Anya Taylor-Joy on overcoming on set panic attacks

That was exactly how I was feeling ahead of our first interview: feeling very down. However, I left her floral inspired London Hotel suite – where her campaign video for Viktor Rolf played in the backdrop – having fallen into the beautiful mind and world of Anya, felling SO much better.

If you are ever feeling down, you would be very lucky to come across Anya Taylor-Joy. The British-Argentinian actress radiates positivity – or more aptly, joy – from her every pore and with her every word.

The world of Anya is a beautiful place, which cannot be exuded more than by how she described where the new update of the Viktor Rolf Flowerbomb fragrance, Dew transports her to, “walking through a meadow in moonlight with dew on the grass.” I get the sense Anya is very keen on the concept of escapism or as she says, “I just really like words.”

In fact, the power of smell comes hand in hand with Anya’s journey into the world of the people she morphs into and creates a scent for each of them. “Each person is completely different but there was a very particular character that had a scent that was really important to me and that was for Thoroughbreds. Lily smelled like vodka and like a certain type of like cleaning up liquid with a dash of lemon. It was just really affrontive to the senses,” she laughs. But today, “multi-layered second skin,” is most definitely Viktor and Rolf instead of washing liquid chic.

Anya’s actively and alluring imagination has enabled her to star in some of seriously dark films and play some thoroughly layered characters. After her breakout role as a possessed young girl in The Witch, Anya went on to play the kidnapped teenager Casey in Split and then it’s sequel, Glass opposite James McAvoy’s 23 distinct personalities and now she’s breathing new, contemporary life into Jane Austen’s anti-hero, Emma.

The role has previously been played by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow but in the hands of Anya the character has been given a new depth with shady one liners and OTT bonnets to match. This isn’t your corseted, beige heroine of costume dramas of old, Anya’s Emma even stretches to being unlikeable at times and is all the refreshing for it. Having a female director, Autumn de Wilde at the helm makes for a thoroughly empowered period piece. Or as Anya likes to put it, “we’re all hot messes, like, throughout this entire film, which is wonderful!”

As we settle down for our second interview with her shoes kicked off on the floor, drowning in pillows on a sofa in her Soho Hotel room and with my positive therapy with Anya is about to begin, we discuss how Anya overcame panic attacks on set, learned to become her own best friend and her relationship with her mental well-being…

How did you breathe a new 2020 life into Emma?

I remember the quote that Austen herself said about the character that, “no one else but myself will like her.” I really felt like that was the right thing to do with Emma because there’s this thing with female characters, but also very much in period dramas, where they’re easy to like. It’s not just okay for them to be likeable they have to be easy to like and incredibly moral.

I wanted to create a real person and people flock to Emma for a reason. It’s because they either know an Emma or there have been moments in their own life where they have behaved like an Emma that they don’t really want to admit. So, they understand where these snarky comments and all of this is coming from.

How much of an Emma have you been in different times of your life?

I was originally very nervous to play Emma. I think there have been moments where I didn’t realise the cruelty of words, you have to be careful and I’m quite a blunt person and I’ve learned to sugarcoat my words more. It was difficult at times to play Emma. I’m brutally honest with myself at a level where it’s almost like I need to give myself a bit of a break sometimes from being that honest, and so playing Emma and having to feel those emotions was hard. There were moments I’d go up to Autumn and I’d be like, “I don’t like Emma right now. I am not having a good time being Emma!” I have such an interesting relationship with my characters and it’s so real for me, but I felt like it was blasphemy to be say, “I’m not enjoying being this person at this point and moment in time!”

How did Emma help you as a person?

There were times and I’m really grateful to Emma actually because being more confident in my life is something that, as myself, is something that I aspire to do. On my first day stepping on set as Emma I was like, “how am I supposed to walk into this room and believe I’m like the most beautiful thing in it and everyone’s blessed to have me around and just be in that energy all day?” I had to really like look at myself in the mirror and be like, “you need to own this bonnet because if you don’t own this bonnet it’s going to own you and you need to walk out there!”

Do you think this role has given you more confidence in yourself?

I deal very well with things that are undeniable and at the end of that shoot I was like, “I have undeniably worked very hard and I can be proud of that!” That really helped. And also, meeting all of these wonderful people, they’re such good souls and we had so much fun.

Who do you think you learned the most from onset?

I put a lot of pressure on myself and I had a panic attack on set one day just because the hours are really intense and I’m in every single scene and I was trying to learn all of these different skills whilst also filming. I had a panic attack and my instant reaction was, “I’ve messed up!” And the love that I got from everybody on that set meant I was only down for half an hour, but half an hour for me is like, “I’ve delayed filming for half an hour!” Everyone was just so kind me and they were like, “you’re doing great and this is a lot and it’s okay to have a wobble.” So, I think they just made me a bit more comfortable with being human.

