‘The Witch’ star Anya Taylor-Joy: “People always want to put you in a box”

After making her name as a modern indie scream queen in 'The Witch' and 'Split', Anya Taylor-Joy is branching out to period drama. As she hits cinema screens in Jane Austen adaptation 'Emma', Leonie Cooper meets Hollywood's newest obsession to talk Glastonbury, working with Edgar Wright and feeling like she's on top of the world

Reel Talk is NME’s weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV

Anya Taylor-Joy flops down onto a sofa at London’s Soho Hotel, her giant lemon-yellow gown ballooning out on either side of her. It’s only midday but she’s already dressed for the ballroom, and if you’ve seen rock photographer Autumn De Wilde’s naughty, screwball new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma – in which Taylor-Joy gleams as the titular anti-heroine – you’ll know it’s a place that suits her perfectly. Especially if she’s waltzing around one while a dashing Mr Knightley – played by indie-folk prince Johnny Flynn – makes goo-goo eyes at her.

It’s now been five years since the 23-year-old Taylor-Joy made her unforgettable movie debut in Robert Eggers’ creepy Puritan horror The Witch, where she played a haunted, bonnet-wearing child who makes a pact with a devilish goat. Since then, she’s barely had time to catch her breath, working almost continually and becoming one of Hollywood’s most wanted new names in the process, nominated for BAFTA’s Rising Star Award and scooping Cannes’ Trophée Chopard for the industry’s most exciting young acting talent, a gong previously won by Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) and Marion Cotillard (Inception). Then there’s been the starring parts in two M. Night Shyamalan movies, last year’s appearance in Peaky Blinders as the forthright Gina Grey, the lead role in new Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit and, as well as Emma, a bunch more films on the way in 2020, including her first superhero role in Marvel’s The New Mutants, where she’ll be seen alongside Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams.

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Anya Taylor-Joy
Credit: Dave J Hogan

Is she, we ask, not absolutely exhausted? “I haven’t really known any different!” she grins. “My career just went like that. A couple of years ago I asked a friend, ‘how do you do it’ and she said, ‘Anya, I don’t work like you work – I don’t do it at that pace!’ But I’ve gotten quite used to it.” In an industry as fickle as film, is it a case of making the most of her current popularity in case the offers suddenly dry up? “I feel very, very lucky that I’ve never taken a job because I was scared of not having another job. It just so happens that these characters come up. There’s definitely moments that I’m like ‘Oh no, I really need a break but I can’t handle someone else playing her.’” When it comes to her roles, Taylor-Joy always finds herself a little bit more connected than other actors might. “I have an interesting and weird relationship with my characters. I feel like we belong to each other.”

Born in Miami and raised in Argentina until the age of six, Taylor-Joy is the youngest of six siblings. When she moved to London she refused to speak English for two years. “I wanted to go home, and in my six, seven-year-old mentality I thought my parents would have to take me back if I didn’t speak the language,” she says, her transatlantic accent veering far more towards the British side now she’s in the city she grew up in. But her cunning plan failed and, attending an international school where only one other kid spoke Spanish, she slowly, unwillingly picked up the local lingo. “My uncle would sit me down with the Harry Potter books, so all my language when I was young was quite precocious because I was learning from these books.” There was a pretty good bonus to learning English from a wizarding manual though. “I was also very well versed in spells from a very young age.”

Anya Taylor-Joy
Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘The Witch’. Credit: Universal

Thanks to being the baby in a huge family, her parents were more than happy for her to pursue her dream of acting. “My parents were tired!” she laughs. “They’d already raised five children. When I came around and I was very willful and knew what I wanted to do they were like ‘go for it!’.” Well, all until she informed them that she’d be leaving school after her AS levels in order to take a crack at the movie business.

Spotted at 16 outside Harrods by infamous model scout Sarah Doukas, the woman who three decades previously had discovered a 14-year-old unknown called Kate Moss, a sparky Taylor-Joy swiftly managed to flip her burgeoning modelling career into her dream of being an actor. As a kid she loved “any 1990s movie with an animal in it. I was like, ‘I want to be the kid that rides the whale!’ That looks amazing!’”. Less ‘ride the whale’ and more ‘make a demonic pact with a goat’, 2015’s The Witch gave her not just the opportunity to fulfill a childhood ambition, but also started her off on a run of fascinating, intricate roles. Now, if things don’t live up to that high bar set half a decade ago, they’re instantly binned. So what kind of jobs does Taylor-Joy turn down? “One-dimensional characters,” she states firmly. “I don’t get it. It’s just not a human being. It’s not real. There was one I was sent, in quite a big film, and I made it very clear to my team that I didn’t care how big the movie was, I just wasn’t going to do it. From then on those scripts didn’t appear anymore…”

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Anya Taylor Joy
Credit: Universal

And though Taylor-Joy has made a name for herself in dark, moody and often scary films, like 2016’s Split and 2019’s Glass, she’s far from trying to become a modern indie scream queen. “It’s very interesting how people want to put you in a box,” she says. “I’m very grateful to directors who have seen outside of that. If I keep doing all of these different roles, hopefully people will understand that we’re actors and it’s our job to be chameleons.”

