The most romantic declaration in The Queen’s Gambit might come from Harry Beltik, the former Kentucky chess champion that Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon defeats early in her career. He reappears later on, offering to help her get her life together after a significant loss, and says that she changed him too, admitting that he even “got my teeth fixed” because of her. Beth and Harry grow apart (he goes onto a more practical career, she remains obsessed with chess), but he continues to be one of the gaggle of supportive men who end up in her corner as she rises through the chess ranks.
In addition to The Queen’s Gambit, Melling has assembled a streak of recent standout character-actor performances, including playing a techie villain in The Old Guard, a crazed preacher in The Devil All the Time, and a legless, armless “artist” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Still, many may recognize him first from his work as a child actor, playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films. With the continuing popularity of The Queen’s Gambit since its release, Vulture caught up with Melling to talk about his post-Potter career, how he figured out Beltik’s chess-playing style, and how the fake teeth he wore for Beltik’s transformation helped him “shift into another gear.”
Beth beats Beltik early on in the story, and I sort of expected that he would be resentful, which so many men can be of women who are better than them at something, but he ends up being so supportive. What was interesting to you playing that arc?
I thought that was one of the most fascinating things about him. Not only does she make him question his game of chess, but also question his life and what’s important. He realizes that he can help Beth, and he shifts his life into perspective meeting this extraordinary human being. I found this moving, how he reevaluates what is important.
That was what grabbed me when Scott Frank, the director, first started talking about the project. I first met him over Skype, and we basically spoke a lot about the arc. When he starts off, there’s some real hotspur to him, and then as the series goes along, he’s just completely in love with Beth and, in a way, is a perfect match for her, because he balances her out in a way.
There’s something lovely about how he comes back into the show after being gone for a few episodes with a whole different life that he attributes to her.
The car that he rides in on, the audience would never have guessed that’s Harry Beltik’s car. There’s a real effort there that I found endearing about him. He’s really tried to change himself in order to make himself feel more attractive and in order to see Beth. But then he realizes that is not him and has to reevaluate that as well. There’s a real dance they do with each other. He’s trying to suss out where she is, and she’s in a way so ahead of him. That was fascinating to sink my teeth into.
Speaking of, did you actually have to change your teeth?
You’re the first to ask this! I was a bit nervous about it, but I did. There were fake teeth from, I believe, episode four onward. That was a fantastic way of subtly changing … me, basically. It literally changes the way you speak and where your face falls. I’m always fascinated by those little adjustments you can do that aren’t gonna be that obvious, but as an actor, helps you shift into a different gear.
I spoke to the show’s chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and he talked about training the actors to move their pieces in a way that felt believable. What was it like to learn how to do that?
I was really nervous, because I didn’t know how to play! Which was kind of worrying. So I had to quickly learn how to play, and then I was introduced to Bruce, who was fantastic. He was wonderful at articulating the choreography of the pieces. We didn’t really need to know why we were moving pieces to different parts of the board, we just needed to look like we’d been doing it our entire lives.
Did you model his playing after anyone? Was there a Harry Beltik style of chess?
We each choose a character. I focused on a real chess player, Magnus Carlsen. He’s very interesting because he’s very quick and his hands are very straight in line with the pieces. You slowly build up how you move. I remember Bruce at one point going, “That’s a very Benny move, that’s not for Harry.” I wanted my hand to be very angular with the pieces in order for there to be some nimbleness to how he maneuvered.
The show has a sort of sports movie ending where all the boys from Beth’s life help her out over the phone in the last match. What was it like filming that scene?
It was quite bizarre because myself and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays Benny, never had scenes together. So it was very strange having separate journeys and both meeting Beth at separate points in her life and both meeting at this very important moment in the series. There was a sense in the room that it was a very special moment. What the series does well is talk about what it means to form a family, and that scene was about family. Especially when Benny gets the phone call and says she’s won, there was a moment of jubilation. In the script, it says “They go wild like banshees” or something, and it really was an explosion of joy.
