Anya Taylor-Joy: awakenings

At one point, Anya Taylor-Joy considered getting two pygmy goats. “Essentially my vibe is I need something small and fluffy to love. After The Witch came out, Robert (Eggers, the director) and I laughed quite a bit because I was like, ‘I’d always planned on getting goats and you kinda fucked it for me.’ But,” she says resolutely, “I’ll still do it.”

Black Phillip, the horned beast responsible for the scuppered entourage plans, hardly needs an introduction. Within weeks of Taylor-Joy’s debut film premiering in 2015, her co-star had his own Twitter account, endless memes and mock-children’s board games, tempting us all to live deliciously. “Ah, Charlie the goat,” she says, clutching her chest. “I loved him so much, he was such a babe. He was very much a method actor. He loved me, he hated Ralph (Ineson, her co- star in the film). He hated anybody that wasn’t me. We used to take naps together in the sun, amidst the flies.”

To say that The Witch was a major entrance into acting for Taylor-Joy is an understatement. Watching her portray Thomasin, a 17th-century girl on the cusp of her sexual awakening, you’d never think this was her first role. Played to mesmerising perfection, with big eyes and a Cupid’s bow only F Scott Fitzgerald should attempt to describe, Taylor-Joy’s performance offered timely commentary on (not-so) modern society’s demonisation of young women. Luckily, she has not encountered “too much misogyny” in her career so far.

“I grew up with boys and I think that helped,” she says, adding as a side note that she’s never owned a bra because the boys around her weren’t wearing one. “Very few men in my field have treated me as an inferior.” She does, however, see it, and it angers her that women cast in the girlfriend role don’t always earn the same respect as other actors. (A word she prefers to ‘actress’.) “We’re doing the same job. It’s not about the ‘-tress’ being feminine. I think being feminine is one of the biggest strengths you can ever possibly have. It’s about being treated equally on set.”

At 22, Taylor-Joy has carved out a space for herself as an exhilarating young talent prone to taking on strange, dark roles, reigniting the female-centric intelligent horror genre – and its offshoots – along the way. It’s been a start-as-you-mean-to-go-on type of situation, with Taylor-Joy gravitating to complex lead roles. There’s been the gleefully twisted Thoroughbreds, the emotionally explosive AI thriller Morgan, the creepy period-drama of The Miniaturist, and the haunting semi-ghost story Marrowbone, where you’re floored at the end by her central character.

On the day of our interview Taylor-Joy is in London, taking a break from filming series five of Peaky Blinders up north. In person, she’s vividly alive and electric, with ‘Starry Eyed’ scrawled across her heart on an orange t-shirt and her hair held back with phone-cord elastic. This morning, she was waved off by her movie-mum from The Witch, Kate Dickie, who is staying with her. “We went off into the middle of nowhere (for the film, shot in rural Ontario) and just made friends and family. It’s the biggest gift the world has ever given to me, that film,” she says softly, with an accent that’s entirely her own, morphing seamlessly between American, Irish, English and Scottish. Her speech is peppered with odd phrases of Spanish, her first language.

Born in Miami and brought up in Buenos Aires, Taylor-Joy moved to London with her Scottish-Argentinian father and Spanish-African-English mother when she was six. “My parents did the best thing for (my brothers and me) in terms of giving us opportunities and making us feel safe and everything,” she says. “But I missed Argentina. I missed my horses, I missed my lambs, I missed being a farm girl.” So, with all the make-believe conviction of childhood imagination, she decided not to speak English for almost three years. “I convinced myself that if I didn’t learn to speak English they would have to move us back home, because I’d be a pariah. I ended up being a pariah anyway, but I learned how to speak English.”

It’s this attraction to imaginary worlds that might be why she savours the visceral horror scenes. “Shooting them is the most cathartic, wonderful thing,” she beams. “All of my friends hate it. My family hates it. They’re all just like, ‘Oh God, can you please do a movie that’s not me watching you suffer?’ And I’m like, ‘But it felt so good!’” Cue contented, devilish smile. Fittingly, the name she stays under in hotels is a reference to Satan. “I was quite proud of myself when I came up with it,” she says, every inch the gothic archduchess. “And then my mum, being Spanish and African and Catholic, was like, ‘Can we not invoke the Devil?’”

