Coming off her breakout role in last year’s most critically-acclaimed horror film “The Witch,” actress Anya Taylor-Joy says she continues to be “creatively fulfilled” as her young career moves into its next phase. In her new thriller “Split,” directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”), Taylor-Joy plays Casey Cooke, one of three girls who is kidnapped and held captive by a disturbed man (James McAvoy) suffering from multiple personality disorder.
During our interview, Taylor-Joy, 20, who lived the first six years of her life in Argentina (her mother is half Argentine and her father is half Spanish), talked about her Latina heritage, working with Shyamalan and McAvoy and explained what kind of bad guys she’s most attracted to.
What do you remember about living in Argentina?
Warmth. I mean that from the people to the country itself. The sky is so big over there. That’s the first thing I think when I go there. It’s nature and warmth and animals. I had a really blessed childhood. When I moved to London, I definitely noticed how much I missed Argentina.
What do you think makes Latino culture different than other cultures in the world?
Again, I think it’s the warmth. I’ve always been a hugger. I’ve only realized by spending so much time in America that people don’t really hug when the meet each other here. In Argentina, it’s so normal. You meet a complete stranger and you hug them and you give them a kiss on the cheek. That’s the most normal thing in the world. I did it to an American and they kind of just stiffened up and I was like, “Aww.” I was probably too close for comfort. But I haven’t given it up. I hug every single person on set every morning, throughout the day and every night, too.
How familiar were you with M. Night Shyamalan’s body of work? You were only three when “The Sixth Sense” hit theaters.
Growing up, I was very close to my youngest brother, who is technically 10 years older than me. He showed me “The Sixth Sense” way too soon. I think he got really excited and thought, “Let’s watch it together!” forgetting that I was seven years old. I didn’t speak for a couple of days after I saw that movie. I loved “Unbreakable,” but I have to say that I didn’t go into [“Split”] with any expectations working with Night. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I’m going to work with M. Night Shyamalan!” No, I’m doing a script that I’m really passionate about and a character that I really love and I’m excited to meet this man because I think he’s brilliant. That’s all I was really thinking about.
What was it about your character in “Split” that led you to the role?
I loved her, but that’s something I share with all of my characters. If I read a character and hear her voice in my head and feel instant love for her, I know [the role] is for me. [Casey] and I are very different people, but at the core I think we’re very similar. She’s a lot quieter than I am. I talk a lot—like a lot, a lot. She’s quiet and observant and has an intense and deep internal world. She’s aware of everything, but she internalizes it. She doesn’t speak about it. I think that’s something that really saves her in this film because she’s able to collect information and then put it into use at the exact correct moment.
What kind of conversations did you have with M. Night about what kind of movie he wanted this to be?
When a script is very well written, it just makes your job really easy because you feel like with every word you read, you’re reading a biography on your character. Night wrote an excellent script. We definitely had a lot of conversations. He intimidated me a little at the beginning because he was like, “And by the way, this is my favorite character that I’ve ever written.” No pressure. I was like, “Oh, shit. OK, I better do a good job.” I think we both had intense love for [Casey] and it was very important for us to get her right. I think as an actor, if you can tap into the mindset of your director and understand their vision and what they want, it just makes your life easier. We were lucky enough to have a week of rehearsals, which was very important. By the end of it, I could do a take and if it wasn’t exactly right, Night wouldn’t even have to say anything. I would just hold up a finger and ask, “One more?” and we would just go. He kind of just told me telepathically and I knew what his vision for Casey was and we lined it up together.
What was the experience like watching James McAvoy play all these different characters in the film? Do you have a favorite?
I think he’s a genius. That’s not a word I use very lightly. I’ve been very lucky to work with a whole bunch of geniuses. I don’t think any actor could have done the work he does in this film. I was so close to his face all the time. When the camera is on his face, I’m right behind the camera. I’m literally inches away from him. I could tell which character I was talking to just by the way he flickered an eyebrow, by the way he held his mouth, by the way his eyes shifted, his posture. It was a really terrific, physical feat that he did. My favorite character is Hedwig, absolutely. Isn’t he the cutest? I know that’s a really weird thing to say because he’s living in the body of the man that kidnapped me, but he’s so cute! I love him!
What is more frightening to you–a real-world antagonist like the one in Split or a supernatural one like in “The Witch?”
I’m kind of attracted to the supernatural—probably more than Thomasin (her character in “The Witch”). If I encountered a bad guy that had supernatural powers, I’d be like, “Oh my God, teach me!” I think I’d rather meet someone with supernatural powers just to be like, “Hell, yes! Magic exists! Winning!”
What do you think about the controversy Split has garnered because of what some people are calling negative stereotypes of people with mental illness?
The thing about the way we utilized DIDs (Dissociative Identity Disorder) in this film is that it’s definitely a jumping off point. Anyone that sees the movie knows that we’re not trying to make a comment on people with DIDs in the real world. We take it in a fantastical direction. We’re not saying, “People with DIDs are bad guys.” We use our movie logic. I think if you see this film and you’re insulted, I’m terribly sorry because that was never the intention. [McAvoy’s character] climbs walls and bends bars. If you can show me a person with a mental disorder that can do that, then, yes, you can be offended.
You were one of the last actresses to work with actor Anton Yelchin before he passed away last year. Can you share something about him you remember fondly?
With all due respect, it’s still tender. He was very well loved. He’s terribly missed. He was a wonderful person.
So, ultimately, what are you looking for out of this career as actress? Do you have something specific in mind in terms of where you want your career to go?
I think I’ve been so lucky because every single one of my movies, I’ve loved to death. I’ve really killed myself working these last two years, willingly. I’m making movies that I’m so passionate about. I’m so passionate about the people I’m working with. I’m learning all the time. If I can just continue to do work that I love as much as I love the films I’ve already made, I’ll be the happiest girl in the world. There’s not a concrete goal. I just want to be creatively fulfilled at all times. Right now, I am.