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Interview: Casting Director Ellen Lewis on Building ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

THE QUEENÕS GAMBIT (L to R) MATTHEW DENNIS LEWIS as MATT, RUSSELL DENNIS LEWIS as MIKE, HARRY MELLING as HARRY BELTIK, and ANYA TAYLOR-JOY as BETH HARMON in episode 102 of THE QUEENÕS GAMBIT Cr. PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

Netflix’s limited series The Queen’s Gambit was a resounding success and has swept all the midyear precursors, setting up a great advantage position at the Emmys. Among its most rewarding aspects is its ensemble, which is led by Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth and includes a wealth of talent as her competitors, friends, and mentors.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak to casting director Ellen Lewis about gathering the cast for this show, the brilliance of creator Scott Frank, and her many collaborations with Martin Scorsese.

Q: You worked with Scott Frank before on Godless. What was the genesis of your involvement in this project?

A: Yes, Casey Silver introduced me to Scott. I had known Case years ago, when he was the head of Universal, so many years before, and then he contacted me about meeting Scott for Godless and we had a really great time working on that and so, he had Queen’s Gambit a couple of years later. Fortunately, the stars aligned and we were able to work together and again, with Kate Sprance, who has worked with me for many years. And then when the shoot shifted to Berlin, we brought in Olivia Scott-Webb to also do casting out of out of London.

Q: Did you have any idea of any actors that you knew you wanted? Was anyone already attached before you came onto this process?

A: Nobody was attached. Anya is fantastic. There are wonderful actress within that age group. I think it’s actually a very exciting group of actresses. I had just worked with Cory Finley on Bad Education, who had cast Thoroughbreds. I had met Anya when she came to the States for the first time when she was promoting The Witch, which I hadn’t seen, because I actually don’t watch horror films. But I knew that she was fantastic. And I was intrigued, and I thought she was fantastic. And then when I saw Thoroughbreds, I thought she was wonderful. And so that was my introduction. Scott kind of knew her from The Witch as well but then I had him watch Thoroughbreds and he loved her.

Q: I’m so glad to hear it because I also don’t watch horror movies, so I haven’t seen The Witch but I love Thoroughbreds, and I know that you also worked on Ready Player One. Those two actresses are just so fantastic in Thoroughbreds, and that was my first introduction to Anya.

A: Yes, and I love Olivia too. As I say, there is such great talent in this age group. You’ve seen many things with all these wonderful actresses. We were really lucky because Scott, when he watched Thoroughbreds, Anya just really spoke to him. I’m glad that you liked Thoroughbreds too. Cory is also a fantastic guy and I thought that was a wonderful movie.

Q: Honestly, the person who first really makes an impression is Isla Johnston.

A: So, obviously, you’re starting with the fact that you know that Anya is playing Beth. Anya can look very different, we didn’t know at that point that she’s going to be a redhead. But obviously she can look very different. So we asked, what photo should we use, so that when Kate and people in our office were looking, you put out a big breakdown and you’re looking at the picture. It’s so, so important that they need to look like this is who this person grew up to be. Isla is British, which we didn’t intend. She could have come from here. And then the tiny girl, Annabeth Kelly, is from Texas. I always find challenges like that in casting families and people growing up. In some ways, people growing up to be someone could be so challenging that you don’t want to do it. But when it works, which I think fortunately, in this case it does, it’s very rewarding. It’s just visual, but you also need somebody who has the emotional depth to grow into who Beth is, the emotional depth right away, from the littlest girl to Anya.

Q: There are other British actors in the cast like Harry Melling and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Is nationality something that you look at when they’re playing people who are specifically supposed to be from a certain place?

A: Yes and no. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, I’m a huge fan of. I loved him as a kid. I loved him on Game of Thrones and we cast him in Godless in a completely different role. So, I am a big fan of his. There are different people in the show that Scott worked with before. Scott likes working with people, and if there’s the right role for someone, he likes to do that. So we knew we wanted Thomas for one of these fellows, and Harry Melling, I’m a big Harry Potter fan, Kate’s a big Harry Potter fan, and we had also seen Harry in Buster Scruggs, and thought he was amazing. And Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, we did not know and so Olivia stepped in. There were other people that we talked about, but we did know that we wanted Thomas. I love our talent here. It’s not like I’m trying to cast in one place or another. It just worked out that all three of those young men are Brits, which worked out because they did shoot in Berlin. But that wasn’t the intention right away.

Q: Did you look for skill with chess as a part of the requirement for these roles?

A: No. It was a skill or an affect of a skill that they were going to have to get what they were prepping for the series. So, no, it was not a criteria. I still don’t know how to play chess at all, but Scott certainly makes it beautiful and makes me feel like maybe I could learn how to do this, but probably not.

