Anya Taylor-Joy Went Through The Wringer For ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’

By Kyle Buchanan
New York Times
Anya Taylor-Joy, star of ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’, at The Maybourne in Beverly Hills. Photo / Ariel Fisher, The New York Times

The 28-year-old star discusses playing the title character in the most recent Mad Max film. “I’ve never been more alone than making that movie.”

There’s nothing normal about making a Mad Max movie, and Anya Taylor-Joy knew that when she signed on to star in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,

“I wanted to be put in a situation in extremis where I would have no choice but to grow. And I got it.”

Trials by fire don’t burn much hotter than the conflagration that consumed Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), the most recent film in the franchise, which was one of the most infamously difficult productions in Hollywood history. In the works for nearly two decades, the movie was shut down several times by studio executives, who feared they were producing a big-budget boondoggle. And the constant clashes between Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, two of its stars, in the remote Namibian desert required outside intervention.

Despite all of those headwinds, Fury Road was hailed upon its release as one of the greatest action films ever made; it would go on to win six Oscars and net a spot on many critics’ best-of-the-decade lists. Its success paved the way for the prequel Furiosa, in theatres in New Zealand on May 23, which casts the 28-year-old Taylor-Joy as a younger version of Theron’s warrior woman.

Plucked from her idyllic home by bandits, Furiosa grows up shuttled between two captors, the gabby psychopath Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) and the hulking warlord Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme). Furiosa faces constant danger on both sides, and she strives to survive long enough to escape, keen to exact revenge on those who have taken everything from her.

Though Theron still casts a long shadow, Taylor-Joy stakes her claim on the role with a formidable ferocity: Under the grease that Furiosa smears on her face like war paint, the actress’ distinctive wide-set eyes blaze bright with righteous anger. To make Furiosa her own, she allowed herself to be put through an emotional and physical wringer for 6 1/2 months. How did she feel in late 2022, when she finally wrapped the arduous production?

“Like I knew I was going to need the two years that it took for the movie to come out to deal with it,” she said.

Photo / Ariel Fisher, The New York Times
Photo / Ariel Fisher, The New York Times

The release of Furiosa will put Taylor-Joy’s nascent stardom to its biggest test. Though she has worked steadily since her film breakthrough in The Witch (2016), her profile rose precipitously four years ago when she starred as a chess prodigy in Netflix’s hit limited series The Queen’s Gambit. A surprise cameo in this year’s Dune: Part Two placed her in the company of Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and Florence Pugh — three of the very few actors under 30 who are considered bankable movie stars — and served as proof that Hollywood hopes to add Taylor-Joy to that gilded A-list.

In late April, I met her for lunch at the rooftop restaurant of a Beverly Hills hotel. Poised but chatty, Taylor-Joy was animated by an actor’s watchful curiosity. She asked me nearly as many questions as I asked her, and whenever my turns of phrase or tossed-off hand gestures caught her fancy, she’d repeat and refine them, doing me better than I did myself. One of Taylor-Joy’s gifts as a performer is that precision: She trained as a ballet dancer until she was 15, and she knows how to hit a mark.

“I feel most alive on a set when I can perfectly match an emotion to something technical and kind of become this blend between organic and machine,” she said.

Her consummate awareness of the camera can even be seen off the set. While I was on the Oscar red carpet this year, I watched Taylor-Joy pose for the E! channel’s Glambot — a slow-motion camera that swooped around her at high speed — and as she turned and flicked her long platinum hair, her eyes tracked the camera with such exactitude that it was almost fearsome.

“I’ve always had this theory that there’s a difference between an actor and a movie star,” said director Edgar Wright, who worked with Taylor-Joy on Last Night in Soho (2021) and recommended her to Miller for the Furiosa role. “An actor can disappear completely, but a movie star can do that and also have awareness of the camera in the same way that Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo or Cary Grant would. Anya has a lot of that old-school Hollywood star wattage about her.”

