anya taylor joy is 2018's scream queen
The star of the campy pyscho drama 'Thoroughbreds' talks blood and gore.
Courtesy of Focus Pictures
“I don’t overthink it,” says Anya Taylor Joy when I ask why the new-wave scream queen why her most electrifying characters tend to share a capacity for murder. Next up for the breakout star of 2015’s harrowing puritan folktale The Witch? Playing well-groomed Connecticut mean girl Lily in Corey Finley’s feature debut Thoroughbreds. Tasked with tutoring her sociopathic counterpart Amanda (played by Olivia Cooke), who is awaiting trial for slaughtering her horse, Lily soon stars plotting the bloody demise of a not-so-loved one in her own life: her evil stepfather.
Thoroughbreds is shot almost entirely within Lily’s sprawling country mansion. Invasive camera angles suck out any remaining background noise, elevating the girls’ interactions from highly charged to positively claustrophobic. “It feels like no one has ever lived there,” Anya observes.
Corey’s film has been compared to the subversively camp 1988 psychodrama Heathers. But the film’s central romance recalls a more recent masterpiece: Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which also champions a platonic relationship between two suburban teenage girls. Boys drift through their lives tangentially, or at least they do on-script. The exception in Thoroughbreds is the late Anton Yelchin. In one of his final roles, Yelchin turns his supporting role as a wannabe drug kingpin into the film’s searing, heartbreaking moral compass.
Horror has long been used as an empowering metaphor for female adolescence. It was the pursuit of multi-faceted female characters that led Anya to blood and gore. “I’m very character-driven, and it just so happens that my most complicated, messy women have all resided in pretty dark worlds,” she explains, countering my assumption that she was raised on a diet of horror films. “Growing up, my favorite genre of film has always been coming-of-age. I love coming-of-age movies.” Nevertheless, Anya has a unique talent for investing evil characters with just the right measure of humanity, causing us to hope her monsters don’t succumb to the same fate as their victims.
As Thoroughbreds hits cinemas, Anya talks to i-D about diving into the dark psyche of Lily, playing Obama’s girlfriend, and what she learned from the late Anton Yelchin.
Like Lily, you also trained as a ballet dancer. I’m assuming you haven’t ever plotted a murder, but did you see any other parts of yourself in the character?
When I read a script, I already have an idea of how I want to do it. I didn’t overthink it, so more than seeing parts of myself in Lily, I really wanted to tell her story, and I felt that I was the right person to tell it. It’s interesting that you bring up ballet, because a big part of Lily, for me, was her posture. She’s always completely straight and very contained. I enjoyed being able to take her from that, and as the movie goes on, make her physically more slumped and relaxed as she’s unravelling.
What was it that made you sure you were the right person to play her?
I really loved the idea of creating a character that I was approaching not from the inside out but from the outside in. She starts off with this very thick veneer of pristine perfection. Everything is fine, and everything is wonderful, and it’s almost as if she’s made of porcelain. As the film progresses, that veneer is stripped away. I wanted to see just how deep that kernel of potential evil was.
You moved around a lot as a teenager — modeling and acting at a young age. Did you ever long for a normal high school life?
I did grow with up adults. They were all significantly older than me. I never really fit in with kids my age. It was only when I left school at 16 to pursue acting that I really found the place that I belonged. I loved learning, and I excelled in the academic side of school, but socially it really wasn’t my place. I was desperate to get out and find the place I belonged. I really believed it was in film. Luckily, I’ve been proven correct. My support group is the people I’ve made films with.
What was the vibe like between you and Olivia? Your characters are absolutely magnetic together.
We had 22 days to shoot this film. We only had two days of rehearsal. So we had to jump right in. When we first met, subconsciously, I think we both knew that we needed to get straight into the characters. On the first night we met we had a big sleepover, then we woke up and were like, “Okay, time to get to work.” We had such intense chemistry — not just when filming, but just being physically aware of each other. I’d step with my left foot forward, and she’d do exactly the same thing at the same time. It was very cool. The dialogue in the film is so intense and unrelenting, so by the end of the first day, we were just completely molded into each other like some symbiotic being. Towards the end of the film, our characters are almost like two halves of one terrifying, calculated individual.
Thoroughbreds was one of Anton Yelchin’s final projects. I only recently became aware of what an incredible performer he was. Did he teach you anything?
Absolutely, and I’m glad you’ve taken that angle with it. It’s difficult to talk about him sometimes because he is my friend, and I miss him. But from a professional point of view, he’s just completely unparalleled in enthusiasm and energy and dedication. He’s this livewire energy within the film. In the script, his character is quite minor, but he’s actually the moral compass of the movie. It’s quite funny considering the character on paper. He’s really, truly, one of a kind. Working with him was a lovely thing to experience.
You were discovered by legendary model scout Sarah Doukas outside of Harrods. How has your relationship to fashion changed as you’ve moved away from modeling, but further into the spotlight?
It’s changed so much. When she found me I was in a complete tomboy phase. I still am a tomboy — I grew up with boys, and never really thought about fashion or modeling. When I first started doing red carpets it actually really scared me because I’d never thought of myself as beautiful. The idea of dressing up and trying to look pretty made me feel uncomfortable and quite anxious. I now really appreciate fashion as an art form. I love putting things together. I intellectualize it quite a bit actually. I’ll think about how I want to feel, and what I want to portray, and almost go for a character. That makes me feel so much more confident on the carpet when people are taking so many photographs of you and you can’t see anything.
You were playing Obama’s college girlfriend in Barry . A year after the film’s release, given what’s going on politically, what does that role mean to you?
Barry was another script that I was obsessed with. I was calling my agent being like, “I really want to do this movie! You do not understand, I already know this girl!” I really wanted to be her friend, I thought she was super cool, and even though she was “Obama’s college girlfriend,” I got to pick and choose her traits and model myself after a person who would represent that part of Obama’s life. What I like about that story is that they just don’t fit together. They’re sort of like cutlery in a drawer, clinking together, but they’re not the perfect fit. I love that movie so much. I hope that people see that movie and remember what an absolutely phenomenal president we had, and what an incredible man he is. But also that he was just a man and that he effected great change in this country. I don’t think I would be out of line to say that we miss him very, very much.