brothers’ 2018 film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may be a high water mark of his adult career so far. The haunting performance saw him team up with Liam Neeson, whose The Impresario makes a fateful decision at the end of their story.
“He’s so nuanced and subtle and at ease,” says Melling of working with Neeson. “And one moment will be incredibly funny singing an Irish song, and the next moment can be considering what he considers doing at the end of our episode.”
Melling sees similarities between working with the Coens on Buster Scruggs and Frank on The Queen’s Gambit.
“They are very specific about what needs to be in the frame, and also the specifics in the particular thing that they need to achieve in this moment,” says Melling.
Melling notes that his own journey as an actor helped fuel some of his motivations for Queen’s Gambit‘s Beltick — a character who has his ups and downs, just like any actor would.
“There’s all of that experience to draw off — jobs that went another way that you thought maybe you gave a really go at,” says Melling.
He also notes that living through the novel coronavirus pandemic has made him assess what is important in life, just as Beltick questions his focus after encountering Taylor-Joy’s Beth.
“Beth comes in and bursts his bubble very quickly, not only in his understanding of his own game, but in his understanding of his life,” says Meling. “That is a really interesting journey to go on.”
The Queen’s Gambit is streaming now on Netflix.
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