While The Queen’s Gambit is about the art and skill of chess, the relationships between these players tug at the viewers’ emotions in surprising ways. As they move pieces across the board, the intimacy between the players grows in near silence. Harry Melling’s Harry Beltik underestimates Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon on multiple fronts, but his character never thought that he would yearn so much over a chess opponent.
Melling doesn’t make Harry Beltik pathetic or too lovelorn–he has way too much respect for his character. He hides his feelings behind his professionalism and his keen skill of the game, and Melling pointed out how he appreciated creator Scott Frank’s ability to parallel the game with the emotional journey of Gambit‘s characters. a Beth wouldn’t go for that kind of simp anyway.
What Melling builds off camera and brings to later episodes is what makes Beltik such a compelling character. His passion for the game of chess has waned significantly despite his earnest offer to help Beth improve her game. Beltik wants to inform Beth of the history of the game, and we can almost find his own professional career in a book about the sport. He may have fallen out of love with chess, but where Harry Beltik lands is much more satisfying than any championship.
Awards Daily: How did you determine Harry’s playing style? I imagine, much like an athlete, a chess player would have a definitive way that he or she would play. Is that something you discussed?
Harry Melling: Absolutely. To start off with, I didn’t know how to play chess when the brilliant Scott Frank asked me to do it. I started from scratch in that regard. I really wanted to make sure–and I think Scott felt this way too–that every character had a definitive way of playing. They may have certain ways that they move the pieces. We worked with this chess coach named Bruce Pandolfini to work through how Harry Beltik would move the pieces around. We were advised to maybe to look at a particular chess player to base the movements, and I chose Magnus Carlsen. He was my go-to man, and we built up a style from there. I had an idea of how he would do it.
AD: That’s so cool.
HM: I remember being very obsessed with the angle of how he would handle the pieces. It’s a very kind of vertical to them and how he moved them. It gave him a nimbleness and an elegance and a delicacy that would be in keeping to who Harry was. Later in the series we get a sense of his honesty and his honor so that made sense in that style for me. I remember one time that I was practicing with Bruce and I smashed the clock with one of the pieces. He said to me, ‘Is that a Harry move?’ I had to think about that and I thought it was too aggressive for Harry. That was certainly a joy with having to work out who he was. That was a nice stepping stone to get me going.
AD: That has to be an interesting way to build the character, especially because everyone plays chess in silence. You have to establish the character with just moving a specific part of your body.
HM: That was one of the joys. Sometimes we are dictated by how these characters sound and how they move bit this was a nice introduction to these characters. It really did inform so much. I remember one time I had my pinky finger would be dangling down almost like it didn’t want to be there. Just those little details.
AD: I kept thinking about how close these players are, and I was curious if you were conscious about the intimacy. You’re about a foot and a half away from your opponent and you’re intellectually vulnerable, especially since you have a big crowd watching you. It’s almost voyeuristic.
HM: It’s incredibly intense to play a game of chess. You’re literally inside the other person’s head trying to work out what moves they are going to make. Where are they? Where are they going to be? That’s very true to what Harry and Beth experience when Harry goes back to help her with the house. I think Scott’s genius is investing the game of chess with emotion. For some people, that’s quite an extraordinary hook. I tell people that I’m doing a series about chess and they roll their eyes. It’s like, ‘No, no, it’s not what you think.’ It’s an intense game, and I thought it was clever how the themes of the game cross the themes of the story.
AD: I recommended the show to someone, and he said that he wasn’t into chess. I told him, ‘It’s about chess, but it’s not about chess.’
HM: That’s the pitch, isn’t it? When Scott explained the story to me, he did say that chess was secondary thing in the story. It’s about how these people communicate. These chess players are extraordinary characters. The players we met were so intense and it’s an addictive world to be in. It makes for fascinating characters and fascinating choices for actors to plug into.
AD: One of the first times that we see Harry Beltik, he comes in very late with a cup of coffee before he is to play Beth in one of her first tournaments. There is a lot of talk, especially from the other young men, about how she is a girl. People write her off immediately, but I wanted to know what Harry’s impression of her is. You play it so cool.
HM: I don’t think she’s a threat at all. My stance is that this is his arena. We are in Kentucky–his turf–and he’s there to get his trophy back. Whether Beth is a girl or a boy doesn’t matter. That’s when he sees her, I don’t think he really even takes it in that she’s a girl. He’s trying to intimidate her and then he realizes she’s quite talent. That bubble gets burst very quickly and not just in terms of his game. His whole outlook on how he sees himself is punctured by this other human being. There’s a few years before we see him again, but seeing him deflated in that arena is something that is the fuel that takes him on the rest of the journey on the series. He’s trying to understand who this person is and who he is as well. When he first sees her, she’s an opponent to be beaten.
AD: You do say, ‘I can get out of this’ and she strikes it down by just saying, ‘No, you can’t’ before getting up and walking away. Harry looks almost impressed with her.
HM: Oh, yeah.
AD: We see your character evolving right there in a matter of seconds.
HM: He really isn’t expecting to lose. He really isn’t. It’s an out-of-body experience, and he’s one of those people thinking, ‘Wow! Who is she?’ It is complete shock and amazement that she undoes him.
AD: Do you think Harry ever considered being a mentor before Beth came along? I was wondering how easy that might be for him.
HM: It’s really interesting. I don’t question his intentions for wanting to mentor her. I do believe he genuinely wants to improve her game and he believes that if she knows more about the history of the game, it will make her better. There is, maybe not consciously, another agenda. He knows that he needs to reengage with her. He needs to know what happened in Kentucky and who he is and what is going on between them. Mentoring is something he wants to do but there is a whole lot of things wrapped in the guise of that. Later on, he realizes that he’s in love with this girl. That’s why he’s there. There is that very moving moment when he realizes that he’s not wanted and she needs to help herself.
AD: When you come back in the second half, Harry’s earnestness is very effective. He basically tells her that he is there if she decides she wants it.
HM: Thank you. It is this collision of all these things. There is such honor to have but there is so much confusion. This awkward feeling when you’re young and falling for someone. Where do I stand? What do I do? All of that tension was there in Scott’s writing.
AD: You get the thing you want but you don’t know what to do once you get it.
HM: Exactly. Yes.
AD: Do you think Harry might play chess or himself for the remainder of his life?
HM: That’s a good question. I don’t think a lot. There’s something about re-evaluating his life after meeting Beth…and he’s not a scratch to her. That’s a pretty huge pill to take, and that’s any profession. You can apply that to anything. Often when you go back to the thing that you consider a first love or choice of occupation it’s always a painful experience. You always think about how your life didn’t turn out the way you thought it would. I think he plays chess on very rare occasions. He’s moved on. He’s very happy with his lot and that makes him very content. Harry doesn’t reach for it as much. There’s something odd about him reaching beyond who he authentically is. By the end, he is his authentic self.
AD: You do say that you like working at the grocery store, and it makes us think that he happier than he expected to be.
HM: Absolutely. This journey from being this plucky kid to being happy is a lovely arc to go on.
The Queen’s Gambit is streaming now on Netflix.