Director Marielle Heller cuts her hair and returns to acting in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’
Even though acting was Marielle Heller’s career choice - it was her dream since she was 8, performing at the Alameda Children’s Musical Theater - filmgoers haven’t seen much of her craft. There were small parts in “MacGruber” and “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” and a couple of TV series appearances, but most of her acting had been done on the stage. Then there was a major shift in what she wanted to do in show business. The desire to act morphed into a desire to write and direct. She wrote plays and film scripts, she directed television pilots, and she adapted the graphic novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” for the stage. Then she again adapted it, this time for the screen, and signed on to direct, making it her first feature film credit.
That was five years ago. She’s since directed two more celebrated films: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Heller now returns to the acting fold and gives a fabulous performance in the upcoming Netflix limited series “The Queen’s Gambit,” in which she plays Alma Wheatley, a sad and lonely housewife in the 1960s, who convinces her husband to adopt a child - a young girl named Beth who eventually becomes an internationally acclaimed chess player (Anya Taylor-Joy). The film is about Beth’s rise through the chess ranks and about her relationship with Alma.
Heller, 41, spoke about the project by phone from her home in Connecticut, where she lives with her actor-writer husband Jorma Taccone, their 5-year-old son, and their 7-week-old daughter.
Q. What got you to make the jump from acting to writing and directing?
A. I thought I was going to be an actor right into my 20’s. But part of why I started writing and directing was because I was so frustrated with the types of roles I was being offered to play: one-dimensional, young woman roles that were not creatively fulfilling. So, I started writing, and I made “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” sort of out of that impulse, of feeling like we weren’t seeing complex women characters onscreen or in the theater. After that I fell in love with writing and directing.
Q. What brought you back to acting in “The Queen’s Gambit?”
A. When directing and writing kind of took over my heart and desires, there was sort of no looking back. There are so many projects I want to do, I wasn’t sure that I was ever going to act again. But (director) Scott Frank and I are friends. I had done a one-day part for him in his film “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” and after that, he said, “You’re a really good actor; I’m going to make you act for me again.” He’s been threatening me for years, but I never had any time. But he hit me with this one at the exact perfect moment after “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I was feeling a little burned out, and I didn’t know what my next movie was going to be. It was one of those moments to say yes, so, I did.
Q. Had you read the Walter Tevis novel the film is based on, and if so, did you use it to develop Alma Wheatley?
A. I read the book once I got cast, so I could use things like that. But Scott’s writing is so incredible and elevated, I was able to take pieces that he had woven into her, especially about her pain. She is sort of a victim of the era she lives in. She’s a housewife in the ’50s and ’60s who’s in a loveless marriage. She dreamed of becoming a concert pianist but was overcome by stage fright, and that dream never came true. And her dream of becoming a mother had not come to fruition. When we meet her, she’s been living a sort of ghost life. She’s unhappy and has very little to focus her life. Adopting Beth was sort of a last-ditch effort at happiness. I was really connected to those pieces of her, but I also loved that she was distracted and not always a great mother. She really was a very complex person. I seek those characters in movies I direct, and I loved that about her as a character to play.
Q. You’re also given the perfect look of someone from that time, through costuming and makeup. Does that kind of thing affect the way you act?
A. Absolutely. For this part, every morning we did my hair in traditional pin curls, from the’50s, and that took three hours every time. Then I would have to put on these button-up girdles, and pantyhose that clipped on in multiple layers under my dress. I tend to wake up 15 minutes before I have to leave the house, then throw on jeans and leave. But this is what Mrs. Wheatley would do just to go out to the grocery store. But doing that did help me get into what it felt like to be a woman back then.
Q. You have short, black hair in the film. Did you have your long red hair right up till the time shooting began?
A. Oh, yeah. they cut it off for this. They offered to put me in a wig, but the truth is that as a director, I always want actors to cut their hair. I prefer real hair over wigs. So, I thought, “Well, I can’t be a hypocrite. I have to cut my hair when they ask me to” (laughs). But I had such long hair, I was able to donate it.
“The Queen’s Gambit” premieres on Netflix on Oct. 23.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.