‘Do you mind if I hug this pillow? I’m quite cuddly.’
These aren’t the introductory words that you’d expect from Anya Taylor-Joy. The 20-year-old has piqued Hollywood’s interest – and earned herself a nomination for BAFTA’s career-making Rising Star Award – with a string of roles that are about as far from ‘cuddly’ as you can get. Her eerie performance as a sixteenth century teenager seduced by the supernatural in period horror The Witch was the toast of the Sundance Film Festival; next, she became the violent hybrid-human of the title in Morgan, a sci-fi project with Luke and Ridley Scott. Her latest film, Split, sees her play Casey, an abused girl who is taken hostage by a man suffering from dissociative personality disorder.
Based on the contents of her IMDb page, you’d assume the model-turned-actress to carry a little of that immaculately executed angst off-screen, too. In fact, she’s quite the opposite, infectiously effervescent and open despite her ‘first ever big press tour’ that’s taken her to a different city each day. ‘You’re just travelling along with your friends and all of a sudden you say, “Hey, remember Paris?” Then they respond with, “Yeah. It was yesterday,”’ she laughs. ‘There’s me feeling like it was two months ago.’
One way in which life nearly imitated art, though, was when Anya was scouted by Storm Models founder Sarah Doukas, the woman who discovered Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne: a big break which, by the actress’s own admission, could’ve gone the way of a scene from her latest film. Walking her dog past Harrods, the then-17-year-old noticed that a big, black car was looming in her peripherals. ‘We’ve all seen too many crime dramas, so I was just walking down the street thinking, “Is this happening? Am I just paranoid?”’ she remembers. ‘I turned down a corner street and picked up pace, but the car picked up its pace too, so I legged it, just picked up my dog and ran away. Then this guy stuck his head out of the window and said “If you stop, you won’t regret it!” I just stopped dead in my tracks.’ As it turned out, Anya didn’t regret it, ultimately earning a modelling contract – ‘but Sarah, who was in the car, definitely said to me, “Never do that again. Never,”’ she grins. ‘If a car is following you, just keep running, little girl!’
The horror hat trick of The Witch, Morgan and Split (alleviated with a turn as Barack Obama’s college girlfriend in Netflix biopic, Barry) has affixed ‘scream queen’ to the headlines she’s generated to date, but it's a tag she wears lightly, and isn’t afraid to stray from. ‘People always like to give labels to things. The ‘scream queen’ thing hasn’t bothered me thus far, just because I don’t really know what it means,’ she shrugs. While the roles and genres she’s taken on to date have certainly been intense (and will only get more so – her next projects include psychological thrillers Marrowbone and Thoroughbred), this is more, as she puts it, a ‘happy coincidence’ than a conscious choice.
'All the roles I've played have been complex, real, three-dimensional... but I'm very conscious of the fact that this is unusual'
‘If a character speaks to me, I’ll go wherever they’re going. If they live in a romantic comedy or a drama, it doesn’t really matter to me,’ she explains. Rounded, considered parts like the ones she has taken on are still lamentably rare, and Anya is quick to recognise that her fledgling career is something of an anomaly. ‘I’ve been unbelievably lucky that all the roles I’ve played have been complex, real, three-dimensional people – forget women, people – that are living in the grey, but I’m very conscious of the fact that this is unusual. I shouldn’t be an exception,’ she argues. ‘That should be the rule. Obviously, there’s always going to be a girlfriend role, but that doesn’t mean she has to be one-dimensional, ditzy, whatever.’
While Morgan’s fight scenes required a ‘physical transformation,’ her role in Split posed a new challenge. ‘Casey is so quiet. I had to build this deep, watery internal world for her: her external situation is so harsh that she’s had to find a place in herself that she can retreat to,’ she explains. ‘So I just spent a lot of time being quiet – figuring out how she sees things, how she processes information. She has this unbelievable ability to download everything she sees then store it patiently away – which is so not me at all! I’m more like, “This – that – whatever!” Like this crazy Spanish lady,’ she laughs.
Helping her with this particular transformation was co-star James McAvoy, who she describes as ‘absolutely fearless – so committed,’ and horror veteran M. Night Shyamalan, the director behind The Sixth Sense and Signs, who Anya credits with ‘chang[ing] the way I act forever. I’ve never had any formal training, so for Morgan and The Witch, I used to act from my own depth of emotion. I’d think, “This reminds me of a feeling I’ve had, now I just need to put it onto this character.” Night taught me to act from a place of empathy. I’ll never forget: I was doing this really emotional scene, and he said “I’ve seen you cry like this. Don’t be selfish. Give the character her own tears.”’ I find it a lot easier to cry for other people than I do for myself,’ she explains.
'I feel privileged to tell these stories because I grew up feeling like an outsider'
She might find the red carpet experience more frightening than the scenes she’s acting out (‘It really used to scare me, like genuine panic attack level,’ she reveals. ‘At my first red carpet at Sundance, the photographers saw I was shaking so hard and stopped taking my picture.’) but Anya admits that horror roles often feel cathartic. ‘You go into a room, you scream, you cry and you discharge all of these emotions that otherwise you’d just be carrying around. I’m a lot more stable since I started making films this dark,’ she concedes, adding that she ‘definitely feels privileged to tell these stories because I grew up feeling like an outsider.’ It’s a feeling she partially credits to her ‘nomadic’ upbringing, flitting between New York, London and Argentina, and one that, despite this meteoric rise, she hasn’t quite shaken off. ‘Night said something really interesting the other day,’ she recalls. ‘He said, “Your perception of yourself is as an outsider, you haven’t shed that.” It can be such a lonely place to be in when you feel like you don’t have a home or you haven’t found your tribe. Hopefully watching someone that’s going through something similar on screen makes people feel a little less alone.’
It’s this self-perceived outsider status that – despite the nod clearly being well-earned – caused her BAFTA Rising Star nomination to come as a shock. ‘I’m up against Spiderman!’ she laughs. ‘To be recognised for your work is just above and beyond anything that I ever expected or desired. It’s still surreal because I can’t actually believe that I’m an actor - I can't believe that I’m actually doing this for a living. It’s happened so quickly and I’ve loved it so much, I have these moments all the time where I turn to whoever’s beside me and I’m like, ‘Holy f—k, I’m an actor!’
Split is out in cinemas now