This article contains spoilers for the The Witch (2015), Split (2016), and Thoroughbreds (2017).
“I want to continue to work with people that set my soul on fire and make me excited to wake up every morning to see what we’re going to create,” says young actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, the star of Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Emma. Taylor-Joy has already received recognition for her role in Robert Eggers’ feature directorial debut, The Witch (2015), and has gone to star in many other films such as, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016) and its 2019 sequel, Glass, Thoroughbreds (2017), and many other wonderful pictures. She has more exciting upcoming projects as well, like much anticipated X-Men spinoff, The New Mutants, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, and her second collaboration with Eggers in a Nosferatu remake. Her filmography is impressive, and the roles she chooses are not taken lightly.
Taylor-Joy has been vocal about choosing characters that are more than just one-dimensional roles. She said to The Guardian that, “I’m excited for this era of women that we are stepping into right now where people understand that everyone’s a person and they’ve all got a lot more going on underneath the surface than you might originally think.” Her perseverance in the industry she works within is admirable, and so many of the characters she has played are equally as admirable, as they have all been challenging in their own ways and deeply important to her. Although she has quickly made a name for herself in the horror genre, it is clear that Taylor-Joy is a very versatile actress who seems to be able to do it all.
Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin in Eggers’ supernatural horror, The Witch, a period film set in 1630s New England that centres around a devout family who is ousted from their Puritan colony and forced to rebuild their life in seclusion. When the family’s youngest, Samuel, disappears under Thomasin’s watch, she is blamed for what happened. Her younger siblings claim that it was a witch that stole Samuel. Thomasin is annoyed to a point that she can no longer take it, so she plays along with their accusations and claims she is indeed a witch in order to scare them off. As tragedy continues to befall their family, her parents soon begin to suspect that she may indeed have the devil’s hold over her. In the end, when her entire family is gone, she has no other option left, safe being tried as a witch and hung for the sins accused of her. Thus, Thomasin makes a deal with the devil, signing away her soul and joining a coven of witches.
This is a devilish coming-of-age story for Thomasin, and such a daring debut for Taylor-Joy. The Witch is a film that champions a feminist narrative, where Thomasin finds her freedom in an unconventional way. She is a young girl who is trapped in a patriarchal society, where her only duties are to wash her father’s clothes and clean the stable. Since she is of age to bear children, her mother wants to send her off to serve another family when it appears her usefulness for them is done. Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Thomasin brings such innocence to the character: she is a devout girl who cares very much for her family, and is no doubt distraught by their fate, but she is also rightfully angry at how she is treated. Taylor-Joy understands that Thomasin is a complex character, where her path towards darkness is not black and white. She is a girl who is pushed towards sin because she is accused of being wicked by those she loved the most, despite trying so hard to be faithful and good.
You can feel Thomasin’s suffering through Taylor-Joy through her facial expressions, especially with her mesmerising eyes. Taylor-Joy can convey such horror just through her stares, and such frustration with the slightest change in her tone without ever overdoing it. Taylor-Joy has a way of creating sympathy for Thomasin, but never weakness, as she carries herself with strength despite her smaller stature. She has a stoic composure at the end as she understands what her fate is. This eventually climaxes with her utter glee upon her entering into a new life of freedom as a witch. It is incredible to witness such an outstanding breakout performance from someone who seems to just fully understand their craft and has the ability to completely disappear into her characters.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, Taylor-Joy plays Casey Cooke, an outcast of her fellow peers. She was invited to a birthday party for her classmate, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), out of pity. Claire’s father offered to give Casey a ride home, along with his daughter and her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). Suddenly, he is knocked unconscious and the three girls are subsequently drugged and kidnapped by a man named Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who is suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Kevin imprisons the three girls in an underground facility, and they learn of his other personalities and the sole purpose for the girls being kidnapped: they are sacrifices.
