Anya Taylor-Joy thought she had played Casey Cooke for the last time.
It wasn’t until a late-in-the-game test screening in Arizona that Taylor-Joy discovered what M. Night Shyamalan had up his sleeve. By taking a page out of Mr. Glass’ playbook, Shyamalan quietly masterminded one of the most shocking surprises in cinematic history as his 2017 film, Split, turned out to be a stealth sequel to Shyamalan’s 2000 cult classic, Unbreakable.
While Bruce Willis’ clandestine cameo as David Dunn in Split’s coda ultimately set up Glass, the concluding film in Shyamalan’s “Eastrail 177” trilogy, Split succeeded in its own right thanks to critically acclaimed performances from James McAvoy and Taylor-Joy, plus a worldwide gross of $278 million on a $9 million budget. Shyamalan even bet on himself as he funded the $9 million budget via his earnings from 2015’s The Visit.
As Hollywood’s first stealth sequel, Split also revealed itself to be a supervillain origin story in the same way that Unbreakable disclosed itself to be a superhero origin story in its closing moments. Additionally, both films introduced counterparts to each hero and villain as Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) considered himself to be David Dunn’s “brilliant and evil archenemy, who fights the hero with his mind.” Since Glass introduces Price to Kevin Wendell Crumb’s “The Beast,” it seems Mr. Glass has found someone who can go toe-to-toe with his enemy, David Dunn.
This leads us to the enigmatic Casey Cooke and her place in this trilogy. She’s the only person to survive the wrath of “The Beast,” since he sensed that she, too, was “broken” after suffering a childhood of sexual abuse by her beastly uncle. Since Casey connected with Hedwig, one of Kevin Wendell Crumb’s alters, as well as Kevin himself, can she reconnect with them in order to stop The Beast from hurting more people? If water is David Dunn’s kryptonite, does Casey serve as The Beast’s kryptonite? However, if “the broken are the more evolved,” does Casey have abilities we’ve yet to see? After all, her childhood trauma originated during family hunting trips in which Casey’s father taught her how to hunt various beasts. Comic book fans also know what alliterative names tend to suggest. Can David use Casey’s hunting senses to help him stop The Beast? (Fun fact: In early Unbreakable scripts, David Dunn was spelled David Dunne.)
For Taylor-Joy, returning to that world with Glass allowed the aspiring filmmaker to learn from Shyamalan.
“On Glass, when I wasn’t in front of the camera, [Shyamalan] really took a special interest in me as a director,” Taylor-Joy tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Getting to sit beside him and watch how he deals with these scenes and have him ask me, ‘What would you change? What would you do differently here?’ “
Taylor-Joy recently spoke with THR about the challenges of playing Casey Cooke again, as well as her relationships with mentors, Shyamalan and co-star Sarah Paulson. She also teases her mysterious role in the highly anticipated fifth season of Peaky Blinders.
Casey Cooke is the first character you’ve returned to thus far in your career. Because you knew the character already, is there less preparation than usual, or did you dive even deeper given Casey’s role in Glass?
It was an interesting one because I never expected to reprise Casey again. That’s kind of Night’s charm; he’s so intelligent that he’s always 15 steps ahead of anybody. So I never thought I’d get the chance to play her again, and when I left her behind in Split, it was very emotionally difficult for me. The idea of playing her again, it was like this weird thing of “Oh, god, who is Casey when not within the confines of a room?” When you’re wearing one outfit and you’re in a windowless room for an entire movie, there’s a very specific way to be that person in that state of duress. Then, trying to bring her out into the world, it just made me think in bolder terms about how she was dealing with it and how she was coping. Both Night and I had the same concept of, “This person, who has been through traumatic events in her childhood and throughout all of her adolescence, experiences another traumatic event that actually ends up healing her in a certain way. So it was really emotional and incredible to get to come back to her and to grow alongside her. It almost felt on par with how I’ve grown up since the last time I played her. I just felt even more intimate and even more special.
