From small-screen star to couture queen, British Vogue’s April 2022 cover star Anya Taylor-Joy is Hollywood royalty in the making. Vogue’s Olivia Marks meets her in Paris. Photographs by Craig McDean, styling by Kate Phelan.
It is late January and the end of a glittering Couture Week in Paris. As fashion editors and models head for the Eurostar under a cold, cement sky, in a studio in an industrial north-east suburb of the city, rails of gowns – Gaultier, Alaïa, Alexandre Vauthier – plucked from the catwalk during the previous days’ shows, are waiting for another outing. From a dressing room, Anya Taylor-Joy emerges in a shimmering Dior dress, made from gossamer-light silver lamé muslin, which sweeps along the floor behind her. As she steps in front of the camera, fixing those saucer-sized eyes down the lens, a crown is gently placed atop her head. Like subjects in a royal court, we all coo approvingly: all hail Queen Anya.
There is, it should be noted, nothing remotely imperious about the 25-year-old’s demeanour. I go to say hello and Taylor-Joy immediately pulls me into a hug, then springs back, mortified: “Can I?” she says, in that high, husky voice of hers, worried she has crossed a Covid-appropriate line. (Later, wrapped in a bathrobe between shots, I glimpse her sneaking outside for a quick cigarette. Legend.)
Still, this regal get-up befits a screen royal in the making. These days, it feels like Taylor-Joy is everywhere: teenage lead in indie darling Robert Eggers’s skin-crawlingly creepy The Witch in 2015; a deliciously cruel Emma (“incredibly clever, but so bored”) in Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 Austen adaptation; tragic Soho chanteuse in Edgar Wright’s chilling Last Night in Soho last year. You must have seen her small-screen outing as red-headed chess genius Beth Harmon, in Netflix’s lockdown superhit The Queen’s Gambit, the part that properly propelled her to global renown, bagging her a Golden Globe, a Sag and a Critics’ Choice award, fantastical red-carpet fashion and fans galore.
And yet an otherworldliness remains. It’s the morning after the shoot and we are at her hotel, the Cheval Blanc, on the banks of the Seine. All of the energy she had on set yesterday is undimmed, as she bounces into view in a minuscule black mini, which, she reveals by lifting the hem, is actually a pair of tiny shorts (“you have to be able to climb a tree in any outfit”), a tight terracotta roll-neck and a pair of glossy black patent knee-high cowboy boots from Spanish brand Toral, which she also owns in “red shiny and purple satin, which I haven’t quite figured out yet…”
The past few years have been a blur of work, she explains, in between rushing up to the counter to order herself a black coffee (in fluent French), but her life is finally coming into focus. Literally. She has finally got contact lenses, having, until now, somehow managed to live, act and avoid the paparazzi “semi without eyesight”. While she enjoys dressing up, she doesn’t “necessarily love the red-carpet experience”, she adds, her head dipping an inch. In what way? “I, like, blackout when it’s happening. It’s so, so overwhelming.” When she was first confronted with the braying bank of photographers that looked, to a person not wearing their contacts, like a “giant amorphous beast that has all of these eyes” her immediate response was to ask them “not to scream at me. And I’ve noticed that recently, when I step on to a carpet, they’re like, ‘OK, we get more from her if we’re more calm,’ because I just don’t respond to aggression. I shut down.”
You can see how she would bring out your protective side. Partly this is down to the folkloric beauty: the long, flaxen hair and Cupid’s bow mouth, but it’s also to do with her childlike wonderment at people and nature and books, and her love of fantasy (as a child, she says, “It didn’t matter if you didn’t want to play with me, because I would have enough characters in my head.”)
So her next big-screen role – reuniting with Eggers for The Northman, a rugged historical epic set in 10th-century Iceland – makes perfect sense. It will see Taylor-Joy shackled, enslaved, soaking wet and wearing little more than rags. I tell her I felt chilled to the bone just watching it. “Good!” She cries, “because I was and if it didn’t look freezing I would have been pissed.”
