She’s suddenly working with everyone you’ve ever heard of: “I think I’ll probably understand this year in about five years.”
Isn’t the point of stars that they’re looked at? Couldn’t you assume, then, that stardom and some degree of vanity go hand in hand? For Anya Taylor-Joy, whose indelible performance in The Queen’s Gambit made it a global phenomenon, the twain have clearly never met. When we speak in January, the 24-year-old actor is in Los Angeles, shooting a highly secretive movie with director David O. Russell. All that’s known about the film is its outrageous cast—outrageous not just for the stature of its names but also for just how many names there are. My Google Alerts seem to bristle with additions each day: Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Margot Robbie, Christian Bale, Mike Myers, etcetera, etcetera. The project will be Taylor-Joy’s 16th feature film in seven years. Still, with a lineup like this, she’s the rookie of the group.
“The movie has been very secretive to all of us as well,” she says over Zoom. “And so suddenly you hear these names and you can’t really…” Pressing her palms across her sternum, she frowns in the direction of her right knee, as if trying to make sense of all this. She explains that it isn’t a matter of being starstruck, not exactly. “But you hear these titans of cinema and I’m just like, I am a child!” She laughs. “I am a baby. This is insane.”
Russell himself has no difficulty explaining Taylor-Joy’s presence among the titans. “Anya is fearless and intuitively vulnerable and confident in a manner that is uniquely her own,” he says in an email. “She is different and strange in ways that are fascinating both toward darkness and toward light.” This will ring true to anyone who saw The Queen’s Gambit—and virtually everyone did. After the show premiered last fall on Netflix, more than 62 million households tuned in, making it one of the biggest, most beloved shows of 2020: a “limited series” as major cultural event. There were days last fall when my Twitter feed seemed to be nothing but discussions of the show and its star. The aesthetics! The chess! The sexual tension!
“I think,” Taylor-Joy says carefully, “I’ll probably understand this year in about five years. I think that’s when it will probably hit.”
The first time we talk, Taylor-Joy is wearing a long-sleeve slouchy black T-shirt and a toffee-colored scrunchie on her pale wrist. Her long white-blond hair is tucked behind her ears, and she’s wearing no makeup I can discern. This bare young face contrasts with the vampish scarlet daggers of her nails, a series of murderous-looking little points. “They’re for the role!” she says, wiggling them. “They’re not my hands!” With a day off from shooting, Taylor-Joy has been going about what she called “my adulting day”—as in “laundry, cleaning house, all of the stuff that makes you a civilized human being and not this ruffian, which I am usually.” This “ruffian” has clusters of orchids on the kitchen island behind her, a guitar propped against the wall, several hefty crystals at her fingertips, and books piled on the floor—the strewn evidence of individuality within the impersonally sleek rented apartment that’s home for the time being.
“She is different and strange in ways that are fascinating,” says director David O. Russell.
Taylor-Joy’s grounding, nesting impulse make sense. If her 2020 was one of vertiginous ascent, her 2021 will be stratospheric. She will appear in Edgar Wright’s horror movie Last Night in Soho, in which she plays Sandy, an aspiring singer in ’60s London with an exaggerated hairdo and understated British accent. (The sneak peek I’m granted includes a pretty mind-boggling dance sequence, as well as a genuinely bewitching performance of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” The girl can sing!) Taylor-Joy will also team up again with Scott Frank, director and cocreator of The Queen’s Gambit, for an adaptation of Nabokov’s novel Laughter in the Dark. And then there’s the pop-culture behemoth of Furiosa, a prequel to George Miller’s brilliantly bombastic Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Taylor-Joy will take the title role, a younger version of the character immortalized by Charlize Theron as a grim-jawed, buzz-cut feminist outlaw. Whatever incarnation young Furiosa takes, it will be a treat to see Taylor-Joy—hitherto mostly bookish and elfin in her roles—in an action movie.
Also on her docket is The Northman, a Viking thriller directed by Robert Eggers, costarring Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke. Filmed last year in Northern Ireland (I glean there’s a fair amount of her barefoot on a muddy mountainside), the movie was something of a reunion for Taylor-Joy: She was just 18 when Eggers cast her in her first real movie, the seriously unnerving supernatural horror The Witch.
Asked if the actor’s now-global fame surprises him, Eggers tells me, “I’m surprised it took so long!” He laughs. “I think some people explode onto the screen. They photograph well but they’re also able to somehow bare their soul—you can see through their skin and into their minds and hearts. Beyond that, she’s a good actress. You can be a great actor and not be a star, but Anya has both.”
The youngest of six kids, Taylor-Joy was born in Miami but her family moved to Buenos Aires when she was still a baby. Six years later, they relocated to London. There a homesick and Spanish-only-speaking Taylor-Joy refused to learn English for two years. Eventually she relented (the Harry Potter books were instrumental in her learning), but she remained an unhappy child. For one thing, she was picked on for her looks.
“Oh, 11-year-old Anya was an awkward phase, for sure,” she sighs. A few years later she’d be scouted on the street by Sarah Doukas of Storm Management, the same woman who discovered Kate Moss. But back then, she recalls, “My head was smaller and my eyes were the same size. I was waiting for my head to grow a bit. Make me look a bit more proportional.” Rough for any kid, but Taylor-Joy thinks she was particularly affected because of her upbringing: “My mother raised me to always be looking at things inside of people rather than their outside.” Taylor-Joy doesn’t stare into mirrors much. “Not because I’m running away from myself,” she says, “but because the most beautiful thing about me is my desire to interact with the outside world. And when you’re interacting with the outside world you’re not looking at yourself, you’re looking at the person in front of you.”
“She’s my muse, you know?” says director Autumn de Wilde. “She’s the muse of quite a few directors.”