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Anya Taylor-Joy is one of the brightest young talents in the business. A gifted actress with a unique look, she wowed many with her 2015 big-screen debut in Robert Eggers‘ The Witch, for which she won the Gotham Award for best breakthrough actor and the Cannes Film Festival’s Trophée Chopard for the industry’s most exciting young female talent, and shortly after which she was also nominated for the BAFTA EE Rising Star Award. She further impressed in films ranging from M. Night Shyamalan‘s Split in 2016 and Glass in 2019, playing the same character in both, through Autumn de Wilde‘s Emma in 2020, which brought her a Golden Globe nomination. And now, at 25, she is a full-fledged star thanks to her acclaimed portrayal of a chess prodigy battling addiction in Scott Frank‘s The Queen’s Gambit, which in October 2020 became the most watched Netflix limited series ever, and for which she has won best actress in a limited series Golden Globe, SAG and Critics Choice Awards. She recently reflected on her life, work and rapid rise during an episode of THR‘s Awards Chatter podcast.
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Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
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Excerpts lightly edited for clarity and brevity…
Where were you born and raised? And what did your folks do for a living?
I was born in Miami, Florida and raised between Buenos Aires, Argentina and London, England. My dad is Scottish-Argentine and he was an investment banker and then a powerboat racer, and my mum, who studied psychology, was born in Zambia and raised in Spain, and she raised the six of us.
You wanted to act from an early age, but modeling entered the picture first…
I was wearing my mum’s heels for the first time because I had my first “grown-up party” to go to, and I wanted to practice, so I took my dog for a walk in my mum’s heels, and this black car looked like it was following me. I tried to evade the car, and it did chase me, so I ended up running. And this man stuck his head out the window and said, “If you stop, you won’t regret it.” and I just stopped dead. It’s ridiculous — my survival instincts are just not present at all. But no, inside the car was the head of a modeling agency, Sarah Doukas, who’s lovely, and she gave me quite a telling off, actually, for stopping. She was like, “Hey, this worked out this time, but please never do that again! And can you come into the modeling agency tomorrow with your parents?” I’d never thought I could model—
Because you’d been bullied in school about your looks.
Yeah, terribly so.
So here was someone — who also discovered Kate Moss — saying, “You’re actually beautiful.” How did you compute that?
I’m not Superwoman — I’m insecure — but I just decided at an early age that I had to place my worth on different things. And so the second she said “modeling,” my first thought was, “I’ve heard of models who are actors. This is an ‘in.’” So my parents and I went in the next day, and I was very clear about, “I want to act. This is what I need to do with my life, and if you could possibly help me out with that then I will do whatever you tell me to do.” And luckily, she took me very seriously, and I think I only did about three shoots before a very lucky shoot, and I met my agent from that.
That’s another amazing story. As I understand it, you were still London-based and you were sent to a shoot at the property they used for Downton Abbey?
I remember that day very clearly. I was studying for my GCSEs — very, very important exams — and I’d written to my modeling agency saying, “Hey, I really need to focus on my exams, so please don’t send me any jobs.” But they sent me this one job and said, “This is something you should do.” And I thought, “Okay, I can study in-between shooting or whatever. I get there, and the idea was to shoot the female models with the male actors [from Downton] and the female actors with the male models. But the photographers were so enamored shooting the male models with the female actors, that they just weren’t getting to us. And I remember being in the room thinking, “I can either be really, really upset about this, or I can just try and be helpful.” And so I started helping out with the lights, and helping pick pins out of people’s hair, and trying to make it work because I just thought, “Well, I might learn something.” And then eventually I sat down and I started reading a poem that I was going to be tested on, “Digging” by Seamus Heaney. And the lovely actor Allen Leech, I think he was just really bemused watching this little blonde thing run around trying to do every job. He was like, ” What are you doing? What are you reading? And would you recite it for me?” And then once I did, he just asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I said I wanted to be an actor, and he put me in touch with his agent, and she’s still my agent today.
Was The Witch your first audition?
Oh my gosh, you just sparked a memory: my first audition was to play the young Angelina Jolie in Maleficent. Oh, I wanted it so badly. It was Disney and I love Angelina. I look nothing like her, so I was never going to get it, but I was naive and I thought, “Miracles happen.” But yeah, not long after I got asked to audition for The Witch, so I went in and taped, but just never thought I would get it, because the character Thomasin was described as plain. And I just thought, “Okay, there’s a lot of things that I can do, but I can’t really change my face that much.”
But you were cast anyway by Robert Eggers, who was making his feature directorial debut with this. You were 18 and playing your first sizable part. And the film premiered at Sundance. What was it like seeing yourself on the big screen?