As for horror’s renaissance, Taylor-Joy links the recent glut of critically acclaimed chillers to Hollywood’s golden era. “People are looking for escapism,” she says. “Being able to be in a movie theatre where you are contained, you are safe, but you’re going to be at the edge of what you can feel.” But, she says, at the other end of the escapist spectrum is something like La La Land. “Which I loved. I bawled my eyes out. I’m such a cuddly-toy, Disney-girl softie. It’s hysterical, considering my career.”

There’s no shortage of darkness in Taylor-Joy’s choice of films, and she doesn’t shy away from any volatile emotion that her work brings out. Filming the psychologically fraught Split, where James McAvoy portrays 23 characters as a kidnapper with dissociative identity disorder, M Night Shyamalan told her: “You’re such a raw, open nerve.”

“When I heard it I found it quite insulting and was like, ‘I have to be stronger.’ I’m (just) not good at putting up a front,” says the actor, who eventually realised her strength is actually “being able to be vulnerable and feel everything”. I have to ask: did her character, Casey Cooke, whose traumatising backstory underpins the film, go home with her abusive uncle at the end of Split? “No. Fuck, no.”

“Women with conviction – and young women, especially – are the most terrifying thing in the world to men, and to anyone in general” – Anya Taylor-Joy

Taylor-Joy admires Casey’s quiet strength, and says that, for herself, having conviction in your beliefs is key – in life, as in art. “I’m very young but I’ve experienced a lot at this age, and a woman with conviction – a young woman, especially – is the most terrifying thing in the world to men, and to anyone in general,” she explains. “If you show up and you’re like, ‘This is how I feel about that,’ they tend to go along with it because otherwise you’re going to be a nightmare. Men just don’t know what to do with opinionated women. They don’t. And that’s the best possible place to be in, because then you can do whatever the fuck you want.”

At her most recent trip to Sundance, for Thoroughbreds, Taylor-Joy decided that the idea of an actor being trained to be neutral so you don’t piss anybody off isn’t really acceptable any more. “(As) a big marcher, a rallier, you have to stand for what you believe in,” she says. “If you stand on the side of what is right, you’ve got to protect people who are fighting for their rights.”

Taylor-Joy swears a lot when she really wants to stress how much she loves something, throws devil horns to show appreciation, recites stories of having a Bali belly in Bali, and confesses she is a terrible hoarder. “I have every single call sheet. Ever. I have to learn how to be like, ‘OK, this means something to me, (or is it) just me being a hoarder?’” She also holds on to a lot of feelings from other people and her characters and is, by her own admission, an empath.

How does that work in terms of bringing your work home every day? It’s an answer she says she’s still trying to work out for herself. “There’s something beautiful about just being able to feel for someone else. Shutting off your own emotions and being like, ‘What does this person feel? How can I give a voice to this person?’ That is the most sincere form of therapy to me. I tend to go home quite happy and relaxed after a situation like that. Whereas when I’m with myself, I get quite quiet and just cuddle up into a ball. Like, I don’t know what I’m feeling,” she says, drawing out the last word.

For all Taylor-Joy’s empathy – which she says is very much made possible by the support of the crew (“my favourite people on the entire planet”) – it must have been hard living with someone like Lily from Thoroughbreds. The film, which makes Heathers look like a Nickelodeon movie, centres on two Connecticut high school girls–played by Olivia Cooke and Taylor-Joy to deadpan and chilling perfection, respectively – who plot to murder Lily’s wicked stepfather. “Lils killed me,” she says. “People on set were like, ‘God, she’s such a bitch and I’d turn around like, ‘Don’t talk about my character that way, that’s completely unacceptable. She’s going through a lot right now, leave her alone’. And they’d be like, ‘O-kaaay, babe, you deal with that.’” She gestures backing off, hands in the air. “I’m actually a very gentle, sweet person in real life, but when it comes to my characters I get very aggressive, in a way. Very protective.”

At the Thoroughbreds wrap party, she had a bit of a 3am epiphany. “I turned to our gaffer and said, ‘(Lily is) a really terrible person, isn’t she?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, girl. She’s pretty shit.’ I couldn’t cope with that while playing her. I just had to be her best friend and understand all the choices that she was making, and really feel them and be there with her. But once that ended I definitely went through this mindfuck of, like, ‘Oh my God, what have I just done?’” For the record: a really, really good film.

