Why Anya Taylor-Joy Refuses to Be Put in a Box (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
After first breaking out in 2015 with The Witch, which was followed by Morgan and Split, Anya Taylor-Joy quickly became the “it girl” of horror. But in the past year, the actress has pushed beyond that genre with lead roles in the acclaimed 2020 remake of Emma and the Netflix coming-of-age drama The Queen’s Gambit, which are two recent examples of her ability to carry a scene beyond screams.
“I deeply love every project that I’ve made, but it was never a thing of like, ‘Oh, I’m concerned that I can’t play Emma because I’m a horror actress,’” Taylor-Joy tells ET, adding that if you had told her when she first signed on to do The Witch that it would end up being such defining film for her, she wouldn’t have believed you. (In between those horror films, she has also notably appeared in Peaky Blinders, the dark comedy Thoroughbreds and a Barack Obama biopic, Barry.)
“I don’t know why I was shocked by this, but it’s kind of one of those things where you know it’s going to happen and yet you’re actually still surprised. But when people feel the need to put other people in a box, that really disappoints me,” the 24-year-old actress continues. “It disappoints me because, especially with something like acting, my job is to become different people. My job is to shapeshift.”
To her credit, that she does in The Queen’s Gambit, which was adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel by Scott Frank and Allan Scott. In the series, Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, a girl who discovers she has an incredible talent for chess while also developing a dependency on tranquilizers during her time at an orphanage. Eventually adopted by Mrs. Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), Beth comes into her own as a young woman and chess prodigy, working herself up the rankings with each tournament win. But her determination to become a champion is threatened by her addictions and erratic behavior.
Soon after “devouring” the novel, Taylor-Joy says she found herself running to her initial meeting with Frank because she was so excited to share her ideas for the role. “Luckily, Scott was there to catch me with open arms and embraced my passion wholeheartedly,” the actress recalls.
What she really connected with was the fact that she not only understood Beth, but she also understood herself better after reading the novel. “Both Beth and I, especially as children, were inherently lonely people that were desperately seeking a world and a place where we felt like we could contribute, be something or that we would be welcomed into it,” the actress explains. “Beth found it in chess and I found it in making art. Like, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere or had anything really to offer until I stepped onto a film set for the first time.”
And the through line that runs parallel to both Beth and Taylor-Joy’s experiences is “discovering a deep love of something that goes beyond a love affair with another person,” she continues. “It’s like having a purpose in that way. What separates the two, however, is Beth’s addiction, which she must come to understand and accept about herself. “Like, how on earth do you find a way to become friends with yourself, friends with your talent and then friends with other people at the same time?” she asks.
Following Emma, it’s easily one of Taylor-Joy’s best performances so far. “It’s a very complex character and role and she brought all the right colors, plus some wonderful unexpected choices, to her performance,” executive producer William Horberg gushes, adding that “Anya was a gift that just kept on giving.”
Moving beyond The Queen’s Gambit, Emma, and The New Mutants, which was also released at the end of the summer movie season, Taylor-Joy has even more transformative and exciting projects coming up. One of them is the titular role as Furiosa in a spinoff of George Miller’s long-running Mad Max franchise.
While the news was confirmed after she spoke with ET, the actress did tell MTV’s “Happy Sad Confused” podcast that she fell in love with the character because of the way Charlize Theron presented her in Mad Max: Fury Road. “She did such an incredible job,” she said. “I can’t even think about trying to step into her shoes. It has to be something different because it just can’t be done.”
Until then, Taylor-Joy is currently filming The Northman, a viking drama with Alexander Skarsgård, and will next be seen as the fashion-obsessed Sandy in Edgar Wright’s ‘60s London drama, Last Night in Soho, co-starring Thomasin McKenzie, Matt Smith and the late Diana Rigg in one of her final onscreen roles. “Diana is marvelous, truly marvelous,” the actress says of her late co-star who died in July.
But when Taylor-Joy looks back on 2019, when she filmed Emma, The Queen’s Gambit and Last Night in Soho back to back, she says “as a performer and a person, it was something I was very daunted by but also incredibly excited by because, for the first time in my life, I knew exactly what my year was going to look like.”
The actress adds, “Each of these characters were so different and yet I couldn’t not play them… Like, stepping out of Emma’s corsets and then into Sandy’s shoes the next day was a trip and a half.“