The Queen's Gambit, currently streaming on Netflix, highlights the thrill, thinking, and strategic world of competitive chess. Thomas Sangster plays the role of Benny Watts, a New Yorker who's mind is as sharp as his chess skills. Thomas sat down with MOOD to discuss his preparation for learning what goes into competitive chess, acting alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, and the complex issues the show presents.
Photography: Joseph Sinclair
Hair: Kieron Webb @The London Barber
Styling: Krishan Parmar
Makeup: Maria McKenna using Burts Bees
Thomas wears a full look by Scotch & Soda
Hey Thomas! Thank you for giving us time from your day to speak with us. Congratulations on your role in the Queen's Gambit, where you portray the role of Benny Watts! The show successfully highlights an intense side of chess that viewers probably wouldn't think about. Tell us about the development of your character and the research you had to do involving chess.
The shoot was a wonderful and fascinating insight into the world of professional chess. But the truth is that it would have taken far too long and be an impossible challenge to try and truly understand the complex nature of every game. What we did instead, was to focus on the physical aesthetics and dynamics of moving and taking pieces around the board. We had some great players from around the world who helped us try to look like we knew what we were doing. I got to work with a wonderful master of the game called Bruce Pandolfini who helped me play with the confidence that would match the style of my character. Benny is sharp, quick, and confident when he plays and although his appearance is not that of a typical chess champion, his game and style was based on the great Bobby Fisher. A lot of the games played in the show are real games taken from history. The level of detail given to getting the chess "right" in The Queen’s Gambit was quite incredible.
Did you expect that the series would be as intense and have viewers on the edge of their seats?
Well yes. That is what we always strive for. This was present when reading the script too. Starting with a good script and getting the story right is the key to making a great project. It’s not always a certainty that it translates to the final cut though. You need a lot of talented people and a space for them to be creative to best achieve the goal of making a quality product.
Speaking of expectations vs reality, people assume prodigies, whether it's for chess or anything else, are intelligent and expect them to be perfect. The show's characters display that to be very untrue because they have to face their demons. Throughout the series, themes of addiction, obsession, and self-destruction show how they can negatively change a person. When you first read the script what were your thoughts on all these heavy topics the characters have to face, and that you had to act out in front of a camera?
There is no enemy in this story. Everyone around Beth is, for the most part, trying to help, aid, or guide her. The bad guy here is the most terrifying of all baddies. The devils that live within the mind. I loved how the script dealt with this complex yet very relatable issue of insecurity and self-destruction from within a mind that is also one of immense talent and capability. This is a very human trait.
To someone who doesn't play chess regularly, or even at all, the terminology of the game is like hearing another language. What were the biggest challenges while acting out line after line after line of chess moves and strategies made by your character?
Having to learn 10, 12, or 15 moves on top of learning lines and hitting marks, etc. was certainly a bit of a challenge but I enjoyed that. Especially the speed chess scenes! Anya and I would just try to go as fast as we possibly could and I think we both enjoyed that challenge. The hardest for me was a scene where I’m driving Beth in a lovely little 60’s VW Beetle whilst playing a game in our minds. Having to call out the piece and square you intend to move to make it very hard to learn as lines. It's basically code and so has no natural rhythm or flow to it, and of course, there is no room for paraphrasing.
When working on scenes with Anya Taylor-Joy, what was the process involved in making the scenes between you two appear genuinely believable?
I don’t know entirely. It's down to natural chemistry, respect for one another, and having the opportunity to experiment within the scene. I think a bit of magic is involved too. Once you get to know each other and see how each other works, it gets easier to jump into a given scenario together. This dynamic is always interesting to me. I really enjoyed working in scenes together with Anya and think that she is a fantastic actor.
The premise of the show is a woman competing against the best of the best in a competition scene dominated by men. Your character, Benny, does everything in his power to help Beth do the best she possibly can. In your opinion what lesson can be learned from The Queen's Gambit when it comes to supporting someone who defies society's expectations of who can and can't succeed?
Having a story where somebody defies the odds and challenges the norms of society is a great way to bring attention to something quite difficult to analyze. I think talking about issues like this is healthy, and hopefully encourages people to strive forward with confidence in who they are and what they can offer. I’m glad to be a part of a show that highlights the importance of the self and also how vital the love and support of others is to us. Being open to ourselves and to others is how we can achieve greatness and happiness.
The show goes beyond chess and it emphasizes at times that all these chess prodigies were children when they started their professional careers. There are lots of pressures that come with the talent and privilege of being able to start a career so early, and The Queen's Gambit demonstrates how easy it can be to give in to one's vices as a way to escape them. When it comes to your career, you got an early start and you have many credits to your name thus far. What has been the biggest pressure of growing up with cameras in your face and the fame that comes with it?
Initially, fame was very exciting. People know you, or at least think they do, and everyone is very friendly towards you. There are the obvious negative sides of loss of personal space and alienation from others around you but what I find to be the most disturbing aspect of fame is how important people think is. There really are far more important and pressing issues to talk about. There is an obsession towards fame and celebrity which is pushed and utilized by the media to promote and sell things to people. I accept that this is a part of how the industry works, but I feel that with the intent of social media that this is reaching a level of instigated obsession which is far from healthy. Being a part of the catalyst of this large-scale money-making, obsession driven world of selling a lifestyle which doesn’t really exist frustrates me sometimes and that is what I am barely present on social media and try to keep myself quite private in general. Fame is a weird thing but it’s not all bad and can be used to do much good.
Coming from a point of view where you've had a spotlight on you for a long time, how do you view fame now versus when you were a child or even a young adult?
Delving into a world and a character and being a part of a collaborative effort to bring that world to life is hugely satisfying for me. When people watch something and are able to escape into our world and relate to it then I know we have done a good job. This too is very satisfying. Having a job where I get to have fun in a process of discovery and then for that to be entertaining for an audience is why I love what I do.
You have posted that you celebrate the education and communication of social media. How do you plan to use your platform?
I am not quite sure how to do this most effectively yet. I simply see that this is an effective tool that is hugely popular and I should probably be a part of it in some way. The interesting thing about social media to me is that it is basically a primitive version of a hive mind or mass consciousness. It is a platform that enables people from all over the world to communicate together as one. This means that it is hugely powerful and is changing how we think about society. It can be a bad thing and a great thing. It just requires respect.
What is the most significant thing you have learned about yourself and the world this year?
I think there are many lessons learnt and still to be learnt from this intriguing and bizarre year. One big one for me is how important other people are to me and also how important I am to others. Humans love being around one another to bounce ideas, thoughts, and feelings off of. We are social creatures. Having to practice distancing myself has made me aware of who I really love and how paramount they are to me.