Interview: Anya Taylor-Joy talks the deliciously twisted pleasures of "Thoroughbreds"


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If 1989's "Heathers" was more artsy, minimalist and contemporary, you’d get director Cory Finley’s finely tuned "Thoroughbreds." A nasty little piece of business, this film coming to us from Finley, a theater veteran, brings out the best of his two leads, here played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke and the late Anton Yelchin, as they get themselves involved in a murder plot that is as highly unpredictable as it is stark and pitch black, and I do emphasize the latter as ebonus as they come. It’s a sleek and stylish film that sneaks up under you and hits you like whiplash.

Most impressive of all is the dynamic that both lead actress build upon the most nastily delivered dialogue imaginable. The words, written by Finley, are very much meant to rile you up and stir anger, defiance, hell, even fury amongst the viewer. These are not innocent teenager girls, in fact Lily and Amanda veer towards being unequivocally deadpan sociopaths. Olivia Cooke is marvelous as the emotionless Amanda, but Anya Taylor-Joy is her equal delivering a staggeringly quiet performance with a character that, by all accounts, is a tortured, privileged and nasty little soul.

The Miami-born Taylor-Joy has proven her worth as an actress in just 3 measely years in the industry. She wowed us as Thomasin in "The Witch," played  a young Barack Obama's college love interest in "Barry," was the heart and soul of M. Night Shyamalan's comeback hit "Split" and is now making waves with this latest critically acclaimed endeavor which might just be her most difficult role to pin down.

I spoke to Anya about how quickly her star is rising, trying to bring about some kind of empathy towards an such an unlikable character and what exatly is going on with the tumultuous production of her next movie, the "X-Men" spinoff  "The New Mutants."

You are fast becoming a Sundance regular. Thoroughbreds was heavily buzzed when I was there lasy year.
I love talking to people about Sundance. What was so magical. Ok, I'm going to break this into two answers. I am the biggest Sundance lover because there is just something so unbelievably magic about that festival and every time I go my life changes in one way or another. It's like I go there and I come back to my life quite radically different. I also love the fact that you're braving the elements because I'm just that kind of girl. It's about the movies rather than just trying to look really pretty. What was so extra magical about going back this time was that Olivia [Cooke] was also at Sundance 205 for "Me, Earl and the Dying Girl."And so, we were both very aware of each other as Sundance kids, so to go back together with a film that we had worked on together felt very sort of karmically correct, so that added to the magic.

"The Witch" and "Thoroughbreds" are actually two of the most pitch black indie films I have seen in quite some time, you star in both of them, coincidence?
That is not [laughs] I never really make the conscious decision to make darker films, I'm always instinctually character-driven, I read a character, I hear their voice in my head and I feel like I belong to them and they belong to me. It just so happens that they live in dark worlds. That being said, working in intense movies is so much fun, your acceptable emotional levels are so much wider so you get to really go out and feel stuff, which, for me, I am addicted to intensity, so I had a really good time with these films.

Because of the emotional baggage that comes with such roles, I was reminded of a scene in "Thoroughbreds" where Amanda shows Lily a technique in how to cry on cue, gulping, focusing on the eyes,  is that actually how you do it?
Both Olivia and I tried it out and we found that it doesn't actually work but it does give you an  intense panic attack [laughs] So I'll give you a quite frankly pretentious sounding answer, I cry from in movies from a place of empathy, I don't usually draw from my own emotions, I try and really feel for the other person. When I worked with M. Night Shyamalan he told something to me that really changed the way I acted, I was working with Casey on a scene where I was hysterically crying and he came up to me and said "you know, what you're doing is really beautiful but I've seen you as Anya cry, so don't be selfish and give your character her own tears" and that really stuck with me and I take great pride in that all of my characters cry differently, none of them cry like I do, which makes me happy [laughs]

How different was it working with Cory Finley as compared to Robert Eggers and M Night Shyamalan both of whom, quite frankly, seem like darker personalities and more serious-minded filmmaker.
I very affectionately refer to Cory Finley as my "Unicorn,"[laughs] only through doing this press tour has he expressed how nervous he was when he was filming. He conducted himself with such quiet grace, always very calm, incredibly collaborative, and he has a very beautiful way of handling his actors, and I think that comes from his play background, when you're discussing things and he's giving you notes in between scenes, he takes you aside and you have a very intimate, quiet conversation where he just really respects the fact that you very emotionally connected to this character and he doesn't really want to remove that from you. He makes all of his notes very "how would you feel if went in this direction" etc. and I find that very kind. Because it is very vulnerable to be a character and I see the characters I play as real people, and I go on the defensive for them. I find Cory really respected that.

