Marielle Heller on ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ Directing Tom Hanks, and More
Marielle Heller had tried everything. She was nearly a year into her campaign to adapt The Diary of a Teenage Girl, cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel, into a play, and she was no closer to her goal. At the time, around 2007, Heller had zero writing or directing credits to her name. But she was convinced that Gloeckner’s story, about a 15-year-old testing the limits of her sexual desires in 1970s San Francisco, was one that she wanted to tell. So she busted out the nuclear option.
“I just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Heller recalls. “I called Phoebe and was like, ‘I don’t accept it. I don’t accept a no. Let me sit down with you. Let me tell you what I want to do. Let me tell you why this means so much to me.’ I sent her a million pictures of my cats. I went to Michigan and stayed with her and her kids, and got to know her better.”
She’s fairly certain it was the cat photos that did it in the end. After 10 months, Gloeckner cracked, and agreed to let Heller adapt Diary, first for the stage and eventually for the screen. Heller’s frank, funny, gloriously unnerving 2015 film went on to become a critical and festival favorite; it won Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards, and set the ball rolling on a career that’s only continued to pick up speed.
“At some point I realized: They’re saying no to me, but why do I have to accept it?” Heller says. “I have nothing to lose. I can just keep pushing.”
Heller, 41, went on to direct 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which starred Melissa McCarthy as the infamous writer and literary forger Lee Israel. The next year, she directed A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, about the unlikely friendship between an embittered journalist and the beloved children’s-TV icon Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. Both films earned Academy Award nominations (lead, supporting actor, and screenplay noms for Forgive Me; supporting for Hanks’ turn in Neighborhood). Last year, she helmed the filmed version of Heidi Schreck’s Pulitzer- and Tony-contending play, What the Constitution Means to Me, and made an unexpected return to her first passion, acting, in Netflix’s chess-prodigy story, The Queen’s Gambit. Heller’s juicy turn as the self-liberating, alcoholic housewife Alma Wheatley was the series’ beating heart.
It’s mid-January, in the depths of coronavirus winter, and Heller and her family have temporarily decamped from their New York City apartment to “a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere” in Connecticut. Her husband, the Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone, occasionally flits by in the background, stopping to wave hello to the camera. “I have a four-month-old and a six-year-old, and the world is falling apart, so I’m just glad to be here,” the writer-director says with an amiable shrug.
Heller has taken an unusual path to becoming one of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors. Growing up in Berkeley, California, with an art-teacher mother and a chiropractor father, she was drawn to acting at an early age. “I think I was one of those really annoying kids who was so clearly wanting to be a performer,” she admits, with a laugh. At the age of eight, she landed a spot in Alameda Children’s Musical Theater, shirking her schoolwork to perform in three or four plays a year. “At that time, I just felt like, ‘Oh, my God — this is what I was made to do.’” After high school, she studied theater at UCLA, but once she graduated and started auditioning, Heller quickly grew disenchanted, and as she puts it, “betrayed by the business.”
“The life of being an actor sucks,” she says. “I was in theater school playing Lady Macbeth and doing these great dramatic parts, and then I got out into the real world and was auditioning for commercials, and just not getting to do anything that felt remotely meaningful. I had this vision of these great creative conversations I would have with people and this deep emotional work that we’d all be doing. Then it really was more about whether you were working out enough and in good enough shape to get cast as a character.”
Then, when she was 26 years old, her sister (comedian Emily Heller) gave her a copy of Gloeckner’s 2002 book. She fell in love. “It just spoke to me in a way that I can’t describe; it felt so real,” Heller remembers. “It crystallized the way I had felt as a teenage girl, and it made me realize I had never felt represented in that way. I was so blown away by the candor in it and how relatable it felt, even though it wasn’t my story at all. I was like, ‘Oh, this is what boys must have felt when they read The Catcher in the Rye.’ It just really exploded my world.”
After her prolonged tango with Gloeckner, Heller was accepted into Sundance’s screenwriting and directing labs, intensive fellowship programs for up-and-coming filmmakers. There, she got to work on the screenplay for Diary; she also met many of her future collaborators, among them Forgive Me co-writer Nicole Holofcener, Neighborhood cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, and Queen’s Gambit co-creator Scott Frank.
Heller all but gave up acting for a career behind the camera after Diary. But it’s her background in the art form that has always informed her work as a director. “I love human beings, and I love their faces,” she says, “and I love that, in film, you get to experience the world in this really intimate way. I just think good actors are the main reason to make movies.”
According to the actors she’s worked with, her performer’s eye shows. “It’s an absolute gift to have a director who is also an amazing actor,” says McCarthy via email. “There was not a single moment that I didn’t feel that we were telling this story together.” Hanks agrees. “All directors should have to act; all actors should have to direct,” he declares. “If not, a human element is missing from the process. Mari doesn’t just respect actors — she relies on them and has faith in an actor’s mysterious process. I found her candor and assuredness both liberating and badass.”
Hanks is quick to express admiration for Heller’s dogged ability to go after exactly what she wants — and reject what she doesn’t want. He’d been a fan of the director’s work ever since he saw Diary, and reached out to her to see if she was interested in collaborating. “I sent her some screenplays, but she did not bite,” he says by email. “She literally wrote to me: ‘This is the easiest no I’ve ever said.’ Man, that was impressive.”
