'Emma' Star Anya Taylor-Joy on 'New Mutants' Obstacles and Working With Edgar Wright

Anya Taylor-Joy attends the Los Angeles premiere of Focus Features EMMA - Getty-H 2020
Michael Tran/FilmMagic
The actor, best known for her genre projects, is eager to defy labels and hopes people will say, "she can do more than just cry and run away from people who are trying to kidnap her."

[This story contains mild spoilers for Emma.]

Emma star Anya Taylor-Joy is poised for her biggest year yet with three films and a limited series set for release. She’s also preparing to lead Robert Eggers’ The Northman, which begins shooting in a matter of weeks. Besides Fox’s final (and long-gestating) X-Men installment, The New Mutants, as well as Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit, Taylor-Joy returns to the big screen Friday in Emma — Autumn De Wilde’s critically acclaimed take on Jane Austen’s classic novel. For Taylor-Joy, Emma wasn’t necessarily a deliberate way of changing things up from the genre material that introduced her to the world.

“I’ve always been attracted to Emma, and I always would’ve been attracted to Autumn’s vision for it,” Taylor-Joy tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That being said, I do take issue with the fact that people are continuously trying to put artists in boxes and trying to label them as something. So I’m very happy that in seeing Emma, people will be like, ‘Oh, she can do more than just cry and run away from people who are trying to kidnap her.’”

Since Fox’s final X-Men installment, The New Mutants, wrapped in September 2017, the film has experienced one of the most turbulent journeys to the big screen in recent history. With it finally set to release on April 3, Taylor-Joy admits that it’s been challenging to coordinate the cast’s busy schedules for post-production and promotional work. In fact, she had to do ADR on the fly while in London for a family gathering.

“Technology nowadays is really amazing. I was visiting my parents [in London] for my dad’s birthday, and they managed to find a studio,” she says. “So, I went in for an hour, did all of my ADR and left. So, you can do it; it’s just a very global affair.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Taylor-Joy discusses working with Wright on Last Night in Soho, her preparation for Eggers’ The Northman and her thoughts on the undefined powers of Casey Cooke in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Glass.

You’ve worked with a number of up-and-coming filmmakers, like Emma’s Autumn De Wilde. What attracts you to artists who are still discovering their voices?

At the end of the day, I don’t approach a first-time filmmaker any different than somebody that’s been doing it forever, like [M.] Night [Shyamalan]. I just look at what is this story, who is this character and this person that’s pitching it to me — do I believe them so much that if they asked me to jump off the side of a cliff, would I do it? For Robert [Eggers], Cory [Finley] and Autumn, it was always a yes to all of those questions.

Last time we spoke, I asked you if anyone has tried to flip the script by offering you a modern love story, and I should’ve known that your version of flipping the script would be a period love story like Emma. Since you’ve made several genre films of note, was it important for you to take a left turn at this point in your career?

(Laughs) No matter what point my career was at, I’ve always been attracted to Emma, and I always would’ve been attracted to Autumn’s vision for it. That being said, I do take issue with the fact that people are continuously trying to put artists in boxes and trying to label them as something. So, I’m very happy that in seeing Emma, people will be like, “Oh, she can do more than just cry and run away from people who are trying to kidnap her.”

You’re certainly no stranger to period pieces, and Emma takes place in the early 19th century. Have you ever thought about why you seem to translate so well in different periods?

I think I have an unusual look that people possibly see more in the paintings of that era. I don’t look like a 21st century millennial, and I think that adds something to the storytelling.

Autumn is the second woman director that you’ve worked with, if I’m not mistaken. Have you identified certain advantages that a woman director brings to the table, especially when telling a woman’s story like Emma?

What was wonderful about Autumn and I was we became very, very close almost instantaneously. And because Emma is the story of this young woman, we were able to bring our own experiences as young women into creating the most authentic version of Emma and the most authentic version of Emma’s feelings that had yet been brought to screen. When you’re trying to explain how important and how mystical a relationship to your best girlfriend is when you’re young, there’s a level of importance in that. We would always joke that the breakup that happens in the film is Harriet [Mia Goth] and Emma. That’s the breakup; that’s the thing that really sends her world flying. It’s not Mr. Knightley [Johnny Flynn] leaving; it’s the idea that Harriet doesn’t want to be her friend anymore. Because Autumn is a woman and has experienced that, she could empathize with me and with Emma.

