Marielle Heller Details the Journey of Returning to Acting in The Queen's Gambit

We're just a matter of days away from the debut of The Queen's Gambit, a spellbinding new limited [...]

We're just a matter of days away from the debut of The Queen's Gambit, a spellbinding new limited series that is set to hit Netflix this weekend. Based on Walter Tevis' book of the same name, the miniseries follows the coming of age story of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman who becomes one of the premier players on the competitive chess circuit. Multiple characters undoubtedly play a role in Beth's journey -- and none quite as poignantly and essentially as Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), Beth's adopted mother-turned-manager on the chess circuit. Alma proves to be one of the most emotional and essential components of the series, as well as a revolutionary showcase for Heller, who is best known for her work directing films like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

As Heller told during a recent interview for The Queen's Gambit, portraying Alma proved to be an "interesting" and "painful" exercise, one that made her look at femininity and the societal expectations of women throughout history in a new way.

"Well, a 50s housewife who's an alcoholic just feels like the role I was meant to play my whole life," Heller explained with a laugh. "No, but I just fell in love with her on the page, because a character who's sort of locked in her house. She's like a caged animal in an unhappy marriage, and she has this dream deferred of wanting to be a pianist and an artist. There's something so relatable about that. I guess I just thought about what it would be like to be a woman born in a different era, who couldn't do the things that I would love to be able to do in my own life, who couldn't pursue her dreams. I immediately connected to that, and just thought, 'Oh, how painful.' She's got so much pain just under the surface, and yet she's got her facade she keeps on... That falls away fairly quickly with Beth, but I found that all really fascinating."

"Even just getting into the Alma way of being, I had to do three hours of my hair in pin curls every morning, and the undergarments of a housewife of the day, and the girders and the girdle-type things, and all the makeup," Heller continued. "In my normal life, I don't do any of that stuff. I'm a director... I don't wear any makeup, and wear jeans every day. And so to put myself in the mentality of what it was like to be a woman back then, and all of the things that we had to do in order to present ourselves. Yet she couldn't even follow her dream the way she wanted to. It was an interesting exercise, and a painful exercise in many ways."

While Heller originally got her start as an actor, The Queen's Gambit gave her a chance to revisit the various emotions that come along with that -- in a way that she thinks will influence her future projects as a director.

"I always talk about how, as a director, the thing that is my superpower is that I was an actor. It helps me connect with actors and get the performances I want to get out of them, because I understand how they talk and what they need to do," Heller revealed. "I was starting to feel like a fraud. I haven't acted in 10 years. I always talk about being an actor, and yet I've been focusing on making movies for a long time. In many ways, I wasn't really thinking about how my directing would influence my acting, but more, 'How will this influence my future directing?' If I can feel what it is to be vulnerable again in the ways that I ask actors to be vulnerable, and I can put myself back in that position of trusting somebody else, and their vision, and letting them be in control, and I'm one of the pieces of the puzzle, rather than the one doing the puzzle, that it would help my future work. That was how I was thinking of it. I was trying to turn off my director brain as much as humanly possible."

The Queen's Gambit also stars Moses Ingram as Jolene, Harry Melling as Harry Beltnik, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny. The miniseries will be released on Friday, October 23rd, exclusively on Netflix.