Stepping into the shoes of Jane Austen’s timeless antiheroine Emma in a new screen adaptation, the actor speaks to us about why she’s never compromised for less.
Oscillating effortlessly between twisted gothic thrillers and refined period dramas, Anya Taylor-Joy has mapped out an unconventional career rooted in escapism. Now stepping into the shoes of Jane Austen’s timeless antiheroine Emma in a new screen adaptation, the actor speaks to us about why she’ s never compromised for less.
Within the first five minutes of meeting, Anya Taylor-Joy is excitedly telling me about the best first date she’s ever been on. “Our lunch turned into six, seven hours of us wandering around antique shops and just telling each other our entire life story.” She recalls the story animatedly, her stupendously large eyes trained on mine. “We fell in love! It was basically the best first date I’ve ever had.” I’m currently sat with the actress in the practically sub-zero temperatures of a studio’s storage room in the depths of south London. An eerie array of prop oddities including mannequin torsos and comically jumbo-sized clocks loom ominously in the shadows, as well as one boisterously orange vintage sofa – where eventually all her lithe, deer-like limbs fold into when we sit down for a chat. The “date” in question was her first ever work meeting with Autumn de Wilde, an esteemed fashion photographer and director who has just helmed the latest screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s iconic 19th-century set novel, Emma – in which Taylor-Joy stars in the titular role. It is a sprightly, humorous wedge of a film, offering up sheer screen escapism and swoon-worthy shows of romance — think strawberries and champagne, beguiling glances over group picnics, and petticoats abound — and boasting a number of fantastic performances from an ensemble cast made up of the crème de la crème of British talent, or as Taylor-Joy calls them, the “merry little gang” of Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart. What you see on screen is essentially what you get: the on-screen chemistry between everyone is real. Mia Goth is one of Taylor-Joy’s IRL best friends. And she snickers gleefully “it was so much fun to argue with Johnny Flynn,” the singer and actor who plays her bickering love interest. They’re all active on a group chat called ‘MA’ whose avatar is an emoji of the head exploding, where they “continually tell each other jokes and write poetry.” At its crux, Emma is about a spoilt “anti-heroine” who meddles in the lives of others around her, and plays matchmaker to less than favourable results for all those involved. “Emma is acting from a place of fear a lot of the time,” Taylor-Joy surmises. “A lot of her comments that come out are because she’s deeply lonely and bored, and she also doesn’t know any better. She’s grown up in a place of privilege where she believes that she’s truly being kind in trying to improve people, but I wanted people to understand where she was coming from when she does say something mean. I think that in a world that’s very big on cancel culture at the minute, it’s really nice to have a story on redemption, and by the end of the film Emma understands that morally she prefers to be around good people that treat each other kindly, rather than the people that are deceitful and happen to be of the right class.”
In Emma, Taylor-Joy is hands-clasped, poised perfection, intimidatingly fastidious, but also mesmerisingly human (one scene sees her nose start fauceting blood while confessing her love to someone). She has cut her teeth on other period dramas such as the haunting BBC adaptation of 17th century-set The Miniaturist, and also joined the cast of Peaky Blinders for season 5 — which follows the fallout of the financial crash in 1929 — which she evokes with furclad genteel debonair. And while one half of her portfolio has seen her embody these historical time periods with much ease, she has most notably carved out a space for herself taking on unsettling, oft female-led, gothic horrors, stepping into these roles with the unabashed fervour of someone much older than her 23 years. “It’s a new world and you want to forget what’s going on currently,” she observes. “There seems to be a direct correlation of when the world gets really dark, people either want to be absolutely scared senseless or they want to escape.” And there is no doubt that the actress has tapped into the rarely traversed area on the genre Venn diagram that accommodates for both. Taylor-Joy got her big break in a fortuitous way that absolutely never, without any exceptions, happens in the acting world. Her first lead role in 2015, was also her first ever proper acting job: another period film, Robert Egger’s chilling, folkloric A24 horror The Witch, where she turned up on set and “didn’t even know what a mic was.” Her character Thomasin switches between wide-eyed innocence and cunning with such subtle flicker-of-an-eyelid-and-you-might-missit finesse, and this constant insidious sense of dread permeates the entirety of the film. In M. Night Shyamalan’s shocking psychological 2016 thriller Split, she is emotionally fraught as she is kidnapped by James McAvoy’s character, a man with 23 personalities who is suffering from dissociative identity disorder. And in 2017’s black comedy psychodrama Thoroughbreds, Taylor-Joy plays a repressed ticking time-bomb of a high school student, who plans alongside her equally chillingly deadpan best friend to murder her stepfather.
