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Marielle Heller on Directing ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ and Why She Returned to Acting for ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (L to R)
Courtesy of Ken Woroner/Netflix

As a director, Marielle Heller has been on a tear, with her first three theatrical releases — “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019), “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018) and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (2015) — garnering praise from critics, appreciation from audiences and Oscar nominations for Tom Hanks, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant.  

This month, Heller’s two latest projects, her filmed version of Heidi Schreck’s play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” and her acting turn in Scott Frank’s limited series “The Queen’s Gambit,” have debuted on just about the only thing we have these days: streaming services. “The Queen’s Gambit,” starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a chess prodigy, is now on Netflix; “What the Constitution Means to Me” premiered on Amazon on Oct. 16 — just in time for the uproar over the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation.  

Heller was an actor before she switched to directing, which is how she got to know Schreck. They ran, Heller said, in the same “downtown theater circles.” And it was through acting that she met Frank as well, who cast her in a small part in his 2014 movie “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” When the two friends separately asked Heller to collaborate with them, she said yes. Her next project — through her company Defiant by Nature, and in collaboration with “Beautiful Day” and “Constitution” producers Big Beach — will be “Five Women,” a limited series based on a “This American Life” episode about a serial sexual harasser in the workplace. It’s all ready to go, Heller said, and will “probably be the first thing I do when it feels safe again.” 

In an interview with Variety, Heller talked about how she directed the complicated “What the Constitution Means to Me,” what it felt like to act again in “The Queen’s Gambit,” how her community of fellow women directors came together after the 2020 Oscars shutout and how Tom Hanks totally would have won best supporting actor if only he’d gotten the coronavirus a little bit sooner. Warning: There are spoilers about the structure of “Constitution,” and about her character in “The Queen’s Gambit.” 

How did you come to direct “What the Constitution Means to Me”? 

I’ve known Heidi for many, many years. When she was on Broadway, Heidi approached me and said, “Would you ever be willing to help me figure out how to film this?” And I said, “Absolutely.” 

I don’t really believe that all theater needs to be filmed — for some things, the special part of live theater is that it exists and then it’s gone. But I thought as many people as possible need to see this; it’s so crucial. 

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Marielle Heller with Rosdely Ciprian (on stage), directing “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Courtesy of Amazon

What conversations were you having with Heidi about what she wanted from the filmed version of it? 

That was the biggest question we were asking right off the bat: How would we be introducing the entire thing? Which was the impetus behind having the camera in the backstage area, and getting to see her nerves before she went out there. Part of what struck me about this show and Heidi’s performance is how brave it is, and how hard it was for her every time she performed this show. And she did it over many years, but it never got easier. There was something about telling this very personal story in this very public setting that was just so vulnerable and so exposing. As I stepped on the back of the stage with her, I just could feel that, and could sense the size of the theater and the audience. And, wow, this is hugely terrifying every night. She stands backstage and thinks, “I can’t believe I’m going to go out there and do this.”  

Right. 

At that point, she had done the show hundreds of times, but it still was scary. And I had to turn the lights up in the house a fair amount in order to be able to film the audience. And it really threw her. Her first performance that we filmed was really tough for her. Because she could really see the audience — normally, she was looking out in the blackness.  

I warned her that I was raising the house lights. We’d had a conversation early on where I said, “Do you want to see it? Would you like to see what I’m planning?” She said, “No, it’s OK. I’ll just be surprised.” But yeah, it freaked her out.  

What’s the trick to bringing something new to a play when you’re filming it? 

The beauty of film is that you can get closer than you can in theater, you know? I come from theater, and I remember feeling like I was almost cheating when I would put the camera so close to somebody’s face when I was filming them.  

When I saw Heidi’s play originally, I saw it in a much smaller theater than the Broadway house. It had a real intimacy — it felt like you were just so close to her, like she was performing that just for you. The hope was with the with the film’s version of it, that we could really give it that intimate quality. 

The text is so intricate, and her reading of it is so intense — what challenges did that present? 

The show had a live quality to it — it was obviously very well-planned and written out, but it did have little changes every night. We set up six cameras around the theater — and me and Christian Sprenger, the DP — we called it like a live sporting event. We were sitting beneath the stage on headsets connected to all the different camera operators. And we were calling it out, which — I’ve never done anything like that. My normal way of filming something is, like, one camera, very well planned out, knowing exactly how we’re going to get each shot. It was more of an improv feeling to the whole thing. It was wild and fun in that way. It felt like a different type of directing. A lot of directors are really good at multi-camera directing, and directing that way, but it’s not something I’ve ever really done.  