You’ve done quite a bit of work the last four years, including the two years in between Split and Glass. How would you describe your state of mind when you first walked onto the Glass set versus your initial state of mind on the set of Split?
The first time I walked onto the Split set, I don’t think I had an idea of what was going on [Laughs]. It was my third movie. As has been my career thus far, I shot back-to-back-to-back. So, I shot the The Witch; I shot Morgan and then all of a sudden, I was on Split. I don’t think I really had any idea of what I was getting into or the way that Night works. I just kind of went in gung-ho, all excited with youthful, puppy enthusiasm about everything and willing to give it my all. Whilst on Glass, it was this really beautiful feeling of returning to a family. Something that shouldn’t be overlooked, it’s not just the cast returning to Glass; it’s the crew that made Unbreakable, Split and now Glass. It kind of felt like going into a Thanksgiving dinner with all of your family that you haven’t seen in a couple years. It was just the most welcoming homecoming environment, and we all knew that we were doing something incredibly special. Whilst on Split, it was almost as if we were going on an expedition. Glass felt more like a homecoming.
You’ve mentioned how you’re a sponge on set since you want to direct someday. When it comes to Night’s way of filmmaking, have you picked up on anything that you might add to your own repertoire someday?
Night is, first and foremost, my mentor in the way that [The Witch filmmaker] Robert Eggers also is. I’m a very lucky girl to be able to call those two men my mentors. I am baffled as to why they’ve taken such an interest in me, but I am certainly not going to throw it away. So I’m picking up on everything that I possibly can. When it came to our relationship during Split, Night was very much focused on mentoring me as an actor. On Glass, when I wasn’t in front of the camera, he really took a special interest in me as a director. Getting to sit beside him and watch how he deals with these scenes and have him ask me, “What would you change? What would you do differently here?” Having the space to voice my opinion and for him to tell me, “Yes, you’re on the right train of thought, or, no, you’re just trying to force something to be the way you want it to be rather than letting the magic happen.” That was incredibly beneficial. He’s also handling some of the top talents in the world, and the way that he handles everybody as a human being, alongside their character, is something that I definitely want to pattern. He’s very much an actor’s director in that way. If I’m ever lucky enough to direct anything, I hope I can give the actors the amount of space and reverence that Night gives them.
You have incredible chemistry with James McAvoy. On Glass, how long did it take for the two of you to get back in sync since his performance is so dynamic?
Instantly. It’s bizarre, actually. The relationship that Kevin and Casey have with each other is so unique and intimate. James and I are good friends in real life, but we have this kind of secret, unspoken thing that only really comes to life when in front of the camera and as these characters. There’s a kindness to the intimacy between these two characters that can’t be described as romantic, friendly or anything that is usually put down into a box as a sort of relationship that people have. Casey and Kevin are broken people that feel completely misunderstood by everybody other than each other. So from the second we see each other back on set, in our clothes and as our characters, there’s this almost hallowed ground, or sacredness, of what it is that we’re doing. It just feels very quiet. Everybody else kind of fades away, and we just get back into that state of being. It’s a beautiful thing to experience with another performer, let alone with another performer as talented as James. It’s instant, it’s cosmic and it’s very, very special.
Besides performance, what personal touches did you add to Casey this go-round, such as wardrobe or hair and makeup?
Well, that was something that was very important to Night and me. It’s my job as an actor to be a chameleon, and Night and I both said, “Casey needs to have grown within this.” It really did start off with the wardrobe. I always find that it’s such a litmus test for how I’m gonna feel about a character. When you go in with the costumer designer for the first time and you start coming up with looks, it’s not something that I’ve thought about before. Someone will put something on me and I’ll just know if it’s right or not. With Casey three weeks later in Glass, it’s not a very long time, but considering you only really saw her in one outfit the whole of Split’s windowless room episode, seeing how she dresses now and seeing what kind of person she is in the outside world was important. It was remarkable how quickly Paco Delgado, the costumer designer, and I came to an understanding of, “She’s better but that does not mean that she’s wearing belly tops.” That’s not a “better” that Casey can be. She’s wearing more blousy tops and high-waisted jeans; she always has her pair of Doc Martens. That’s her way of staying close to something. I was very fortunate that all of the costume and jewelry choices were run by me. They all understood and respected the connection that I had with the character that way.