Taylor-Joy plays Casey with control; although she is just as scared as the other girls, she indignantly holds back her tears and tremors and feigns bravery in order to figure a way out. Taylor-Joy has spoken before about how empathic she is, in an interview with Vice she said, “I feel something really intensely and the intensity of my emotions is a blessing and a curse.” This feeling that she has truly comes across when she is on screen. Even upon reading the script for Split, Taylor-Joy said to Harper’s Bazaar, “I cried for a really long time because my characters are very real for me and I love them like family. Obviously everyone’s pain is utterly unique, and the only way that I could access her pain was through empathy.” In Split, she plays Casey as someone who who feels emotions very deeply, but she has put up an armour around herself because of past sexual abuse. Casey is a warrior who has had to fight to survive. Taylor-Joy can show these feelings just through the furl of her brow. Casey is another character that feels very lived in by Taylor-Joy, who seems to understand every nuance of her. Although McAvoy is the star of Split, and his performance cannot be overshadowed, Taylor-Joy holds her own as she goes toe-to-toe against McAvoy’s phenomenal performance with impressive skill.
Thoroughbreds is Cory Finley’s 2017 directorial debut, which chronicles two high-school students, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and their homicidal plot. A gruesome event in Amanda’s life forces her to seek psychiatric help, and her mother decides to pay Lily, a friend from her past, a large hourly sum under the guise of giving her daughter SAT tutoring in order to get her to socialise again. There is an obvious strain in their relationship, and questions left unanswered as to why their friendship ended, but it seemingly points towards Amanda’s off-putting lack of emotion.
The two end up rekindling their childhood friendship, as Lily is almost fascinated by Amanda and how she fakes emotion, further, she almost feels freed by her ability to be honest without hurting Amanda’s feelings. The way Taylor-Joy portrays this is our first clue that Lily is not as prim and proper as we originally thought. One day, Amanda flippantly asks Lily if she’s ever considered killing her stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), whom she vehemently despises. At first, this shocks and angers Lily, but the idea festers in her head and they eventually plot to kill him.
Thoroughbreds allowed Taylor-Joy to play a character that is very different to those in The Witch and Split. She played Lily as someone who is pristine in her polite demeanour as well as her outward appearance, as she is supposed to be the antithesis of Amanda, the voice of reason and moral judgement against her emotionless friend. She knows how to appear innocent and helpless one second, but then the next her expressions fall flat and uncaring, and we understand that she is just a spoiled girl intent on getting what she wants regardless of who it hurts. As Taylor-Joy meticulously applies red lipstick in the mirror, we can see that there is no life in her eyes.
There is something darker stirring underneath her facade of dry-cleaned sweaters, pearl earrings and styled hair. We find that it was Lily who lacked empathy rather than Amanda, she was a selfish person, who used those around her for her personal gain. Taylor-Joy juggles all of this in a gorgeously evil way, at first making us sympathise with her, until she soon lets us see Lily’s true colours, which come out ever so subtly. When she delivers her final line in the film, it leaves us so shocked that someone could be so cruel, and this lends itself to her skill of manipulating the audience, as Amanda is manipulated.
Clearly before Emma, she has played many different types of characters: Thomasin, Casey Cooke, Lily, and now Emma, that are all well-rounded and interesting in their own ways. Taylor-Joy, through her talent as an actress and her will dedication to her roles, brings such life to each and every one of them. In Emma., Taylor-Joy shines as the handsome, clever and rich Emma Woodhouse, where she gets to play a hand at comedy as well as romance, a feat she pulls off marvellously, which is another testament to how versatile she is. After checking out Emma on Video On Demand, it is definitely worth diving into the rest of her filmography.
by Alysha Prasad
Alysha Prasad (she/her) is an aspiring freelance writer who is going to be pursuing her Master’s Degree in Film and Television at DePaul University in Chicago. Her favorite films include: Call Me By Your Name, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Before Sunset. You can find her on Twitter at @leeshprasad.