On stage, there were two different debaters, Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams, who switched off against Heidi in a debate about whether to abolish the Constitution. How did you decide that Rosdely would be featured in your version? 

Rosdely was the originator of the role, so it just made sense. She started performing with Heidi and debating with Heidi when she was 12. We included Thursday in the closing credits. I just loved that so much, because it feels like you get to see their different debate styles.  

We agonized over the decision to feature that one debate, because it in that debate, the audience chose to abolish the Constitution — spoiler alert! But then in the debate we filmed with Thursday, they also chose to abolish! And that was rare. More frequently than not, they would choose to keep it.  

I loved the way the closing credits answered the logistical questions that you might have if, like me, you hadn’t seen it in the theater. How did you decide to do that? 

I give so much credit to our associate editor, Adam Dicterow, who devised that. We were having many, many, many discussions about, “How do we let the audience know that this was live? How do we let them know that the debate was different every night?’”  

We were debating cutting between the different debates — but that was going to become really confusing, because it was going to seem like Heidi was arguing against herself. Then we talked about doing a Choose Your Own Adventure, where you could either watch this debate or that debate. But that also felt weirdly complicated. So Adam came up with this way of compiling the different sections of the debate together in the closing credits, which shows you how truly live the event was and how the debate changed every night and how there was audience participation. 

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Marielle Heller, right, with Heidi Schreck. Courtesy of Amazon

It felt bizarre to be watching the movie during yet another toxic Supreme Court moment.  

We were finished with the film by the time Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away — obviously, we never could have predicted that to happen. I, for one, just felt gutted by that happening, and the timing of that happening. And then we never could have predicted that we would be having these hearings Amy Coney Barrett at the same time, and have all these questions about Roe v. Wade — and everything on the table.  

I think in many ways, it’s a perfect moment, because I think people are actually thinking: “Oh, right — what is the role of the Supreme Court? How does that play into our everyday lives?” And that’s the exact thing that this play is probing, and is making us all question. I think what’s kind of amazing about the show, is it’s asking us to look at all of these questions with a huge amount of nuance and knowledge — two things that we don’t tend to look at political events with.  

When you and I spoke last September, you were in Berlin secretly filming something, and wouldn’t tell me what it was. It was “The Queen’s Gambit”! Why was it a secret? 

I was in the middle of doing press for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and I guess I have been trying to figure out how I talk about these different parts of my creative life, and how they fit together. One of my worries when I first became a director is that people wouldn’t take me seriously because I was an actor. Because I was a young woman, I already felt like I had an uphill battle in terms of being taken as seriously as my male counterparts. But I also felt like there was something about saying that I was an actor-turned-director that made me seem less serious about my craft or something. That’s probably why it was a secret last fall. I was in my director mode! 

Interesting! So when it came along, had you been looking for opportunities to act again?  

No! Not at all. No, no. No, I really hadn’t acted in about 10 years. I was feeling really turned off by the entire thing, mostly because the roles for young women in general just were feeling really vapid and not three-dimensional enough. I wasn’t in control enough of my own creative life — I was waiting for somebody to give me a part, and hopefully the part would be decent, but usually it wasn’t.  

Becoming a writer, and then a director, was taking my creative life in my own hands, and wanting to have stories that I wanted to put out into the world — and I have fallen in love with directing.  

Right. 

I’m friends with Scott Frank, and I would never have done this if it wasn’t him. He put it in my lap as a bit of a challenge, like, “Why don’t you come do this thing?” So I said yes.  

And I probably won’t do it again for a while. Not because it wasn’t super fun; it was so fun. But there are so many other things I want to direct. 

How did you see the character of Alma? 

One of the things I always am looking for — particularly in my female characters from my own movies that I write and direct — is that you can’t sum them up in one sentence. I talked when I did press for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” about this idea of unlikable or difficult women characters. 

Difficult and unlikable women are my favorite people to see on screen. I was drawn to Alma because she’s all of those things. She’s complex. She’s also in pain and has a lovingness to her. But there was just something about her that felt very easy to relate to. Probably the alcoholic housewife thing. No, just kidding! 

Anya Taylor-Joy is on such a rocket ship right now — Furiosa! What was she like to work with?  

I know, it’s wild! She’s wonderful. She and I hit it off right away and really became very close right off the bat. She’s a total pro — she doesn’t feel like she’s as young as she is. She’s lived a big life up until this point.  

I could tell that Scott ran a set in a similar way that I did, which is that he has a no-asshole policy. It’s a relaxed, good feeling on set. Anya was just really lovely to work with, and we found a really nice chemistry between the two of us. And she and I both loved their relationship — we loved Beth and Alma.  