When Elton confesses to Emma in the carriage, your eyes do this amazing special effect where they dart every which way. They did the same thing at the end of Glass, when the footage went viral. Is this something you’re consciously doing whenever your characters are overwhelmed with emotion?

I don’t know. My way of acting is just to have the character’s thoughts and let them wash over from your mind to whatever your body does physically. I think the quickness of how my eyes were moving in that carriage scene was just how quickly Emma was trying to connect the dots between what he was saying and what she believed to be true.

You’re also the master of single-tear crying, which you utilize in this film. Is this a skill you’ve acquired over time, or is it something you can do naturally?

It’s not a skill that I’ve acquired over time, but it is a bugbear for me, because I believe that each of my characters must cry differently. People cry differently, and I want each of my characters to be their own standalone person. For instance, for Emma, especially in that scene with Harriet when Harriet first walks away from her, a tear does fall, but Emma’s hand instantly goes to stop it. She doesn’t want to show that weakness; she doesn’t want to break the facade of perfection that she always has carrying around. And then, during the proposal scene with Mr. Knightley, she just turns into a hot mess because she doesn’t care that she’s breaking perfection. She’s just so emotionally overwhelmed, there’s blood everywhere and her face is all scrunched up. So that was just Emma’s way of crying.

There’s an extended dance sequence in the film. Since you danced a lot growing up, were you familiar with at least some of those arrangements?

I wasn’t familiar with the actual dance steps, but I do think my knowledge of choreography and my ability to pick up choreography quickly put me in the right stead for that. I massively enjoyed those dance scenes because it’s presentation on top of presentation on top of presentation. You’re dancing in a certain way because you want to attract somebody, but you also have all of these steps for when you realize that the guy you want to pay attention to you isn’t paying attention to you. So your shoulders drop a little bit, and it’s all another way of telling the story.

I presume that you’re quite glad to have avoided this time period by a couple hundred years?

I’m very glad I missed it, because I am very strong-willed. I don’t do well with people trying to put me in boxes or cages, and unfortunately, at the time, women had essentially no agency whatsoever. So I think I’d be quite miserable. That being said, I would love it if people brought back organized dancing. I’m a big fan of that.

Are you ever surprised by the way in which a director or DP photographs you? Have you noticed any patterns or trends that are illuminating in some way?

Yes, I’m continuously surprised and continuously slightly embarrassed at the fact that they just can’t seem to put the camera closer to my face. Everybody wants to stick the camera almost inside of my skin. (Laughs) It’s embarrassing sometimes because you’re like, “Don’t get too close; you’ll be able to see everything!” I guess I should be flattered by the fact that they want to have their lens so close to my face.

It’s safe to say that everyone is anticipating Last Night in Soho. What did Edgar Wright evoke in you that no one else has so far?

Edgar and I had been talking about this script for years. The first day I ever met Edgar, we went out for tea or drinks or something like that, and he pitched me this project. At the time, I was very starstruck and kind of didn’t believe it was going to happen. So to be able to sit here talking to you about it and knowing that we shot is quite surreal. What I really like about him is that he directs in beats, and I act in beats. Music is very important for both of us, and he would give me freedom in that. So he would say, “From this line in the song, you somehow need to end up over there. How do you want to do it?” And he would trust me to choreograph my movements and choreograph little dance pieces to get me from point A to point B. So it felt very collaborative.

We’ve talked before about your desire to direct someday and how it turns you into a sponge on set. I presume that was the case on Edgar’s set as well?

Yes, absolutely — especially with Chung-hoon Chung, our DP. He’s the loveliest, sweetest man, and he was so indulgent with me. He was creating all of these crazy new light tricks, and I just wanted to know how everything worked. So he would show me how it worked, and I would do the scene. Afterwards, he would put in one of his crew so I could see the effect it was having on the camera.

