Thoroughbreds’ Anya Taylor-Joy on Playing an Emotional Wreck

The rising young star talks Thoroughbreds, New Mutants, Glass and more.

Anya Taylor-Joy is most assuredly an actress on the rise. Within the next year or so, she’ll appear in no less than four films, including the Spanish ghost story Marrowbone, the X-Men spin-off The New Mutants (in which she’ll play Magik) and Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s sequel to both Split and Unbreakable that will find Taylor-Joy’s Casey and James McAvoy’s Horde from the former film thrust into the middle of the continuing conflict between the latter film’s superhero David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and uber-villain Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) from the latter.

But first you can catch Taylor-Joy right now in Thoroughbreds, the dark comedy/thriller from first-time director Cory Finley (who also wrote the script). Taylor-Joy plays polished, poised teenager Lily, whose upper-class upbringing and demeanor mask a raging storm of emotional turbulence directed at her abusive stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks).

She reunites with her childhood friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a social outcast whose own emotions have been deadened by life, and soon the two plot to cut Mark out of Lily’s life entirely, with the help of a local drug dealer (Anton Yelchin, in the last role he completed before his death in June 2016).

Thoroughbreds is a true showcase for both actresses and confirms Taylor-Joy’s status as a young star in the making. Den of Geek met with her recently to discuss making the film, navigating its darkness and humor, and playing a character that’s difficult to like, while also asking about her upcoming movies. Those include a proposed reunion with Robert Eggers, the director of her breakout movie, The Witch, for a new version of the horror classic Nosferatu — a project on which she was mysteriously evasive.

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Den of Geek: What was it about Lily that got under your skin and made you want to do this?

Anya Taylor-Joy: First off, it was just the script in general. I thought the dialogue was so unbelievable and I really wanted and relished the opportunity to consistently manipulate and usurp using language. I thought that was so fascinating. I’m a real word nerd, so I really wanted to do that.

But Lily in particular, I was so intrigued and so challenged by the fact that I would have to create a character that has such a thick veneer of pristine perfectness and through the course of a movie strip away those moral insulation levels and reveal this kind of quivering emotional wreck of a person that’s really got a kernel of something very ugly inside of her. So I was really excited to build her not from the inside out, from the outside in. I was really intrigued by that.

Was that kind of a nice change of pace? Because we’ve seen you as characters who were I think basically victims of their circumstances.

I think it’s always fun to play different people. I don’t actively seek roles, but when a character speaks to me and I feel like I’m the person to tell that story, it’s a very intense love and I think I was very excited to play somebody that isn’t intensely likable. If you can play somebody unlikable, and have them be watchable, that’s a very tricky thing to do and hopefully I’ve done it. I don’t really know. I just wanted to give myself that challenge.

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This started as a play before it was turned into a film script. Did Cory try to almost film it like a play and let you do long takes of dialogue?

A wonderful mixture of both. I can’t say enough wonderful things about Cory. He really is our unicorn. But what was great about it is that the film is very cinematic in the shots and in everything and it’s definitely a film, but the wonderful quality of a play, such as these big, long spaces where you’re really hinging on a conversation between these two characters and it’s totally character driven, that was such a pleasure to be able to breathe in those moments and have your thoughts play out in real time. It was so much fun to play with Olivia in that way because you have these lengthy sections of dialogue, every time was different and we approached it in a different way and that was just so much fun to play.

Did you get a chance to kind of play with the dialogue, speed it up, slow it down, make it a little more humorous, make it a little darker, and find that balance?

Absolutely. Every single take was different and it was such a privilege to work with Olivia because there’s some people that just kind of deliver the same performance over and over again and you’re left trying to find new intricacies by yourself whilst every time one of us changed up the energy in the scene or the way that we were attacking each other to make it more sympathetic, more humorous, etc. you really felt it and it produced a completely different scene and you never knew where it was going to end up.