“There’s something beautiful about just being able to feel for someone else. Shutting off your own emotions and being like, ‘What does this person feel?” — Anya Taylor-Joy

As a child, Taylor-Joy was caught between becoming an actor or an animal activist. There was no sneaky horror-movie watching – it was all animal films and Jumanji. (“Jumanji on LaserDisc, man, that was a full-on trip,” she says.) From an early age, she learned to immerse herself completely in the story being told, qualities that would later come to define her performances as an actor. “I fall headfirst into a black pool of water, and experience whatever it is the filmmaker wants me to experience,” she reflects.

Coming to London, missing home and not speaking the language made Taylor-Joy seek refuge in films, like the 2003 Peter Pan with Jeremy Sumpter. “I couldn’t speak English but I’d go to school screaming, ‘I do believe in fairies, I do, I do!’” she says. “That was my early response to anything anyone said. ‘I do believe in fairies.’ Everyone was like, ‘What the fuck are you?’” Kids, as they say, are cruel, and she was badly bullied. Shit, I say, I’m sorry. “I’m not. I’m here. I’m fine, I’m fine. It was terrible, but even then I just knew this wasn’t my place. And I knew I was going to find my place. And I have. I’m so lucky. I really do feel that. I feel no resentment.”

Taylor-Joy’s forever hall-pass from school came in the shape of her audition for The Witch. “The second I stepped on set, I could breathe again. I was surrounded by people who didn’t think I was mad! They just thought I was myself, trying to cope with all these different emotions. Because I’ve got no skin. It’s my biggest problem and my biggest strength,” she says, toying with her silver dragon necklace.

On The Witch, everybody ended up in the bushes, picking the flowering buds off trees to make it look like winter, and helping lift the dolly out of the mud. Which turned out to be a stark contrast with later roles on big-budget films, where Taylor-Joy would be trying to help only to be told, no, the actress sits in the chair. “And I was like, ‘I don’t sit in no fucking chair. I work on it and I make it better.’ I’m such a DP nerd, I’m such a camera-operator nerd. I’m listening to everything because I want to direct one day so I’m very interested in not just the acting but everything around it.”

Right now, Taylor-Joy is excited about Radioactive, her upcoming film with Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley charting Marie Curie’s discoveries. “My first female director!” she says of the film, helmed by Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi. “It’s the best possible experience in the entire world. Marjane is a force of nature and I could not love her more if I tried. She’s beautiful, she’s perfect and Rosamund is just heaven on Earth.” There’s also her turn in The New Mutants to come,a foray into the Hollywood blockbuster. But before then she’ll return as Casey Cooke in Glass, M Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to Split, in the new year.

Whatever Taylor-Joy does, she does properly. A week before filming began for Thoroughbreds, she broke her four front teeth falling down a flight of stairs and was told to rest for six months. She was on set a week later, with her own busted teeth put back in her mouth. “The director was like, ‘Anya, you’ll need to smile in this scene, why aren’t you smiling?’” she reminisces. Incredibly, she explains she’s also pretty much blind, doesn’t wear contacts and is considering getting laser surgery. It’s because of her poor eyesight, Taylor-Joy muses, that she tends not to focus on how she looks in a scene watching it back, but how the overall picture is.

“That’s the beauty in humanity. As much as I believe we don’t deserve animals and we don’t deserve this planet, human beings are so beautifully fucked-up” — Anya Taylor-Joy

It somehow fits with a young woman who is more tuned in to other people than herself. Saying goodbye, Taylor-Joy looks elated speaking about how wonderfully messy human beings are. “That’s the beauty in humanity. As much as I believe we don’t deserve animals and we don’t deserve this planet, human beings are so beautifully fucked-up and complex.”

You can see why she picks the roles that she does. “I just think that on set I become a proper animal,” she says. “At the beginning it was easier because I was working back-to-back and nothing had come out yet, then all of a sudden shit started coming out and people were like, ‘Oh, I loved you in Split.’” Her eyes widen, in complete disbelief and shock. “I was like, ‘You saw that?’ That was a time in my life when I was so vulnerable and you’ve seen it? I can’t wrap my head around it, because I didn’t become an actor to have people watch me. I became an actor to feel (things) for other people and to be in that very closed, very intimate space. I’m learning to wrap my head around it, because I’ve made 22 projects, so I’m fucked now! There’s nothing I can do about it.”