The Ingénue: Anya Taylor-Joy
It’s all happening for Anya Taylor-Joy. In the year since she shook up Sundance with her stellar turn as a 17th-century teen in the sensational The Witch: A New-England Folktale, and since we featured her in our Hollywood New Wave portfolio, all she’s done is stack up a slate of impressive films set to hit screens over the next year or so, and which will likely make her into a star. Born in Miami, raised in Argentina and then London, the 19-year-old daughter of a Spanish-English mother and a Scottish-Argentinian father is at home nowhere and everywhere—at least anywhere there is a film set. As her profile rises with the recent release of The Witch, and her life begins to change, the young actress tells M. Night Shyamalan, director of her forthcoming film, Split, she has wanted to make her home in film for so long, she can’t even remember when the wanting started.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Hey, you awake?
ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: Uh, dude, I’ve been awake since, like, two this morning. L.A. does not care about London time.
SHYAMALAN: Two a.m.? What have you been doing for six hours?
TAYLOR-JOY: I read a lot, and then I tried to play my ukulele really quietly to not piss off anyone who was around the area.
SHYAMALAN: Wait, wait. You have a ukulele? If you’d told me this, I wouldn’t have hired you.
TAYLOR-JOY: The ukulele is a deal breaker? [both laugh]
SHYAMALAN: The ukulele is important for me.
TAYLOR-JOY: I did buy an electric guitar while shooting Split . Does that up my cool points?
SHYAMALAN: Definitely. So I was thinking: Being an immigrant in the United States making movies is an unusual feeling, for me. It defines the way I think and tell stories. Like, I try to tell stories to everyone around the world because my family’s all around the world. Does that come into your thinking about your roles, the way you approach your characters—being international?
TAYLOR-JOY: I’ve been quite lucky in that the roles that I’ve been able to play are all kind of outsiders. And, you know, I belong to so many places, and belong to none of them at the same time, so there’s this sense of displacement—I very much understand what it is to not fit in or belong somewhere. In The Witch or Morgan [forthcoming], my characters are people who just don’t belong in their world, in their scenarios, in their families, in anything. I think, probably, the place that I feel I most belong is a movie set. It doesn’t matter where it is in the world or who I’m making the movie with; that’s the closest thing that I’ve got to a sense of placement. So I guess acting was a way of finding a home, if that makes sense.
SHYAMALAN: I feel very similarly. Making movies is a circus, and you join a new circus family every movie, to some extent. It’s a new group of family members for this intense period of time, and then everybody packs up and goes on their way to the next circus.
TAYLOR-JOY: It is kind of bizarre, but at the same time, I feel like anyone that gets into movies didn’t fit into the real world, and so we made our own world.
SHYAMALAN: We certainly are comfortable with the itinerant quality of our lives, with these groups of strangers who become your family.
TAYLOR-JOY: Completely, the bond is so strong.
SHYAMALAN: I never even told you this … I mean, you auditioned with a thousand other girls who auditioned for the role in Split, and I remember my casting director sent me an e-mail saying, “Wait, I just recorded someone I think is really interesting. You need to look at this.” I looked at the tape, and I was like, “Whoa, this is something really different.” It really stood out. And, I never do this, by the way, I called someone in from one of the offices down the hall and said, “Just look at this.” Casting is such a private thing for me, what my gut’s telling me. But I called in Dom [Dominic Catanzarite, Shyamalan’s assistant], and his eyebrows went up. So when I called you in to audition in person with three or four other girls, I thought, “It’s hers as long as she isn’t, you know … ”
SHYAMALAN: Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. [both laugh]
TAYLOR-JOY: What is that?
SHYAMALAN: That’s a technical term, a director’s term. So wait, was it modeling that you did first? Or acting?
TAYLOR-JOY: I got scouted for modeling, and it was really scary—I was walking my dog wearing heels for the first time ever because I had a party to go to the day after, and I wanted to practice, and this black car kind of started following me, so I, being dramatic, picked up the dog and started to run. I was like, “This is the end.” And this guy popped out and was like, “If you stop, you won’t regret it.” Which now, looking back, I’m like, dumb move. If someone says that to you, you keep running.
SHYAMALAN: It’s the classic serial murderer line!
TAYLOR-JOY: I completely fell for it. But I stopped, and it was Sarah Doukas, the head of Storm Models, in the car. Modeling had never entered my consciousness. I was always like, “I’m going to act.” But I thought, “If this can help me with that, great.”