She is happiest, always has been, she explains, when working and was “ecstatically” so when filming The Northman in Northern Ireland, back with her “original film family”, barefoot and ankle-deep in mud or plunged into the icy ocean, with her belongings – books, a candle and a few healing crystals – stuffed in a Sainsbury’s plastic bag. “I looked insane. So infuriatingly joyful. The stunt guys would say, ‘Can we get out of the water now?’ And I was like, ‘This is amazing. Nature! We’re outside! We get to make art.’”
The story, co-written by Eggers and Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón (a frequent collaborator of Björk, who also appears in a captivating ghostly cameo), follows Viking prince Amleth (a hulking Alexander Skarsgård), who vows to avenge his murdered father (Ethan Hawke) and find his kidnapped mother (Nicole Kidman). It is based on the same Scandinavian folk tale that inspired Hamlet and bears all the hallmarks of an Eggers film: costumes made by authentic methods, unforgiving landscapes, plenty of gore. Taylor-Joy plays Olga of the Birch Forest, who is on her own path of revenge. A sample line? “You have the strength to break men’s bones, but I have the courage to break their minds.” Safe to say, she is well cast.
Eggers, who has known Taylor-Joy since she was a teenager, tells me he has always been struck by her “incredible facility for language” and “movie star charisma. One of the many reasons, perhaps, why Anya is so compelling on screen is her ability to inhabit paradoxes. She can be earthy and ethereal, innocent and dangerous at the same moment.”
It is this mercurial quality that has enthralled the fashion world, too. In an age when young actors are scooped up by any number of brands, Taylor-Joy – with her eye for drama and fantasy – has emerged as an authentic fashion star. Last year, she was named a global ambassador for Dior (as well as being the face of Dior Addict), a role she takes as seriously as any in front of the camera (she is currently researching the house’s 1920s marketing art). Though, as someone who wears sweatpants “99 per cent of the time”, her interest in clothes is a fairly recent development.
In fact, it was while walking the family dog outside Harrods that a 16-year-old Taylor-Joy was scouted by Sarah Doukas, the founder of Storm Management. Modelling had never crossed her mind (“When I first started doing red carpets,” she recalls, “I couldn’t handle the notion of being pretty. I was like, ‘I don’t do that. I don’t attempt it.’ I am a scummy, mud-caked ferret and striving for anything different felt disingenuous and scary.”) But she had “read that sometimes models became actors” and acting was all she wanted to do. So, armed with an improbable video of herself playing air guitar with The Beach Boys aged 13 (the band had pulled her on stage at a reunion concert – “still the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me”), she went to Storm and showed them the video. “Do you believe I can play the guitar?” she asked. “Yes? Great. Acting!” She began to book acting-adjacent modelling jobs and, after that, well, “fate kept intervening”.
Ten years earlier, Anya had moved to London with her Argentinian-British father, Dennis Taylor, a former banker, and psychologist mother, Jennifer Marina Joy, from Buenos Aires. Turbulent years followed: homesick for the bucolic life she’d lived in Argentina, surrounded by animals, Taylor-Joy initially refused to learn English and, at a south-west London private school, experienced traumatic bullying – she was “locked in lockers, barred from classrooms, not invited to things”. When it got “too intense, I would get all my homework and I would just walk out the front door and go home,” she says. At 14, she convinced her parents to let her go to New York, alone, for a two-week directing programme. By 16, they agreed she could quit school.
“They treated me like a little adult very early on,” she says. Being the youngest of six children (her eldest three siblings are from her father’s first marriage), helped: “Maybe they got tired of a certain type of parenting?” It was her siblings, who would say, concerned, “‘Hey, you know, Anya’s a little shaky at the moment – are we are going to let her go to Canada [to make a movie] for a month-and-a-half with no phone?’” She is grateful that they did.
The first time Anya felt she “fit in” was on the set of The Witch. Kate Dickie, some 25 years her senior, cast as her mother, became her “first real best friend. I only made friends close to my age group maybe three or four years ago,” she adds, when I sound surprised. “I think Ivy was the first.” Ivy is Ivy Getty, Taylor-Joy’s ride-or-die, whom she met when they got locked out on a balcony together at an MTV Movie & TV Awards after-party in LA.