Following Emma, the next character we’ll see Taylor-Joy pour her heart and soul into is that of the troubled Beth Harmon, a fictional chess prodigy who battles drug and alcohol addiction, in new Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. Based on an acclaimed 1983 novel by writer Walter Tevis – who passed away the year after the book was published – Taylor-Joy calls it “the story of the price of genius”. In fact, she empathised with the character so much that during filming in Berlin it was hard for the up-and-coming thespian to work out where she stopped and Beth began. “By the time I got to playing her I didn’t have the energy to create a wall between me and her, so if she was having a bad day, I was having a bad day,” she confesses.

Split
Anya Taylor-Joy in M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’. Credit: Universal

Unlike The Queen’s Gambit, many of Taylor-Joy’s other upcoming projects are shrouded in mystery. There’s the new Edgar Wright film, Last Night In Soho, which is set for release in September and which she plays a character called Sandy and stars alongside Matt Smith (Doctor Who) and Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie. Allegedly a psychological horror with a dash of time-travel chucked in for fun, what else can she tell us about the film? “I’m trying to be very, very, very careful – I’m terrified!” she ventures when we dig for details. “It’s got the choreography that he’s known for, but I think people will be surprised and impressed with what he’s come up with,” is about as much as she’ll say of Baby Driver director Wright’s latest outing, adding we can expect slick historical throwback scenes along the lines of a British version of Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. “It was fascinating to see how they transformed it to ‘60s London,” she says. “It was one of those pinch me moments.”

Also on the cards is a reunion with The Witch director Robert Eggers, who’s just confused the movie-going public with The Lighthouse. Taylor-Joy has signed up for his third film, Viking revenge saga The Northman; and definitely has the script, but definitely hasn’t started filming yet and definitely can’t tell us any more about it.

Peaky Blinders
Anya Taylor-Joy and Finn Cole in ‘Peaky Blinders’. Credit: BBC

In a further push against genre pigeonholing, Taylor-Joy has aspirations to sing on screen, too. “I’d love to do a musical, that’d be really fun,” she reveals. “The idea of having to push your body through all of that and learn all of those skills really excites me.” Although she says there’s not much chance of us hearing it anytime soon, she also writes her own music and played some of it to veteran singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn – who we’ll see playing David Bowie in Stardust this April – while they were working on Emma. “We sang together a lot which was really fun, and he’s really supportive, because I’m quite shy about it.”

It was with another Emma co-star however that she attempted to flee the set and hit up last year’s Glastonbury Festival. “Callum Turner and I were like, ‘how do we get to Glastonbury?’” says Taylor-Joy of planning a breakout with the Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald actor. “‘What time will we wrap and will we make it?!’” So you were filming nearby? “No, not at all! We were just desperate to go.”

Anya Taylor-Joy
Anya Tayor-Joy in ‘Emma’ Credit: Universal

Callum and Johnny are just two of the added-value pals that have come with Taylor-Joy’s current career. For her, work is just as much a chance to make new friends as it is to express herself creatively – and some of them just so happen to be superstars. “I was laughing about that the other day,” she says. “If seven years ago I told myself that this is what my contact list would’ve looked like and these are the people that I’ve most texted, I’d be really confused! Actors tend to be sensitive people and we’re all slightly odd, so it’s nice when you shove all of us together and we make friends.”

It must be nice also, to feel grounded by companionship, especially when Taylor-Joy is living a nomadic life. Though she’s back in the city where she grew up to promote Emma, she currently doesn’t actually have a home of her own. “I don’t live anywhere,” she confesses. In fact, there’s only one reason her lack of a base is troubling her. Known for its lavish sets, it’s the look and style of Emma that’s piqued another interest in Taylor-Joy. “After working on Emma I’ve got really into interior design, but I’ve realised that you actually need an interior to design if you’re going to be into that!”

Home or no home, Taylor-Joy is thrilled to bits with life right now. But what comes next? Well, that’s easy. “I want to continue to work with people that set my soul on fire and make me excited to wake up every morning to see what we’re going to create. I think that’s the plan.” So far, so good.

‘Emma’ is in cinemas now

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