She terrified audiences in The Witch and played Barack Obama’s girlfriend in Barry. Now Anya Taylor-Joy is starring in M Night Shyamalan’s new thriller and competing for a Bafta. She talks to Samuel Fishwick about overcoming the school bullies and ‘pranking’ James McAvoy
For someone on the cusp of Hollywood superstardom, with its fans, foes and endless requests for selfies, Anya Taylor-Joy is refreshingly off-duty around strangers. She stoops to stroke someone’s puppy outside The Ivy Kensington Brasserie where we meet, cheerfully asks for a cigarette lighter from a passerby and gives me a massive hug as a greeting.
The Bafta Rising Star nominee, 20, is in the middle of a full-on press tour for M Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, Split, and only arrived in London on a flight from New York an hour before we meet. Wearing a short leather miniskirt with bare legs despite the cold, her blonde hair pulled back in a jaunty high ponytail, she’s quick with smiles and laughter and her mood seems high-octane and excitable — but isn’t she tired?
‘I don’t sleep,’ she explains blithely. ‘I’ve been an insomniac since I was seven. I used to be very frightened of that alone time. But then I was like, it’s more time to create: I can read, I can write, I can sing. It’s a superpower. I need very little sleep.’ And, of course, there’s more time to act. Since her breakout role in Robert Eggers’ chilling New England horror film The Witch in 2015, she’s starred in Morgan, a slick thriller about an artificially created human and directed by Luke Scott (son of Sir Ridley), and she played Barack Obama’s girlfriend in Barry, Netflix Original’s biopic about the outgoing President’s university years. Later this year comes Thoroughbred, another psychological horror, with the late Anton Yelchin, then another psychological thriller, Marrowbone, the much-hyped debut from director Sergio G Sánchez — and all this from someone who admits horror movies, including her own, ‘scare the s*** out of her’. Surely that makes acting a bit of a nightmare? ‘It’s my therapy,’ says Taylor-Joy, sipping an iced-black coffee. ‘When I first started acting, people were quite worried for me. They were like: “What kind of world are you going into?” I was like, “Are you kidding?” I love what I do so much that you can’t not eat, you can’t hurt yourself, you can’t, you know, do whatever. I loved it so much. Acting saved my life.’ It’s a surprisingly dark statement from someone so outwardly joyful, but there’s clearly more to her than surface charm.
In Split, out this week, in which she stars alongside James McAvoy, she plays a victim of abuse. ‘It affects one in three women,’ Taylor-Joy says. When she first read the script she ‘cried for hours’, because ‘my characters are incredibly real for me and I was just in so much pain for her’, she says. ‘No one should ever have to endure that, and I don’t know where people get off thinking that they own other women’s bodies, because you are the only owner of your body and no one is allowed to touch you without your consent. A lot of people in society think that if something like that’s happened to you, you’re tainted. It’s never the person’s fault, it’s always the abuser’s fault.’
At the moment she is living out of a suitcase. Home, she concedes, is a difficult concept for her: the youngest of five brothers and sisters, she was born in Miami to a Scottish-Argentinian father and an African-Spanish-English mother. Her dad was an international banker but gave it all up to race motorboats. So she was raised in Argentina until the age of six, then moved to London aged eight, where the family lived in Victoria.
‘When I was younger I didn’t really feel like I fit in anywhere. I was too English to be Argentine, too Argentine to be English, too American to be anything.’ Her accent, involuntarily she says, suffers from a sort of linguistic Stockholm syndrome: in England, she sounds more English, in Ireland, more Irish, full of clipped Kensington consonants and long American vowels. ‘It’s really difficult for my personal life, but for acting it’s awesome.’
She had ‘a tough time at school’. She loved drama classes, winning prizes for house drama at Queen’s Gate, and got ‘straight As in history, English, drama and classics’. But ‘the kids just didn’t understand me in any shape or form, and I was really badly bullied’. In what way? ‘I used to get locked in lockers, you know, barred from classrooms, not invited to things. It wasn’t pleasant.’ At one point, her classmates used Facebook to tag her in a picture of a fish. ‘My eyes were really far apart — that’s a thing.’ She spent a lot of school ‘crying in bathrooms, or in books’ and still says she ‘never spends any time looking in mirrors’.
