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.”
Such things can sound sappy when written down, but I sense only pureheartedness. I wonder if it’s that same quality that made her teen-hood hard: Taylor-Joy loved learning but found school, particularly its social element, difficult. “All the information I was being given was: There’s something wrong with you.” At 14 she went to New York on her own for a two-week directing program, where the first thing she did was dye her hair pink in a Chipotle bathroom. “I literally came in from the airport and I saw Ricky’s and I was like, Yes, pink hair—that’s what I need.” Two years later she wrote an extensive essay for her mom and dad in which she explained why she was quitting high school to try to become an actor.
We have Jennifer Marina Joy and Dennis Alan Taylor to thank for their faith. They read the treatise their youngest daughter issued them and agreed with its conclusion.
You’d think Taylor-Joy might have felt some vindication by the time her first big movie premiered in 2016. Surely here was incontrovertible evidence of her having “made it”? In The Witch she plays Thomasin, the eldest child in a hard-bitten Puritan family scrabbling for sanity and survival in the wilds of 17th-century New England. Exuding both innocence and cunning, she’s dangerously radiant among her gray, hatchet-faced parents and the sodden and forbidding hinterland in which the family finds itself. But watching herself on an enormous screen for the first time, Taylor-Joy recalls her whole body going cold. “I felt like I’d let everybody down. I was terrified I was never going to work again.” Instead, well over a dozen award nominations followed, as well as more name-making roles, including her irresistible turn last year in the title role in Autumn de Wilde’s delectable adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Before seeing it I’d believed that I loathed period dramas in general and Austen adaptations in particular—spare me all that tittering and simpering in bonnets. And then I watched the film and was entirely disarmed, blindsided by delight. As Austen’s most interesting heroine—“handsome, clever and rich,” in the author’s famous summation—Taylor-Joy fizzes against Johnny Flynn’s rugged and quietly fervent Mr. Knightley. It’s a toothsome bonbon of a movie, all tart and effervescent sweetness on its surface, but as with the novel, there’s something substantial at its core. Pert and spoiled and painfully young, Taylor-Joy’s Emma simmers with self-regard before undergoing the difficult self-disillusionment that clears the path for her growing up. De Wilde had admired Taylor-Joy in The Witch and the similarly dark Thoroughbreds. In both she plays an unassuming girl who slips into villainy; in both she remains compelling even when she becomes wicked.
“Prior to Emma, I’d just had a devastating breakup. I was incredibly insecure and very, very unsafe in my own skin.”
“I didn’t want to make Emma likable and all that crap,” de Wilde tells me, spitting a word so often invoked in a tediously gendered way. “The ugliness of her personality was as important as the phoenix rising of the better part of her soul.” The character has to break through her ego. “That can only be done by Anya because she understands the difference between vanity and confidence,” says de Wilde. “For an actor to understand the difference is like gold. An actress, especially, because they’re not often encouraged to. She’s my muse, you know? And she’s the muse of quite a few directors.” I sense de Wilde’s vehemence in the way she becomes extravagantly sweary as she talks: “She would take all the pieces we’d given her—and just fucking nail it. She’s redefining the term ‘movie star’ because it’s not a selfish act, it’s a fucking rising up with the film. She’s not there just to be amazing, she’s there to make other people be more amazing, and that’s what I love about her. Her radiance, her fairy dust is shared—the light bounces off her and shines throughout the cast.”
In many ways, shooting Emma was an idyllic experience. “It was just us in the summer in England—which is beautiful, as you know—swanning around these massive houses and having our lunch as a picnic on the lawn,” says Taylor-Joy. It was also, however, one of the most difficult moments of her life. Taylor-Joy describes her last few years to me in terms of a video game: “Every year has been a different video game level.” With each new level, she’s had to ask herself questions: “What are the rules? How do I interact with my space?” The most daunting level to date began with Emma. “Prior to filming I’d just had a devastating breakup, and it had challenged everything. I was just incredibly insecure and very, very unsafe in my own skin.”