You worked with Robert who was a first time director and now Cory who’s a first time director. Do they share some elements in common that make you confident that what they’re doing is going to work?

I’ve always been very people-driven and people-led and I think Robert is my creative soulmate. From the second I met him, I was like, “Where have you been all my life?” We have a wonderful way of working that doesn’t really require words, you know? We’re so in each other’s heads that that’s a really freeing way to work.

And with Cory, I just adored him as a person and his vision for the film was so assured, but also as the writer of this script that I loved so much, I didn’t question whether or not he could pull it off because he created such a lush, incredibly unique world. And then his disposition is so quietly graceful that yeah, we just went for it, and I never once doubted him.

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I have to ask you if you have any thoughts you wanted to share on Anton.

It’s difficult to talk about him as a person because I really miss him, but as a performer, I think it’s unequivocal his magnetic energy onscreen. He sizzles like lightning and he has an unbelievable quality of being able to take quirky, weird characters and imbue them with a lot of heart. And you always just love him. Even when he’s doing messed up things or you don’t agree with the characters actions, you empathize with him.

Your heart goes out to him and I think he took the role of Tim, which when I first read it was very much a minor character, and just lifted it off the page. He’s the perfect counteract to these two hopefully very measured, subdued performances, and he just comes in like a live wire and is arguably the moral compass of our film.

You mentioned Robert being your creative soulmate. Where do things stand with Nosferatu? I know he’s got another project he’s been working on, too.

I am so proud of Robert doing The Lighthouse, I think it’s going to be an unbelievable film. We’re both, aside from being creatively very involved with each other, we’re both best friends, so I would welcome any opportunity to work with him again. And he feels the same way.

Are you guys doing Nosferatu?

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(Taylor-Joy smiles cryptically and shrugs)

Can’t say. We are going to see you in a couple of big movies a year or so from now. One is Glass. Do you feel like Night found an organic way to put your character Casey into that Unbreakable world?

I think so. I remember when Night let me in on the whole connection and I got so excited because I’m a big Unbreakable fan and I just said, “Oh my goodness, this is going to be so amazing, you have to let me come on set.” And his response was, “What makes you think you’re not coming too?” So I hope that it was always in his mind to do it, but the man is so intelligent that I don’t even try and put myself in his brain. I’m pretty sure that the way that he’s put Casey in will make people very happy and it’s believable.

Did he keep it a secret from everybody when you were making Split?

He kept it a secret whilst we were filming, but he did let me in pretty early in a parking lot in Arizona when we were doing the first test screenings of the film. Actors don’t usually come along to that, but again, we just wanted to take a trip together so we were like, “Let’s go to Arizona.” So he let me know and I had pretty much the exact same reaction that most people had in the movie theater, but just alone in a parking lot.

Another movie that’s coming out is New Mutants, which had its release date pushed back. Now are you involved in the reshoots that are going to be taking place?

I actually don’t know yet. I’m as clueless as anybody right now. My hands are pretty full with Thoroughbreds, so I guess Mutants will get its turn in a few weeks.

What’s your take on the movie that you shot so far? Do you think it’s going to be almost like a horror film?

I think that was Josh’s intention. He wanted to riff off the superhero genre and make something a little bit more edgy. I think the movie’s bizarrely more grounded in realism in terms of the characters and the innate darkness that resides within all of us.

What else are you working on that you can talk about?

I’m working with Rosamund Pike on a Marie Curie biopic, which is amazing. I love contrast and so three days ago I was in 1914 trenches saving wounded soldiers and now I’m all dressed up in LA talking about Thoroughbreds, so it’s great.

There’s also a Spanish horror film called Marrowbone coming out soon…you have a lot of movies coming out.

Yeah, yeah. I think I’ve got four or five. Marrowbone‘s great. I’m excited for it to come to the English speaking world. It’s been out in Spain for a while and I love Spain and the reception it got there was lovely, so hopefully people on this side of the pond feel the same way.

Thoroughbreds is out in theaters today (Friday, March 9).