“Laughter’s important and we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously,” quips Thomas Brodie-Sangster. What strikes me about Sangster, who stars in Netflix’s recent smash hit, The Queen’s Gambit, is his relaxed, wry sense of humour. Our conversation is peppered with his witty remarks, and I get the impression of a laid-back, yet whip-sharp individual. Sangster is so refreshingly level-headed that he might just be the perfect person to speak to in the middle of the third national lockdown. “My life was very fast before this all happened” he says, “so I think it’s good that we’ve all slowed down a bit.”

Throughout the interview he’s calm and collected, his demeanour reflected by the understated chic of his style. Zooming me from his minimalist bedroom, he’s dressed in a black crewneck, hair swept neatly to one side, the only noticeable adornment I can see is a small, tasteful gold earring. Sangster’s whole presence is suffused with a classic British sophistication, and there is also a playful mischief there, at times reinforced by a subtle raised eyebrow.

You might remember Sangster as sweet little Sam in Love Actually. Or, perhaps you recognise him as Simon from family-favourite comedy Nanny McPhee. These classic 2000s British films have cemented him as a distinguishable, and beloved, face in many households. And whilst the fanbase Sangster garnered as a child star loyally persists, it’s safe to say his career has vastly evolved since then. Now, his IMDB page boasts the likes of Game of Thrones, Star Wars, The Maze Runner Trilogy, and (more recently) The Queen’s Gambit.

Thomas and Georgina chatting over Zoom

In The Queen’s Gambit, Sangster delivers a cracking performance as Benny Watts: an arrogant, uber-smart chess prodigy. Writer and director Scott Frank asked Sangster personally to be involved, and he immediately said yes without knowing what it was about. Having worked together previously on Scott’s show Godless, Sangster trusted him as an ‘amazing storyteller’, and this crucial bond between actor and director is what I am keen to explore.

Georgina Buckle: What specific qualities in a director make you passionate to work with them?

Thomas Brodie-Sangster: I always think it’s a hard job. You’ve got to be the person to bring everything together. You’ve got to be easy-going. You can’t be too stringent. Great directors trust in the fact that they’ve got the crew that’s perfect for the job, and then let them have a bit of freedom to do what they want – that’s how you get the most out of it. The best directors actually let you go quite far, and then reel you back in. They give you time to experiment with going a little beyond certain edges, experimenting with different ideas and bouncing off of other actors. Then they reel you back in and begin shaping it and moulding it – they make the scene a bit of them and a bit of you. So, it’s a sharing, a give and take, all the while keeping an uplifting, positive, carefree attitude on set. It’s important to not let things become too serious.

GB: Was this the case with The Queen’s Gambit?

TBS: Absolutely. I’ve worked with Scott beforehand, so we already had a chemistry going. I think he trusted me a lot to go and have fun with Benny, because the part I played for him previously [in Godless] was also quite a cocky, arrogant, self-indulgent character. It isn’t very me at all, and isn’t what I usually get cast as, so I had great fun doing that. Scott trusted me to do that again quite easily. I suppose I was responsible for bringing a bit of fun-ness to the set, purely because of what my character [Benny Watts] is like.

“I was responsible for bringing a bit of fun-ness to the set, purely because of what Benny is like”

Sangster [right] delivers a cracking performance as Benny Watts in The Queen's GambitTwitter / @netflix

GB: Benny’s character certainly has a multitude of quirks: the moustache, the accent, the hat, the style, the swagger, the knife… He’s a big personality. How much say did you get in the character work for that?

TBS: A lot of it was there in the writing already, which makes such a big difference, and Scott had loads of details: it was his idea to have the hat, to have the facial hair, the knife. They’re all little things that don’t actually amount to anything in the story. There’s no reason why he has a knife, or a hat, and the facial hair isn’t remarked upon, but it’s just little character details which make the audience think ‘why do they have this, or wear this?’ You realise it’s got nothing to do with the story, but it also makes you realise that they are real people. You do that when you meet someone new: can’t help but analyse them a little bit, try and work out all the little details in how they choose to hold themselves. I did get to pick which hat, knife and coat we used though. It was me, Scott, the costume designer and props department – it was a collaboration.