If Heller was unafraid to say no to an icon like Hanks, she was also unafraid to go after an elusive yes. Neighborhood writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster had approached Hanks about playing Mr. Rogers in the film four times, and he always turned it down. But when Heller was brought onto the project, she said, “Well, let me try.” She discussed the role with Hanks at a children’s birthday party in his son Colin’s backyard, and within a week, he’d signed on. “Everybody was like, ‘How did you do that?’” Heller recalls with a grin. “That was great.”
Crucially, her approach to the story of Neighborhood was to think of Rogers as the antagonist. “Because he required such deep honesty from the people around him and wouldn’t settle for anything less, he really pushed people,” she says. “He made a good antagonist for that reason.”
The focus of the film instead is cranky magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who’s the kind of protagonist the director is always drawn to. Like Diary’s Minnie (Bel Powley) and Forgive Me’s Lee, Lloyd is both a creative and a complicated man, off-putting and, at first, tricky for an audience to love. But not for Heller. “All of my characters that I make movies about are characters who’ve made me feel less alone,” she says. “Because I see their struggle, and it makes me recognize that my struggle is not mine alone. I would never make a movie about somebody who I wasn’t sort of in love with.”
Lee Israel, in particular, fits this mold. “I felt like she was a character I’d never seen represented onscreen. I thought she was so difficult in all the best ways,” Heller says. Forgive Me came to Heller in a roundabout way: Anne Carey, one of her producers on Diary, had been trying to make a film of Israel’s 2008 memoir for years, but a previous incarnation of the adaptation had fallen apart. Heller was brought on to direct, and McCarthy signed on to star as the troubled writer.
Heller’s vision for the film centered on Israel’s friendship with the eccentric Jack Hock (played by eccentric extraordinaire Richard E. Grant), both of whom were queer and grappling with the realities of the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York. “I felt like: How can we make a movie about queer people in New York in the Eighties and not have it be a huge part of the story?” Heller says. The kismet of their relationship, old friends the city brings back together at a pivotal time, was, to her thinking, “the heart” of the story.
“You live in an apartment in New York, and you think all the time about like, ‘I don’t even know who’s living above me,’” Heller says. “There are all these anonymous people in that window or that window or that window, and everybody has their own interesting life that I know nothing about. I just loved this idea that someone like Lee Israel could be running this major con and just walking around next to you.”
That point was brought home to Heller when she was discussing the movie with her therapist, whose office was in a building on the Upper West Side, the neighborhood where Israel lived before she died in 2014. The director was amazed to learn that Israel’s real-life apartment was a few floors above the office where she was sitting.
“My therapist was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I did not like her. I knew she was doing shady things. She was a terrible neighbor,’” Heller relates with a laugh. “At this point, Lee was dead, but I could have run into her in the hallway or in the lobby. It’s so New York.”
Heller never planned to return to acting and lose the creative control she’d gained as a writer-director, but then came The Queen’s Gambit and the character of Alma, the exact type of tricky human being Heller adores. Frank, who had been her adviser at Sundance years before, initially came to her with a smaller role in the series. But a few months before production began, he called to say that the actor playing the co-starring role of protagonist Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) adoptive mother had dropped out, and would Heller be interested in taking it on?
“I was like, ‘What? You’re crazy. No. I haven’t acted in 10 years; nobody’s going to let you cast me in this part.’ He was like, ‘They already said yes,’” she recalls. At first, she turned it down. Two months shy of her 40th birthday, she’d just wrapped on Neighborhood, she had a toddler at home, and she didn’t want to jeopardize her directing career. But her husband urged her to seize the opportunity — as did a past version of herself. “My previous acting self, who I had been keeping buried under my kitchen floor, was banging on the door, being like, ‘Are you kidding me? I would have killed for that role, and you’re going to say no?’”
It was the first no Heller had given in a long time that turned into a yes, and she doesn’t regret it. But for those who loved her turn as Alma in Gambit, be forewarned: She insists that won’t become a pattern: “I’m too spoiled. I can’t go back to the lifestyle of an actor. I say that with the utmost respect toward actors who are toiling away at it. But there are too many things I want to direct and write. I don’t want to be waiting for the phone to ring.”
In 2019, Heller added producing to her bag of tricks, starting a production company called — what else? — Defiant by Nature. Per its mission statement, it’s dedicated to “shining bright lights on women and nonbinary creators.” She has a variety of TV projects in the works, including an adaptation of the #MeToo-centered This American Life episode “Five Women.” She is both pragmatic and hopeful about the future of female-driven stories in Hollywood. “The genie’s out of the bottle; there’s just no going back,” she says. “We’re all recognizing a shift in collective consciousness, [with] people finally going, ‘Oh, right. We’ve been living in a world fueled by white supremacy, fueled by the patriarchy, and we can’t go backwards.’ That doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be huge resistance. People are going to fight to keep their privilege and power, because that’s what happens when [it] starts to get dismantled.”
As we wrap up (and she carries her laptop to the kitchen to check on her sourdough loaf), Heller has something to dismantle herself: the myth of getting discovered in Hollywood. “I think there’s this unfortunate thing where a lot of us tend to think someone’s going to give us a big break, and I’ve never seen it. Big breaks don’t really exist,” she says. “The thing that I tell people is, ‘Nobody’s going to do it for you — it has to come from you.’”