Anya Taylor-Joy: Style and substance

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Together meets the actress who caught the world’s attention through her portrayal of Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit 

Anya Taylor-Joy is a happy person now she is able to work again. Yet for how long, she doesn’t know. That’s because while the lockdown period we all experienced is over, the sense of apprehension remains for the actress. 

The 27-year-old has made great strides in TV and film, prompting Time magazine to place her in their annual 100 Next feature in 2021. Legendary chess world champion Garry Kasparov said that in her role in The Queen’s Gambit she learnt to move the piece and her body the way a professional player does. As Kasparov acknowledges, her portrayal may have done more to promote chess worldwide than all the real-world champions. She’s managed to pick up a number of honours for her acting, with a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Harmon. 

Since Gambit she has had a number of roles in cutting edge films with ensemble casts of Hollywood’s brightest and best: Last Night in Soho, The Menu and Amsterdam.

More recently, the American born in Miami, but raised in London has lent her voice to the Super Mario Bros movie and stars in the post-apocalyptic thriller Furiosa and romantic action flick The Gorge coming up in the next year. 

It seems with every new project, the actress is furthering her reputation as an exemplar of quality over quantity. It all means that if she can overcome the insecurities that she, quite candidly, discusses, Anya Taylor-Joy is truly set to become an icon of her generation. 

You’ve spoken about how it took you a while to get back to normal after the pandemic. It was refreshing to hear such honest views.

Thank you. I am back to normal, but it’s clear a lot of us aren’t, and I do find that very sad. It has affected some people perennially – it’s still in all our consciousnesses; so maybe I am not totally back to normal, but I am certainly in a place where fear is no longer prevalent. 

For a long time it was – that feeling that this is something we may not emerge from; and even if we do, we may find ourselves plummeting into once again further down the line. 

I don’t actually think those things are true, but when you have the very fabric of your life ripped from beneath you, it’s difficult not to view things from a really hopeless perspective. 

What is true is that after so long working in different ways – and for a spell of time not working at all – I am dedicated and driven to take every opportunity and to work harder than ever before and that’s what I have been doing. 

“I’ve always admired actors who can be calm and not nervous when they don’t have projects on. I’m not like that – I couldn’t be”

Indeed, your work methods haven’t changed much though, have they?

Well, no, because in many ways I’ve always worked at 100kph. I’ve always admired actors who can be calm and not nervous when they don’t have projects on. I’m not like that – I couldn’t be.

I need to be active, moving along, looking for the next thing. I am lucky in the sense that I’ve always had momentum in the projects I work on, without taking on too many and diluting what it is I give to each. 

You’ve been on the cover of Vogue in several countries, how was that experience?

It was a fantasy thing, I guess – something most young girls dream of when they begin to find a way in entertainment and culture. 

Of course the perception versus reality is very different with these things, likewise when you discover what is involved in making a movie. That whole process of putting together an hour-and-a-half of drama is something that is very stunted, drawn-out, laborious and very un-Hollywood; yet what you see in the end result is everything you imagine this industry to be like. And I guess in a way photoshoots are much the same thing – they are regimented, finickity, awkward too.

So I guess what I am saying is that the idea of the cover is in some way greater than the actual experience and perhaps that’s true of so much of what we undertake, look forward to and, indeed, look back on in life.

Perception is almost always different to reality – not necessarily better or worse, just different. 

“I don’t want to get stuck making one type of film, as I think that’s a path for an audience to quickly become bored of you!”

Your films over the past year have been very stylish – The Menu and Amsterdam. Can you ever see yourself doing something that isn’t polished and pristine?

Well, yes, since I am providing the voice for princess on the Super Mario Bros movie [laughs]. I feel your movie choices ultimately reflect your tastes in life and mine have always been about a look, an image, perhaps with a classy, or luxurious edge.

That’s not to say I think of myself in that way, but it is certainly a look and an image I aspire to, as I guess many of us do. All that said, I am certainly hoping to evolve and refine my film choices, as I believe that is important too. In the next year or so I’m branching out into new genres, as I think it’s important to show your versatility and – as much as anything else – your willingness to learn. I don’t want to get stuck making one type of film, as I think that’s a path for an audience to quickly become bored of you! 

I can’t believe that would ever happen?

Just watch… [laughs]. 

I hear that you had a bit of an unorthodox way of learning English when you were young…

I actually learnt a lot of English from the Harry Potter books. They were the ones that connected me with the English language when we first moved to England, and as much as I rebelled against that at first, ultimately, I was swept along by those stories and they opened my eyes to the language at the same time.

Yet the thing is that although I do speak with a clear and soft English accent because of my time in London and growing up there, I don’t always speak that way. My accent varies a lot depending on the people who I am speaking to and who I am around at the time. 

So, I may seem as if I am a quaint and well-spoken young English lady, but say I am with other English people who are dropping a few letters and speaking a bit more Cockney, that can rub off on me. I think it’s good to be able to change a little bit and who knows it could help me get future roles that I would never have even thought about reading for in the future [laughs]. 

There are lots of rumours surrounding The Queen’s Gambit, the huge Netflix hit from 2020, and one that broke records. You have been quiet on the prospect of a second season, but can we be optimistic?

It was a lovely role and, of course, I was absolutely thrilled that it became such a big hit, but some things do need to be left and the producers were clear that there was an endpoint. I think we wrapped it at the right place. 

It was one of those projects that had such wonderful cinematography. Even before we started, I had read the book and it became so apparent to me that I was falling completely head over heels in love with the main character, Beth. 

As soon as I had read the book – which didn’t take me long, because I couldn’t put it down – I felt like it would be an amazing adaptation if someone was thinking about making it, and lo and behold, director Scott Frank had decided to make it. I did think it would be a great watch and I was intrigued to see how he would adapt it for the screen. But did I think it would reach the astronomical number of viewers that it has on Netflix? Not for a second.

The thing is, I wasn’t aware that it was blowing up because – what happens if you catch a good run of roles – I was already working almost immediately on the next project. I was actually up on the side of a mountain, barefoot, in the freezing cold when the whole thing was blowing up and it was becoming clear people really liked what we had done. It was very special.

They’re turning it into a musical and I think that is a sensitive way of extending its lifespan. I don’t think a second season can take you anywhere beyond where you have been. 

“I will never take anything for granted. I am eternally grateful for the success I have had”

But we should never say never in this industry?

I guess not, and I guess that is true, but someone would need to write a second book first! 

With so much success, including your cherished Golden Globe, you must now have the confidence that this is a career that will build and continue to flourish?

I will never take anything for granted. I am eternally grateful for the success I have had, but I won’t progress any further in my career without hard work, dedication and humility.

I never assume the next project is around the corner. In fact, I usually assume there is a challenge waiting for me. It’s a fear of the future that actually energizes me and I am grateful for that perspective and approach.