The two of them build such a loving relationship, even though they’re both so troubled. 

In some ways, I feel like they’re sort of the love of each other’s lives. They both need each other in such similar ways. They’re both damaged in such similar ways. It’s like they’re two feral animals who have been in isolation for years. When they’re let out of their cages, it takes them a long time to sniff each other out. But eventually, they have this very hard-earned trust that builds up, and they start to actually believe that the other one will be there for them when no one else has. It isn’t an easy relationship, you know? It doesn’t come quickly. And it isn’t without its pain. But there is this real sweetness between them, and they need each other in such a major way. And I love that even though Alma had no clue about anything about chess and couldn’t even really follow the game, she wanted Beth to describe them in every detail to her. She was so inspired by seeing Beth follow her dream. She could relate to it because she had wanted to be a pianist and never been able to fulfill that dream.  

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Marielle Heller and Scott Frank on the set of “The Queen’s Gambit.” Courtesy of Ken Woroner/Netflix

That piano scene when you play for the room was amazing. 

I took actual piano lessons for that. You don’t really see my hands, but I really did do lessons for that.  

You were filming it right when “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” was coming out. How was it to balance those things? 

It was the best distraction. A movie coming out is so nerve-wracking. Every filmmaker will tell you a different thing about their favorite phase of making movies. But nobody will say, “My favorite part is the weekend it comes out, waiting for the reviews, seeing how the world is going to take it, and whether it’s going to flop or not.” That is torture.  

My favorite part of making movies is production. I was getting to be in production on somebody else’s project. I had very little responsibility compared to being the director, which felt like a vacation to me. And I got to be in Berlin, which is the coolest city, with my family, living this very different life from what I’m used to.  

It feels like a lifetime ago that we had these concerns, but on Oscar nominations day, the blanking of very deserving women directors was such a huge thing. What was that like to experience? 

I wasn’t expecting any different, in a sad way. It was interesting for me to feel the public feel outraged. But in my mind, I thought “Well, yeah, of course. What did you expect?” 

I had gone through it the year before, too. With “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” I’d had slightly more delusion that there was a chance that it could happen because the movie had such buzz around it and Melissa and Richard obviously got nominated. I had just so poured myself into that movie and creating their performances with them. It was a it was a wild experience, because the movie was also nominated for a million different awards, not just Oscars, but Golden Globes and BAFTAs. And I was overlooked in every single award?  

No one directed this movie! 

It was just like I didn’t exist? The movie just made itself. That one was a little bit more of a cold shower, I guess, into realizing like that when men make really moving, small indie movies that make a decent amount of money, everyone sees it as auteur work. And that when women do — I don’t know: They directed themselves.   

So by the time “A Beautiful Day” came around, I wasn’t expecting anything. I was really, really excited and hoping that Tom would break his almost 20-year streak of not getting nominated. That happened, and that was thrilling.  

I joked with him when he got coronavirus that, if he had just gotten in a few weeks earlier, he probably would have won. 

That is so true. 

So dark, right? But come on.  

The other thing I’ll say is I’m really close friends with a lot of female directors. Lulu Wang and I have become really good friends. She was in Berlin, too, promoting “The Farewell,” and we got to spend a bunch of time together. As a community, we’re not competitive. That’s the really beautiful thing. There’s not that many of us! That means that we’re all out to kind of support each other and to lift each other up. I’m also close with Kasi Lemmons, who had made “Harriet,” and we had been in Toronto together right before I started filming “Queen’s Gambit.”  

We all reached out to each other and gave each other love and said, “You did a beautiful job. I know how much work it was, even if the world pretends you don’t exist.” We talked about what to do and how to make a difference. In many ways, it felt like a bonding experience in a sad way. 

What do you do? How do you make a difference? 

The conversation, I remember, was me sort of taking the perspective of: “You guys, this is just the ego part of this business. We just keep doing our work. We don’t worry about this. The business is trying to pit us against each other as artists — how do you even compare art to art?” I remember Lulu saying: “That’s fair. But don’t forget, these accolades also lead to more money, higher budgets. Particularly for women of color, these can be really important for giving us a seat at the table.” And that is very true. It’s a very good point, and made me think about it in a different way as well. 

I don’t know if there’s any solution. I think a huge part of it is just being visible, continuing to do our work— and let people see us and get used to us. Then we can pave the way for the women and nonbinary people who come after us, who hopefully won’t feel like there isn’t a seat at the table for them. Because they’ll see that there were people who came before them.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.