GB: Was there any specific accessory that you saw and thought ‘I need to have that’ for filming?

TBS: Yeah, Benny’s lighter. They had twenty different old Ronson Zippo lighters, and we all got to pick one which suited our character the most. Beth’s one was the coolest, though. A little Ronson with black and white checkers on it, all inlaid, like a chessboard.

GB: What do you think Benny’s Zippo lighter said about him?

TBS: It’s flash and cool and cocky and it flicks and chinks and is noisy – a bit like a gun. It explodes into life and gives unnecessarily big flame. So, I think that suited him.

GB: How much did you get into character in the run-up to filming? Was it a case of being Benny from morning to night, round the house with mates, on your phone to your mum..?

TBS: I wouldn’t say I’m your classic method actor at all. But the first thing I do is start compiling a playlist on Spotify, of all old 60s music, to try and figure out what music he’d listen to in his little New York apartment. That point in NY was an amazing time for music, all underground. That was the first thing I did: just sat and listened to quite a bit of music, even cooking, cleaning, around the house… To get into the period a bit, it helps quite a lot.

“The first thing I do is start compiling a playlist on Spotify, of all old 60s music, to try and figure out what music Benny would listen to in his little New York apartment”

GB: I’m sure there’d be some Stones on that playlist…

TBS: Yeah, a few Rolling Stones. I put some The Modern Lovers on there too, which is a bit dirgy and a bit dirty, because Benny is a bit rough, a bit dirty... Also, the odd Kinks. Jimi Hendrix was on there too.

GB: I know that Scott altered the scenes between Benny and Beth once he had seen the set design for Benny’s apartment. Were there any other changes that you had to respond to during the course of production?

TBS: Yeah definitely, and that’s always quite fun. It’s important to keep yourself open to change - it keeps you on your toes. It keeps you inspired and interested in the day. It wasn’t particularly hard or challenging to adapt either. I trusted Scott hugely, so it was great fun. There were a few scenes which got cut: one is a gambling scene where Beth comes along and gets annoyed that she just gets drunk in the corner whilst Benny is gambling with his friends. It would have added a little more to the ambience of that little studio apartment that he’s got.

GB: Were there any favourite scenes to film?

TBS: There was a scene where I got to drive an old 60s Beatle, I really enjoyed doing that. I basically only got to pull-up, as the rest was all on green screen, but I got to chuck it into first, move it along and put the brakes on… I nearly rear-ended a 1967 Mustang – I didn’t realise old brakes just don’t work. Also, anything in my apartment because it’s just such a cool set piece. All of those chess magazines with my face everywhere on them – I love how Benny just collects these magazines with his face on them, lined up so people who visit his apartment can see. I meant to keep some of those magazines actually!

"I love how Benny just collects these magazines with his face on them, lined up so people who visit his apartment can see"TWITTER / @netflixqueue

GB: You’re a man of eclectic interests: acting, painting, building, guitars, cars. It seems like you do and love everything. At the moment you’re designing your new house, and I was wondering: what’s your vision for the house?

TBS: I’ve been sketching and doing drawings – trying to work out what colours would fit, what bathroom taps I might want to choose. [Pulls out a sketchpad from the side of his bed]. It’s a little old Victorian house so I want it to be slightly modern but keeping in-line with the house. It’s fun, I get to speak about steel beams and choose where I want the doors. It’s very exciting – the first time I’ve ever done anything like this.

GB: A bit like having a baby.

TBS: Yeah, it is. I get to go home and do loads of sketches to visualise what it will be like for me. I try to do sketches for most of the rooms, the ones where I think it might be hard to demonstrate what character I want it to have. I keep sketching it out because I want the rooms to all feel like ‘me’.

GB: Is there a specific room you think will be your favourite?

TBS: The kitchen, I love to cook! It’s the hub of the home. I’d love to have a big cooker and just get cooking.

"I get to go home and do loads of sketches to visualise what it will be like for me"

GB: On the topic of food, are there any dishes you would recommend to a uni student? I’m thinking relatively low cost, few ingredients, but a big pay-off.

