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Anya Taylor-Joy reveals the weirdest acting note she ever got from M. Night Shyamalan

From right to left: Anya Taylor-Joy in Split (Screenshot), The Witch (Screenshot), and The Queen's Gambit (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)
From right to left: Anya Taylor-Joy in Split (Screenshot), The Witch (Screenshot), and The Queen's Gambit (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Anya Taylor-Joy has only been acting in film and television since 2014, yet she’s already amassed a filmography with a breadth and pedigree that would be impressive for an actor twice her age. Since making her debut as the lead character in Robert Eggers’ period-piece horror film The Witch, she’s gone on to deliver memorable performances in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (and its sequel, Glass), Cory Finley’s brilliant Thoroughbreds, quirky Jane Austen adaptation Emma., and Edgar Wright’s upcoming Last Night In Soho, among others. That’s on top of finely realized TV roles such as in Netflix’s Peaky Blinders and limited series like The Miniaturist.

The A.V. Club spoke with Taylor-Joy recently ahead of her new project The Queen’s Gambit, a six-part limited series streaming on Netflix based on the novel of the same name (out October 23). The actor plays Beth, a woman who becomes a chess master in the 1960s, when it was essentially a men-only world—and struggles with the toll it takes on her life, especially when issues of addiction start to arise. She talked to us about her affinity for the role, the interesting arc of her career thus far, and what M. Night Shyamalan said to her that completely changed her approach to breaking down onscreen.

The A.V. Club: You’ve said that you identified and empathized so much with Beth over the course of filming that, at a certain point, you started blurring the line emotionally between her and you on some days. What is it about Beth that you connected with?

Anya Taylor-Joy: I really felt like I understood her loneliness. It’s strange because there was no script when I first signed on, but when I read the book, I felt very seen. I felt like I could really see myself in the pages and within the character. And the year that I had—I knew I was going to play [Jane Austen’s] Emma, and then I knew I was going to do [Edgar Wright’s upcoming] Last Night In Soho, and then I knew Beth was coming. And from the very beginning of the year, I was like, “I have to keep Beth away, because the second that I’m in there, it’s just game over.” Like, there’s going to be absolutely no separation.

And I’m very grateful that I knew that. And I’m grateful that I liked her so much, because if she had been trickier, I think it would have been an uncomfortable experience. I think her sense of alienation is something that I still struggle with today. And her obsession—her desire to find her place in something and to devote her entire life to it. I mean, I’ve done that with acting. I’ve done that with making art. So I got it.

AVC: That element that you just mentioned—of total commitment where you dedicate your life so completely to something—it can be hard to see the tradeoff when you can’t step outside of the life you’ve chosen. Was that part of what you found appealing about it? A story where you could do exactly what you can’t do in real life?

ATJ: Yes, but I also think it gets so complicated when you think about it, because on the one hand, chess is her way of identifying with the world. Chess is her way of being able to communicate with it because she finds human beings so stressful. It’s like at least in chess, she can kind of understand what is going on and react to moves, while human beings are totally baffling to her. But as it continues, I do think that she starts to get overwhelmed by the idea that she’s squandering a gift and that she’s not strong enough to support that gift. It’s like this back and forth of punishing—I was about to say punishing myself. You see what I mean? [Laughs.] Like, the lines get really, really blurred. Punishing herself and then enjoying it and then just not understanding where she fits in. And I’m like, “Yeah, I feel you. I understand what it is you’re talking about.”

AVC: You’ve worked at more or less a nonstop pace since you began acting. Did you relate to Beth also in that sense, of sometimes thinking, “I would love to just throw all this out the window for a month. Take a break”?