Similar to an old photograph, when you watch old footage of yourself for the first time, such as The New Mutants, do you recognize that version of Anya?

I recognize her because it was only three years ago, but at the same time, you grow and you learn so much in three years. So I’m judging myself based off of what I know now, and that can sometimes be tricky.

Similarly, are you able to recall what you were thinking or feeling on the day that you shot this or that?

Yes, very much so.

Despite all the talk of reshoots, New Mutants didn’t actually do any, as it’s Josh Boone’s film in every way. However, because the schedule shifted quite dramatically, has it been tricky to find time for ADR and press, since you and your castmates are rather busy?

Yes, but technology nowadays is really amazing. I was visiting my parents [in London] for my dad’s birthday, and they managed to find a studio. So I went in for an hour, did all of my ADR and left. So you can do it; it’s just a very global affair.

Out of curiosity, since The New Mutants has been sitting on a shelf for almost three years, have people cracked any “kinda new mutants” jokes around you?

(Laughs) No, not yet, but I’ve definitely seen that on Twitter a little bit. I have to give massive props to the fans, because they’ve really stuck out this film with us. They’ve been waiting for a long time, and they’re still enthusiastic about it. So it really speaks to the dedication of the fandom.  

Peaky Blinders’ fifth season finally aired last fall, and I’m still hung up on a passing glance between your character, Gina Gray, and Sam Claflin’s Oswald Mosley during 504’s ballet performance. Does that exchange mean what I think it means?

(Laughs) I will not say anything apart from the fact that I love my job, and it is a pleasure to get to play the most hated character on Peaky Blinders.

I still contend that Casey Cooke had an undefined power in both Split and Glass. In Split, I thought she had heightened senses as a result of her hunting skills and trauma suffered while hunting. In Glass, I felt that her power was empathy and compassion; even her touch could relieve Kevin’s [James McAvoy] pain for a bit. Furthermore, there’s a moment on the battlefield where Elijah [Samuel L. Jackson] acknowledges Casey as the lone survivor of the Beast’s zoo incident, just like he once acknowledged Bruce Willis’ character as the lone survivor of the fateful train accident 19 years earlier. Do you think Casey had a superpower that wasn’t explicitly defined in the film?

Yeah, I do, and I think it is empathy. I think it’s the fact that she’s been able to go through the darkest of nights and yet still emerge wanting to give kindness to people who have similarly seen such pain. I think her loyalty, her love and her deep empathy are her talents.

You’re reuniting with Robert Eggers on his Viking movie, The Northman, which you’re slated to lead. Have you been digging into various historical accounts?

Yeah, I’ve been trying to. Once the Emma tour is over, I’ll be straight over to Ireland to be in boot camp for making that movie — and I cannot wait. I cannot wait to go home to my filmmaker, to my people and to make another really wacky, crazy, one-of-a-kind movie.

You’ve worked virtually nonstop the last five years. Have you had any time to enjoy your success?

I’ve been kind of enjoying it by the work I get to do. I’m a very anxious person, and the fact that I keep getting to work with such incredible people feels like it might be working out for me. So I’ve been enjoying my success by working, and by working with people that inspire me and make me happy to be alive.

Since you shot three consecutive projects in 2019, did you still audition and put yourself on tape during that time?

Last year, I was working literally back-to-back-to-back with one day off in between. So I did not do any auditions last year. This year, who knows. I’m sure if there are any of those big, big movies, I’ll have to go in and test or something like that. I feel very privileged to be part of a set where you can kind of see my work if you thought I was somebody that you’d want to work with. I’m very happy to audition, but I think some people are approaching me with more frequency because they’ve seen so much of my work.

Is Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit in the can, as they say?

Yes, it is, and I am so excited for that movie — or TV show, I guess. Scott Frank, the genius, is one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He’s a dear friend and wondrous leader.

Are Weetzie Bat and The Sea Change still alive, technically?

I hope so. I really hope so. I know as much as you do at this point.

Emma is now in theaters.