Anya Taylor-Joy on Shyamalan’s Split, The Witch & Returning to Sundance

We chat with Anya Taylor-Joy, a 2016 breakout from The Witch and Barry, about diving into M. Night Shyamalan's Split.

If you had a chance to see Robert Eggers’ horror gem, The Witch (one of our 10 films of 2016), then you’ve already witnessed the first of several breakout performances from Anya Taylor-Joy, who went from embodying a 17th century woman to playing an artificial human in the sci-fi thriller Morgan. Both performances gave us some idea that Taylor-Joy was going to be an actress who’d be around for a long time, and she hasn’t been resting on her laurels.

On Friday, the actress can be seen playing a young woman named Casey in M. Night Shyamalan’s new thriller, Split. In the film, she’s one of three young women kidnapped by James McAvoy’s Kevin, a man whose psyche has been split into 23 distinct personalities, some of them more dangerous and unstable than others. But Casey also has a dark past, something we see as we flashback to a hunting trip with her father and uncle.

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Den of Geek had a chance to sit down with the talented young thespian earlier this month in New York, and we had to begin by asking about her complex background.

Den of Geek: For some reason I thought you were British…

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Anya Taylor-Joy: I am.

But then I saw you were born in Florida, and I thought, “Oh, maybe she’s just really good with accents,” and then your publicist went over your entire history…

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Oh, that I mimic people?

No, but that you’ve spent a lot of time in Argentina, for instance.

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Yeah, I come from a lot of places, and it’s awesome for acting because it means that accents are no problem for me, but I can’t help but mimic the people I’m around. I grew up with a very English accent and that’s my normal voice, but the second I come to New York…

You can go back and forth?

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I mean, I can, but it’s about the people that I’m around, so for instance when I was shooting Morgan in Ireland, I spoke with an Irish accent. Completely. The whole time. [Laughs]

Congrats on your BAFTA nomination too.

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Thank you.

I remember at Sundance, The Witch was a huge thing and one of those…

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Surprises?

Not just a surprise. I mean, it was a surprise because it was a genre movie not in the “Midnight” section, but it was almost impossible to get into the first press screening, because so many critics showed up for it.

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It was madness. None of us ever expected that, and the response was just so overwhelming.

Hopefully, Robert will do more great films.

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He will.

How did you hear about this part? How were you approached about it, and did Night trust you with the full script?

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Night hadn’t actually seen The Witch, so I just auditioned like any actress, and he saw my tape, and apparently, his wonderful assistant Dom was like, “I think she’s interesting. I think you should check her out.” He called me in, and we read together and the second we met, we had a very instant connection. We worked well together. I wanted to give him my emotions, and he was asking for them. And then he offered me the role and I said I would only do it if I read the script, so he sent me the script. [Laughs]

What did he tell you about it before sending you the script?

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Nothing.

So what was the audition like then?

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It was just the sides of the scene with the window, and a scene with the girls, the scene where I’m like, “That’s not how this situation is going to go.” The first initial conversation, and there was no information about it whatsoever, but it was interesting, because it wasn’t specified which character I was going up for, but I never even considered Claire or Marsha. I was instantly so drawn to Casey, and yeah, we got there together.

By the way, did you like the actress who played the younger Casey?

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She was so sweet.

Do you share agents, so if you need another girl to play a younger you, she’ll get the job? I’ve always wondered about that because there are so many movies where they do flashbacks.

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[Laughs] Yeah, so I met Izzie [Coffey] because we shot those scenes, the flashbacks, before we shot any of the actual current day movie, and it was very important both to Night and I that I be around Izzie, and I see her memories, because they’re my memories. So when I’m in the room, I can see exactly what’s going on because I’ve seen it.

But she was such a sweetheart, and her mom was there, and obviously, the nature about the subject that we’re talking about isn’t exactly child-friendly, so it was important for her to have me and her mother there to support her.

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That’s smart, but she did a good job, so I hope when you read a script where they need a younger version of you…

“I know the one!”

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What was it like working with James McAvoy in this movie? It’s such an interesting character, or characters, he plays and your expressions and reactions are very similar to the audience’s. At any time, did you not know what he was going to be doing?

I’m a very instinctual person and acting is definitely a dance, especially when as Casey, I have such different relationships with each of James’ personalities. Forget Kevin—these are the personalities that reside within Kevin, so I had very different reactions to all of them.