Hours after meeting, the pair took an impromptu trip to Disneyland and have been inseparable ever since. “She wants to make sure everyone’s OK and she puts everyone before herself,” Getty tells me. “We’re so opposite but I think that’s why our friendship works. I find beauty in smaller things because I’m friends with her.” Last year, Taylor-Joy was maid of honour at Getty’s wedding. “My job was just to make sure that she had the greatest day of her life,” she smiles. “I got a good insight into what it must be like to be my agent.”
It was to Getty’s house that Anya fled after The Queen’s Gambit sent her star stratospheric. While some 62 million households were streaming the show, Taylor-Joy had been in a bubble filming The Northman. Suddenly, her face was on every website, in every newspaper, and her phone was blowing up. “Nothing about my life changed. Then I dropped into New York and within an hour I was back at Ivy’s house just like shivering on the floor. It was so intense.”
The sudden fame scared her. Her friends tried to help: “‘Oh, it’s your eyes, wear sunglasses. Oh it’s your mouth, wear a mask.’ I was dressed like an East Berlin spy at all times. Eventually Ivy was like, ‘We can’t fix it, sorry.’” It’s not that Taylor-Joy is ungrateful for the success, but she has “no skin. It just took a second to understand it and make it OK for myself,” she explains.
Finally having a close circle of friends has been a tonic, but work has long taken precedence over partying. “I just did a lot of it when I was a teenager,” she says, laughing sheepishly. “I grew up in London, you know? By 19, I didn’t have a lot of curiosity about many things.”
She still “loves raving”, but more as a form of meditation now. “One of the reasons I love Berlin is that clubbing is not a night-time activity,” she says. Taylor-Joy was there filming The Queen’s Gambit and on Sundays would go to a club by herself “at 11.30 in the morning, dance until 8pm, not talk to anybody, then go home, have a bath, eat some spaghetti and wake up at 4am to go to work. I felt great.”
In Paris, it’s 11am, which means bookshop Shakespeare and Company, her favourite place in the city, has opened for the day, so we shrug on our coats for a brisk stroll across the Seine. She is a voracious novel-a-day reader, when time allows. “I said to my partner [the musician and actor Malcolm McRae] the other day,” she begins, lighting up a cigarette as we cross the bridge, “that he was my hobby. I see reading as something that I have to do.” And… did he like that? “He loved it because he’s the same. I’ve finally found someone who will happily sit in silence with me reading. We’re basically 80 years old and seven at the same time and it works really well.”
Technically, home is east London, where she owns a house. But for the past year she has been living in the US filming the upcoming (and very secretive) new David O Russell movie opposite Margot Robbie, as well as black comedy thriller The Menu, helmed by Succession director Mark Mylod. Next she heads to Australia, to begin filming Furiosa, the origin story of the renegade Mad Max warrior, for director George Miller. Is long distance hard, I ask? “Yes, it is, but it’s also kind of great because when you’re together you’re really valuing the time that you have. Everyday mundane activities are so full of joy. I love going to the petrol station with him and filling up the car and going to get breakfast.”
Besides, casual dating has never been for her. “I was not a good dater and I’m quite glad to not be. I hear stories from my friends and I’m like, ‘God, I would suck at that.’” Whenever she was “down and out about love” she’d watch episodes of Sex and the City. “I remember when I met Sarah Jessica Parker, I was going through a horrible break-up, and I went up to her and I was like, ‘I need you to know that I’m watching you and Big and it’s giving me hope.’ And she was like, ‘That things will work out?’ and I said, ‘No! That this will end and I will finally move on!’ She was like, ‘Oh, shit. Sorry.’”
We reach the bookshop and Anya makes a beeline for the cat that lives on the top floor. It will turn out to be the first of two trips today – her parents are in Paris, and she’ll bring her dad here in a few hours, emailing to let me know she bought both books I pointed out to her, not really sure if she was listening. But, of course, she was.
Before we say goodbye, she tells me she’s “finally figured out” what she wants. It sounds a lot like her childhood in Argentina: “I want to live on a farm. I want goats, chickens, ducks, horses, just all of it,” she says, as floaty but laser-focused sounding as ever. “I want to work, come into the city when I want to – and then disappear and ride all day.”
The April 2022 issue of British Vogue is on newsstands on Tuesday 29 March. The Northman is in cinemas from 15 April.
Source: Vogue UK