TBS: Well, I think a roast chicken is always good. It feeds quite a lot of people, and you just chuck it into the oven, chop up some onions as a bed underneath it, bit of salt, bit of pepper - everyone likes a chicken. And everyone should be able to do a roast chicken.

GB: In my experience, there are too many ways a chicken can go wrong, trust me.

TBS: I don’t think there are though! You just cook it for an hour and it’s done. But if not that, there’s always eggs – they are a classic.

GB: That’s true. What have you learnt in these last few months in lockdown?

TBS: To just be a bit more patient, with other people and myself. There’s no point being frustrated because everyone in the world is in the same situation. Sometimes, it’s hard to feel like you’re reaching your full potential because you’re stuck a bit – but the nice thing to know is that everyone else is in the same boat.

GB: In practice, how’s it going?

TBS: So far… It’s okay. When I woke up this morning I was a bit... [he makes the gesture of fist-clenching grumpiness]. I had to go for a walk, grab some food, enjoy the sun, watch some birds, and then I was alright again.

Chatting with Tom is effortless, and I’ve almost forgotten that he was the actor that my friends were swooning over when I told them I was interviewing him. His willingness to engage makes conversation bounce back-and-forth, even, at one point, with our going on a very unrelated tangent about how bucket hats are coming back into fashion. At the risk of testing the patience he’s learnt, I ask if he would be willing to end on a quick-fire question round and, in-keeping with how gracious he’s been so far, he agrees.

15 Quick-fire questions

GB: Favourite painting of all time?

TBS: Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.

GB: Three words to describe yourself?

TBS: Calm, intrigued, stubborn.

GB: Most outrageous lockdown purchase?

TBS: [laughs] There’s been a few. I bought myself a camping knife, for… camping in London, if I’d ever do that? I bought this nice, good-sized little knife: it’s made in America, it’s got a nice wooden handle, good quality steel… I know I’m just trying to justify it to myself. I think I got it’s because I was missing my Benny Watts knife.

GB: Dream character to play?

TBS: Some kind of baddie, someone with a real sinister edge. A real twisted psychopath.

GB: Last spontaneous thing that you did?

TBS: Bought a knife?

GB: Biggest pet peeve?

TBS: Ooh. I’ve got a few. The one that comes to mind is when people speak as if they are asking a question. It happens all the time.

GB: Any quirky habits?

TBS: I like to tinker in my shed and build stuff. Constantly working on multiple projects that never seem to get finished: a bit of a bass guitar, then I’ll start stripping a carburettor.

GB: If you were a car, which one would you be?

TBS: The obvious choice would be a dark green coupe, 1963 Jaguar E-type – I’m quite English. It’s one of my favourite cars of all time and I’ve always had a connection to it.

GB: Favourite South London haunt?

TBS: [laughs] Well it used to be a really dirty pub called The Old Dispensary, which is just a very naughty pub. But I stopped going there a few years ago. The Windmill in Brixton is fun. I just like floating around the good old-boy pubs, some local cockney.

GB: Drink of choice on a night out?

TBS: Guinness.

GB: Drink of choice on a night in?

TBS: Red wine or Scottish single malt whiskey.

GB: Most prized clothing possession?

TBS: My great-grandfather’s long black trench kind of coat. It has old stitching from his war medals that he won, and his name still embroidered.

GB: First destination you’re travelling to when the pandemic is over?

TBS: It probably will be a pub to go get a nice, fresh pint of Guinness. But in terms of travel, I might pop over to France to visit my sister. Or maybe a long drive through England up into Scotland.

GB: A song on the soundtrack to your life?

TBS: ‘Something’ by The Beatles. No, actually – Queen, ‘I’m In Love With My Car’. I mean, I’d hope it would be a long soundtrack for a long life.

GB: What’s one thing you’d like to have achieved by the end of 2021?

TBS: A finished house and to be back on a motorbike. I haven’t gotten any riding in for a year, because one bike doesn’t work and the other one got stolen. I’ve missed it for my mind, it’s a good release. So, back on a bike and back in a house!