The young actor, now 30, was surprised to learn that the now-classic holiday film would be released in theaters

When 12-year-old Thomas Brodie-Sangster first showed up for work on Love Actually, he had "no idea" what he'd gotten himself into.

The British actor charmed viewers of the 2003 Christmas classic as Liam Neeson's lovelorn stepson Sam. Now 30 and starring in Netflix's The Queen's Gambit, Brodie-Sangster recalls being surprised when he first saw the movie's A-list cast — including Neeson, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson — and thrilled that it would actually be released in theaters.

"I remember already having the part and going into the read-through and not knowing who else was in it," he tells PEOPLE. "I'd just go, 'Oh, it's another job. Great. I'm on another job.' And then all these faces started walking in through the door and I realized that this is probably quite big."

love actually
Credit: Everett

"I felt a bit embarrassed, I asked [a runner], 'Is this coming out in the cinema?' And he's like, 'Yeah,'" Brodie-Sangster continues. "I was like, 'Really? Oh, wow.' I had no idea what it was and then they walked me through to the room and I was sat down with maybe 50 very high profile amazing actors all around this table. It was only then that I realized what I was apart of. All the way up until that point I had no idea whatsoever."

Brodie-Sangster admits he's often still recognized for the role, especially once the holiday season rolls around and Love Actually is playing on TV all the time, and last year, he attempted to avoid some of the seasonal excitement with a trip to Peru. It backfired.

"I thought, 'Well, if I go to the mountains of Peru and go get lost and do a bit of a hippie adventure, hiking and stuff...,'" he says with a laugh. "Turns out I'm pretty big in Peru. The biggest I've ever experienced anywhere else in the world. So every day I would leave my hotel — I was staying at very cheap little hotels. It was all backpack-y but it was still full of fans — I'd end up taking pictures with little babies and dogs, all in my hiking gear!"

Thomas Brodie-Sangster

But Brodie-Sangster takes it all in stride — and he's grateful to have been a part of the film.

"Although a little frustrating, it's also an honor," he says. "It's also pretty cool to be a Christmas cult classic, to be part of that. I don't poo-poo it too often. I had a lovely time of it and it did wonders for my career and it taught me a lot and I got to work with some great people and I've only got good things to say about it really."

For Brodie-Sangster's new role in The Queen's Gambit, gone are little Sam's romantic notions and grand gestures. Chess champion Benny Watts is all swagger, bravado and 'stache as he both battles and woos his competition, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy).

"I liked his natural and unapologetic just sense of being and sense of self," Brodie-Sangster says of Benny. "He knew who he was and he knew what he was good at, what he was capable of and he knew what he wasn't good at. And he knew how to implement that appropriately to find his form of success. And he did that wholeheartedly and most of the time arrogantly and was a bit of a narcissist — but I kind of respected him for all that."

the queens gambit

The actor admits growing facial hair for the role was a fun and unique challenge.

"That was about six months worth of growth and we trimmed it up every now and again, but that's as hard as I can go. I didn't shave here once. I can grow nothing here at all. So that's everything I have. That's all I've got, but it was fun to let it all shine out for a bit. It suited the character."

The Queen's Gambit is streaming now on Netflix.