Claire Armitstead – The Guardian
Film director Marielle Heller: ‘I hope I can make it easier for people who come after me.’ Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian
It’s 2pm on polling day in Connecticut and Marielle Heller is hunkering down to await the result of the US election with her family, after venturing out to cast her vote. No, it wasn’t very busy, she says over Zoom, but it’s a small town “and I wore two masks”. We briefly ponder the nail-biting hours that lie between our conversation and publication of this article. It would be a good time for a few games of chess, except that Heller isn’t interested in chess. “I feel like I should pretend that I am. My kid has started learning how to play and was taking classes before the quarantine began. But yeah, my five-year-old knows more about chess than me,” she says.
This is an endearingly unguarded declaration from a woman who has returned to acting, after the best part of a decade behind the camera, for a Netflix series that is all about the rise of a chess prodigy. For the record, I’m not interested in chess either, but despite its dogged pursuit of the perfect opening, I found The Queen’s Gambit compelling, not least because of Heller’s performance as Alma, the adoptive mother of a fiery young girl whose extraordinary gift takes her from a Kentucky orphanage to the top of the world rankings.
Based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, the series plunges its fictional protagonist – Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) – into an atmospheric reconstruction of the early 1960s: Martha and the Vandellas ring out of the radiogram, but chess is even more of an exclusively white, male game than it is today and chamber versions of the cold war play out around the world in the swanky hotels where this terrestrial counterpart to the space race is taking place.
The backstory to the rags-to-riches tale is altogether more homely: it shows the transition of America itself from the apple-pie values of the 1950s, which shackled women to their cookers and vacuum cleaners, to the economic and social possibilities of the 1960s. Given the nostalgic fantasies currently being peddled by rightwing movements around the world, it could be read as a cautionary tale.
This thought draws a big sigh from Heller, whose professional life – in terms of the career decisions she has made and the stories she has chosen to tell – reveals both how far women have come and how much further they still have to travel. Over the last five years, she has directed three well-received films, but, despite regular listings in newspaper picks of the year, the closest she has so far come to any of cinema’s most glittering prizes was as one of eight names embroidered on Natalie Portman’s cape, in a protest at the 2020 Oscars ceremony about the absence of any female directors among the nominations.
How does she feel about that? “I mean, you know, I went through it two years in a row,” she says. “With Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I had allowed myself to think something could happen, but by the time we got to last year, I was like, ‘Oh, no, now I see how this system works and why this isn’t gonna change any time soon.’”
She’s currently confined at home with her comedian husband, Jorma Taccone, who wanders across the screen, waving hello, in a woolly hat. Their two-month-old baby is asleep in a bedroom. It seems a reflection of life in some dimly remembered fast lane that their daughter was conceived and born in the lost months since she finished filming The Queen’s Gambit in Berlin late last year.
She took the role of Alma partly, she says, because “I just found her so tragic and sweet”, but also because she wanted a break from the responsibility of directing and was keen to work with its screenwriter-director Scott Frank, who she befriended as a fellow director but who talked her into playing the ultra-minor part of a dead FBI agent in his 2014 thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones. “I accepted it for fun but got cut out, so all you see of me in the movie now is a photograph,” she says. “But I did film a few scenes with him. And he was like, ‘Oh, you’re actually an actor.’”
Heller has actually been an actor since her early childhood in California. Her dad was a chiropractor and her mum an art teacher and she was the eldest of three, all of whom have gone on to make careers in the arts and entertainment. “I was one of those probably annoying little kids who was always putting on plays with my family,” she says. At the age of eight, she went legit, joining the local youth theatre and being charged with breathing musical life into characters ranging from Rabbit in Winnie-the-Pooh to Templeton the rat in Charlotte’s Web.
She left school to study theatre at UCLA, followed by London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, building a respectable acting career in downtown New York and in regional theatres around the US, but in her late 20s realised that if she wanted truly satisfying roles, she would just have to write them herself. One turning point was a midwinter audition for a commercial in New York that required her to don a bikini and throw a beach ball in the air. “I had no lines. And I thought, is this what I went to theatre school for?”
She both wrote and directed her first film, 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and it was eight years in the making. “It was really this passion project for me where I wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” she says. Based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, it was about a love affair between a 15-year-old girl and her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend. Its frank depiction of teenage sexuality sent some viewers into a spin, not least the British Board of Film Classification, which to Heller’s fury gave it an 18 rating. The world just doesn’t want to think about the sexuality of young girls, she says.
Her second film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? was more mainstream: a biopic of an alcoholic writer, Lee Israel, who took to forging letters from celebrities after her career as a biographer stalled. It earned a constellation of four- and five-star reviews, winning Oscar nominations for its lead actors Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant, and a Writers Guild of America award for its screenplay, but nothing for Heller herself.
From there, she made a side-swerve from female-centred movies to direct Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, about the beloved American children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers. It was, she says now, her antidote to the Trump era, “which is to say that if Trump wasn’t the president, I don’t know that I would have wanted to make a movie about Mr Rogers, but it felt like the thing that the world needed was an example of a sensitive man who was trying to help us get in touch with our emotions, who believed in kindness over cruelty”.
The Queen’s Gambit touches on some of the themes that have come up in her own films – the relationship of women to addiction and the possibility of remaining unspoilt by success. Beth is a popper of her adoptive mother’s happy pills and is followed around by rumours that her genius may be the flipside of psychosis. But Heller is not having any of it. “I hate the narrative that people have to be tortured in order to be good artists. I think it’s a solipsistic view that people use in order to be selfish. I don’t think we have to be jerks to make good art either, but somehow we as a society have romanticised that idea.”
In particular, she says, it doesn’t take into account the sheer hard slog that goes into any creative achievement, whether winning at chess or directing films. “Writing, directing – it’s just torture every time and it doesn’t seem to get any easier. And yet I love them and I’m not going to stop doing them.” By the time she was on to her third film, she realised that there could at least be some sort of a technical fix.
For her first two, she had stuck to the punitive hours that are the industry standard and it meant that she never saw her son awake. “He was two at the time and I thought I can’t do this to him very often, because it really traumatised him.” Then Melissa McCarthy introduced her to the idea of “French hours” – a strict 10-hour filming day with no break for lunch. Yes there was some pushback, she says, but she armed herself with the certainty that “Mr Rogers would not have wanted us to abandon our children in order to make this movie. And it was wonderful. It meant that three nights out of the week at least, I got home to put my kid to bed. For many women, that’s the difference between working and not working.”
Does she think that things are generally improving for women in film? She’s anxious about overstepping her own experience and concerned that the pandemic has pushed everything backwards: “A lot of people are leaving their families behind and agreeing to go be part of a movie set where they’re not going to see anybody but those who are working with them and that’s not something I can do right now.”
But the door is at least ajar. “And I feel really lucky,” she says. “I’ve had a huge amount of opportunity come my way and I know that that’s because of all of the women who came before me who have not had it as easy, who have pushed the door open for me to be able to walk through it. And I hope that I can help make it easier for people who come after me.”