Rob showed us the film maybe two hours before the audience screening, and I was devastated. I thought I’d never work again, I still get shivers thinking about it. It was just the worst feeling of, “I have let down the people I love most in the world. I didn’t do it right.” And I’m quite verbose, I like to talk, I like to communicate. I did not talk, I just cried. I couldn’t handle seeing my face that large.
People might assume that in 2019, when Glass, your second collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan after 2016’s Split, was coming out, you were thrilled with the progression of your career and happy with life — and yet I have read that you were ready to quit acting. What was that about?
What it was about is it took me a second to realize that the people around me weren’t working the way that I was working. I thought everybody finished a job, got on a plane, and started the next job. And I am incredibly grateful that that’s the way that I learned how to work. But these are pivotal years in my development as a person, and I had put all of my energy into fleshing out other people, and I suddenly got to a point where I had no idea who I was, trying to hold on to relationships, and trying to build a home without having any kind of root or tether, because I hadn’t figured out that I had to be that for myself. So I got Jane Austen’s Emma as a job, and that really panicked me, because it was a role that was supposed to be beautiful from the offset, and I hadn’t done that — I’d played creatures, outsiders, whatever. For some reason I guess that triggered some childhood trauma and I was like, “I can’t do it. There’s no way, I’m going to really let people down.” And I’d been talking to Edgar Wright about doing his movie Last Night in Soho for ages, but the only way that was going to work was if I had a day off in between Emma and Last Night in Soho. And then I read The Queen’s Gambit, and the only way that was going to work is if I had a day off between Last Night in Soho and The Queen’s Gambit, so I literally worked for a year. I had, collectively, a week off that entire year; it was crazy, and I was already starting off at an emotional space where I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if I can do this.” But it’s the year that has most changed me. I just fell in love with my job again. I was just tapped out, and I’d forgotten that the job feeds me. I felt like I’d been feeding it for a little while, if that makes sense.
So having already been in emotional crisis leading up to Emma, you were looking ahead and it was just overwhelming that there was no end in sight?
No, it was more that. In 2018 I’d done a movie in Ireland. Then I’d done The Dark Crystal and Peaky Blinders at the same time, and had gone through a breakup. And then January 5th or something, I was doing half-day rehearsals on Emma and half-day rehearsals on Last Night in Soho, and I just got completely overwhelmed.
So you were literally going to stop acting?
I know it sounds crazy now, but yeah, I was.
How did you hear about The Queen’s Gambit?
I was just told that Scott Frank wanted to meet with me on a project that there was no a script for yet, but that there was a book, and if I could read the book as quickly as possible, he was in London and he wanted to meet me. I didn’t realize he’d come to London to meet me. I just devoured the book in a single sitting, and honestly I think the last time I felt that way about a character was Thomasin from The Witch. At the time when I read The Witch I didn’t understand the feeling; this time I did because I’d had it before. And it’s almost like having a panic attack, the whole body is buzzing, and numb, and I just can’t think of anything else. So I ran to meet Scott — physically ran to that meeting, and just ran into the restaurant — and before he’d even said hello I was like, “It’s not about chess, and she has to have red hair! It’s just that is the way it has to be!” And Scott was like, “Yeah, great, I agree, sit down.” [laughs]
Why you think you responded so strongly to the material? Is there a parallel between chess and something in your life?
Absolutely, I think, yeah. A lot of her thoughts as a kid [the show tracks Beth from age 15 through 21] were thoughts that I had, and they resonated in a way that was painful, but it was painful because it was familiar. It was painful because I really understood the way that she felt about herself, the way that she couldn’t quite connect with the environment that she was in. And this constant feedback of, “I’m not right. There is something not right here.” And when Beth discovers chess, that feeling of, “Oh, there is a place where I can contribute. There is a place where I can put my energy. There is a place where I will meet like-minded people.” That was literally the set of The Witch for me. But the main difference between us, which I admire so much about her, is that she’s less of a people-pleaser than I am.
How much familiarity with the game of chess did you have at the time you were cast?
None. I think Scott just trusted me.
The series dropped in its entirety on Netflix — meaning in just about every country in the world except North Korea —on Oct. 23, in the thick of the pandemic, when most people had little to do but stay home and watch TV. 62 million households apparently watched it during its first month on the service. What was that time like for you?
I was in Northern Ireland, in Belfast, with Robert Eggers, filming a movie I’m very proud of called The Northman. But I mean, you can’t get more different than The Northman and The Queen’s Gambit. I was isolating, alone in this apartment with nothing but my phone, and my phone was telling me information that I could not compute. And then luckily Kate came to stay with me — Kate Dickie, who plays my mom in The Witch — and every day just more information would come in, and I’d just look at her and I’d say, “I think it’s going well. I think people are liking the show.”
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