Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s face may be familiar, and for good reason. He started his acting career in 2002 in a BBC adaptation of Stig of the Dump, and has continued to make waves within the acting world. As he has grown up, so have his acting abilities, allowing him to land roles in Game of Thrones, Godless and The Maze Runner. With a plethora of credits to his name, ‘Artist of Distinction’ Thomas is one of the most exciting and versatile young British actors. Lewis Magazine takes the opportunity to discuss his role of Benny Watts in Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.
So Thomas, you have been acting for as many years as you have been on this earth (slight exaggeration). But where did it all begin?
My mum was a Ballerina and my dad is an actor so I grew up in an environment where performing was just the natural and normal thing to do. We always had musical instruments and art around us, so doing something expressive and artistic was bound to happen. I didn’t expect to go into the world of acting with the view of it being a career. It was just something fun to do at the age of 10 and I enjoyed the responsibility of having a job to do on set.
You are an extremely versatile actor, but how did you manage to hone your craft?
I’ve always been somebody that learns best visually and physically. I didn’t actually train professionally, so everything that I have learnt in this field came from being on set and working with other people in the moment.
Do you get nervous when preparing to be on set? How do you overcome this?
The first day on a new project always arrives with a heavy helping of nerves but once you make a start and you’ve got a feel for the set and how the people operate, those nerves get replaced with excitement and confidence. Once you’ve spent a few days with your character they become familiar and the whole experience is so much easier.
What has been your most exciting role to date?
That is a really difficult question to answer as all of my roles have been very different and special in their own right. Also, I find that I relate those characters to events and moments in my life. For me, I really enjoyed playing a cowboy in the Netflix show Godless. I’m sure every boy goes through a stage growing up where they want to be a cowboy. It is just a fun as I thought it would be!
And what has been your most emotionally intense role? How do you go about preparing for this?
When it comes to accessing a level of truth when playing a character, you have to use a variety of emotions. They are useful and fascinating to explore; I always learn something new about myself when playing a character. For example, I did an independent film called Death of a Superhero which was about a young boy who struggles with all of the normal things that any teenage boy would struggle with, but in addition he has a form of terminal cancer. I found that having to deal with guilt, unwanted sympathy, and trying to come to terms with the fact that my character was dying was challenging but hugely gratifying to put myself in such complex shoes.
How did you find shooting The Queen’s Gambit, especially with respect to inhabiting the Cold War era?
What a great era for fashion, cars, music, hair etc. I have never done anything set in the 60s before and I loved being transported to that world every day when I walked on set. I had worked with Scott (the director) and a lot of the key crew from my time on Godless so it felt like going back and working with old friends again, only in a world from another time. All of my fellow actors were fantastic to work with which always makes things easier.
How have you found stepping into the shoes of Benny Watts for this series? What have been your challenges?
Benny was a very cool character; he is a rebel in the world of chess. Arrogantly talented and relishes any chance to destroy his opponent. He enjoys standing out from the crowd and I think he is drawn to Beth because she too is an enigma who is talented and really stands out from the rest. I also loved having the opportunity to delve into the crazy world of Grandmaster chess.
You will have spent a large portion of time getting into your character’s head and developing alongside ‘him’. But who do you think Benny represents?
Benny represents individuality in a chess world full of mundanity. Tweed suits and neat hair are replaced with long black trench coats, wispy facial hair, women’s hats and a knife. He represents the opposite of a typical chess master.
What aspects of your character do you think are similar, and different to your personality?
Both Benny and I are calm, thoughtful and nonplussed by drama. I don’t think I’m as ostentatious or as image focused as Benny but I admire the way that he doesn’t care about what others might think of him.
What did you love about the time in which The Queen’s Gambit was set? And what didn’t you like?
The list of things that I love about the 60s is huge. I may be guilty of wearing rose-tinted glasses here but nevertheless, I think that this era was a wonderful time for design in general. It was a time of expression and experimentation. The Vietnam War was the first war where cameras were let onto the front lines and the people at home saw for the first time the true, gritty, filthy, unfiltered non-biased side of war and made a stand to stop it. Music, culture and society seemed to be linked up in a way that made people realize that they could do anything. This was a time when society felt that they had the ability to change what they thought was wrong in the world. All of this was emphasized by the fact that civil rights were still not a reality and the biggest world powers were far too occupied with trying to outdo each other in their quest to prove who had the biggest and best devices to ensure total global destruction. The 60s were beautiful because in the darkness of all that was so ugly in the world, there was still a light that was full of love and demanded change. That for me best sums up what humanity is all about. We can be terrible creatures but we can also be bloody brilliant too!
Have you ever considered yourself as any good at chess? Did you have to learn how to play for this series?
I knew how to play chess before but was never great. I’m still not great… But learning from some of the best players in the world was truly eye opening and fascinating. I wouldn’t say I’m any better than I was before shooting though!
What was the best part of working on this show?
A highlight is always getting to work and hang out with such lovely and talented people all day. It drives you to be the best you can when everyone around you is so good and passionate about what they do.
You’ve done both TV and film, what are your experiences of the differences between the two? Do you have a preference?
There is definitely a lot less snobbery surrounding TV these days. I think that the standard of both film and TV are as high as each other. There is, and always will be something special about the format of a film and I hope that never dies out, but a series allows more time and space for storytelling and character development. I like both. I think that the fact TV has upped its game so much in the last few years will push the film world to spend more time on script development and making sure that their movies are at least as good as anything on the streaming services.
How have you seen the acting industry change over the years?
It’s still the same in that it is a magical, yet scary and cut throat; a world where stories come to life. I think the changes that we see are more from the use of social media and how content is viewed. I’m still not sure whether the direction that the industry is going in is even a good one but we shall wait and see. Other than that, the technology on set is quite amazing now; tiny cameras, drones, wireless. The digital revolution has transformed how we now make movies. When I started everyone was using 35mm celluloid! Yet the essence remains unchanged.
How have you managed to embrace your own sense of identity when having to delve into character development?
That’s almost impossible to answer. The two often, if not, always merge. Dealing with that is just what I call living and gathering experience.
Who are some of your inspirations both professionally and personally?
The people who inspire me the most are those who often aren’t a part of the industry at all. I love Valentino Rossi and Lewis Hamilton because what they do is so different to what I do professionally. I ride motorbikes and love cars but could never do what those two do. To me they are aliens. People who reach greatness in their field are always inspiring, regardless of their path.
And finally, we would like to know what is next.
What happens next is mostly unknown to me. That’s what’s so exciting about the future. I hope to continue to get opportunities to work with amazing people from around the world and tell stories to inspire others.
The Queen’s Gambit is available on Netflix