In ELLE’s May 2021 Rising Stars issue, on newsstands May 4, Anya Taylor-Joy, the star of ‘Emma’ and ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ opens up about on-set friendships, how childhood bullying pushed her into acting, riding out a panic attack in a corset and why mental health issues shouldn’t be considered a weakness.
Taylor-Joy on having a hard time wrapping her mind around the success of The Queen’s Gambit: “Especially at the beginning, it was very surreal, because I was spending every day with no shoes in minus-three-degree weather on the side of a mountain,” she says of receiving word of the series’ success while filming The Northman in Northern Ireland. “So going home to an apartment and seeing texts like, ‘A lot of people have watched the show’…I’m not great at numbers. The most I can hold in my head is, like, a stadium’s worth.” But certain things made it real—like seeing The Queen’s Gambit on Barack Obama’s list of favorite TV shows of 2020, and hearing that Patti Smith was a fan. “I was reading her book Devotion when I heard that, so that was pretty cool.”
On not ruling out a second season of The Queen’s Gambit: “It would be silly of me to go, ‘There’s never going to be a second series,’ and then I’m 40, and Scott’s like, ‘Yo, how do you feel about this? You want to go back?’” As far as what she thinks might be next for Beth: “I hope she starts doing things for her own enjoyment. I’d like Beth to pick up Benny and spend some time with him in Russia, just the two of them being snobby intellectuals together, and I hope she has a Bowie phase.”
On not wanting to give the childhood bullying she experienced airtime and why it pushed her into acting: “I joke about this, but I’m kind of serious when I say that the characters in the Harry Potter books were my friends. I spent the first two years in England playing hand-clap games with plants—if you slap them hard enough, they clap back—and learning how to read. That was my existence. I didn’t hang out with other kids. I was clearly a very normal child,” she says in jest. She’s spoken before of being trapped in lockers and mocked for having wide-set eyes, but she’s not interested in going there today, “not because it’s traumatizing, but just because I don’t want to give it the airtime.” She now understands the psychology behind why kids might gang up on an easy target, and no longer feels resentful. “It just really pushed me,” she says. “Much the same way as Beth needed chess, I needed acting. I needed to believe in a place where I could be valued and appreciated, and actually have something to contribute rather than constantly feeling like, ‘What is wrong with me, and why do I not fit in?’” The kindness she experienced on the set of The Witch at age 18 “felt like taking a breath for the first time in a really, really long time.”
Taylor-Joy on her friendship with Emma castmate, Mia Goth, and the advice Mia gave her when she considered quitting acting: “She was the first actress close to my age that I met, and we had a very cool conversation where I was like, ‘I love you,’ and she said, ‘I love you.’ And I said, ‘I’m always going to have your back.’ And she was like, ‘I’m always going to have your back.’ It was like, ‘Okay, cool. Let’s progress in this very wild industry, knowing that we’re going to take care of each other.’” Their friendship pact came in handy at the start of filming for Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 Jane Austen adaptation. “I had been working back to back—just before Emma, I’d done two projects at the same time, and I was going through some emotional relationship stuff,” Taylor-Joy says. “So at the beginning of 2019, I was just really broken and frightened of everything, and Mia and I were driving back from rehearsal. I turned to her and said, ‘I think I’m going to quit acting. I don’t think I can do this.’ And I’ve never seen Mia look so worried in my life. She was like, ‘But…that’s what you do. You can’t not…what are you talking about?’ I was like, ‘I think I need to back out now and just let it be and try to take care of my heart.’ And she was like, ‘No, that would be really bad. You can’t not have the thing that is your oxygen.’ I’m really glad she said that.”
While experiencing a panic attack in a corset is its own circle of hell, Taylor-Joy finds that when she has one at work, it usually signifies a good thing. “I’ve learned to recognize that feeling of, like, ‘Oh, you care. You really care, and so you should probably do this,’” she says. She’s grateful that more people are starting to see mental health issues less as weaknesses, and more just as things people have and deal with. “It’s a chemical imbalance in my brain. It’s not a choice. It’s not attention-seeking. If I could not have it, I would not have it, but I do,” she says. That transparency proved useful when someone else experienced a panic attack on the set of Emma. “I was just like, ‘I’ve got you. Release the corset! Sit the f**k down. We can do this.’ It’s when you’re trying to pretend that you’re something you’re not that people get hurt.”
[Photo Credit: Zoey Grossman for ELLE Magazine]