Thank God for chess, eh? It’s been a bit of a lifeline during this lifeless lockdown of a year. It’s the board game that beat boredom; the pastime that passed time. It’s even managed to bless us with some much-needed edge-of-the-seat excitement — thanks to Netflix’s record-breaking, bishop-taking hit, The Queen’s Gambit.
In fact, just three weeks after The Queen’s Gambit was released, US sales of chess sets had almost doubled, rising by 87%. It’s an unexpected resurgence, but one that Jacob Fortune-Lloyd — who plays enigmatic journalist D.L. Townes in the show — couldn’t be happier about. No wonder: gossip from the set makes it sound like the actor could pass for a chess champion in real life.
“I’m not bad!” laughs Fortune-Lloyd. “I sometimes play with friends in the pub. Weirdly, the quality of the chess tends to go down as the number of pints goes up…”
“But I learnt a lot on the show,” he adds. “I had a few games with Iepe Rubingh — one of the on-set chess consultants, and founder of Chess Boxing. He demolished me, but that’s how you learn! I was very sad to hear that Iepe passed away recently. The show is dedicated to him.”
As well as Rubingh, chess coaches including Bruce Pandolfini and World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov also consulted on the show — with producers wanting each game to look as authentic and realistic as possible. And they pulled it off. Even die-hard zealots and the exacting chess community are hailing The Queen’s Gambit a meticulously-made masterpiece.
“I was confident people would love the show,” says Fortune-Lloyd, “but I’ve been blown away by just how many people that turned out to be! I’ve spoken to Scott [Frank, series creator] and Anya [Taylor-Joy, who plays the series’ lead] about it, and they’re just as amazed as I am.”
Those who have already watched The Queen’s Gambit will recall Fortune-Lloyd’s character, Townes, is something of a cipher. Ambiguous of intention, sexuality and personal history, he is one of the few characters to break down the apathetic walls around Taylor-Joy’s protagonist, Beth Harmon.
“I felt there was something ‘old Hollywood’ about Townes,” considers the actor. “I kept linking him with Rock Hudson in my mind. Something about Hudson’s sturdiness, combined with warmth, mischief and tenderness. And there’s something about the verbal sparring in old rom coms that was useful in thinking about the relationship with Beth.
“Also, the period clothes!” he adds. “The costume designer, Gabriele Binder, absolutely killed it. I felt like a million bucks!”
He didn’t look far off, either. And Fortune-Lloyd’s considerable charms did not go unnoticed. The suave scene-stealer has been a hit with fans — pro-Townes tweets include: “I can’t stop thinking about Townes”, “I’m really rooting for Townes” and the odder “Townes looks EXACTLY like Willem Dafoe”.
TV Line included a fully-clothed, non-intimate chess scene between Fortune-Lloyd and Taylor-Joy on its ‘Sexiest TV Scenes of the Year’ list. And an unknown Instagrammer has even registered the @d.l.townes username (they’re yet to post).
“Oh wow!” says the actor. “I didn’t know about the ‘Townes’ Instagram handle. That’s great! I had a lovely response from Italians after I made Medici: Masters of Florence, but this is definitely another level. A huge amount of credit for the positive response has to go to Scott and Allan [Scott, series co-creator] for building on the character Walter Tevis created in the novel. And massive credit to Anya – there’s no doubt her performance and the chemistry we achieved on camera took my work to another level.”
“The quality of the chess tends to go down as the number of pints goes up…”
Other than The Queen’s Gambit and Medici, Fortune-Lloyd has acted in ITV’s Endeavour, Sky One’s Strike Back and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But it wasn’t until his second year of university, he reveals, that he realised he wanted to be an actor.
“It’s strange,” he considers, “because I’d loved performing from an early age. I just never put two-and-two together — possibly because no-one in my family is in the industry. If I wasn’t acting, I think I would have enjoyed being an English teacher, discussing works of literature with young people and discovering their fresh takes on them.”
But Fortune-Lloyd, who also co-produces Deptford’s Matchstick Theatre Company, will have to put any teaching plans on hold. He’s just finished filming a show that’ll hit ITV next year, and is involved in an Amazon project soon entering production. He’s tight-lipped on the details. But, if the actor’s career pattern so far is anything to go by — Wolf Hall, then renaissance Medici, and onto sixties-set Endeavour and The Queen’s Gambit — these next projects will see him inching ever closer to present-day.
“I’d never thought of that before,” he says. “But you’re right! I’d love to do stop-offs in the 70s and 80s, for sure! The chance to rock a pair of bell-bottom jeans and a perm…”
Anything with dress-up seems to appeal to the actor. During lockdown, he even admits to getting into long-distance cycling — if only for the shorts. “It’s mainly about the lycra if I’m honest,” he says. “Any excuse to wear a costume”.
And cycling is only one of several hobbies Fortune-Lloyd has turned to to pass locked-down time this year. One such interest was even piqued by The Queen’s Gambit — but it wasn’t chess. Rather, another of D.L. Townes’ many skills; photography.
“I barely know which way round to hold the camera,” the actor laughs, “but I was inspired by the show and booked myself in for an introductory course in London this year. It’s been postponed — for obvious reasons — but it’s something I’m really looking forward to next year.”
For now, it looks like the 30-year-old’s stuck with chess. And, after all the Grandmaster guidance and professional practice, surely a Christmas tournament is on the cards in the Fortune-Lloyd household?
“Good idea! I could play all my family members simultaneously, like Beth does in the high school in episode one. A great Christmas for me, but I’m not sure they’d be that into it…”
But even Fortune-Lloyd himself would prefer playing a different game. Because, despite capturing the pawns, rooks and hearts of Queen’s Gambit fans, the actor reveals that he favours backgammon to chess.
“I’m very basic,” he admits, “I love me some backgammon. It’s the perfect balance of skill and luck. Playing backgammon all day with an old friend and shooting the breeze? Heaven.”
Want more up-and-coming British actors? Introducing Jack Bannon (and his incredible, unstoppable hairline)…
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