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It was fun, because we’re both very instinctual, and we both play, so he would hit me with an energy and I would give it straight back to him. I really see Casey as a foil for James’ character, because he’s so big, and Casey is very subdued and very under the water. It was fun to play around with varying degrees of how we were going to mess with each other.

I assume that Night built the room on a soundstage?

Yeah, the room is on a soundstage. The tunnels were underneath an abandoned asylum.

Was he able to shoot a lot of the soundstage stuff in some sort of order, because I felt if he had enough of it built, he could do that.

Yeah, I think we did it chronologically, except we shot the ending at the beginning… It was so funny because Night and I would look at each other, and we were like, “Do we feel confident with this ending? Because we haven’t made the movie…” And I’m just trying to imagine whatever I can.

You know, I can’t even remember. I know that sounds awful but I can’t remember how we shot it, but we spent so much time in that room. It was crazy, but I really loved shooting the tunnels. Even though it was super-intense because the air quality down there wasn’t that great and I’m running around with a gun. The camera was on a very interesting pulley system, and I’m literally running as fast as I can. So it felt good to get out of the room at that point.

What’s Night like as a director? I know he’s very specific and comes in knowing exactly what he wants, which the best directors do. What’s that like working with him as an actor?

He’s incredibly intelligent, so you can be doing six takes of something and then all of a sudden, he’ll come up with a very interesting thought… or at least this is the way I take it: He speaks a language that I completely understand, and we elevate each other to something that’s bigger than what either of us could have brought to the table. It means we really like each other and we understand each other, and we have a very similar image of what we wanted.

He demands excellence from you, which is something that I really thrive on. I love growing as an artist, and I was challenged every single day, just because I respected him so much that I wanted to deliver nothing less than my best work. I’m usually like that, but when it’s someone like Night, you deliver, you show up. Hopefully, you see that in the movie.

I haven’t talked to Betty yet, but I thought just as a performance piece, the entire cast was great.

Ah, thank you, Betty’s amazing!

Like I said, your interplay with James, who I’ve known for quite some time, but seeing him play something so very different…

But isn’t he incredible? I think this is the role that he deserved for a very long time, because he’s so talented and you can really see all of his talents on display here.

What else have you been doing since finishing this? Do you have other movies coming out this year?

I made six movies back-to-back, so I went from The Witch to Morgan to Split to Barry to Thoroughbread to Marrowbone with like a day in between.

That’s crazy, but you had a chance for a break after those six movies?

Just now. I went to Argentina for the first time for two and a half weeks, it was amazing.

I also read that you might be playing Magik in The New Mutants. Is that something that’s signed and done, or is it one of those fan things?

I would love to be a part of it. There’s nothing confirmed yet.

I wasn’t sure if it was an actual role or just one of those, “Oh, she’ll be great to play Magik because she played a witch before…”

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s definitely a world that I’d like to be a part of.

Have you heard these things or did you go and read up on who this character was at any point?

No, I’m not much of an internet person. I’m a pretty bad Generation Y girl. I prefer books and notebooks still. My publicist who you just met—the lovely Alexa—she’ll send me a schedule in PDF form and I’ll actually have to write it down in my notebook, because I’ll look at it and it’s not real to me. I don’t understand it all. I have to physically write it down.

Well, that’s a nice change. What is this movie Thoroughbread you mentioned? Is that coming out soon?

That’s coming to Sundance, which I’m very excited about. Obviously, Sundance is such a special place for me. I went there and my life changed. By the time I got on the flight back home, everything was different. So I’m really pleased to be going with a movie that means so much to me, but also, that’s so good. I haven’t seen the film yet, but it’s probably one of the best scripts I’ve ever read in my entire life.

What’s it about?

It’s about two girls, who used to be friends when they younger. They both are wealthy Connecticans? Connecticans? That’s a thing…

I used to live in Connecticut so I should know this.

Connectikites! Yeah, so these two girls, they become estranged and then they come back together over a fateful summer and then they realize a murder might solve both of their problems.

That sounds awesome. I’ll try to check it out.

It’s crazy, man, it’s crazy.

Split opens on Friday, January 20, while Thoroughbread will have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. Barry is streaming on Netflix now.

Related: M. Night Shyamalan on Finding Split’s Headspace