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Why What the Constitution Means to Me Director Marielle Heller Returned to Acting for Queen’s Gambit

Marielle Heller. Photo: Drew Altizer Photography/Shutterstock

Over the last decade, Marielle Heller has made a name for herself as a writer and director of delicate yet emotionally sharp films like Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But in the span of a week, she’s showcasing two other sides of herself in two very different projects: She filmed Heidi Schreck’s performance in her play What the Constitution Means to Me, out now on Amazon Prime, and she also returned to acting by taking on a supporting role in the new Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.

Heller compared the process of filming the theatrical performance to shooting a comedy special, or even an old-fashioned television show, and said she took on her acting role in order to get back in touch with her understanding of the craft. On the phone with Vulture, she talked through the ways she tried to preserve Schreck’s vision, why it’s a relief to return to a set without directing, and why she’s now rethinking her rule that actors in her films should cut their hair instead of using wigs.

The film version of What the Constitution Means to Me includes so many shots of the people in the audience reacting to what Heidi is saying. What was the thinking behind taping it that way?
When I saw it Off Broadway, I was watching the audience while I watched the show. I wanted to get that collective experience. That’s the wonderful thing about theater and the hard thing to capture when you’re capturing it for film. The trickiest part about filming is that we turned the lights up on the audience, and that threw Heidi for a loop, I have to say. She was so used to looking out into the darkness and suddenly she could see all the faces. During the first performance, I turned the lights down in order to make her feel better, but it was so important to see how the audience was responding, I convinced her that, in the next performance, we needed to do it again.

How many performances did you film?
We filmed three live performances, plus a rehearsal with no audience during the day. We weren’t able to get the entire show, but we were able to get more close-up shots of Heidi and be onstage with her.

Were there taped versions of stage performances you thought have worked well that you wanted to emulate in filming this?
Truthfully, I was looking more at comedy specials that felt well-captured, where you felt like you were intimate and close with the performer. I come from theater and captured theater has a bad rap of being never what the live performance was. It’s something we’ve all hated, so I was trying not to think of it as that and thinking of it as a one-person show, because it operates in many ways like that, even though there’s obviously the debate element and Mike [Iveson, who’s onstage alongside Schreck for much of the play]. We were able to capture it like a comedy special would be captured. We weren’t required to capture the stage at all times in wide shots.

What were the comedy specials you were thinking of?
A lot of different ones. Neal Brennan’s 3 Mics, Aziz [Ansari]’s special, Adam Sandler’s recent special. There were a number of specials that were captured in beautiful ways in the last couple of years.

So what was your camera setup like?
We had six different cameras that we moved for every performance, so we captured it from 18 different angles, and all six cameras were going for the entire performance. Christian Sprenger, the DP, and I were able to call it like a live show. It’s the old-timey way of how people edited television. When I was making A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, we filmed the segments of the Mr. Rogers show the same way that they filmed them, so that meant you were calling cameras. It’s like calling a live sports event, too. I’d never done anything like that before.

Speaking of camera angles, there’s one angle that looks down across the space between the set and the audience that you go to when Heidi’s talking about the penumbra in the Constitution, this recurring metaphor in the show for this shadowy space of undefined rights. How did you land on capturing it that way?
I remember, when I saw the play, being very moved by that space. I don’t mean to be bringing this all back to Mr. Rogers, but Mr. Rogers would talk about the space between the television and the child being a sacred space, and there’s something similar about the way Heidi talked about the penumbra, the space in the theater between the audience and the performer. It was a relationship that we were very aware of.

Onstage, Heidi had this debate with either Rosdely Ciprian or Thursday Williams each night over whether to abolish the Constitution. The final version has Heidi going up against Rosdely, with the audience voting with Rosdely to abolish, with clips of other iterations of the debate through the credits. How did you decide which one to use?
They really did flip the coin every night, and the audience really did pick the winner, and we couldn’t predict how it was going to go. So we ended up focusing on what just became the best debate out of the performances we captured. Rosdely originated the role, so it felt good to have her be the one we focused on. But we wanted to make it clear that it was live every time, and more times than not, the audience voted not to abolish it. This one was a bit of an anomaly! It was just the best debate we captured, truthfully.