SHYAMALAN: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be an actress?
TAYLOR-JOY: Dude, it’s really bizarre. I can never remember becoming aware of it; I just knew I was going to do it. I can remember the first time I heard really good music. I was 3 and I was in one of those baby-seat things. We were in Argentina and I heard “Stayin’ Alive,” and I can remember being like, “Whoa, what is this?” When I was little, I would always make up stories; it never occurred to me not to do it. I danced ballet really hard core for a very long time. I just knew that I wanted to express myself in some way, whether it was through dancing or through music … I was very good at lying when I was little. So I was like, “Huh, I guess this is kind of useful.” [Shyamalan laughs] I’d make up the most outrageous lies. I kind of stopped doing that when I started acting. Strange.
SHYAMALAN: In some ways, I find modeling and acting very different, in what’s being asked of you. Like, what I’m asking of you is such an internalization of your character that your physical manifestations are unconscious, and I record that. You’re aware of what you’re doing, but it’s coming from a character. In modeling, it’s almost the reverse. You’re letting the viewer interpret whatever they want to interpret.
TAYLOR-JOY: Thinking about it that way, I think the biggest difference is characters are real—hopefully—they’re flawed and vulnerable, human. While modeling isn’t human. When you’re modeling, you’re projecting an ideal. Maybe you can help me riddle this out, because I don’t really understand it. When I’m taking pictures as myself, it is so rare for me to be like, “Oh, that’s me.” It’s sort of like a puppy looking at itself in the mirror, do you know what I mean? I can’t connect with the person in the pictures.
SHYAMALAN: Yeah. What they’re asking you to do in that moment is represent a broader color than what we do in film, where we’re talking about this specific girl in a specific situation that can only react the way she reacts. So, speaking of which,The Witch was your first movie, right?
TAYLOR-JOY: Yeah. I’m still kind of learning all the jargon, but I got to set and was just like, “What is going on?” I was so confused. God bless Rob [Robert Eggers, writer-director of The Witch]—he grabbed my hand and kind of waved me through everything. He was great.
SHYAMALAN: You just auditioned?
TAYLOR-JOY: Yeah. Rob tells this story—I love it—but I was the first tape he saw, and then he watched like a thousand more because he was like, “No, it can’t be that easy.” [laughs] When we met, I was so anxious—like, losing it. If a script is meant for me, I’ll get this sensation in my body where I’ll just start to shake. And so when I walked in, I was all over the place, and I was like, “I’m pretty much having a panic attack. Do you still want me to do this?”
And he was like, “Yeah, sure.” It was amazing. We shot in Canada. We stayed in a little place called Mattawa. Like, 60 people live there all the time. I love that place. And then we would shoot two hours away. So we’d drive two hours every morning and two hours every night.
SHYAMALAN: My goodness. We have talked a bit about fame and publicity that comes with our jobs, and how that can be unsettling for us as human beings, and distracting as an artist. How are you feeling about the things coming down the road for you, because you’re starring in three big movies in the coming year or so, how do you think that will affect you as a human being and create challenges for you as an artist?
TAYLOR-JOY: I mean, I never thought, “I want to be famous.” I want to act. This makes me feel good. Nothing makes me feel as good as doing this. Nothing could make me more satisfied. And I’m terrified of fame. I like knowing that, when people like me, they like me for who I am and because they’ve taken the time to get to know me. To be honest, it’s going to make me just more of a workaholic, because when I’m not working, I’m doing publicity, and I’d rather be on set all the time, which isn’t that different from what I already want.
SHYAMALAN: I have observed a direct correlation with people’s professional choices and their version of fame. If they didn’t love and respect their choices, and then they become famous, it feels like a betrayal. Every time someone says, “God, I loved you in x-y-z,” it’s a dagger. The worst thing that can happen is to become incredibly successful for something that you don’t respect.
TAYLOR-JOY: I’ve made three movies in my lifetime and all three have had three things: One, do I love my character so much that I’d do anything for her? Two, did the script give me that insane feeling in my body? And then three, would I follow the director to the end of the earth? Yes? Okay, I want to do it. I think about the relationship between an actor and a director like an Olympic athlete and their coach. Like, I am completely vulnerable and open and ready to create your vision and allow you to mold me. I’ve been so lucky with the people that I’ve worked with. You’ve taught me so much about so many things, as a human being and an actor.
SHYAMALAN: If you could plan the next 10 years, and it went exactly like you wanted, what would it be?