She’d also worked relentlessly. “I had just played character, character, character, never taking a second.” Inhabiting roles deeply risks an obliteration of self. In the climactic scene between Mr. Knightley and Emma, for example, the script called for a nosebleed. To the confusion, alarm, and ultimate excitement of her director and costar, Taylor-Joy began bleeding real blood. Learning this, I’m impressed. She, however, has the grace to joke. “I really bled for the role, people!”
At some point in 2019, Taylor-Joy realized she could go into an art gallery and know what each of her characters’ favorite pieces would be and why. “But I had no idea what I liked,” she says. “I had no clue of what I would choose for myself.” She trails off, then an air of gentle revelation comes over her: “I’m sitting here talking to you, and for the first time, I’m like, I know what I like. I know what I, as a person, enjoy!… The whole of 2019 was me becoming a woman, essentially.”
Perhaps she’s finally ready to, in a sense, play herself. “Well, kinda,” she says, smiling. Tentatively, I ask if she’s had therapy, and she answers easefully. “I haven’t had any therapy for the last four years, but you’re speaking to somebody who spends a lot of time dissecting her thoughts. I’m at a point where it’s like, Okay, you know how you deal with this, you just have to sit with it and figure it out until it makes sense.”
After Emma was released in February 2020, Taylor-Joy, like many of us, had a lot of time for sitting with things. As lockdown hit and London came to a standstill, the movie’s posters remained on the buses, a moment in time frozen. For many people, it remains the last film they remember seeing in theaters. Once Emma became available to stream, Taylor-Joy says, “I definitely thought, Thank goodness this is something fun that will bring people joy and I’m not playing somebody that’s been kidnapped and sexually abused.”
Because yes, she’s done a fair bit of that. Enormous eyes are highly effective instruments for communicating terror, a truth not lost on the innumerable directors who’ve cast Taylor-Joy in horror movies. Plain terror, however, gets boring fast. What distinguishes Taylor-Joy is the living intelligence of her performances. Even in M. Night Shyamalan’s wearisome Split, in which she plays one of three girls held hostage by a man with dissociative identity disorder, she’s the smart one of the trio. While the other two wail, clutch each other, and haplessly fight him—some male directors still love a tearful teenage girl in tight clothes—Taylor-Joy’s Casey shrewdly sizes up the situation, deploying logic to try to get them out of the mess.
When actors dream of stardom, they most likely don’t fantasize about appearing on Late Night With Seth Meyers from their bedroom (Taylor-Joy’s made a series of winning appearances on late-night shows via video link); the last properly glamorous thing Taylor-Joy did was attend the premiere for Emma in February of last year, wearing a vintage Bob Mackie beaded wedding gown. She seems grateful, though, that this supernova moment has coincided with a period of necessary retreat. The usual hoopla of stardom is the stuff of the Before Times. Right now she’s mostly just excited to have bought a house in London a stone’s throw from her favorite Indian restaurant.
Nonetheless, the world still intrudes. Recently, jet-lagged after a flight to L.A., Taylor-Joy took a dazed and insomniac walk at 4 a.m. Stumbling around, she came face-to-her-own-face with a billboard advertising The Queen’s Gambit. She recounts the progression of her feelings. First: “Oh my God, I’m on a billboard. As an actor for something I care about, that’s something that you really wanted.” Second: “The surreal aspect of it, of not being able to trust your eyes.” Finally, she took a picture for her mom, turned around, and walked away.
Gaining pace and sophistication as it goes, The Queen’s Gambit kicks off in the Kentucky of the mid-1950s, where we meet nine-year-old Beth, newly orphaned after a car accident that appears to have been a suicidal act on her mother’s part. At Methuen Home, a Christian orphanage, small Beth is subjected not just to a crime of a haircut (a loveless pudding-bowl bob) but to daily dosings of tranquilizers. There is solace to be found, however, in the figure of old Mr. Shaibel, the janitor, whom she sees frowning over a mysterious black-and-white board in the basement. “What’s that game called?” asks tiny, watchful Beth. And so it’s begun.
