Over the last several years, few actors have turned up in high quality projects with the frequency of Bill Camp. After thirty years as an actor on screen and on stage, Camp has been on a career roll that arguably started with The Night Of in 2016 and has continued into the new decade. Hostiles, Molly’s Game, Wildlife, The Looming Tower, Vice, Joker, Dark Waters, and The Outsider are just a few of the productions that have been made better thanks to his performance in each.
Now, with The Queen’s Gambit, Camp has become a part of a true phenomenon, and his pivotal role as Mr. Shaibel is a significant reason why the limited series has become so beloved. In our discussion, we talk about the contained approach he took to playing a man of few words, how good teachers can change lives, and how Mr.Shaibel might have felt about not getting his ten dollars back.
Awards Daily: What drew you to The Queen’s Gambit?
Bill Camp: I’m a big fan of Scott (Frank), and when he offered the role to me it was a no-brainer when I read what I was given and then read the novel. It was a very easy decision. I didn’t need to be drawn to it, I ran to it.
AD: When you talk about reading your part in the script, it’s notable how few lines your character has. How did you approach playing a character of such significance who is so economical with words?
BC: Economy really interests me. Containment really interests me. I think Mr. Shaibel has a mystery to him because of his lack of words – only saying what’s important. He’s also a person who spends a lot of time alone, doing his job, but also in the basement playing chess. Chess itself is a game where there is no (spoken) dialogue – the dialogue happens between the two players on the board. In terms of my approach, it is a challenge I embraced because I find that (restraint) fascinating. To tell a story about a character like that and make the audience lean into him with curiosity, even though there’s very little indication or showing too much (of the character), I find that to be a great opportunity as an actor – to make a lot out of very little.
AD: I thought your performance here brought to mind your work as Detective Box in The Night Of. While Box and Shaibel are very different people in many ways, they both move through their respective worlds almost like a ghost. Was your experience playing Box useful on The Queen’s Gambit?
BC: That’s just one of the roles that I’ve played where that’s been an element of the character. I’m also just interested in moving through the world that way myself. There’s a lot of observation that goes on with those two characters. They are observing and investigating, they’re not distracting themselves with too much drama – they keep their lives very simple and deal with the task at hand. There’s definitely a certain quality in those two guys that I was able to access. There’s something fascinating to me about that ghost-like quality and the element of containment that says a lot more about this human being than telling too much.
AD: It’s not hard to envision a version of The Queen’s Gambit that would lean so heavily into this underdog story and become overly uplifting and sentimental. I think Mr. Shaibel is a good example of the choices the series made not to go in that direction. Shaibel cares for Beth, but he, and you, never go for the easy emotional beats.
BC: I don’t really want to take any credit for that because that was the character as written – at least the way I gleaned it off the page. He was described as someone who was hard to approach. She had to slowly move into his orbit, and be allowed in. There was not a lot of emotion in his welcoming of her, or in terms of what that relationship was in the beginning. It was very much teacher-student and the chessboard. He was always that way to me as I read the script and the book – Shaibel was not a sentimental human being. He was not going to show a lot of emotion, especially with an orphan in the orphanage. That’s dangerous ground to get into and I think he was smart about doing that. We don’t know anything about his past, right? So we have to sort of figure him out and why he is the way he is. I’m not going to reveal the things I had in mind. [Laughs]
Certain things are sacred, I’ve learned over the years. There was a backstory that Scott and I talked about that I would play with in my mind. But you have to give Scott a lot of that credit for the restraint. He has such a great eye and such a great instinct as a director about how to tell a story without crossing over into sentimentality. Even if I had gotten indulgent and started to move in that direction, he wouldn’t have let me. It’s more interesting to me that the relationship between those two characters, their conversation, takes place over the chessboard and through their eyes.
AD: When you talk about Scott not letting you get too far afield with your performance, it reminds me of that story about Omar Sharif making Dr. Zhivago and telling David Lean that I’m not doing anything on camera, and Lean’s direction was to do even less. And when Sharif saw the finished film, he wished he had done even less that he had.
BC: [Laughs] That’s just part of what I love about the job. As I do more, I learn more and I really do discover that less is more. I know that sounds very cliché, but it is, it’s just true – especially on camera. On stage in a three-dimensional atmosphere, or in a different genre, it may not be as interesting, but for my buck, it’s always more engaging to do less. When I think about the people in my life and the what I can remember about the people I knew as a child and during my adolescence, it’s not the bigger than life behaviorists that come to mind. It’s the people that were more mysterious and ambiguous that were more interesting to me. They made me want to dig more. Like David Lean said, ‘Do less.’ That’s a mantra that goes through my mind when I’m working, Rarely do I look back at something I’ve done and think I wish I would have done more. [Laughs] It’s less of a challenge to do more. It’s more of a challenge to bring it way, way down, but make the landscape of it very wide. If that makes sense.
