“Jolene was always going to get her money back! Period!” is among the first things Moses Ingram acknowledges when we sit down together over Zoom. “It’s like, I loaned you the money, sis. I’m gonna need that back, you know what I mean?” Despite the virtual confines of our conversation, there’s a warmth and lightness that radiates from Ingram’s conviction. Quarantined in our apartments, we also share a rare day of cold Los Angeles weather—“I have a heater on by my feet,” she admits—and it makes for an easy intimacy. Neither of us has an issue getting right to it: Analyzing Jolene, The Queen’s Gambit character who launched Ingram’s career.
The limited series is one of Netflix’s biggest shows ever. At its center is the story of Beth Harmon, a young orphan who overcomes the odds to become a chess Grandmaster. In the periphery, it’s a story about generations of women overcoming patriarchal confines. And while characters like Beth’s mothers, Alma and Alice, fit neatly into the show’s corners, Ingram’s portrayal of Jolene, the only Black girl in Beth’s orphanage, begs for closer examination. “Any character I play, when I walk into the space, regardless of who’s around me, will always be a Black woman first,” the 26-year-old states plainly. Her performance is what makes viewers want to see more of Jolene, and while the series’ source material, Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel, does present a more intimate picture of Jolene and Beth’s relationship, the adaptation sticks to broad strokes. It’s Moses’s talent that pushes Jolene to the foreground of one of the year’s biggest show, and it’s also why some critics were left frustrated that Jolene wasn’t given the attention she deserved.
As the miniseries found success—even among people who never thought they’d find joy watching a show that focuses on, of all things, chess—it faced criticism that Jolene was merely a sidekick, or worse, another variation of the magical negro trope, sent only to save Beth at the last minute. Ingram was careful to consider this so Jolene wouldn’t be relegated to the level of sidekick: “What is it like to be the only Black person in the room? What is it like to feel overlooked? Or misjudged or misguided? How does that affect your behavior when you live in an orphanage full of people that don’t look like you? I would be yelling cocksucker all the time too, honestly!” In the series, Ingram inflects every “cracker” and “cocksucker” with a subtext ranging from sarcasm to disappointment to rage. Still, there simply wasn’t enough screen time for Jolene, and when most people finished the show, they only wanted to know one thing: Did she get her money back? And why did she give it to that white girl anyway?
Even as we joke about how we’re both pretty bad at chess, Ingram is confident in the show’s positive impact. She chooses her words carefully when discussing the character, as though she were describing a close friend. “I think it’s important to the story that we acknowledge that Jolene is not just some other girl in the orphanage,” she says. “She is very much a Black girl in this all-white orphanage, and that’s definitely something I thought about going into it. That’s what attracted me to Jolene. I didn’t even have a script. I read the sides and said, ‘Oh, this is a bad bitch.’ That’s the first thing I thought when she said, ‘Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.’”
The Queen’s Gambit continues to crush Nielsen ratings, and with its success comes attention for other Black women who shouldn’t be counted out. And while the series will certainly impact Hollywood’s continued promises of diversity and inclusion, it offers a look at the double-edged sword Black actors like Ingram face. “What the show has grown to be…I feel blessed that someone so full gets to be a part of the number that millions of people are watching,” Ingram says. “Even though it’s just one, people are seeing, and to see makes a difference.”
But she knows it’ll take more than that for Black actors to not only be free of the confines of being defined by one role, but to also be seen as the lead or hero. “There’s a clip that’s been circulating for years of Viola Davis talking about [how] everybody says she’s the Black Meryl Streep, and she’s like, ‘Then pay me like I am!’” Ingram says. “For me, the pay isn’t important right now. What I think about when I think about Meryl Streep is the endless opportunities she’s had to portray herself in 1,000 different ways. That’s an actor goal: I can be a scientist, but I can also be a woman who had to choose between my children, and I can also be a fashion designer. The scope is endless. I just hope to continue to see more stories that aren’t built around being a person of color, but more like, you walk into a room and just are who you are. That’s sexy to me!”
And why shouldn’t Ingram be allowed to bring any character to life? With Jolene, she got white viewers to commiserate with a Black activist lawyer while being the lone tether for Black viewers who weren’t always interested in Beth’s latest opponent. Despite Jolene’s limited screen time, Ingram’s glances alone contain a lifetime of empathy, anger, and joy; it’s an almost timeless performance, even as she transitions Jolene from teenager to adulthood.