Beth’s fateful discovery of chess coincides with her addiction to tranquilizers, which she craftily hoards and gobbles at night, facilitating visions of a giant chessboard on the ceiling above her bed, on which she plots sequences and moves. In this way we’re encouraged to see Beth’s genius and her substance abuse as muddled up together from the start—she is as precocious a player as she is an addict. Soon, teenage Beth, now played by Taylor-Joy with the same “ugly” bangs as her child self (not even this haircut can diminish the spooky symmetry of the face it frames), is trouncing all the boys, soaring to state champion and beyond.
How do you make chess, that cerebral and visually nonspectacular affair, enthralling onscreen? The second most powerful weapon in the show’s arsenal is the close-up. The camera hovers with breathy, un-COVID-like intimacy against its first, most powerful weapon—its heroine’s face. Her gaze is one of focused ferocity and avidity. At times Beth seems incandescent with self-belief: She is a genius and she knows it. I would not describe the young woman I talked to with the luminous skin and the orchids behind her as a ruffian, as she herself did, but you can’t ignore the current of wildness in so many of her performances, not least Beth. As her large black eyes shift and slide, something feral and a bit frightening crackles within her poise.
The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name, which Taylor-Joy consumed with a sense of intoxication. This in itself wasn’t too unusual; she reads about three books a week. Right now it’s Glennon Doyle’s Untamed and Pamela Des Barres’s groupie memoir, I’m With the Band, but Taylor-Joy also enthuses about that other dishy memoirist and West Coast queen, Eve Babitz. “Once I learned how to read—I’m sure it was the same with you—I was off,” she tells me. “I was just never bored or lonely again.” What made her experience of the Tevis novel unusual was a sense of recognition: “The second I closed the book, it was this dawning of, I’m going to have to give this character so much of myself in order to tell the story right.”
Straight off, Taylor-Joy had what felt like a flash of insight: Beth had to have red hair. This intuition was shared by cocreator and director Frank, as well as the show’s hair and makeup designer, Daniel Parker. Taylor-Joy also lit upon a distinctive way that Beth would handle the chess pieces. When she demonstrated it to Bruce Pandolfini, a 73-year-old chess expert who consulted on the show, he told her he’d never seen a player do it before, but hey, he bought it. The way Beth summarily fishes a clacking piece up into her palm with an elegant twist of the wrist becomes something of a signature—a satisfying, haptic flourish.
“We used to joke on set that we were bringing sexy back to chess. We didn’t really think that’s what people would actually think.”
Accruing cash and confidence from her wins, Beth becomes an increasingly stylish and sexual being; soon our erstwhile ugly duckling is swanning through grand European hotels in chic tailored dresses—homages to Courrèges and Pierre Cardin. (High among the show’s pleasures is the thoughtfulness that costume designer Gabriele Binder brought to Beth’s clothes.) The erotics of all this have been much discussed and celebrated. Nikita Lalwani, a former high school chess player—in her words, “an oddity as the only girl in the school team”—is a novelist whose 2007 debut, Gifted, follows the story of a teenage-girl math prodigy. Naturally, Lalwani watched the show with great interest. Much of it rang true, she told me, but “combining the extreme geek sensibility with a fierce unapologetic sexual presence was something new for me.”
“We used to joke on set that we were bringing sexy back to chess,” says Taylor-Joy. “We didn’t really think that that’s what people would actually think. I love the fact that people are like, Yeah, I’m going to go play this guy at chess, it’s going to be really hot.” She adds, laughing, “I’m living for it.” Famously, sales of chess sets soared by 125 percent in the weeks after the show premiered. “This is what I mean about how I think in five years I’ll understand!” Taylor-Joy peals. “I don’t think you can be an even kind of sane person and be walking around, like”—she does a parodic hair flip of self-satisfaction and puts on a haughty voice to intone—“I have reinvigorated the game of chess!” Just that morning, one of her best friends had told her that their boyfriend was playing on chess.com against a Beth bot. A what now? “Oh, yeah, on chess.com you can play Beth Harmon at different ages.” (The Beth bots have, alas, been disabled.)
