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On the set of ‘Computer Chess’: they had me at checkmate

Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton in "“Computer Chess.”

Kino Lorber Inc

Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton in "“Computer Chess.”

As a film studies professor and a Boston film critic, I’m savvy to the fact that movies are frequently shot out of sequence, a difficulty for actors. I experienced this challenge first-hand in August 2011 when I was flown to Austin, Texas, to play a chess master in Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” (screening Feb. 2 at the Brattle Theatre). I walked onto the set the first day to discover that I would be doing my very last scene in the movie — my walk into the sunset, but at a chessboard.

I knew a bit of the plot. In this 1980s-set period piece, my character, Pat Henderson, has organized a weekend tournament of computer chess teams. On the final day, Pat takes on the winning team, cocky and confident that he will be victorious.

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Never mind that I’ve not acted in 40 years, and this is my first movie. Never mind that I haven’t played chess since, a half-century ago, I was my high-school champion.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Gerald Peary.

Though the camera is across the room, I know it’s seeing me in close-up as I move my chess pieces. Something catastrophic is happening on the board. I decide to act just with my eyebrows, a slight twitch, a subtle tremor. My breathing becomes heavier. I recall a famous thespian adage: “Don’t act, react.” Whatever does that mean? Am I doing a credible job? Will the audience believe I’m Pat Henderson, chess maestro?

As my game starts to crumble, actors behind me shuffle forward, something like “The Dawn of the Dead.” A zombie-like apparition puts a hand on my shoulder and I leap up and SCREAM! The filmmaker says, “Cut,” and the actors and extras spontaneously applaud.

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My reaction: red-faced embarrassment. Though a novice film actor, I know what I’ve done. I’ve shamelessly overacted!

Thank you, Andrew Bujalski, for leaving what was bad on the cutting-room floor. My melodramatic bellow did not survive in the theatrically released version of “Computer Chess.” My close-ups were shortened. The tortured face of Pat Henderson, eyebrows flailing, cuts, mercifully, to a shot of a rainstorm outside.

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