Were there things that Heidi or Oliver Butler, the stage director, felt were important to capture going into filming this?
Heidi had been living with this show for years, and she had a very clear vision of how she wanted it to look and feel. I came in as a friend of hers. I’ve known her for years, and I wanted to help facilitate her vision. She’s written and performed this show. She doesn’t know how to get it captured as a film. I have these resources, that ability. I had just started my company Defiant by Nature. I said “I’m gonna throw everything I can behind getting this made.” It was really about taking her vision and helping facilitate getting it made. I took it to Big Beach, the production company, who threw their total weight behind it. One of the boring tricks about capturing Broadway onscreen, actually, is just about all the different unions. There were just so many logistics for us to figure out in a short period of time before the show was closing. We needed to capture it before it was gone.

I first saw Heidi do the stage version of this during the Kavanaugh hearings when it was Off Broadway. Now, it’s coming out on film during another round of Supreme Court hearings. That must have you thinking about how the play will be received now.
It’s so on our minds. We never could have predicted, or would have hoped, that we’re in the position we’re in now. It’s funny, because Heidi said that during the Kavanaugh hearings the audiences were voting to abolish the Constitution more often. But that’s part of what’s beautiful about the show, it takes on new meanings depending on what is happening, and it remains ever so poignant.

To pivot from directing to acting, you also appear in The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix series with Anya Taylor-Joy as a chess prodigy. You have a background in acting, but looking through your credits, I realized I’d never seen you act on film! Except apparently in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and MacGruber.
No, no! MacGruber and Popstar are my husband’s [Jorma Taccone] movies I did a bit part in for fun. I was a theater actor, really. The reason why I know Heidi is because we both came up as writers and directors in Off–Off Broadway theater. I spent most of my 20s working as an actor. I started writing and directing because I was frustrated with the types of roles that were available to young women. It led to me writing and directing without ever thinking, I’m giving up acting, but more to have creative control. Then I fell in love with directing.

Ten years flew by and I hadn’t really acted. When I do interviews about movies I direct, I often talk about how my superpower as a director is that I’m an actor. I can talk to actors. I’m not afraid of actors. I was starting to feel like I was becoming a fraud because I hadn’t acted in ten years. I’m good friends with Scott Frank [who directed The Queen’s Gambit] through the Sundance world. When he asked me to do this part, I had done two movies back-to-back and was sort of burnt out, and so I thought, This sounds like something that will get my creative juices flowing. I’m sure my agents were pretty pissed about it because there were a bunch of movies I should be making. But it was one of those weird, fun moments to say yes to.

Was it strange to come back from being a director to an actor?
It felt like a vacation from responsibility. As a director, you’re responsible for everything the eye can see. Scott would show up on set and be like, “Okay, I know this looks weird, Mari, but we’re going to do this VFX wall here.” I’d be like, “I’m not worried! It’s not my problem. I’m not going to your VFX meetings.”

Your character Alma starts off seeming like she could just be a ditzy housewife who adopts Anya, but there’s a sadness to her about her marriage and a kind of wry sense of humor.
I loved her. She’s unpredictable. You don’t know where she’s coming or going from. She doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes of the ’50s housewife that she could fall into. That’s what I was always looking for in the characters that I wrote onscreen or directed onscreen, especially female characters. I wanted them to not be easily summed up in one sentence. I loved that about Alma. She was so complex. She has so many dreams that have not been fulfilled. A dream of being a mother, of being a pianist. She also is resourceful and realizes chess could help fund their lives. And, you know, playing those scenes where I reconnect with an old flame from Mexico. So fun to explore a repressed alcoholic housewife’s long-lost lust!

And you get those costumes! And the done-up ’50s hairdo.
I cut all my hair off for the part! I usually have really long hair. The irony is everybody thinks I was wearing a wig. I always ask my actors to cut their hair and not wear wigs, so I felt like I couldn’t be a hypocrite. I spent, like, three hours every morning in hair because they did my hair in the traditional ’50s pin curl way, by hand, and then I sat in a dryer for hours. So it put me right into character. I was like, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been so quick to say actors should cut their hair off for parts.” Though, really, it gave me a lot of appreciation of what it took to be a woman back then and how awful it was.

Alma doesn’t participate in the chess matches onscreen, but did you have to learn much about playing chess for the show?
I didn’t, but I had to learn piano. I took piano lessons leading up to it in order to fake it at least well enough to pass. You can barely see my hands in the final edit, but I feel like that was my version of chess.

Coming from a lot of directing into doing this, did you get a renewed sense of the actor’s perspective?
Yeah, it reminded me of how it truly feels to be vulnerable in that moment, what I’m asking of actors when I ask certain things of them. I do think it will help my future directing, how hard it is to be that present and not fall back on the way you’ve rehearsed a line. It’s harder than you remember, you know?

Marielle Heller on Constitution and The Queen’s Gambit