Sarah Paulson joined the cast as Dr. Ellie Staple. In general, what sort of wisdom did Sarah impart on you?
That woman is a remarkable inspiration in my life. She’s a wonderful human being. I really do mean this: I’ve been incredibly and crazily lucky with the women that I’ve met who are slightly older than me. They’ve given me such nuggets of wisdom and are behind me in whatever it is that I’m doing. Sarah is just a badass. Whenever I have any questions to ask her, she responds immediately and is so helpful. When I went to the Met Gala for the first time last year, I was really scared and really nervous. That’s an intimidating room to go into, let alone wearing a 20-kilo dress and a crown. So, you know, I was doing my best [Laughs]. The best part of the night was meeting Sarah after all of that and us sitting down on the steps of the Met, talking about everything that had been going on and why I felt so afraid. She was wonderful to me, and she’s a fantastic friend. Getting to watch her as a performer on Glass is just an added bonus. You have to remember: I am very young. I’m growing up on these movie sets. The people that I encounter are the people who are informing the woman that i’m going to become/am becoming. Having Sarah along for that is a huge blessing.
Compared to the start of your career, are there specific scenes or emotions that no longer intimidate you just because of the experience you now have?
Bizarrely, I think it goes the other way around. At the beginning, I didn’t understand what was going on so I just jumped in and figured it out the way it was going. Now, I have a different reverence for what’s happening. I’ll think, “OK, I’ve done this scene before; I’ve played it before. How do I make it unique to this character? How do I make it completely and utterly belonging to this other human being?” That is a different pressure that I’ve not felt before; it’s making every single thing unique. I would hate for anybody to look at my performances and say, “Oh, I’ve seen her do that before.” I want to do it differently every single time, so that’s just a different pressure to better myself consistently.
Do you think about your past characters from time to time? Do they ever resurface when you least expect it?
They’ll pop up at moments when I’ll say something that comes so naturally to me, and then suddenly I’ll realize, they’re not words that I’ve written myself; those are words that have been written for me as a character. No one else will notice, but I will notice. So I’ll store it and connect back to that person for a heartbeat. I’ve been lucky most of the time. When I’m done, I’m done. I think it’d be too painful to keep doing it otherwise. They sometimes talk to me; I never forget them. They’re always there, and I can access them and talk to them whenever I want to. I just kind of choose not to because I haven’t stopped working. Sometimes, a different character will come through, and I’m like, “No! I’m in a different head space. I’m being a different person.” So, yeah, I have to keep that in check.
Because you’re known for playing rather complex roles, has anyone tried to flip the script by offering you a modern coming-of-age or young love story? Are those stories even interesting to you?
It has been done, but I do not object to anything. I wish I could say that I was a mastermind and planned my whole career this way, but I’m not. I’m somebody who has followed their heart and their passion to the people who speak to them and the people whose voices I feel I have the right to tell. I feel it’s a very specific privilege that these people have felt close enough to me that I can give them a voice. I don’t put myself out in the limelight, but as another human being, I can do that if I feel like it is my job to tell their story. So if that were to come in the shape of a romantic comedy, a musical or whatever, then I’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s just that I’m not interested in stories that aren’t talking about three-dimensional characters with depth and messiness because I don’t think that’s natural or normal. I think it’s setting a bar for humanity that isn’t achievable. I think it’s a lot more interesting to tell human stories about messy and weird people than it is about anything else.
Lastly, can you spare a couple adjectives regarding your Peaky Blinders character?
She is sassy, entitled and ambitious as fuck. That’s basically the way that I’m describing her. I had the most fun on that set, and I love everybody involved. I just had an absolute blast, especially with that style of acting. It’s realism, but hyperrealism with a certain element of camp. I loved every single second.
Glass is in theaters Friday.