Q:  There are also some really fantastic adult cast members. Bill Camp in particular is someone who has this really small role in a sense but very crucial. He is someone I assume you had seen many times before, but doesn’t usually have such a substantial role?

A: Or he has more substantial roles, actually! I’m a huge fan of Bill’s obviously. I live in New York, Bill’s a New York actor, but obviously his work now expands to so many fantastic series and films. I had introduced Scott to Bill in some of the discussions we had on Godless so he was somewhat familiar with him. We were lucky because Merritt Wever, who’s an amazing actress, who was in Godless, has a wonderful agent, Lisa Lieberman at Innovative Artists, and a man named Gary Gersh, who works with me at Innovative Artists. This is part of our process, working creatively with agents when they can think creatively with me, which I really appreciate when that happens. Because it doesn’t always happen. And so Lisa was really familiar with Scott and how wonderful Scott was with talent, because of his relationship with Merritt. When we came to her to talk about Bill for this role and it was just written into the first episode, she was very open to it and sent the script to Bill, and he was open to meeting Scott. As soon as he met Scott, you fall in love with Scott. He’s so open to the creative process and your thoughts and feelings and opinions about things. And so it’s always a pleasure to introduce him to any actor because they’re going to respond to him. We got were so lucky, for Bill to be the soul of the show and I can’t imagine anyone else being able to do that.

Q: And then you have Marielle Heller, who is also amazing, and recently has done a lot more behind the camera. What was the thought process behind going after her?

A:  Scott knew her as an actress. I did not. We had talked about different people, a few things happened during this process that sometimes happen, and Scott brought Marielle Heller up, and I’m like, she’s a director. And he’s like, no, she’s a wonderful actress. I did not know that. I really feel like the role of a casting director, I mean, there are so many aspects to casting, and I love casting, but it’s to support the director’s vision, and Scott really saw Marielle Heller in that role. As I say, I was not familiar with her as an actress at all. She’s fantastic. She fits the period perfectly, and it’s a complex, sad character, but those two women work so beautifully together.

Q: Were there any roles that had to be either rewritten or reshaped, or created, based on actors you saw or liked for different parts?

A: No. I’m thinking. No, I mean, I think we got lucky with Jolene. Moses Ingram was right out of graduate school at Yale, and the fact that she could play both of the ages was wonderful. To be able to have someone who’s so talented and to have this be her first job right out of school was a gift. Kate Sprance had seen her in her graduating class and called to have her come in. They’re wonderful actresses. Seeing actors is so exciting. There’s a lot of talent in Anya’s age group. It’s fantastic. It’s so exciting to be able to think creatively and look at different people and talents and the work they’ve done, and think about who’s going to fit in the world that you’re looking to create.

Q: I believe your next project is with Martin Scorsese, and, by my count, it’s your 18th collaboration with him. What is it like to work with somebody so many times and how you share the same creative vision by the time you’ve done this over and over again together?

A: Well I hadn’t counted. I didn’t know that. But it’s a long time. The great thing is that every time is like the first time, meaning that it’s just as exciting. He’s just as excited. And what world is it that we are entering? And obviously, Killers is a new world from The Irishman certainly, and before The Irishman, Silence. I am so blessed and lucky, and it’s so artistically fulfilling to work with Marty every single time. It’s fun, and so very creative, and a blast. I don’t even know what to say. It’s fantastic. And this was a really different world that we just entered. So maybe next year you and I will discuss that world.

Q: Do you have any other projects that you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?

A: No, not yet. I think Corey Finley is going to be doing something new, so that’s going to be fun because Cory’s great. He’s wonderful, a fantastic writer, a fantastic director, and I feel really lucky that I met him and got to work with him, starting on Bad Education. Killers is definitely what took us mid-pandemic and to the end, so that’s great. I’m also trying to think about some of the people who are in The Queen’s Gambit that Scott had worked with before. The Lewis twins, Matthew and Russell Lewis, who are along with Beth at different points on her journey, and then Mrs. Deardorff, Christiane Seidel is a wonderful actress who plays the scary woman who runs the orphanage. It’s just great that Scott enjoys it. I think a lot of directors do. You can you can have a shorthand with people and also, once they’re on a set and then they get to see a face of someone that they know and they’ve worked with it must be great. I don’t know. I never go to the set, so I have no idea what it’s like. But I’m excited that people loved Queen’s Gambit so much. It’s just thrilling. I’m really proud for Kate and Olivia, and our associate in Germany, Anna-Lena Slater. It’s great. It was wonderful.

The Queen’s Gambit is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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