It's interesting how they all live in a kind of suburbia from hell. There are almost no emotions, and if there are they do feel artificial. I love how Cory framed the film so that you feel stuck in this world, especially the house which feels smaller than it actually is, or at least by the looks of it. The second time I watched the movie I was trying to focus on how big this house actually is, the way the camera moves around it, and the limited amount of space being used.
It's huge. I like that, "Suburbia from hell." It is just that.

You can tell this was a play and that Cory comes from a theater background. The structure of the film, the way the camera is placed, the way he uses space in such minimalist ways.
The house is actually massive, and we only really show, or filmed, 1/3 of it. The house also suggests a very affluent neighborhood, but at the same time, none of it feels lived in. You know, you don't look at any of the furniture, other than really the couch I guess, and think "oh yeah people live here." And that idea of a cave feeling empty, I find that as a wonderful metaphor for Lily herself, not feeling empty but, in fact, quite cold. This perfect veneer girl, that has this kinetic bull of rage and confusion and desperately wanting to be perfect. I felt like the house was a nice setting to put her in.
By the time I had read the script for the play, Cory was already envisioning it as a film. The play version that I read didn't defer too much to the shooting script. What I was so enticed by and enthralled by was the intelligence in the dialogue but also how deliciously nasty the conversations that these two young ladies are having with each other and I really wanted to say the words and the moment I read Lily's voice in my head I was very excited and Olivia Cooke was already attached, and so I wanted to have the opportunity to play alongside a strong, very talented actress. Plus the tone of the movie was cool, I always wanted to make a bitchy, female-driven thriller.

Bitchy? Well, the characters are surely not likable. That's always a risk when you make a film like this, there's not much empathy for them, but as the film comes to a close you do feel something.
It's interesting with empathy. I can empathize with all of them in a certain way because they are not stereotypes, even with Amanda, in that scene where she's inebriated, I love movies that don't really provide answers, and you look at her in that scene and you question whether you can take her at face value? Does she really not feel anything? As an actress, I love all of them and you have to be able to defend all of them and their choices. So when I was on-set, crew members would tell me "Gawd, Lily is such a bitch," and I was, like, you can't talk about my character that way, [laughs] leave her alone!" It was only after I had a bit of separation from the character and the film that I realized our Lily is a  bit toxic.

How was it working with the late Anton Yelchin? Because he was only blossoming as an actor by that point.
I'm glad you phrased the question that way because he's my friend, the hurt doesn't go away but as a performer, it's just so easy talking about him, because unequivocally talented. He took a role that could have just been a minor character an Anton sizzles on the screen and it's the perfect counteract to the quite measured, central performances from Olivia and me. Arguably, he's the moral compass of the film. That was the beauty of Anton, he could pick these bizarre characters and infuse them with a lot of heart. When I watch the film I really feel for his character Tim, I really want him to make something from his life, and it's only possible to deliver that with a person that has so much heart just like Anton does. He was universally loved. It's really quite extraordinary and beautiful how much people care about him and how much of an impact he had on-screen with so many different individuals.

Did you finish shooting "Glass?"
"Glass" is in Post.

What is going on with "The New Mutants"? It was delayed for a year and then they added a new character. I just want to know if we could have an update on that.
Well, the only thing that I could say, without being in trouble, is that it being delayed is disappointing, frustrating in fact, because we were all very excited for it to be released on April 13th, and I don't mean just disappointing for me, but I'm sure there are a lot of other fans that were looking forward to seeing it. I do think that there is a great responsibility to make sure the movie is done right and that we deliver the fans something that they can all feel happy about and excited about. So, I don't think it being delayed is a bad thing because it's definitely more important to make sure that we get it right than rushing to make a date. So, hopefully, all of these reshoots and adding of the new character that will give the fans an altogether satisfactory, wonderful product.