Q&A: Actress Anya Taylor-Joy Casts a Spell in “THE WITCH”Fearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Michael Gingold
Robert Eggers’ THE WITCH arrives in theaters this Friday as one of the year’s standout horror films, and it hinges on the deeply committed performance of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy. She delves into the black magic of her performance in this exclusive FANGORIA interview.
In THE WITCH, released by A24, Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the eldest child of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), who are cast out of their 1630s New England community due to William’s specific religious convictions. The family establishes a homestead at the edge of a deep forest, and is soon plagued by apparently supernatural occurrences. As they continue, the parents and children turn on each other, and Thomasin is suspected of being a witch—but does the evil dwell within her, or is it just paranoia taking over?
The film (which we review here) is the first feature lead for Taylor-Joy, who got her start before the camera on VAMPIRE ACADEMY—though her one-day role as “Feeder Girl #1” wound up on the cutting room floor. Since THE WITCH caused a sensation at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, she has taken roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s SPLIT (which she discussed here) and Luke Scott’s sci-fi thriller MORGAN. Fango meets with Taylor-Joy, looking hardly recognizable from her Puritan-garbed WITCH turn, on a gray and rainy winter day that seems appropriate, given the gloom that hangs over her breakout movie…
ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: I really enjoy any kind of weather that’s intense and reminds you of how little you are in the universe. Very dramatic rain makes me excited, and I will always be just out there sitting in it.
FANGORIA: So you must have loved going out to the middle of the Canadian wilderness to do THE WITCH.
TAYLOR-JOY: It was amazing, and that location gave so much to the film. When we were in London for the [BFI] film festival, we were thinking, if we had made this movie there, or in a place that was less remote, we wouldn’t have had the same experience, because real life would have run alongside us making the movie. When we shot THE WITCH, we literally gave up our normal lives, because we had no Wi-Fi, no cell service, and because we couldn’t access our normal day-to-day support system, the only thing we had was each other, and that led us to the most incredible friendships and the love you can see in the film, and that we needed to make the film. It was tough going, and we didn’t love the people we were working with and support them, it just wasn’t going to happen.
FANG: Was the script for THE WITCH as frightening on the page as the movie is to watch?
TAYLOR-JOY: The first night I read the script before going in to tape my audition, I remember turning the last page and my body kind of collapsed in on itself. I was in this state of fear and anxiety, and I later realized that that’s a feeling I’m going to be chasing for the rest of my life, because a script should be a story that I need to tell. I did not sleep that entire night, and I went in the next day so nervous and anxious, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was like, what is it about this script? Is it the lyrical mannerisms of the language? Because I find it sort of strange that upon first cracking it open, I didn’t really think about the fact that it was written in Jacobean English; it just seemed so natural. I love poetry, and it felt so lyrical and poetic.
The second thing that struck me about it was that I was brought up Catholic, and there were certain lines in the script that shook me in a level that was so deeply embedded in my consciousness. I became aware that it wasn’t my fear, but an ancestral fear I’ve inherited that does not belong to me, and that I really wanted to convey that to people.
FANG: You play Thomasin with a British accent, though you don’t have one in real life, yet you hail from England…
TAYLOR-JOY: Well, I was born in the U.S., but I’ve never lived here, and the reason I sound so American to you right now is because I spent my first several years in Argentina, which is where the majority of my family is from. So I spoke Spanish until I was 8, and didn’t learn English until then. We moved to London when I was 6, but I was stubborn; I wanted to go back home and refused to learn the language, ‘cause…kids. When I started speaking English, I have this thing where I mimic the people I’m around; I can’t help it, it’s sort of a Joe Wright HANNA adapt-or-die mentality or something. But it was actually helpful during THE WITCH, because Northern Yorkshire isn’t an accent that’s particularly easy to master unless you have this weird thing I have. I would sit down with the youngest actor, Lucas Dawson, who was 6 and has a beautiful, broad Yorkshire accent, and we’d talk for a couple of minutes before the scene, and then I’d go in and be like, this is the way my mouth moves now. This is the sound that comes out.
FANG: While inhabiting the role of Thomasin so fully, when you were out in the woods in this lonely territory, dealing with all this scary stuff, did that start to affect you on the inside, and impact your performance?
TAYLOR-JOY: Well, thank God I’m not Method, because the film would have been impossible to do. A lot of people find it very strange that we had the best time making this movie. It was technically difficult; we were fighting the elements and the kids’ hours, and the animals and trying to stay out of the sun and picking the buds off trees so we could still believe it was winter. We worked very hard in that aspect, but when they called “Cut,” we would laugh and dance and had a very, very good time.
However, when the shoot ended, I was unbelievably depressed. I couldn’t understand where that came from, and I realized that it wasn’t from the movie having finished or leaving the people, because they’re still my family, and we see each other all the time. I realized that Thomasin was real for me and I missed her intensely, and I was devastated that I wasn’t going to get to play her again. We did a couple of reshoots, and putting on the costume and embracing the character again was… I don’t think I’ve cried that much in a very long time.
FANG: How did it feel to watch yourself as Thomasin for the first time?
TAYLOR-JOY: Rob was very kind, and I think he knew, because it was my first feature, that I was going to freak out, so he was like, “Why don’t we watch it before the volunteer screening, just so you’re prepared.” I wish this wasn’t the case, but I guess actors have a lot of insecurities, and my first thought after watching the film was that I was so terrible that I would have to go be an accountant, my first movie was going to be my last and I was so disappointed in myself. Then I went to the screening and saw other people’s reactions and thought, “What? Really? OK, it’s all right, I guess.” I actually considered not watching my performance, and then I was like, how arrogant would I be if I didn’t want to see this movie, because this is everyone else’s work too. I wanted to be able to watch the film and be like, props, damn good job, we struggled that day and pulled it off beautifully.
FANG: Robert Eggers talked about how much trouble Ralph Ineson had with Charlie the goat. Did you have any problems with Charlie or any of the other animals?
TAYLOR-JOY: Charlie and I actually got along really well, but that’s because I love animals, and we would just hang out. I loved the horse, Lady; she’s the most magnificent specimen ever, and all the animals were great—apart from the way Charlie treated Ralph, and the fact that he wouldn’t really do anything he was supposed to do.
FANG: The film eventually takes Thomasin into some very disturbing areas. Was it especially difficult to get into the mindset for those scenes?
TAYLOR-JOY: I have a very overactive imagination, and I had the most unbelievable empathy for Thomasin. I wanted to tell her story right, and if you care that much about a character and are impassioned about her, it’s easy to get into that state, because you don’t want to let her down. Actually, the hardest scene in terms of the emotional response behind it was the big one between me and Kate. We talked about it from the beginning, and we both decided that we were going to go for it. It was insane, and it must have been very strange for the crew, because you had these two women who would still be hysterically crying after they called “Cut.” We just wouldn’t be able to hold it back, and then we’d have to go again and again and again.
FANG: Is horror something you want to continue exploring, and does it offer more opportunities than other kinds of movies?
TAYLOR-JOY: That’s a very interesting question. I can say that while, yes, THE WITCH is a horror movie, from the point of view of the actors, we were making a family drama. And from Rob’s point of view, we were making a fairy tale. I don’t really understand the necessity of putting things in a box, rather than just creating a piece of art and saying, “It can be whatever you want to call it.” However, I will say that in this genre, the characters can be beautifully flawed in a way a lot of other movies are too scared to show. When you make these kinds of movies with these great auteurs, they want to show the ugly side of humanity, which people don’t really want to talk about. They want a Disneyfied, sanitized version rather than the truth, and I think the truth is always so much more beautiful.