You’ve also been in two other Netflix projects this fall playing much darker characters, including a tech CEO in The Old Guard. Were you looking at actual guys as inspiration for that?
I looked at a lot of young CEOs who had a lot of power and were very driven, to work out what made those people tick. I tried to work out the point at which they enter morally questionable territory [laughs], so that was fascinating. Then with The Devil All the Time, I got obsessed with researching preachers, especially in West Virginia, and especially snake handling and what that meant to them and why they did it. I find the research fascinating, and definitely my main way into projects.
You’ve talked in a lot of interviews about playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies and then going to drama school and focusing on stage work. Did doing that change how you approach playing roles?
Early on, doing the Potter films, it was a very simple equation. I knew what I was in for. And then drama school shaked it up. I wanted to bridge that gap between child acting and adult acting, and theater felt like a place that I wanted to explore. A process was developed at drama school, and before that … you know, being 10 and being told to stand somewhere because that’s where the light is, and then you say your line, and then you walk away, is bliss! Oftentimes, when you’re on set, you go, I should just think like that 10-year-old. But at the same time, it’s nice to have some process to fall back on.
From what I understand, Scott Frank thought of you for The Queen’s Gambit after seeing you in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Did working with the Coens change your acting approach? I mean, they are the Coen brothers.
It was a huge moment for me as an actor, just because, on a personal level, I grew up watching their films. Then getting to know a bit about how they work, which is so specific, but at the same time, they really invite you in as an actor. I was very lucky that happened when it did, and I think it did open up different artists and directors to see my work that maybe wouldn’t have been aware.
You worked with Joel Coen again playing Malcolm in his version of Macbeth. Is there anything you can say about that, or is it all under lock and key?
What I will say is that in true Joel Coen style it’s going to be completely unique. When they were talking about the cast they were gathering for that project, it was so exciting.
Moses Ingram, who played Jolene in The Queen’s Gambit, is also in Macbeth, so you’ve got a nice little Scott Frank–Coen brothers repertory troupe going on.
It’s great! At the read-through of Macbeth, Moses was there, and we bumped into each other very early on in The Queen’s Gambit shoot, so that was a lovely happening. And I think where we shot Buster Scruggs was around the same set that they shot Godless, which was Scott’s previous show. There’s this weird connection between Scott and the Coens.
Also Thomas Brodie-Sangster was in Godless and The Queen’s Gambit, so a lot of connections. I was curious, because he was also a child actor, in stuff like Love, Actually, who’s grown into an adult career like you have, did you ever talk about those similarities?
Strangely, no. Obviously, I knew Thomas started young, but we never really spoke about our early days doing it. We only had that last scene together. But we didn’t speak about our 10-year-old selves.
I guess it’s sort of an awkward thing to bring up, like, “Hello, nice to meet you, I know you from …”
It could be a bit strange! It is funny, though, when you do these roles where people have such a strong affiliation with you when you’re 10. It’s like the whole world has access to your home videos.
You’ve built some distance from that self, but it must be odd to be constantly pinned back to it, which I guess is what I’m doing right now.
It is! That’s the weird thing about film. Here in the U.K., every Christmas Harry Potter comes on. For friends who have had kids and are of an age that can watch those films, suddenly Uncle Harry is someone else. These are generational films, they just keep coming and catching a new audience, which is just incredible, but with that comes this idea that you’re always going to be that 10-year-old child. Obviously that’s wrong and not the case, so you’re fighting that a bit, but that the same time you’re proud to be part of something that has captured the imagination of so many people.
Do you find yourself intentionally taking roles that will bring you in a different direction? Just looking at your most recent stuff, it feels that way.
I try not to set myself a strategy, but if I’m being completely honest, you’re right. I think what I really enjoy about this job is the transformation of it. When I’m playing with that, I’m really excited. The job I’ve just done, filming the movie Please Baby Please, is another that’s steered me off into very new territory. I think it keeps me alive and keeps me focused. The chameleon effect is something I’ve always admired in other actors and something I’ve always wanted to try and get a go at doing that.