TAYLOR-JOY: Making movies that I’m unabashedly proud of. Growing. I want to keep working with all the people I want to work with. I also write a lot of music, I write a lot of poems, and I’d love to do something big for animals. I really love animals—the only thing that makes me properly mad is the mistreatment of an animal. I see complete red.
SHYAMALAN: A random thing popped into my head, and you can tell me to shut up when I bring this up. You can be like, “I can’t believe you brought this up on this Interview interview.” But when we started you on Split, there was a moment when we were in my office, and then you left for the weekend, and you left your script in my office.
TAYLOR-JOY: Oh, my God. Night. [both laugh]
SHYAMALAN: And you came back on Monday, and I let you have it. I just laid into you. I have to say you responded incredibly to it, but I just wanted to hear your side of it.
TAYLOR-JOY: I had already panicked. I knew it was in the office. I knew how much it was going to matter to you. But, also, when people yell at me, I am calm.
SHYAMALAN: [laughs] Well, I didn’t yell at you. I was disappointed.
TAYLOR-JOY: No, you didn’t. But I took it as a challenge. I realized how serious you were. I was just like, “I’m going to prove myself to this guy.” I was going to be the most dedicated actress you’d ever worked with. And, because we’d already had that, I knew our relationship worked. Does that make sense?
SHYAMALAN: It does. I mean, I’m very strict in terms of dedication to the craft of it all. But, you know, you are a very unusual actor. I could do take after take after take, and you seem to have an unending pool of emotion. That’s very unusual. You’re like an exposed, raw nerve. But I don’t want you to rely on that—whatever that is, call it a gift. If you bring craft to that, the sky’s the limit for you.
TAYLOR-JOY: Well, you made me an infinitely better actor—I hope so, anyway. [laughs] So thank you.
SHYAMALAN: I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for you when The Witchopens. How does your family feel about your decision to go into acting, and then these astronomical opportunities that have happened like magic?
TAYLOR-JOY: Magic is my favorite word. And it does feel like magic. I have a lot of brothers and sisters, but they’re all a lot older than me, so my parents and I are very close. We’ve been through everything together. They always supported me. I was like, “I’m going to act,” and people would be like, “But how is it going to happen?” And I was like, “I don’t know. I’m going to be in the right place at the right time, and this is going to work.” And so when I actually started doing it, my parents were obviously immensely proud of me, like, “Hell, yeah. There’s our girl, doing what she loves.” But then I dropped out of school. That wasn’t that great for them. [Shyamalan laughs] But you would have laughed so hard how I did it. I wrote a five-page-long essay that was like, “I am 17 and you can’t tell me what to do, and this is why I want to leave school to become an actor.” [laughs] Luckily,The Witch came straight after that, so it all just kind of snowballed, and I’m getting to share it with them. It’s strange. My dad cries a lot randomly. Like, he’ll be really proud and start to cry. They’ve been so great and they’re complete rocks, and they’re so happy about it.
SHYAMALAN: That letter you wrote, was it running from something or running to something?
TAYLOR-JOY: It was running to something. I was done with school. I never got along with people my own age. People at school kind of didn’t get me. I had these wonderful teachers. I also have a very good short-term memory, and so I could do exams really easily, but it just, I was feeling so uninspired. I love to learn. I read a ton, I’m always fascinated …
SHYAMALAN: I’m going to stop you there. Everything you just said felt like running from.
TAYLOR-JOY: But if you’re running from something, and you already have the place that you’re running to, what are you doing? I was running from school towards the life that I wanted. And I’m very determined. I’m very stubborn. Once I set my mind towards something, it’s going to happen. By hook or by crook. And it all ended up happening, kind of miraculously, and in a randomly simple, complicated way. It just all sort of worked out.
SHYAMALAN: Well, I am the biggest believer in what you’re talking about. We’re all basically antennas, and if you’re putting that much focus into something with that much belief, it will manifest in some form. You’ve heard those stories, like, Jim Carrey writes a check to himself for $20 million when he was poor, wanting to be an actor, and he put it in his wallet … Did you hear this story?
SHYAMALAN: So he writes a check to himself saying, “To Jim Carrey, for acting services rendered, $20 million,” and keeps it in his wallet. And guess what happens? He becomes the first actor in the world to get paid $20 million.
TAYLOR-JOY: Damn. That’s cool.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN IS THE DIRECTOR OF THE SIXTH SENSE, SIGNS,THE VISIT, AND THE FORTHCOMING SPLIT, AMONG OTHER FILMS.