At the heart of The Queen’s Gambit is an almost childlike truth—one true, at least, of chess: Talent will take you to the top. Life, of course, ain’t like that. Least of all the oversubscribed, fickle world of moviemaking, in which talent is notoriously little guarantee of success. I ask Taylor-Joy how she squares the immeasurability and subjectivity of acting with the binary nature of chess: black and white, win or lose. Her answer is humble: “I’ve always followed the character.” Earlier, when she said, “They’re not my hands,” she meant it. “It gets a bit existentially confusing when you’re living for somebody else.” Taylor-Joy’s characters are real enough for her to mourn their loss once filming has wrapped. For nearly each one she keeps some article of theirs as a memento. In the case of Beth, it seems telling that Taylor-Joy kept not one thing, but many: several hats, various outfits.
“She’s a voice that I’ve had in my head and in my life for a very long time,” she says, adding, “There were some scenes that were just so close to the bone. They were experiences that I had had, or that I had been witness to and it was so real.”
I ask whether there was one scene that got particularly close.
“Yes. Yeah. Her waking up in Paris was really very close.”
She’s referring to the dramatic flash-forward that opens the series: Beth awakens with a horrified lurch at the insistent knocking of a porter who’s come to summon her to her match downstairs. At the moment, Beth is in a bathtub, fully clothed and soaked, after a drunken night.
“Been there,” Taylor-Joy says grimly, not ready to talk about it in more detail. “Been there.”
Has she been able to let Beth go?
“You’re hitting me in the heart,” Taylor-Joy says. “It’s complicated. I don’t know. Different characters have different grieving periods. Some of them don’t ever really go away. I have a feeling Beth is going to be one of those ones.”
“Hi, love!” Taylor-Joy sings out. We’re meeting for the second time, and now it’s in “Joe Biden’s America,” a phrase that’s been playing through my head half hopefully, half ironically. Taylor-Joy tells me that she and a bunch of castmates from the David O. Russell movie watched the inauguration in the makeup trailer. The sense of optimism, she says, was beautiful.
“This feels like the intake of a fresh breath,” she says, adding, “For the love of God, I would love it if we could start taking care of the planet.”
The Bernie memes are still flying after a photograph of the Vermont senator looking stalwart and chilly at the inauguration seized the American imagination. On her Instagram Stories, Taylor-Joy has just posted a still of the final match of The Queen’s Gambit, except instead of the formidable Russian player Borgov, Beth’s facing off with Bernie in his mittens. Is she a Sanders fan? “Yeah, absolutely,” she says. “Primarily because he cares about the planet. He was the first world leader that I saw really jump up and be like”—she mimes a frantic wave—“Hello? Our home is burning. We should probably do something about that.”
Taylor-Joy has come of age at an exceptional time. While dire and interlocking crises occupy the world at large, the American movie industry has been undergoing an overdue reckoning with racism and misogyny. “I didn’t realize just how lucky I was until maybe year three,” she admits when I broach the subject of sexism. “But I’ve been blessed to work with men who never made me feel like I didn’t have a seat at the table. I was always treated as a serious collaborator and somebody that was as passionate as the director was about executing this vision.” Nonetheless, she found the four years of the previous administration, including its grotesque misogyny, hard to take: “It was just like, Wait a second, am I in the minority in believing that everybody should have equal rights? Am I in the minority of believing that you shouldn’t touch a woman if she doesn’t give you her permission?”
After our interviews, both Taylor-Joy and The Queen’s Gambit will win Golden Globes. I ask how she’s dealing with the buzz ahead of time. “Is it awful to say I don’t think about it?” she says quietly. “Look, any kind of recognition for your work is wonderful and truly moving, but I have to show up for my movie and my director and my friends. If I were consistently thinking about things like that, I don’t know how healthy my mind would be.”
But she has an important clarification. “I want to be quite clear about something, which is when I say, ‘I walk away’ or ‘I don’t think about it anymore,’ it’s never because I’m ungrateful for any of it. I just really think that I won’t be able to do my best work if I start believing I’m anything more than human, because people watch characters for the humanity.” In short, the point of stars is not just that they’re looked at. “You have to have a connection to real life. If you don’t have a true heart and a true place of emotions to come from, how on earth are you going to give life to a character?”
Source: Vanity Fair