“I think they kind of picked me,” she considers slowly, when I question her on her proclivity for such dark or somewhat twisted roles. “I think it’s because I’ve always identified with being an outsider and a weirdo. I guess it’s strange but I’m very comfortable being emotional in front of a whole bunch of people and there’s something incredibly cathartic about being in a room and just screaming and letting all of the ugly out. It’s almost like cats with hairballs, you kind of want it out there, rather than having it inside you. Strangely enough, that makes me so comfortable. I felt so much more uncomfortable on my first day of Emma than I ever have doing my scenes in anything dark.” She reveals to me that during rehearsals for Emma, she actually considered quitting acting altogether. She was overwhelmed and overworked, with a schedule that had been back-to-back for as long as she could remember, and a bad breakup had dealt an added knock to her confidence. “At the time, I’d made 19 films in four and a half years, just going back-to-back-to-back,” she remembers. “They’re very formative years and I felt like I had invested so much into my characters and they are a part of me and I’d do anything for them. In a way that I’m insecure about myself, I’m never insecure about what is best for my character. But all of a sudden, I’m in a room meeting incredible actors and I really wanted the right person to play Emma and I just thought ‘oh my god, I can’t do this. I don’t know if I can lead all of these people, I don’t know if I can do this publicly.’” I told the actress it sounded like she had experienced a form of imposter syndrome, at which point she nodded her head resolutely. “Yeah, big time. I definitely had the feeling of ‘I am not in GCSE drama anymore.’” I toe around the topic of the breakup, but Taylor-Joy broaches the subject all on her own. “I think toxic relationships really affect you and I’m very cautious about speaking about it because my career is about my talent and not a boy,” she starts tentatively. “But, I’d just been really [mentally] battered in a relationship and it had skewed my confidence completely.” She attributes fellow Emma cast mate and friend Mia Goth for pulling her out of her crisis. “Bless her, because our relationship is so honest that we wouldn’t lie to each other, and even if she was trying to be kind to me, I could immediately tell what she was thinking and she was so worried when I told her that I wanted to quit acting.” But the actress persevered, and came out through the other side, admitting that she’s stronger for it now. “The second they yelled action and I was in Emma world, there was no way in hell I was doing a bad job,” she adds. Taylor-Joy was born in Miami and raised in Buenos Aires, before moving to London with her Argentinian-Scottish father and Spanish African-English mother when she was six. Her transatlantic accent, as a result, charmingly sing-songs in between British and American, with a subtle indiscernible lilt. She tells me she “was very naïve when I first came into this business” as she “grew up around brothers and boys that never made me feel any different,” but she has always been hyper-aware of the types of roles she takes, their level of complexity, and she has been vocal about her disdain for gendered stereotypes. “If I ever get scripts for roles of the thankless girlfriend I’ll send it back,” she says matter-of-factly. “There’s nothing wrong with being someone’s girlfriend as long as you’re a 3D, multidimensional human being that has a back story and not like ‘oh my god like Brad, your arms are so strong.’”
And while the actress admits that she has been lucky enough to not have experienced misogyny in her career, her agency and boundaries are of the utmost importance to her, especially when navigating a world which can often disregard a woman’s opinion, particularly a young one. “I am very aware of words that perhaps in the past didn’t hold much weight,” she clarifies. “Such as, ‘I am uncomfortable with this’. Saying that and having the weight behind it, I think people listen more now and that certainly makes me feel safer in scenes of a sexual nature. I think in the past it’s that unfortunate classic thing of the evil voice in your brain of society trying to tell you, ‘oh you’re letting people down’. It’s not about being brave, but it’s about my body and me being in control of what I show.” Up next she has a six-part Netflix series The Queens Gambit – set in the Cold War, about a chess prodigy who struggles with addiction, and is the closest Taylor-Joy has gotten to “going method”, where “if [my character] was having a bad day, I was having a bad day.” She will also be starring in the unique latest addition to the X-Men film universe, The New Mutants, a horror film within the superhero genre, including a role written by director Josh Boone with Taylor-Joy in mind, which saw her immediately “geek out” and drive to the nearest comic book store to research her character Magik. Having a portfolio with the complexity, diversity and depth that Taylor-Joy has amassed, however impressive, has clearly not come without some sacrifices. Towards the end of our interview I ask her if she ever wishes she’d had more of a “normal” life. Her eyes flit to the side when pondering her alternate reality, but fixate back on mine with a measured intensity. “I think if I had had a normal childhood, I might have felt that, but nothing about my life has ever really been normal or typical,” she admits. “There are definitely moments when I’m like the grass is greener on the other side, then I snap myself out of it and I’m like absolutely not, this is my life and this is how I go.” But the actress is trying to do more than just take everything in her stride. She has taken every single opportunity that has come her way and multiplied its reach, influence and potential exponentially. “Now, rather than just giving myself to the characters, I’m trying to take something with me,” she says excitedly. “Which is really wonderful because I tend to forget my accomplishments the second that they’re over, and then I think ‘oh my goodness I haven’t done anything with my life, and I’m small and insignificant.’” She pauses and smiles. “But then I’m like, wait a second – I think my last year of work was really helpful for my self-esteem because it was undeniable that I put in the work. You know, at the end of it, you get to 242 days of filming straight and go I’ve done that. I feel good about that!”
Source: Wonderland Magazine