‘Thoroughbreds’ star Anya Taylor-Joy’s life a whirlwind

From ‘The Witch’ to ‘Split’ to its upcoming sequel, the 21-year-old rising star is turning a lot of heads in Hollywood

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

W hen Anya Taylor-Joy first saw her performance in “The Witch,” she thought she was done making movies.

“I sobbed uncontrollably because I thought I was so terrible,” says Taylor-Joy of her performance in the 2015 horror film, which marked her screen debut. “I had, like, giant tears. I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to have to find another career! I have to give up my dream!’ I was horrified.”

Anya Taylor-Joy: “My life’s been a whirlwind. Suddenly you wake up and you’re sitting next to Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and James McAvoy and you’re like, ‘what?’ ”

Hollywood thought differently. Since the release of “The Witch” — the 17th century-set tale grossed a surprise $40 million worldwide off of a $4-million budget — Taylor-Joy hasn’t stopped working. She starred as a cloned killer in the 2016 thriller “Morgan,” as one of Barack Obama’s early girlfriends in “Barry,” and as the captive of a crazed psychopath in M. Night Shyamalan’s smash hit “Split.”

“Split” really put Taylor-Joy on the map and filled her calendar even deeper. She currently has a half-dozen projects in various stages of production, including the “X-Men” spinoff “The New Mutants,” which is due out in 2019, and the “Split” sequel “Glass,” which recently wrapped and is also due out next year.

“My life’s been a whirlwind,” says Taylor-Joy, on the phone from New York earlier this week while on a break from filming the World War I-era “Radioactive,” which is currently shooting in Budapest. “Suddenly you wake up and you’re sitting next to Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and James McAvoy and you’re like, ‘what?’ ”

Anya Taylor-Joy, left, stars as Lily and Olivia Cooke as Amanda and in "Thoroughbreds."

Next up is this weekend’s “Thoroughbreds,” in which Taylor-Joy stars alongside Olivia Cooke as a “deliciously evil” teen cooking up a murder plot against her stepdad. The drama-thriller is basically an extended dance between Taylor-Joy and Cooke, and Taylor-Joy describes their on-screen chemistry as “symbiotic.”

“I’ve had this with other actresses but never quite as strongly as Olivia. We were just physically, emotionally aware of each other,” says Taylor-Joy, 21. “We moved together. Even if she was on the other side of the room, it was almost as if we had this invisible string that kept us really on the same path.”

Taylor-Joy’s path to the movies started at an early age. Born in Miami and raised between Argentina and London, Taylor-Joy is the youngest of six. Her first name is Russian, which she is not, she notes, and is pronounced “like aneurysm.” It’s shortened from Anya-Josephine, “but I couldn’t handle being Anya-Josephine Taylor-Joy. That would make me double-hypenated, which would be very pretentious,” she says.

Anya Taylor-Joy, left, and co-star Olivia Cooke attend the premiere of "Thoroughbreds" after-party at Sunset Marquis Hotel on Feb. 28 in West Hollywood, California.

Growing up, she always felt more comfortable around adults than she did her peers. Instead of hanging out with friends, she would go off on her own, making up stories, playing all the characters and doing all the voices herself. “It just felt like there was this magic world that I could one day find my voice in,” she says.

She grew up watching LaserDiscs with her family, and because she was youngest, it was her job to flip over the movie in the middle. Films like “Free Willy,” “Jumanji” (“I loved Kirsten Dunst in that movie,” she says), “Undercover Blues” (“super underrated, it’s still one of my favorite comedies of all time”) and “Thelma and Louise” left early impressions. “I watched ‘Thelma and Louise’ way too early, I did not understand what was going on in that movie,” she says with a laugh.

At 14, she was living in London and decided to go to New York to take a directing course. At age 16, she was scouted by a modeling agency, which led to her signing with a talent agent. “The Witch” came shortly after.

“The way the movie took off felt so surreal and so unbelievable,” she says. After premiering at Sundance in 2015, “The Witch” wasn’t released in theaters for a year, in which time she made “Morgan,” “Barry” and “Split.” “I knew I got those jobs on my own merit and not because of hype. I am somebody who doesn’t want things handed to me; I like to work at them. So that felt really good,” she says.

She calls “The Witch” director Robert Eggers her “creative soulmate,” and she’s slated to team with him again on his remake of “Nosferatu,” slated for 2019.

Taylor-Joy — who also stars in next month’s “The Secret of Marrowbone” — says her aim is to continue taking on roles that feed and push her, and to work with directors that blow her mind “and make me feel like I know absolutely nothing,” she says.

“That’s the goal.”

She hasn’t had a home in years, but she’s happy traveling and working, even if she has precious little downtime.

“I’m running with it,” Taylor-Joy says. “I’m a wandering spirit, so this lifestyle suits me.”


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Rated R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references, and some drug content

Running time: 90 minutes

Read Detroit News Film Critic Adam Graham’s review Friday