anya taylor-joy on her big year, from 'the witch' to 'barry'

Playing the young Barack Obama's girlfriend caps off a breakout 2016 for the actress.

by Daniel Barna
16 December 2016, 4:00pm

In April, Anya Taylor-Joy officially turned twenty, setting into motion that crucial decade in a person's life in between adolescence and adulthood, when one's ideas about the world begin to crystallize, and even the smallest of choices can make the biggest of impact. That also happens to be the subject of her new movie Barry, Vikram Gandhi's absorbing portrait of a 20-year-old Barack Obama (played with verve by newcomer Devon Terrell) as he navigates his first year at Columbia University in New York, and cobbles together who he is, and more importantly, who he will become.

"The movie encapsulates a time when you're not a child anymore, so no one is telling you how to live or who to be, but you also have no idea how you want to live or who you want to be," the Miami-born actress told us. In it, Taylor-Joy plays Charlotte, a fellow student who embarks on a relationship with the future President, and whose white, affluent Connecticut background provides much of the film's racial tension.

It's the latest in Taylor-Joy's sudden rise, which began with her haunting performance in this year's breakout hit The Witch, and which will continue early next year, when she stars in M. Night Shyamalan's hotly anticipated psycho-thriller Split. Here, we discuss her love of New York, missing Barack Obama already, and how she came to live her dream.

Is there a specific instinctual feeling you're looking for when you first read a script?
Absolutely, and I cannot rationalize it. Sometimes I'll get so overcome that I can't speak. I can just point at it and be like, 'This one, now, I have to.' It feels like a compulsion, which is a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing. With Charlotte, the second I read it I could hear her voice in my head and I could see her mannerisms and the way that she looked at the world.

What did you admire most about Charlotte?
Her really strong sense of placement, of, 'I am a New Yorker. This is where I live, this is where I stay, I like the politics, this is how I feel about this.' She's exploring her city and I envy her.

Describe your own personal relationship with New York City.
I ran away to New York when I was 14. It's a place where I think you can call yourself a New Yorker and not be from New York. When I'm there, I feel like I know it better than London, I know where I am going, I know what I'm doing. I talk fast, I walk fast in the streets, I'm a New Yorker.

The city plays a key role in the film, and I think in many ways it helped inform who Barack Obama became. How much do you think a city helps shape a person?
I think an absolute ton, but it's also the people you meet within. I like seeing the characters that surround Barry in the movie, as sort of different worlds. He's picking things up and testing them out and being like, 'Okay, what do I stand for, who do I want to be, what is my scene, who am I?'

What were your impressions of Barack Obama before you started the film?
He's so charismatic. I have so much respect for him because I think that there are just certain people who shape the world and he just grabbed it and shook it like a rattle. It's even things like—you can trivialize —but the mic drop. The president of the United States dropped a mic.

He's very much in tune with culture.
And also, he's human. He's not just standing up there and being like, 'I am perfect, I am clean, I have never seen a rap video in my life because I am the President of the United States.'

He's one of Chance the Rapper's biggest fans!
Exactly, and who better to lead the free world than a human being? I'd like to think that people don't want to look up to a god that they can't relate to. They want someone who understands them and gets what it is to be a human being on this planet and in this country.

Are you sad to see him go?
Yes. It's really easy to complain about someone that is in power and not look at everything that's great until it's gone. I think a lot of people will really miss him.

What do people make of your accent, which is really hard to pinpoint. [Joy has lived in Argentina and the U.K.]
I have no idea. I get Irish, I get English, I get American. My problem is that I mimic instantly and that's something I'm really trying to train myself not to do because I think it's creeping people out a little bit. I don't do it on purpose, but that "adapt or die" mentality is something I picked up as a kid.

Are you attracted to playing outsiders because of your own nomadic history?
I never intellectualize it that much. I could make up an answer for you, but I think the truth is that when a character is meant for me and I am meant for her, it just feels right. I never think intellectually about, 'I wonder if playing this character will help me sort out my shit.'

Do you feel like you're doing what you were meant to do?
Oh my goodness, yes. When I was a little girl, people would ask me, 'What are you going to do when you grow up?' And just with absolute confidence, I would say 'I'm gonna be an actor,' and they'd say, 'Oh sweetie, how are you going to do that?' 'I'm gonna be in the right place at the right time and it's going to happen.' And then it did.

Barry premieres December 16 on Netflix.


Text Daniel Barna
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Styling Max Clark
Hair Pierpaolo Lai at Julian Watson Agency
Make-up Lotten Holmqvist at Julian Watson Agency using Estée Lauder
Anya wears cardigan vintage Mr Freedom from The Contemporary Wardrobe
Bracelet model's own

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barack obama
the witch
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Anya Taylor-Joy