On the first day of shooting a new film version of Jane Austen's Emma, the woman in the titular role, 23-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy, decided to quit.
It was January 2019, the actress raised in Argentina and London was in a taxi home, and her mind was turning over the 24 skins she had slipped into since her breakout role as Thomasin, a girl believed by her Puritan family to be possessed by the devil, in 2015's critically acclaimed 17th-century folk-horror film The Witch.
Among them were the sexually abused teenager Casey, who gets kidnapped by a serial killer (James McAvoy) in Split, superheroine Magik in X-Men film The New Mutants, and Lily, the rich college girl so bored she plots to murder her stepfather in Cory Finley's esteemed indie thriller Thoroughbreds.
Just wrapped was Gina, the ballsy American in the new series of Peaky Blinders, and Brea, the puppet princess she voices in Louis Leterrier's fantasy Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. She was soon to start filming Edgar Wright's psychological horror Last Night in Soho. Taylor-Joy realised she had been in character for 360 out of the past 365 days, and wasn't sure where these characters ended, and she, Anya, began.
"The best way to explain it," she says across the table from me at her favourite brunch spot in west London, her cartoonlike eyes saucer-wide, "is that I could go to an art gallery and I could tell you which pieces of art Lily would like, Thomasin would like, Casey would like. But what did I like? I didn't know what was character and what was myself, and I'm still working that out."
Greeting me with a tight hug, before warmly insisting we share our breakfasts, Taylor-Joy seems nothing like the dark and complicated characters she presents on screen. And thankfully, she never did quit Emma. Her co-star Mia Goth was in the cab with her that night, and talked her out of it. "She said to me, 'Anya, that is the scariest thing you could ever say to me, because if there's one thing you do, you act.'"
Taylor-Joy was six when she announced to her mother, an African-Spanish psychologist, and her father, a Scottish-Argentine powerboat racer, that she would become an actor. Ten years later, she was scouted by Kate Moss's agent Sarah Doukas while walking her dog in high heels past Harrods, and, a year after that, she was called in for a shoot which shared the same set as the cast from Downton Abbey. Her big break came in the form of a poem.
Studying for the following day's English GCSE, Taylor-Joy was reading Seamus Heaney's Digging in a corner when Allen Leech (aka Downton chauffeur Tom Branson) asked her to read the poem out loud. "Afterwards, he took my name and number, and told me to expect a call from his agent. She called that week," says Taylor-Joy, who later quit school in west London and sent an audition tape for Robert Eggers's The Witch. It was the first audition tape Eggers watched. "It can't be that easy," he thought to himself in astonishment, knowing she had the part. So he watched it over and over again. It was that easy.
"She had this amazing ability to blush emotion across her face without doing anything," says Ralph Ineson, who was involved in the casting process and played Thomasin's father. "I remember one night, as I was driving her home, she asked me this hilarious question. She said, 'Ralph, when you say you're going up to your room to work in the evenings, what do you mean by that?' And I had to explain to her the process of practising for a part: you learn your lines, you stand in front of the mirror to deliver them, you think about the next day's scenes. I said to her, 'Don't you do that too?' She said no. And I was amazed, but then it made complete sense."
Taylor-Joy has a near photographic memory, and describes herself as an empath. "At four years old, I remember crying in the playground when my friend told me a boy had been mean to her," she tells me, laughing at the absurdity. "My best friend is also an empath, and when we go on holiday, we have to book separate rooms, because we can't experience each other too regularly." I tell her it all sounds rather exhausting, and she nods wearily.
As a result, she doesn't need to spend hours learning lines, and never researches a part – she simply makes each character a Spotify playlist. "She's not a craft actress, she's an instinctual actress," M Night Shyamalan, who directed her in Split (2016), tells me. "By the time I'd watched her audition for Split, I'd seen hundreds of girls on tape, and it was like they had all come together to decide on how to read the role the same way, with the same inflection, the same emotion. And then Anya came along, and it was like she was doing a different scene. I thought, OK, she's the character."
His protégé's greatest skill? Silence, says Shyamalan, whom Taylor-Joy credits for teaching her "to be quiet". Indeed the uniting theme between all her films is that, despite leading the cast, Taylor-Joy always says very little, letting her eyes do the talking. "I remember the first scene we ever shot," says Shyamalan, "Casey is in the car, turns, and sees the stranger, and she's fighting her instinct freeze. And when Anya turned, essentially staring down the barrel of the camera, I was looking at the camera with James [McAvoy] and we both just went, 'Wow, did you see that?' Her visage is like a silent movie star's from the Thirties. She is so atypical, physically, and emotionally.
Ineson recalls the day his co-star cried for nine hours straight after filming a scene where Thomasin fights with her mother, as well as how she became depressed after wrapping the film and "missing" Thomasin, while Shyamalan tells me he had to keep an eye on her after the first cast read-through for Split. "She was very, very shaken," he tells me. "And on Split I was worried, because when her character struggled, so did Anya. Luckily in Glass [a sequel that came out earlier this year], the character was stronger, so I worried less." For her role as Lily in Thoroughbreds, Finley tells me he watched her go "to a very unpleasant place".
While Taylor-Joy usually keeps a piece of clothing from each character, she tells me she drew the line at murderous Lily. "Absolutely not. I couldn't do it. I've never been…" she searches for the right words, her expression disturbed, "under the influence of a character before. I truly believed she wasn't a bad person for the whole time shooting her. I constantly defended her as misunderstood and people would look at me like I was f***ing crazy. And then I realised, after… and I felt shame."
From Thoroughbreds to The Witch, Taylor-Joy's CV reads like a cinephile's must-watch list – until this year. Her two most recent films – Glass and Playmobil – were criticised by reviewers as badly directed. How does she deal with negative feedback, particularly at such a crucial stage in her career? She doesn't flinch, but her tone tightens. "I mean, if someone gave me a scathing review about my performance, I would care. I'm not immune, but with Glass, Night had won before the movie even came out, just by uniting Bruce [Willis], Sam [L Jackson], me, Sarah [Paulson]. The fans loved it. And with Playmobil, I just wrote to Lino [DiSalvo] and said, we made a beautiful film for kids, and if critics didn't like it because it wasn't skewed towards adult sensibilities, then I don't care."
Taylor-Joy may be an empath, but there is an unmistakable steeliness to her as well. She swings long, dangly earrings that say "PUSSY", which she bought, she tells me, at the same time as a bracelet that says "F*** the Patriarchy".
"Recently," she says, "a producer was treating me like a little girl, like I didn't know what I was talking about. So I sat him down in his office and, even though I was afraid that he was physically stronger than me, and that he could affect my career, I said, 'I've made more films than you have, so, actually, I really do know what I'm talking about'."
Has MeToo contributed to her empowerment? "Yes. I am so grateful to be an actor in this day and age. When I walked on the set of Last Night in Soho, the cast and crew were amazing, but I thought: 'Wow, you're all scared of me. Because if I say I'm uncomfortable with something, you're going to listen to me. Because otherwise, you're going to get cancelled.'"
So what's next for Taylor-Joy? Music, she admits, a little coyly. She has, as videos on Instagram confirm, a beautiful voice, and is considering songwriting for her characters. Already written is "a very forwardly sexual" one for Gina in Peaky Blinders.
Directing, too, is part of the master plan, and everyone from Shyamalan to Leterrier tells me they could see her in their shoes. "Listen," says Leterrier, after proudly telling me directors questioned with jealousy how he "got Anya" after Dark Crystal's cast announcement. "I have worked with a lot of actors, but I've never met someone like Anya. In 10 years, I'll be working for her."