How do you look after your mental wellbeing on set?

We would work six days a week and then I’d have to spend the seventh day getting ready for the next film because it was starting one day after Emma ended. I was just bouncing around and trying to keep it together. I think I learned to let go of things and not to take it home with me because there just wasn’t time, there wasn’t time to go home and hate yourself. I had to tell myself, “I feel goodish what I did, now you need to let it go.”

How was your relationship with yourself changed?

I think it’s a constant evolution, but I think it’s the same thing for everybody. I think it’s just about learning to try and be easier on yourself. A friend of mine once told me, and I’ve really like hung onto this, “you would never talk to me the way you talk to yourself.” I thought that was a radical idea to me and I’ve started to take the wins and not feel too bad about the losses.

I did this really weird thing where I wrote a whole bunch of commandments and rules for myself, one new year. One of them was to be your own best friend, your own savior, your own mother. You need to show up for yourself. So, when something upsets you or wriggles your sense of self, wait a second and ask, “where is this coming from? Why do I feel this way? Is it actually a real feeling or is it a feeling that society’s put onto me? Or, did that come from that one person that said that to me like seven years ago? Let’s rationalise this!” It takes up a lot of time, but it does work.

As a woman in 2020 how do you deal with the social constraints put upon you?

I do think that there are still a lot of constraints. I think it’s vital that we’re starting to say, “hey, this isn’t all right,” but the issue is it’s been the norm for such a long time that it’s going to take a while for people to wake up to the fact that it’s really not okay anymore. I think one of the best ways that you can sort of go about that in your own head is by watching the way you talk to yourself. If you wear an outfit and you’re like, “oh, I don’t look good in this,” ask yourself, “wait a second – do I think I don’t look good in this or has society told me that I don’t look good in this?”

I get very upset with language choices used to describe men and women. When I started to realise it I was really surprised because I wasn’t upset, I was just angry. It’s ignorance, it’s absolute ignorance. You should treat everyone the same regardless of gender, regardless of skin colour, regardless of sexual preferences. All human beings deserve respect and not have words that are sent out to marginalize people.

I think it’s the way that people are described. It’s the use of different words for different genders that upset me. I’ve had situations in journalism where my male counterpart will give an opinion on something and he will be written about as, “thoughtful and intellectual,” whilst I will be, “brassy, opinionated, forceful,” when they just asked me for my opinion. It’s words like forceful that really upset me. I’ve been so lucky with my male counterparts that they are equally as upset.

I think that it’s also dangerous because whenever people are like, “isn’t it wonderful what happened with Me Too?” And I’m like, it’s not, “happened.” It’s not a singular event that you’re now allowed to forget about. It’s a consistent movement towards progress. You can’t just rest on your laurels in that way.

When it comes to equality how infuriating does you find the lack of recognition for female directors?

I think it’s an issue of representation in the sense of we have countless documentaries and accounts of specifically white men being very good at their jobs and being epic. We don’t have any of that for women. We don’t have any of that for different races. We don’t have any of that for trans people. We don’t have that representation and people don’t vote for what they don’t know. So, it’s about representing and showing this is a wonderful female director who has made this incredible film, but she is also on the same par as Scorsese. But they’re just not depicted that way, and so people find it difficult to think of them that way.

I think it’s just it’s been this way for such a long time that it’s just going to take a while for people to realise that we’ve been living in a very one-sided, a very small sliver of society’s story of history for a very long time.

In terms of the scripts you are receiving, have you seen that sliver increase in size?

I’ve always been very lucky with the scripts that I’ve received or that I’ve engaged with, but there’s an awful part of me that does think that, at the beginning of my career, that was just luck. I don’t think there were very many of them, but what’s interesting now people say, “oh a movie made by women that features women in it, that just made money? We should make more of those!” I think what I’m seeing change, which is wonderful, is people understand that there is a market for these stories that they, I don’t think, thought was there before.

One of the things that occurred to me whilst watching Emma was, “oh my god, and I thought my dating life was hard!?”

Completely! Human beings are so complicated. We’re all hot messes throughout this entire film, which is wonderful. If you have one of them that’s a hot mess and then you get two of then that’s a hot mess and then it’s game over. It’s always going to be complicated, but, hopefully, good fun.

I suppose dating was even harder when you had to flirt via letters and a quill…

Or, if you danced with the same man three times it meant you were engaged, so you couldn’t dance with your honey more than once because it meant something to everybody in the village and there would be so much drama.

God, I would be 25 marriages deep by now…

You’re looking great. It’s kind on you…

Just like Jane Fonda…

I love Jane Fonda. I know that she joined the mile-high club when she was like 77 or something like that, and I’m like, “girl, you are my hero.”

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