“I didn’t even have a script. I read the sides and said, ‘Oh, this is a bad bitch.’”
The character is far from Ingram’s own experiences growing up in Baltimore, where she found inspiration in late-night BET binges. “I remember nights when I was supposed to be asleep, peeking over the covers, just to see what’s on the screen,” she recalls. “I remember seeing Set It Off for the first time and being so moved. How is a little person so moved by things that are so much bigger than any understanding of life that you have at that point? I remember watching What’s Love Got to Do with It. Sneaking the Waiting to Exhale tape out of a closet. I actually got smacked in the mouth one time because my mother told me to do something—there’s a line in the movie where she has bad sex and says, ‘I could’ve had a V8,’ and I said that! My mother knew exactly where it came from!” Perhaps Ingram knew more than she thought.
She’d go on to attend the Yale School of Drama, but she doesn’t linger on the accomplishment. “There’s a misconception some people have when they apply that you have to be perfect. But what will they teach you if you know everything? Yale was my first time away from home. I think it’s where I became a woman, because I was still very young when I got to Yale. I’m young now! But all of it was very new.” It was a foundational experience for the aspiring actor, one that connected her to her Queen’s Gambit role: “Up until that point, I had only dealt with people in a work capacity, and acting is very personal,” she says. “You’re surrounded by people who are watching you be ugly and be a mess at nine o’clock in the morning, watching you get chewed out and watching you get brave. Seeing how you deal with it, and it’s eyes on you all the time? You can crumble underneath the pressure. I feel like Jolene was in a very similar position. It’s like, I can crumble or I can rise to the occasion and make these things work for me.”
Ingram had never worked on a production as large as The Queen’s Gambit before, though you wouldn’t know it from her performance. She insists she was given an unprecedented freedom as a new actor. “If it didn’t feel right, if it didn’t feel natural, I could change it. How much agency does a new actor have in a space that is so much bigger than just their offering to it? Them making space for me to learn with agency was very beautiful in my process.” Currently, Ingram’s working with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Joel Coen’s upcoming adaptation of MacBeth. It’s as intimidating as it sounds, but she sees the opportunity in the challenge.
“I’m not too cool to be like, What the heck am I doing? I’m really trying to focus and learn from what’s happening in front of me. Coming into these new spaces, there is some level of like, I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I don’t want them to think I’m not good. And being around people who have so little need to prove anything to anybody and will let a rehearsal be messy, and let you see that it’s not a fully realized performance yet, but then also let you see it when it is? That’s a whole other kind of grace, to let somebody see you learn. Rehearsal is messy.”
Other than The Queen’s Gambit and rehearsals with Denzel, Ingram has been quietly ruminating in quarantine like the rest of us. “I’m excited for what people are writing during this time in the house. I like to pray like, ‘Okay, God, I want a really good job, and not just a good job, I want to feel my feelings.’ And I like to think that somebody is at their computer typing, like, ‘I really need work’ and God hears both of us and is like, let’s make this connection!”
In fact, Ingram used quarantine to explore new crafts and wrote a short film, Day 74, with her friends Courtney Jamison and Patricia Fa’asua. The story follows Kasaya (played by Amandla Jahava), a Kenyan woman alone in quarantine. “When it came down to writing it, it was like, what is happening in my brain right now? I think the short is exactly that. It’s 1,000 things happening at once at a very rapid pace. It was something we all identified with, and I think a lot of other people did too. My friends got me through that. I promise you, you’re only as good as the people you have next to you. We all came together to support each other in a moment to make something for us all to explore our emotions.”
It’s the type of friendship Ingram always saw as the core of Jolene and Beth’s relationship. Perhaps it’s why she never wondered if Jolene was going to get her money back. “That was the ultimate gift of faith in a friend,” Ingram says. “Also, if she thought Beth wasn’t going to pay her back, she probably wouldn’t have given her the money.”
Before we go, I ask Ingram if she has anything else she wants to share. She takes a moment to pause, and for a moment, I think my WiFi has failed and we’ve been disconnected. Finally, she starts to speak. “I don’t know if this applies…” I insist she has to tell me now. A smile slowly spreads across her face as she chooses her words even more carefully than before: “Be kind to the Jolenes in your life.” It absolutely applies.
Watch The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix
Styling by Amandla Jahava and Arturo Luis Soria; Clothes from Thom Browne via Jeremy O’ Harris; Additional credits: Jade Radford, Adrienne Wells.