Those skills served her well on Furiosa, which asked more of her than she had ever given to a role. “My characters are all real for me,” she said. “The level of protection I feel for them never changes: I defend, to a fault, their interest.” The characters in the movie were constantly pushed to their breaking points, and the shoot, in Australia, required Taylor-Joy and her co-stars to inhabit a very intense space for long periods of time with little reprieve.

“What you’re being asked to dig into and display emotionally is exhausting,” said Hemsworth, who praised Taylor-Joy for rising to the challenge. “I found what she did inspiring because she was there every single day for months on end and was as fiercely protective of the character as you’d want.”

Taylor-Joy as Furiosa in ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’. Photo / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP
Taylor-Joy as Furiosa in ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’. Photo / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

Still, Taylor-Joy said that championing Furiosa often felt like a solitary experience.

“I’ve never been more alone than making that movie,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I don’t want to go too deep into it, but everything that I thought was going to be easy was hard.”

Her reticence reminded me of when I first spoke to the actors who had made Fury Road: During that shoot, the desperation of the characters bled into their real lives, and unpacking that experience took a very long time. Sensing that she was skirting a sensitive issue, I asked Taylor-Joy what exactly it was about Furiosa that had proved more difficult than she expected. For five long seconds, she contemplated giving me an answer.

“Next question, sorry,” she said. There was a faraway look in her eyes, as if a part of her had been left behind in that wasteland. “Talk to me in 20 years,” she said. “Talk to me in 20 years.”

Not long after filming The Witch, Taylor-Joy, who is part Argentine, was in Buenos Aires hanging out with a friend when his older brother showed up astride a memorably cool Ducati. When the brother caught Taylor-Joy eyeing his motorbike, he offered to let her ride it.

“I actually rode pretty well,” she said. “It was only that I couldn’t get it to start without sputtering, so I really went for it and I crashed into a tree.” She tapped a faint scar on her knee. “Got this guy.”

That crash gave Taylor-Joy an emotional hurdle to get past during her year of prep for Furiosa, which included extensive motorcycle riding, strength training and stunt driving. (That she still hasn’t gotten her driver’s license lent a frisson to the work, too.) She initially feared that mastering the action choreography would be the hardest part of making Furiosa — after all, Fury Road had some of the most intimidating stunt sequences ever put to film — but found, much to her surprise, that it was the ideal fit for her perfectionism.

With action choreography, “you can get it kind of right, you can get it almost right, or you can get it right,” she said, “and I want to get it right every single time.” The feeling of tangible improvement after each take had her hooked: “When my analytical brain is firing in that way, I just feel so alive and purposeful.”

Taylor-Joy initially feared that mastering the action choreography would be the hardest part of making ‘Furiosa’. Photo / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP
Taylor-Joy initially feared that mastering the action choreography would be the hardest part of making ‘Furiosa’. Photo / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

The film’s action sequence centerpiece, a dramatic raid on the War Rig, where Furiosa has hidden herself, required 197 shots that took the entire span of production to complete. With all of those action beats on the schedule — most of them seconds-long shots in which Taylor-Joy was climbing, driving, ducking and fighting — did weeks go by on set when she never spoke a single line?

“Months,” she said. And some of the limits placed on her performance initially threw her.

“I do want to 100 per cent preface this by saying I love George and, if you’re going to do something like this, you want to be in the hands of someone like George Miller,” she said. “But he had a very, very strict idea of what Furiosa’s war face looked like, and that only allowed me my eyes for a large portion of the movie. It was very much ‘mouth closed, no emotion, speak with your eyes.’ That’s it, that’s all you have.”

To hear Miller tell it, that sort of stillness was meant to pack a mythological punch.

“If you look at the classic, almost inevitably male heroes — going back to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood — they’re usually very laconic,” he said, adding that the mute performances delivered by Holly Hunter in The Piano and Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda won both of them Oscars. “When you’ve got someone with a lot going on and they’re silent, the audience is getting ahold of a lot of stuff. It’s that thing that you can really only do in cinema.”

Taylor-Joy took Miller’s point but still felt Furiosa was owed an eruption. “I am a really strong advocate of female rage,” she said, noting that, in too many films, female characters are made to endure all manner of hardships while crying only a single delicate tear.

