Aside from the 2018 short film Candace, Moses Ingram didn’t have a single credit to her name before being cast as Jolene in Netflix’s viewing sensation The Queen’s Gambit. Ingram brought enormous charisma to the role as Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) orphanage companion who shows up later in the series to provide Beth with the extra push she needs to face the outside world. Something tells me that, like Beth, we are going to be seeing a lot of Ingram in the future.
In our conversation, we talk about how she got her big break, what it was like to play Jolene as both a teen and an adult, and the special relationship Jolene and Beth have on film.
Awards Daily: How did you come to The Queen’s Gambit?
Moses Ingram: It came to me like everything else does – as an audition. I didn’t have a script or anything, I just had the lines. It was just easy language (to perform). I didn’t have to muscle it or try very hard. What was on the page, what I knew of Jolene is that she was a super dope person and I went with that. A couple weeks went by and then I met Scott (Frank), and then a couple weeks after that I got the offer.
AD: And then Queen’s turned out to be this record-breaking series for Netflix. What was it like to have your first big part blow up out of the gate like that?
MI: It’s so interesting. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely exceeded all of my expectations. And it’s strange, right? The way we are In the world right now, it feels like none of it is actually happening. If I’m on my phone or something, it’s like it’s happening, but If I’m not, it’s not happening at all. It’s super-exciting and very encouraging. I’m glad people have found it to be a comfort during this time.
AD:We first meet Jolene in the orphanage, and then there’s a gap until she reappears later as a full-grown woman. How did you approach both sides of the role and fill in that gap?
MI: That’s the biggest part of being an actor, whether it’s being onstage or onscreen, filling in the life that people don’t see. That way, when people do see you, they can connect you to the person before and the fully-formed human you meet later. I tried to give as many memories to Jolene as I could and sort of mining those for the older Jolene. It was a lot of fun to stretch in that way.
AD: When the younger Beth comes to the orphanage, you are kind of her mentor. It almost reminded me of a prison movie where a new inmate has someone take them under their wing.
MI: I think what’s important to remember is that Beth and Jolene are victims of the same system. I think Jolene thought of it less as mentoring but more of sharing the way in which she coped. I think they all have to develop ways to get past it and stay sane. And I think that’s what happens again when they are older. Jolene comes back and shows her a different way to cope. When you know better, you do better.
AD: You got to act across from both Isla Johnson as the younger Beth Harmon and Anya Taylor-Joy as the adult Beth. What was it like to work with two different actors playing the same character?
MI: Obviously they are different people, but because the writing is so fluid where Beth Harmon is always recognizable across both actors, it was very easy to jump right in and fall in place with Anya as the older Beth. And working with Anya is so great – she’s so cool. It wasn’t really like work. Isla too! She was such a little professional. They were both lovely to work with.
AD: Neither you nor Anya play your characters as victims despite the difficulty of their circumstances. I thought that was interesting. It would have been easy to go the other way with your performances.
MI: That wasn’t hard to do. If you decide to lay down and die, that’s it, that’s the end of the story. You’ve got to play to win – whatever winning is. You’ve got to keep moving toward that mark.
AD: When Jolene reappears in the back part of the series, she brings a certain energy with her. She’s blossomed from this tough young lady into this woman who has real confidence and knows how to make her way through the world. How did you approach her return?
MI: I grew up in a very non-diverse place. I was surrounded by people who look like me. For Jolene, at a young age, to be the only person who looked like her, that must do something to your psyche. To have black skin, to have black hair, to have no one around who knew how to do your hair. To have people who don’t know how to engage with you, or don’t want to. But then she leaves (the orphanage) and she’s embraced by a community that sees her and understands her – that’s a whole new world for Jolene. Even though it wasn’t seen onscreen, that’s the way I approached it. As someone who has newfound confidence in who they are and who they will be because they have self-awareness now.
AD: You can see that from the first second she shows back up onscreen – that newfound confidence. Just in her style even. Was that a lot of fun to come back to the character and be reintroduced with that vibe of empowerment?
MI: That was really fun. We shot those exterior scenes in Toronto and that was the first time I put on those clothes, drove the car, got out of the car, and walked to the door. It felt very…BOSS, very whip appeal. [Laughs]
AD: To me, Jolene represented the changing times and the cultural shift from the ’50s to the ’60s. Did you feel that?
MI: Yeah, one of the largest parts – if not the largest part – of the ’60s was the Civil Rights Movement. Black people were trying to get treated with more citizenship than they were, and had been – unfortunately, still to this day. I think it would have been a disservice to Jolene if she had not been a part of what was going on at that time. Especially if you look at her starting place versus where she ends up. I would have hated to see Jolene end up as some grey version of herself.
AD: Even with that movement, both you and Beth are still very much navigating through a man’s world. Which I felt register almost subliminally in some of the dialogue between the two of you.
MI: I think the assumption would be that because Jolene is Black, the boot of everything would be on her neck. But Jolene is very aware of what’s going on. They think they know what’s going on, but my boot is on their neck as opposed to being on mine. They think they are smarter than her, but they are not. Which is also one of the coolest things about Anya – she is very much superior (to the men she plays).
AD: About Jolene and Beth, this is a unique friendship between two women who have a shared experience, but very little in common as to their backgrounds. There’s a little bit of an odd couple thing going on.
MI: I think it’s so beautiful to see how they jump right back in like no time has passed. They were very dependent on each other, they needed each other. There’s something to those relationships where at a point in time, there was somebody who knew all the ins and outs and then, by some grace, you find each other again. Relationships like that are rare.
AD: We touched on Jolene’s style earlier, was it fun to get into those clothes?
MI: Oh, it was so fun. There’s something to costuming, you know? You do your inner work and then the last step of the process is to put on all the clothes and then go do the thing. It’s such a great informant of the time and who you are with how you move in the clothes. Automatically, your head is swiveling on your shoulders in a different way when you have this afro, these heavy boots, and these bell-bottoms. Who you become when you put on these clothes…it all paints such a vivid picture of the character and the times.
AD: I did want to ask you about what you have coming up next. Namely, playing Lady Macduff in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Macbeth with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Is there anything you can tell me about it at all that won’t get you into trouble? [Laughs]
MI: I can tell you people are doing absolutely amazing work. To be a part of it was astounding. I can only imagine what it will be like when people get to see it. It’s going to be dope.
AD: Do you feel at all like going from The Queen’s Gambit to the Coen Brothers, how much better could my career take off? [Laughs]
MI: Very much so. Being able to start in the way that I have…your brain definitely gets to talking. [Laughs] What are you going to do next? But it’s more important to be as present as possible moving into the next thing and keep putting your best foot forward, as you should.
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.