ATJ: Yeah, it’s difficult because… you know, I sometimes forget this: I am very young and I have done all of my growing up—or I am doing all of my growing up—living with other people and living very much as an adult that is expected to show up, be professional, and give it my all. But that means that I haven’t had necessarily a lot of time to acclimatize to things that I’ve learned because I was just constantly jumping into different characters. Without sounding insane, this period of time where I actually got to sit down and go, “Okay, what’s happened in the last six years of my life?” I feel like I’ve done a lot of growing up during that time because I just didn’t have the space to understand what I was going through. And I think with Beth, it’s kind of similar. She just keeps being thrown into situations where she has to grow to take the space, but not necessarily grow at the rate that she would if she wasn’t being pushed to grow that way. So, yeah, I understand Beth a lot. [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve done a lot of genre work in your career, but you’ve also started doing a lot more period-piece work. It seems like there’s some creative overlap there, in that both realms involve reorienting yourself to a world that’s not exactly ours, but still very much grounded in the same human emotion and drama. Have you found yourself making connections between roles or films that other people don’t necessarily expect?

ATJ: Interesting. People at the beginning of—it feels weird to say, at the beginning of my career—they were going, “Wow, you’re choosing to do a lot of horror.” I wish I could say that I was forward thinking enough to go, “Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m gonna do horror.” No, I just follow characters and I follow worlds. But going from Emma to ’60s London [in Last Night In Soho] and then ’60s Kentucky [in The Queen’s Gambit] and around, I thought, okay, clearly there’s something about this situation that I’m feeling a pull and a gravity towards. I think the beauty of genre and period pieces—not necessarily period drama but period pieces—is that it does allow you to transport yourself to another world. It allows world creation in a way that I think when an audience member comes to watch it, they’re sucked in immediately; they’re in that world. And I have a very vivid imagination and I love world-building. So it’s pretty fun to be able to walk in every day and go, “Where I am today and how do I take up that space?”

AVC: There’s something about the appeal of these heightened or not-quite-our-own-worlds. Even Thoroughbreds, which on its surface maybe seems the most like our everyday world, but very quickly you realize has this warped, almost surreal edge to it.

ATJ: Yeah. And there’s a real beauty in that; my favorite films are the ones where the camera is used as a language where the production value helps tell the story in a certain way, where it’s not just, “Oh yeah, we’re gonna pick this because this was ’60s accurate.” It’s like, no, we’re picking the specific color because it fits as part of the world and it helps transfer the tone across. And I think something like Thoroughbreds does that beautifully. You’re definitely in the world of that movie and every element of it is helping tell this story.

You know, reality is only ever going on inside of your own head. We all have our own worlds in here that nobody will ever be able to access. And when you make a movie, you create a shared experience that anybody that watches it can access, and you say, “Why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to go, this is what the world looks like from inside this character’s head; come inside of it and understand it from their point of view.” I think the colors in The Queen’s Gambit, the really intense clashing patterns, I think all of that is telling a story: The world is a lot for Beth to deal with. She’s not necessarily finding it easy. And then if you look at the costume element of it, as her costumes start to get sleeker and more controlled, that directly mirrors her addiction and how she’s handling that. So I just geek out over that kind of stuff all the time.

AVC: Another theme that comes up in your work a lot is that you seem to be drawn to roles where you have these characters who get into a life or a situation they can’t necessarily see a way out for, or get in over their heads to a degree.

ATJ: [Laughs.] There’s nothing to unpack there!

AVC: There’s obviously something about that narrative or character arc of someone coming unmoored that speaks to you.

ATJ: Yeah, I mean, I always knew I was gonna be a performer. I always had a feeling that this world would hopefully accept me and that I would find my place in it. But I definitely needed it as a necessity. I was not fitting into my reality as a young person in school. I could not find a place where I fit in. And the first time that I ever felt, “Oh, I’m home” was the moment that I stepped on set for The Witch. This community, this group of artists has allowed me to find myself, find my voice and find a place where I actually feel like I can contribute something. And I think a lot of my characters are looking for that in themselves or in a different world. I have a natural empathy and compassion for the underdog or the outsider. I just connect with them and it feels important to me to tell their stories, because any time when I was little that I saw somebody that I thought mirrored something that I was experiencing, it gave me hope and it made me feel like there was going to be a place where I fit in. Even if it’s something as grisly as the ending of Thoroughbreds. You can’t say that Lily doesn’t get what she wants!

