[Note: The following interview contains spoilers for the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.”]
It’s impossible to say for sure, but there’s a scene in “The Queen’s Gambit” where it seems Alma Wheatley is at her happiest. Giddy and in the arms of a new love in a Mexico hotel, she waves at her adopted daughter Beth from across the lobby.
Filming that scene was a bit of a whirlwind for the person playing her, too. Weeks after filming the performances that became the recently released “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Marielle Heller landed in Berlin and hours later was in costume and in character. After spending a majority of the last half-decade as a director of the films “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” that particular sequence as Alma was just one part of the front-of-camera switch-up she’d been looking for.
“When I said yes to doing ‘Queen’s Gambit,’ I was feeling burned out on directing and movie-wise wasn’t sure what my next big project was going to be. So I said yes to doing this very different type of project that required a different skill set from me, sort of just to shake things up, if anything,” Heller said in an interview with IndieWire. “The production designer [Uli Hanisch] is so talented. The sets and the costumes were incredible. It’s fun to look back with hindsight now and realize that it was sort of a last hurrah before our major shutdown. I look back on it and think, ‘Oh my gosh, how wonderful that was to get to go have a last adventure.'”
Part of what makes Alma such a compelling character in this series is the way that Heller uses audience expectations. For about half of “The Queen’s Gambit,” Alma tries her best to be a mother for Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), the up-and-coming chess sensation trying to juggle her potential and her present. So often in stories about prodigies, this sort of dynamic reverts to an overbearing parental figure taking out their pent-up anger and frustration on the talented youngster in their care.
That gets flipped right from Alma’s introduction. When she and her husband arrive at the institution where a young Beth is being raised, there is an element of Alma keeping up a happy housewife facade. Still, Heller brings a warmth to the character that might not be obvious at first, but starts to assuage some of the fears that Beth’s new home might be a dangerous one.
“There’s a sweet nervousness to the whole thing. I think Alma doesn’t know how to interact with children. There’s such a formality to her and she’s so locked in this loveless marriage and feels so constrained by her life in so many ways. It was a lot to try to get across pretty quickly,” Heller said.
A majority of Heller’s screentime in “The Queen’s Gambit” comes alongside Taylor-Joy as Alma and Beth travel from their Kentucky home to far-flung chess tournaments. There’s a certain gracefulness in how series director Scott Frank writes Alma that defies any stage mom trope, and the on-screen give-and-take between Heller and Taylor-Joy makes sure that there’s a meeting in the middle for these two women.
“Part of what I loved on the page about the role was this relationship, which I found really complicated and hard to understand at first. I liked the way it built, that the relationship wasn’t easily won, that it took a lot of work to get to a place where the two women trusted each other,” Heller said. “They’re like feral animals who have both been in isolation and then suddenly are forced to live with the other person and are like sniffing each other out for so long before they decide to really trust each other. And I thought that would be fun challenge to play, to get to really build a relationship in that way.”
Filmmaking can be an intimidating cerebral balancing act. For the challenge of playing Alma, Heller didn’t want the clarity of Alma’s evolution to get overpowered by overthinking. The audience comes to understand how much Alma’s drinking is a constant presence in her life — in playing that, though, Heller never lets it pull focus. It becomes part of what Alma and Beth ultimately share, without ever having the overly physical breakdown that usually goes hand-in-hand with portrayals of alcoholism.
“Playing intoxicated is such a tricky thing. And it’s so often done terribly. I think it’s sort of a pet peeve of mine as a director: If somebody has to be intoxicated, I need them to do it really well. I dealt with it a lot on ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ and had two actors who were really good at it,” Heller said. “I tried not to harp on it too much with my thinking about the role because I didn’t want to get in my head about it. If you’re thinking about playing drunk, you’re in trouble. It’s much more about letting yourself be emotionally present. Maybe letting your muscles loosen up in different ways. Alma’s drinking through the whole thing, but she goes from being so tightly wound to much more loose. So it was more about the bigger emotional arc that I was thinking about.”
That journey often means playing two ideas at the same time. Alma comes to be both a confidant and a guide. She protects Beth by encouraging her to pursue life beyond the game she knows so well. Heller responded to the show’s tiny moments of levity, when Alma cuts against what you might expect a mother in the late 1960s to want for and from her daughter.
“It’s so much more true to life to have these sort of unexpected reactions and it told me a lot about who she is as a woman deep down, almost looking at her younger self. Who she could have been, who she would have been in a different world in a different time,” Heller said. “There’s something so interesting about the generational pull between the two characters, because Beth is able to do things that Alma never was. She’s at once jealous and also loves it for Beth. She’s living vicariously through her and also can say, ‘I never got that.'”
Just as her introductory scene avoids a stereotypical entrance, there’s a certain kind of grace in how Alma exits the story. A lesser show would have everything but a neon sign telling Beth that she needs to appreciate Alma while she’s still alive. One of their final hotel room scenes captures these characters’ tender understanding of each other without telegraphing the tragedy that’s just around the corner.
“That was our biggest worry throughout, whether it was going to be too obvious. You never want to be playing any of those notes in too heavy a way or lean in too hard. You want to feel like it’s all done with a light touch, so you’re allowed to be surprised when things go a different way,” Heller said. “There’s a really sweet moment that we found toward the end, when Alma comes in late at night and Beth’s asleep and she says, ‘You can turn on the light.’ I ended up lying my head on her hip. It was a scene that had one tone in the script, where it was much more telegraphing that Alma was sick. The crux of the scene ends up being this mother-daughter switch where suddenly Alma’s lying her head in Beth’s lap, and she’s caring for her in this very sweet way. And that scene weirdly became something new when we were playing it than I think it was on the on the page. It really helped end our relationship in a very sweet way.”
With her first three features, Heller found a way to make stories set in the past speak to the current moment. Of her two most recent projects, that connection is more explicit in “What the Constitution Means to Me” than “The Queen’s Gambit,” but both are bridges to understanding both the changes and consistencies in American life over the past half-century. Though there are plenty of variables facing any artist over the coming months, Heller said that she’s not sure where her recent work might lead her next.
“I don’t think I would have made ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ had Trump not been president. I felt so desperately like we needed to see a model of masculinity that was kind and loving and emotional, and could be the antidote to this president that we had. I similarly don’t think I would have felt like making ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ had we not had Obama at that time. It was like there was this safety net, where I felt like I could rebel and tell this certain type of story,” Heller said. “So I feel like there’s a certain wait-and-see moment happening right now where we need to see where our country is heading in the next four years to see what type of art we want and need. Sometimes we need pure relief. Sometimes we need pure escapism. Sometimes we need major reflection on some aspects of our collective unconscious. I just don’t know what it’s going to be right now.”
“The Queen’s Gambit” is available to stream on Netflix.
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