“We’re animals, and there’s a point where somebody just snaps,” she said. “There’s one scream in that movie, and I am not joking when I tell you that I fought for that scream for three months.”

While making Fury Road, Theron waged a similar campaign on behalf of the character, arguing that when Furiosa was brought to her lowest point, it demanded some sort of cathartic outburst. Miller eventually granted that wish, and the result — a scene improvised by Theron in which Furiosa falls to her knees and lets out a primal scream — gave the film one of its most iconic moments. When I brought that negotiation up to Taylor-Joy, she nodded.

“With George, it’s a long game,” Taylor-Joy said. “You plant the seed day one, you leave it for a bit, then you check on it.” Once, she debated a character choice with such intensity that her voice broke in front of Miller and she started to cry. “He was like, ‘You care so much, it’s beautiful.’ And I was like, ‘I’m trying to tell you something!’”

Still, one of her primary goals was to make sure the 79-year-old director always felt respected.

“I wanted to make sure that I was never insolent in any way, that it was always a conversation,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is his vision. I can present everything that I have, but his word goes.”

Photo / Ariel Fisher, The New York Times
Photo / Ariel Fisher, The New York Times

When a project challenges Taylor-Joy, there is always something that lingers. Years after making The Queen’s Gambit, she still finds the notion of playing chess with a friend too fraught to contemplate. As we ate lunch, she wondered how long it might take to truly gain perspective on the ways Furiosa had changed her.

“I will never regret this experience, on so many different levels, but it’s a very particular story to have,” she said. “There’s not everyone in the world that has made a Mad Max movie, and I swear to God, everyone that I’ve met that has, there’s a look in our eyes: We know. There’s an immediate kinship of like, ‘Okay, hey, I see you.’”

Someday, she hopes to talk all this over with Theron. “We saw each other very, very briefly at the Oscars, and she’s wonderful,” Taylor-Joy said. “But we are due a sit-down, hash-it-out dinner.”

And then there’s the matter of the movie itself.

“I’m curious, once I watch it, if I’ll ever be able to watch it again,” she said. At the time of our interview, all she had seen was an early, black-and-white cut before all the special effects had been added, and even watching that was an emotional experience: “Two minutes in and I’m sobbing.”

What had set her off? “I adored a person that I could not protect,” she said simply. “There were forces greater than me.”

In some ways, Taylor-Joy said, she still carries Furiosa with her, noting that she came away from the film “being able to advocate for myself more. Some of the protection and love I felt toward her, I’ve carried into my actual life.” But she has also been keen to start drawing a bolder line between her characters and herself.

“I’ve spent 10 years making other people real,” she said. “I’d been able to sort of barrel through life, throwing experiences in a backpack and constantly thinking, ‘Well, I can’t deal with this right now because I have to service her. And again, this seems to keep coming up in this interview, but I was like, ‘I am a machine right now. I just run. You put me in the cupboard for four hours, and you take me out in the morning, and then I go and I do the thing.’”

The actors’ strike last year forced Taylor-Joy to finally sit down and contend with her own wants. “I was like, ‘What do I do for fun? What is it that I enjoy?’” she said. So she has applied herself to the role of really living, whether that’s picking up a love of basketball — she gushed about a New York Knicks game she had just gone to with her husband, musician and actor Malcolm McRae — or riding go-karts a couple of miles from Griffith Park to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.

“I realised that I don’t necessarily need rest as long as I constantly have something to marvel at,” she said. A recent trip to Yosemite gave her plenty to think about: “What is it about just climbing a mountain and then climbing another mountain and then climbing another mountain that feels so honest and deeply profound?”

I wondered if maybe it gave her the sort of real-life challenge that she is drawn to in her work, where you push up against things you thought you couldn’t do and then, upon accomplishing them, realise you’ve grown stronger than you thought you were. The look on her face told me she was fine with not knowing yet. Maybe I’ll ask her again in 20 years.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is available to watch in cinemas across New Zealand on May 23.

Written by: Kyle Buchanan

Photographs by: Ariel Fisher


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