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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.

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.
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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?

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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.

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.