AVC: That speaks to the idea that there’s a universal element to them. You’re choosing characters or projects where the audience can see a connection with their own imposter syndrome; most of us struggle at times with insecurity—that everybody is going to discover that we’re a fraud or that we don’t belong. Is that part of what appeals to you about them as well?

ATJ: Absolutely. I think it’s actually super weird because the most uncomfortable I ever felt on set was my first day as Emma, and I didn’t understand it. And then I was like, “Oh, I’ve never been the bully. I have never been in a situation where I am the person that holds the power and I make other people feel uncomfortable. I’ve only ever experienced this from the other side.” So amping myself up to tell that story was a really weird psyche trip. I thought, “Okay, I have to see this from a different perspective now.” And I think I feel so much empathy and compassion—and I’m so fiercely protective of my characters—that it gives me so much joy to see other people feeling and connecting that same way to them, because to me, they are real people and they are people whose stories deserve to be told. And historically in cinema, we’re luckily moving towards a much more accepting world now where people understand that they do want to see diverse underdog stories and that it is interesting to see somebody whose life isn’t completely together. People have said that I was going after “undesirable” characters. And I was like, “That’s why I’m picking them.” Because I root for them and I love them. And that’s important.

AVC: We discussed how much you relate to Beth. But if you had to pick one of your other roles that you felt most overlapped with you as a person, which one would it be?

ATJ: Each of them is so different. Each of them teaches me. The person I least had a connection with was [Thoroughbreds’] Lily. I did not realize that that woman was a psychopath until the end of filming. I defended her the whole way through and then the movie ended and I realized, “Oh. I need to go away and like, detoxify.” It was intense. Or I would say possibly [The Witch’s] Thomasin, because at the time I did not realize that characters were real for me. I don’t know how to act now, but I know more about it than I did the first day I showed up on The Witch—So I think a lot of Thomasin is a lot of me, at 18.

AVC: You’ve worked with a fairly broad array of auteurs at this point, from Robert Eggers to Shyamalan, Edgar Wright, Sergio G. Sánchez in Marrowbone, and now Scott Frank in The Queen’s Gambit. Do you have a preferred shooting style or do you enjoy mixing it up in different ways? Like, if it was up to you would everybody remain in character between takes, or do you prefer a more casual set?

ATJ: Well, it’s difficult. I would never call myself a method actor. I feel like I get a glazing put on my brain where I’m living with the person. And it certainly influences me in certain ways. But I’m still me and I’m always joking right before action and straight after cut.

I do love direction, though. I love directors. I feel like it’s my job as a performer to understand what they want and the way that they want it before they even say anything to me. So I like to see through their eyes. And I’ve been so lucky with the people that I’ve worked with, that they are interested in having that kind of collaboration with me. And sometimes the weirder the note, the better. Like, I’ll get really weird notes and that forces you to think about things in a certain way and you end up coming up with something really interesting.

AVC: What’s an example of a weird note?

ATJ: Night [Shyamalan] changed the way I acted forever. When I was doing a scene as Casey and really losing it, I’d been crying for hours. And he came up to me and very gently and very sweetly just said, “This is beautiful, but I’ve seen you cry. And these are your tears. Don’t be selfish. Give the character her own tears.” And my whole brain exploded. I was like, “Right. Don’t cry for yourself; don’t think of something that happened to you, because that well is going to run dry. Cry because you care about this person, cry for her.” And ever since then, each of my characters, they do cry differently. And any time that comes up, I’m always interested in it—“Oh, this is the way that this person cries. That’s really interesting.” That’s a fun tidbit for me to take home.