In Conversation With Jacob Fortune-Lloyd
First there was Tiger King, then Banana bread yet closing off our first year of lockdown in utter elegance was Scott Frank’s award-winning ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, a coming-of-age drama that celebrates female empowerment, the importance of mental health and of course, chess. Anybody who fell under the spell of the dazzling sixties aesthetics - and outfits - found themselves subsequently swooning for the British actor Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, playing the enigmatic love-interest turned supportive best friend, Townes. From one female empowering show to the next, Fortune-Lloyd, will soon be starring in the series-adaption of the Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Power’, so rest assured we’ll be seeing a lot more of the actor very soon.
Your latest feat was starring in the immensely popular Netflix mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit. I believe congratulations are in order as the series has just been awarded a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice award, what was your first reaction when you received the script, did you imagine it would become such a global success?
I was very excited to get an audition with Scott who has written and directed some extremely classy films and television. I thought it was an elegant and unique script with great heart and depth. I knew it would be well received, but I didn’t bank on it blowing up like it has.
You play the role of D. L. Townes, who meets Beth as a college-level chess player and becomes her very first love interest. This shift in relationship leads to one of the most intimate moments of the series, which is then abruptly ended and met with sexual ambiguity, how did you navigate your shift as potential love to platonic friend?
Townes doesn’t know something might happen when they go up to the hotel room, and that intimate moment comes as a surprise. So it was being alive to the possibilities in each scene, and to the complexity and volatility of human intimacy. Their eventual friendship is a beautiful resolution, huge credit to Alan and Scott who made that happen, because it’s not in the Walter Tevis book.
How did you prepare yourself to play for the role of a closeted gay man in the 1960s, with an American accent no less?
Townes is from Kentucky, where having sex with another man was illegal until the early nineties, and where before a Supreme Court ruling in 2015 same-sex couples couldn’t marry. It was important to understand the very real need for secrecy at that time. That said, Townes has clearly found a way to enjoy his life despite the law and social prejudice, so I wanted to play a man who was understandably guarded and cautious, but also confident in his sexuality. British actors audition for a lot of work that requires a US accent, so you’ve just got to be able to do it. I tried to sneak in a little Kentucky lilt in there; you’ll have to ask a Kentuckian if I succeeded or not.
Beth personifies a rebellious young woman finding her freedom in the 1960s while challenging the notions of gender within the male-dominated chess industry. How did you see Townes’ position as a man, faced with this domination of a woman?
A lot of the men she meets are condescending at first, then when she beats them, they treat her like a freak. Townes occupies a more enlightened position: he acknowledges and respects Beth’s prodigious talent, but he treats her like a human being. He’s kind, encouraging, and a gracious loser.
The significance of Townes sexual orientation wasn’t only crucial for the storyline development of the Queen’s Gambit but made an impact far beyond the series too. Townes has now become somewhat of a queer-icon, how have you experienced the reception to your performance?
I wasn’t really aware of that until a friend told me that Townes had been listed in IndieWire’s best LGBTQ characters of 2020, which was a very nice surprise. I’m just pleased people have responded so enthusiastically to the show and to the character.
How is the show aiding the conversation about mental health?
Beth goes through a lot at a very young age, and that trauma results in some mental health issues. The show asks the viewer to sympathize with her struggles, and then shows a way out of that pain through love and friendship. Those things take time and aren’t always easy, but they are shown to be Beth’s only way to move on with her life, which I think makes the show hopeful and inspiring.
How is the show aiding the conversation about gender equality?
It reminds us that talents and gifts are distributed evenly amongst us, and it’s madness to insist on any other reality.
We’ve heard rumours that you are quite the chess-wiz, did you have any experience with chess before receiving the script?
Yeah I had a little, but I definitely wouldn’t call myself a wiz by any stretch of the imagination. I do really like playing though, and will be joining a local club when things open up again so I can finally learn how to play the Queen’s Gambit properly.
You have previously starred in BBC’s Wolf Hall and as Archbishop Francesco Salviati in Medici, both relying heavily on historical accounts, what was your approach when preparing for these wildly famous characters?
There’s a bit more information out there that may or may not be useful, but in the end it’s all about serving the script, working out what your character’s specific role is in the story. Whether it’s historical or not, it still comes down to finding the right rhythm, the right sound and the right physicality.
"Townes occupies a more enlightened position: he acknowledges and respects Beth’s prodigious talent, but he treats her like a human being. He’s kind, encouraging, and a gracious loser."
Although most of our readers will know you from the screen, you have quite the penchant for acting on stage too. Previously part of the Royal Shakespeare company you starred in Othello and the Merchant of Venice, where does your appetite for acting stem from?
I’ve no idea really, I’ve just always loved doing it. My mum recently discovered that we have an ancestor who was one half of a Vaudeville act called Weber and Fields, who were very successful in late 19th/early 20th century New York. So maybe it’s in the blood…
You also have quite the knack for singing, in the future could we potentially see you on stage in the West End or even Broadway?
You never know! A revival of Guys and Dolls maybe, something bluesy like Hadestown, or a Sondheim, I’m game.
The Queen’s Gambit was a welcome distraction during 2020, how did you keep yourself busy last year?
Oh the usual really, lots of TV, exercise, reading, waving at people on my computer screen. It was hard to feel motivated, but at some point, you’ve just got to accept that.
Looking to the future, what other projects do you have on the horizon for 2021?
My next block on The Power (Sister Pictures/Amazon) gets going really soon. A couple of small roles in some interesting films, and a music video, which is a fun first.