‘We’re social creatures,’ she continues, ‘and we don’t do well when we’re not accepted, or when we feel like we don’t belong anywhere.’ There were episodes of anxiety, which she’d rather not revisit here — she’s previously referred to ‘mental-health hiccups’. But she holds no grudges. ‘Kids are mean. And if they don’t understand something, they’re meaner.’
When she was 14, she used her savings to move to New York, and at 16, she left school to pursue acting. Her family ‘were terrified’, she says. ‘All of my brothers and sisters called me to tell me I was ruining my life. I cried hysterically.’ Was it worse because she was the baby of the family? ‘I mean, maybe. I think because my siblings are so much older than me, I grew up around adults and I never thought of myself as a child. My parents raised me as if they always trusted me.’
At 17, she was scouted by Storm Management’s Sarah Doukas — the woman who first spotted Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne — in a story that begins as if it won’t end well: walking her dog, she was followed from outside Harrods by a black car, which picked up pace as she did. ‘This guy just stuck his head out of the window and shouted: “If you stop, you won’t regret it.”’ She did stop. ‘Which is so stupid, so dumb, the worst slasher-flick line ever.’ Inside was Doukas, who gave Taylor-Joy her card, said she’d love to help and, that if she wanted to bring her parents in to meet her, she should. ‘And then as she drove away she was like: “By the way, never stop again. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever experienced.”’
There were only three shoots before getting her break as an actor. On a LOVE magazine shoot with the Downton Abbey cast, she told Allen Leech (who played chauffeur Tom Branson in the show) she wanted to be an actor, and ‘he said “leave your name and number and expect a call”’. She wound up with an audition for a role in The Witch, which she got. The film first showed at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. ‘I saw myself on screen for the first time and I was terrified,’ she says. ‘I was convinced I would never act again. I never actually figured that I couldn’t act.’ But everyone else loved it.
The roles came quickly: ‘intense’ fight scenes with Kate Mara in Morgan, playing Obama’s fictional girlfriend Charlotte (an amalgam of three of his real girlfriends) in Barry, and most recently Casey in Split, an abductee of James McAvoy’s mentally unwell Kevin, who suffers dissociative identity disorder. She and McAvoy ‘pranked the s*** out of each other’. There was a brief tiff with ‘Night’, she says (but who is now so close to her that he calls her up to keep tabs), after she left her script in her trailer over the weekend. ‘I think he thought I’d been careless, that I didn’t care, that I’d been childish. I expressed how severely sorry I was but defended myself a little bit, you know.’
How did he respond? ‘He was like: “Oh s***, I’m not talking to a child, I’m talking to someone who takes her profession incredibly seriously and is desperate to do a good job for me.”’ Although she’s often underestimated, ‘that tends to work in your advantage’. She pauses. ‘There’s very little that men are afraid of more than a young woman with power. They’re like, “F***, I don’t know what to do.” Maybe a crying woman. They’re more scared of a crying woman. They’re like, “Stop leaking! Fix it!”’
Currently single, Taylor-Joy describes her dream man as Eddie Redmayne, ‘although he’s happily married and I want him to stay that way’. She is often in London and when here likes to take herself to Seven Dials to people watch, or go to restaurants alone with a book (she’s a vegetarian and hates cruelty to animals). Isn’t she worried that fame might take that from her? She blanches. ‘It just happens to be a side effect of something that I love to do. And I’m terrified of that. I’m really scared. But I’m not scared enough to stop doing something that I love doing.’
She has American citizenship as well as British, and voted for Hillary Clinton because: ‘I didn’t want the orange man in the White House.’ (She originally planned to vote for Bernie Sanders, however.) ‘I’ve never understood prejudice in any shape, way or form, I just don’t get it. Everybody bleeds, everyone has a heart, end of discussion. It doesn’t matter their sexual orientation, it doesn’t matter their colour, it doesn’t matter their faith.’ Brexit stung too. ‘London was a dark place for a couple of days, but I went out dancing that night. I went to The Dolphin where we were all hanging out and I was amazed at all these young people talking about politics, and they were incensed. And I was like — hell, yes, this is basically saying we are responsible for the world we are creating. You can’t just sit with your iced latte, scrolling through Twitter and liking a couple of posts. You have to get out there and create the world.’
Split is in cinemas on 20 January.