[SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers specific to Marielle Heller’s character, Alma Wheatley, in “The Queen’s Gambit.”]
Marielle Heller insists she never imagined that “The Queen’s Gambit” would be such a huge hit.
“I had no idea how the chess was going to play out,” Heller, who plays Alma Wheatley, the mother of a 1950s female chess prodigy (Anya Taylor-Joy), in the Netflix series, says on today’s episode of the Variety and iHeart podcast “The Big Ticket.” “I just wasn’t sure it was going to feel compelling because I don’t know anything about chess…Truthfully, I was nervous about it. Or I thought maybe it would be, like, a niche little show that intellectuals liked or something.”
“Queen’s Gambit” has been so popular, however, that a jump in sales of chess sets has been linked back to the series.
Heller is best known for her work as a director for Oscar-nominated films like “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and a “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” However, she began her career as an actor after studying acting at UCLA. “I was dedicated for the majority, up until I was probably 27, or 28, to being an actor, and I was working as an actor in off Broadway theater,” she says. “But for me, something was missing. I stopped feeling creatively fulfilled by acting, because I wasn’t getting parts that felt really challenging and exciting. I wanted to be more in control of my own creative life, which some actors get to have, but not everybody does. A lot of acting is waiting for people to let you do your job.”
A foray into writing led to directing. She jumped at the chance to be in “The Queen’s Gambit” when her longtime friend and series director, writer and co-creator Scott Frank offered her the role. Heller says they’ve joked about developing a prequel focused on Alma’s earlier years. “All the stars aligned for this project to happen for me,” she explains. “I do tend to have a really busy schedule… Scott has tried to get me to be in projects before and I’ve never had time. But for this one, I slotted into this perfect little window of time where I had three months off and before I needed to start press for ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.'”
In one of the most impactful scenes in the series, Alma is found dead in a hotel bed. “I had too much fun playing dead in this,” Heller says, adding, “I just had so much fun any time someone would walk past me, like, jumping up at them. I don’t know why I just was sort of delighted by the whole thing and coming in early and getting this sort of dead makeup put on.”
On a more serious note, Heller also weighed in on the state of filmmaking and movie theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m talking to so many of my director friends about this stuff, like what is our future because I want to make movies?” she says. “I like working in TV, but my real love is making movies. And it’s so hard. Obviously, I say this all with the caveat that there are a lot of things that are harder than this in the world right now. And I know we are very lucky and these are our champagne problems to have. But as somebody who’s dedicated my career to making movies, it’s really hard to not know what the future of film is. And it’s hard to not know what the future of theaters are or how we’re going to be creating work. It just feels like we’re in limbo.”
You can listen to the full interview with Heller above. You can also find “The Big Ticket” at iHeartRadio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.”