Benny Watts grabs your attention the first time you see him. Thomas Brodie-Sangster has always had a youthful face, but there is something very performative about Benny’s presence. With his large-brimmed hat and his long, flowing, dark coat, he piques your interest because he seems like a boy playing the part of a man. He’s cocky, but he holds the chess playing skills to back it up. Every time Brodie-Sangster is on screen, he leaves you wanting more.
In The Queen’s Gambit, Anya Taylor-Joy has two male mentors, Harry Melling’s Harry and Brodie-Sangster’s Benny. Melling is the more obviously smitten of the two young men, but Benny does a better job of keeping his feelings at bay. He’s better at covering them. After he and Beth end up in bed together, his chess-obsessed mind can’t stop thinking about rooks and pawns.
Brodie-Sangster has quite literally been growing up in front of our eyes, but his performance in Gambit is so much more than an arrogant prodigy. This is a relationship where Benny has to look beyond his own career to allow someone else to succeed. Benny is taken by Beth’s talent and her guile but he never anticipated that she would have such a lasting impact on him.
Awards Daily: Is Benny a rock star?
Thomas Brodie-Sangster: Yes. He’s a rock star of chess.
AD: That’s great.
TBS: When I first got the role, I was trying to figure him out, and I made a playlist on Spotify.
AD: Oh yeah?
TBS: I think some of the best music was from the ’60s. I was trying to imagine what his dingy basement apartment what would be like and what records he would have. He’s part of the New York scene and that was all about the underground art scene. He sees himself as part of that crowd–whether he is part of that crowd I don’t know. But certainly in the chess world, he views himself that way. He puts on that demeanor.
AD: The clothes he wears play into that. In your first scene, I think we see the brim of the hat before we see your face and you wear that long coat. How does Benny’s physical appearance protect him and does he use that as an armor?
TBS: He likes style and he’s always wearing those clothes. He’s a competitor and an oddball kind of like Beth but in a completely different way. You used the world ‘armor’ and I think that’s quite a good word. That is his shield him to go into battle really. I think he steps into a room and he’s intimidating by the confidence that he exudes and that does not fit the image of a chess champion at all. I think he slightly gets off on that and it unsettles his opponent to disarm.
AD: Benny sometimes picks up pieces and hits the clock with them. Did you emulate a specific style when you were playing?
TBS: I didn’t base it on anyone in particular. We had some fabulous gurus of chess working with us and we had sessions where we would just move pieces around. These people have been playing chess for years and years, and we even worked on looking confident while we played. We spent ages just taking pieces and hitting the clock and scribbling notes down–it’s a pattern. So I was trying to figure out my own style with it. I know my games in the show were kind of based on Bobby Fischer’s games and his style a bit, but Benny is very much his own person. You figure out your own way.
AD: Ahh, that makes sense.
TBS: I wore a lot of rings in the show, and that weighed down my fingers a bit. So I found I was doing these little flicky things just naturally and I ended up using my ring finger a lot. That slowly started to develop and I got more comfortable moving the pieces around. It would also depend on what kind of board we were playing on. A nice wooden board would be different than a horrible plastic one. The weight of it really made a difference. It was a fun thing to play around with, but they were very encouraging in us developing a sense of style.
AD: I asked Harry [Melling] about the intimacy of the game.
TBS: Oh yeah?
AD: Yeah, because you don’t talk to one another while you play. You’re trying to outwit each other just by moving pieces around and people are watching you do it.
TBS: I think Benny is fascinated by how people work and what little insecurities they may be harboring. He’s incredible confident but I’m sure he has his own insecurities. Benny is very comfortable with himself generally so I think he gets off on watching people squirm. He uses that to defeat them really. Benny loves to study other people, and when you are that close, you are either looking at the chess pieces, their chess pieces or them. When you get to that higher level, you get more of a crowd so there is a level of performance. I think that’s why he dresses like he does. He’s going on stage to do his thing.
AD: When Benny and Beth meet at the tournament at the university–I think it’s in episode five–Benny seems a little disappointed in the quality of the event. That made me think about how much he is performing for a crowd.
TBS: It’s the ego really. He just wants to win and I will say that chess players hate to lose. Anyone who plays anything despises losing, I suspect. I’m a big fan of motor racing and a lot of them say that second place is the first place of the losers. Benny would try hard to win in any circumstance but I think he loves the buzz he gets from a crowd and showing off the skills he’s honed.
AD: How surprised is Benny when Beth hits on him? She sort of flirtatiously moves Benny’s hair out of his face and later on in the same conversation he tells her that they aren’t having sex.
TBS: Perhaps. In that scene, he’s more frustrated because he’s trying to make a point and she’s not listening to it. He’ll certainly take the compliment.
AD: And Benny would think, ‘Why wouldn’t she hit on me?’
AD: How concerned is Benny concerned with Beth’s drinking? Is it more that she might mess up her game? I think you only make two comments about it even though she is pretty open about how much she drinks?
TBS: When you first meet him, he’s this cocky, arrogant guy, but as the series progresses you realize how much he actually does care about her. He genuinely sees the raw talent within Beth and her potential to go far. He is also so in love with chess and he sees the potential for not just an American to take on the Russians but a woman. She’s a young girl, and I think that excites him. Like Beth, Benny doesn’t really fit into this world. He just sees her going down this self-destructive path and it frustrates him not only for herself but for the world of chess. For the Americans to the Russians during the Cold War. It’s frustrating when you see someone with obvious talent and you see them throwing it away. It comes from a caring place for her and she has the opportunity to put American chess on the map. And women on the map too. It comes from a well-rounded perspective.
The Queen’s Gambit is streaming on Netflix.