Anya Taylor-Joy’s clarity of purpose has been evident since, aged 16, she wrote a detailed letter to her parents outlining her plan to quit education and become an actress. Happily for audiences everywhere, they were supportive of her decision.
She had long felt a leaning towards the creative industries, drawn in particular to what she calls the “magical quality” of films to provide solace during what was sometimes a difficult childhood. At private school in west London, she was bullied and felt like an outsider, perhaps still unsettled by the family’s move from Buenos Aires, where she had lived until the age of six after being born in Miami.
On arrival in the UK, she spoke only Spanish, and found herself missing the rural beauty of Argentina. “My first memory is that things were gray – and that wasn’t a color I’d seen much of before,” she recalls.
Although at the time the transition was “rough”, with hindsight she is grateful for how adaptable it made her, noting that the five months in Sydney she spent shooting “Furiosa” represent the longest she has lived anywhere since she was 16. “I feel like, as a kid, I got the best possible training for the nomadic nature of this job... Now, when people ask me where home is, I say, home is wherever I’ve slept for longer than two nights.”
To make settling in easier, she surrounds herself with her favorite things: candles, her guitar and piles of books to fulfill her appetite for reading. “It’s massively impractical – I end up traveling with an insane amount,” she said.
Challenging herself has been a theme in Anya’s career as much as her reading habits. After she was scouted as a teenager, while walking her dog in Knightsbridge, by the Storm Management founder Sarah Doukas, she auditioned successfully for a couple of minor television roles, but her breakthrough came when she was offered a part in Robert Eggers’ period horror film The Witch. “I remember it was the same day I got asked to be in a Disney Channel pilot, and it was so exciting to be offered anything at all that I ran around the house like a loon,” she says. “But I just had this really good feeling about The Witch that made me willing to forego the Disney experience for the thing that felt unknown to me, the thing that felt sacred.» Filming took place in a remote location six hours away from Toronto, with barely any connection to the outside world, and Anya remembers it as a formative professional experience. “It gave me the cornerstones of the way I work now, which is essentially the idea that there is no hierarchy on set: you work hard, you stay on top of the shots and you don’t assume anyone else is going to do that for you,” she says. “Your title doesn’t stop at actor – you’re a creative on this film, and that’s how you need to approach it.”
Premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, The Witch – and Anya’s compelling performance as an innocent young girl who gradually succumbs to the forces of evil around her – garnered critical acclaim, much to her surprise. «I thought I’d done a really bad job, and I saw myself failing miserably with this dream I’d had for such a long time,» she says. «I guess I’m not always the best judge of my own work.” Fortunately, others were more confident of her talent, and a string of interesting roles followed, including a skillful double act with Olivia Cooke as a pair of disturbed schoolgirls in 2017’s sleeper hit Thoroughbreds and the lead in the BBC’s television adaptation of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist, which made the most of her haunting beauty. (It is hard to believe she was picked on at school for the same facial features that now put her in constant demand from luxury houses such as Dior, which announced her as its global brand ambassador for women’s fashion and beauty last year.) Her vivacious turn as Emma Woodhouse, in Autumn de Wilde’s colorful film adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, proved that she was an adept comic actress, and for many viewers – myself included – was synonymous with the freedom of pre-pandemic life, having been in cinemas across the UK just before the country shut down. “I remember thinking, I’m really glad it’s this film and not one of my others that people are watching right now,” she says, laughing.
But it was in the depths of lockdown that Anya’s fame went stratospheric, when Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit became essential pandemic viewing. As Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy grappling with drug addiction, she demonstrated her extraordinary commitment to character acting, developing a particular way of handling the chess pieces that even professional players admitted they found convincing. «I haven’t chosen to become a method actor, nor do I want to be,» she says, «but I’m noticing that the more I work, the more that line gets blurred.» She collaborated with the director, Scott Frank, to shape every facet of the role from the outset –including Beth’s red hair, which was her idea. «I just saw it all in my head immediately – I knew exactly how to do it,» she tells me earnestly. «Before the audition, I must have swallowed the book in an hour, and I physically ran to meet Scott. I felt Beth really strongly.»
The Queen’s Gambit was watched by 62 million households in its first 28 days, Anya’s performance received rave reviews and she was deluged with requests for interviews, television appearances and brand affiliations. Even now, her level of notoriety sometimes takes her by surprise – most recently when she had to ‘beam in’ to the Toronto International Film Festival to promote her latest film The Menu, a gory satire on the world of fine dining in which she stars alongside Ralph Fiennes and Nicholas Hoult. “The whole cast were sat on the stage and then they put my face up on this huge cinema screen behind them,” she says. “When I saw myself pop up, I wanted to die. I was like, this is so weird and dystopian and Orwellian...”
Keeping busy has helped Anya navigate life as an international superstar, partly because being on location allows her to remain blissfully ignorant of what is happening back home. “There are these massive billboards with my face on them in New York, and I’ve never even seen them,” she says. “I think that’s been good for my headspace.” She does acknowledge, though, that jumping from project to project might not be sustainable for her mental health in the long term. “In 2019, I made Emma, then had one day off and did [Edgar Wright’s psychological-horror film] Last Night in Soho, then had a day off and did The Queen’s Gambit. I remember driving back from the English countryside to start work on Soho the next day thinking, right, you’re allowed one hour to cry. You get one hour to heave and sob and be grateful for the incredible experience you had, and then you need to start focusing on what you’re going to do tomorrow,” she says. “But I’m curious to see how it’s going to work out in the future because, well, I have a bit more of my own life now.”
Though generally positive about her experience of Hollywood, she remains conscious that women have to work much harder than men to assert their rights. “In the past couple of years, I’ve definitely learned how to say ‘Hey, that’s actually not OK with me’, or ‘You’re not listening to me’ – and I don’t think I’d have got there had I not been pushed in a certain way, because I’m naturally a people pleaser. But eventually you get stepped on enough that you start to stand up and say no.” Her own success gives her confidence that the industry is not entirely corrupted. “I think everything has an equal measure of light and dark,” she says philosophically. “I’ve definitely been through the dark experiences of it – but I’m noticing that, in terms of long-game strategy, kindness will out. If you work hard and are good to people, they want to keep working with you, and then another door opens.”
There is certainly no shortage of doors open to her right now; if anything, the challenge is to choose which to go through. “Saying no is genuinely difficult for me, because I always want to do everything,” she admits. “But I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can ask myself, do you feel passionate enough about this to spend seven months living all the way across the world, away from everyone you know and love? Will that sustain you? And if the answer’s yes, you should probably do it.”