AD: Anya Taylor-Joy has gotten a lot of well-deserved credit for her performance as Beth, but I though Isla Johnson as the young Beth was pretty remarkable. You had most of your scenes with Isla and she really matched the sort of minimalism you were bringing to your performance. She seemed self-aware in the best way.
BC: That’s absolutely right. She was incredible. She was so easy to play with because what you just spoke of, her own intensity and intelligence and her presence – she was always so aware and present. She was never distracted. She always knew what she was doing and what was happening between those two characters in the moment. It was all just amazingly honest. That character’s story as a young girl…it was foundational what she did for the whole story. She’s also just a lovely young woman and very fun while being self-assured. She made it very easy for me because we were both in the same pocket, so to speak. Her character had a very clear objective, I want to learn this game from this old guy and I’m not going to let him deny me that. She knew she needed it instinctually. I’m not sure she could articulate why, but she was so fierce in her desire to learn and know the game.
AD: Speaking of the game, did you have any interest in chess before this?
BC: I played chess 1st grade through 4th grade pretty regularly. I had three friends, and it was one of the activities that bonded us. I was always losing to the other guys, but I learned. Then I didn’t really play that much until my son started to play maybe ten years ago. It was part of his curriculum in school. I bought him a chess set over on Thompson Street in the West Village where I used to go and watch people play back in the mid-’80s when I first moved to New York. I definitely had interest and knew how to play. Then (in preparation) I got to go to (chess teacher) Bruce Gandolfini’s house on the upper west side and sit in his kitchen and listen to his stories and really learn the game from a master. So, we knew what we were doing even though we weren’t playing whole games.
AD: I spoke to (Gambit producer) William Horberg about the challenge of making chess compelling for a general viewing audience, and he told me that they tried to make each game its own entity, so that each match was individualized, and that the moves on the board were not necessarily as important as the psychological underpinnings for the characters taking part in each game.
BC: Which is why it was important that we also knew as individuals and as players what our moves were and what the objectives of the moves were. That would apply to the psychology, to what was going on in our minds. You have to show what each player is thinking in terms of their relationship with the board and the other person they are playing against. It heightens the suspense of the match. What (cinematographer) Steven Meizler did with each of those games in terms of how they were shot was really remarkable. It’s amazing how that tension was sustained and elevated for every game – even the speed games that they played. That’s a testimony to Bruce teaching each of us what was behind each move. We weren’t just moving pieces around on the battlefield. We knew our strategy while we were trying to figure out the other person’s strategy. Without the knowledge of that, you can’t apply the psychology. I love those scenes where Isla is trying to figure out what he’s doing, or how to get out of that mate that he’s put her in. When he tells her that she has to resign and she refuses, the ways she looks at the board and thinks there must some way out of this, there must be! [Laughs] The investigation that she’s doing in her mind, her piercing eyes looking at the board. I love that.
AD: I loved that the show was patient enough to just show characters thinking, to let you see their gears grinding. You don’t see that all that often.
BC: No, not at all. That kind of character, Shaibel, Box, to play people like them, that kind of opportunity I will embrace in a minute. Because you don’t often get that. That’s why it’s such a cool thing, such a challenge.
AD: My wife has demanded that I ask this question. How do you think Mr. Shaibel felt about not getting back his ten dollars?
AD: It’s a big deal in my house!
BC: [Laughs] Is it really?
BC: I don’t think he ever thought he’d get the ten dollars back in the first place. I think he admired her promising to send it back, but it wasn’t about the ten dollars for him. A lot of people have said to me, she never gave you back the money! [Laughs]
AD: It’s almost like people see that as her greatest character flaw!
BC: [Laughs] Right! Maybe that’s just my forgiving attitude as Bill. I think it says something that the money didn’t come as a ten dollar bill. I think it was a five and five ones. Still, I don’t think he was grinding his teeth over not getting the ten bucks back. I think he was happy that he could be there for her and support her astonishing talent. He opened the door for her and I think any continuity he could provide her to still do that he welcomed. When one is a teacher in a forum that inspires a person to pursue a line of education, whether it’s as an apprentice or in academics, there’s a legacy there – the passing on of knowledge. I think it’s a really noble thing to do.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.