Furiosa and the evolving brilliance of Anya Taylor-Joy

anya taylor-joy in furiosa
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With Furiosa, Anya Taylor-Joy cements her status as a movie star. We take a look at the films and roles that have defined her career so far.

You may have seen the moment in the trailer for Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, where the title character declares her name as she removes her mask, revealing the shaven-headed, war-painted warrior beneath. Positioned as the iconic trailer shot, it stands as a key moment in George Miller’s prequel.

A major reason the shot works is thanks to the actor playing Furiosa – 28 year-old Anya Taylor-Joy, inheriting the role from Charlize Theron, who played the role superbly in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. In the years following, as Miller revved up to tell more of Furiosa’s story, it was hard to divorce the character from Theron’s portrayal. Taylor-Joy, once on screen, banishes all of those concerns. Her Furiosa is younger, for much of the film less seasoned, but no less compelling.

It’s a performance that heavily relies on Taylor-Joy’s screen presence and her distinctive eyes. In a role with barely any dialogue, playing a woman forged by violent world, Taylor-Joy’s expressive performance carries the film.

It’s a role that might cement her as one of the key actors of her generation. That or her forthcoming turn as Alia Atreides in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Messiah, hinted at this year in the hugely successful Dune Part Two, might finally transform Taylor-Joy into the household name she deserves to be. Time will tell on that score.

Her evolution over the last ten years has been a steady and intriguing measure balancing popular cinematic fare and intriguing smaller, independent features, allowing her to work with an array of interesting directors and performers. Born in 1996 in the United States but raised in Buenos Aires and later London, Taylor-Joy began as a youthful teenage jobbing performer in British drama before nabbing her first breakout role, aged just 18, in Robert Eggers’ singular debut horror, The Witch.

As Thomasin, the daughter of a banished couple in 1630’s New England, stalked by supernatural strangeness as they make a homestead in the pre-American wilderness, Taylor-Joy is by degrees youthful, ethereal and an open vessel for dark, corrupting forces. It’s easy to see why she stood out among a strong assortment of British character actors, displaying the kind of promise not always seen in an emerging actor. 

Even back then, Taylor-Joy knew what The Witch might mean for her career. After stints in the BBC’s Atlantis or ITV’s Endeavour, she rejected the pilot of a Disney Channel series to take a chance with the unknown Eggers on his debut, later telling Vulture how profoundly the experience affected her.

“My first heartbreak was not a relationship,” she said. “My first heartbreak was finishing my first job [on “The Witch”], and experiencing that loss. The loss of there was a world that existed with a group of people that became my everything for a period of time, and now it’s over. I had no concept as to how to deal with that.”

anya taylor joy
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. Credit: A24.

Smaller films followed in rapid succession, including 2016’s sci-fi horror Morgan and Barack Obama Netflix biopic, Barry. But in teaming with M Night Shyamalan for 2017’s Split, the secret Unbreakable sequel that would cement his return as a successful filmmaker years after being cast into the wilderness, Taylor-Joy added another string to her bow. 

As Casey Cooke, one of three girls abducted by James McAvoy’s killer Kevin, a man housing 13 vivid split personalities, Taylor-Joy successfully went toe to toe with McAvoy’s tour-de-force performance. As she told the Independent, Taylor-Joy was inclined, as she does in Furiosa, to turn silence into on-screen power. “I was very aware that most of her sh*t is stage directions. I was wondering how much of that I can communicate with an audience just with my face, just with my eyes. It was a challenge and one I really wanted to play. “

Taylor-Joy played Casey again in 2019’s Glass, Shyamalan’s underrated culmination of his unexpected cinematic world. By this stage, her star as a leading player was in the ascendant thanks to well-received indie films such as 2017’s Thoroughbreds or the adaptation of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. She continued to cross between offbeat film dramas and successful, prestige TV projects (such as successful Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit in 2020), though she was yet to capture the cultural zeitgeist.

Thee 2020 remake of Jane Austen’s Emma was somewhat lost in the slipstream of the pandemic, and Josh Boone’s The New Mutants that same year turned out to be a misstep for all involved. A project tethered to the X-Men universe, plagued by reshoots and repeatedly delayed before slinking out in cinemas during the height of Covid restrictions, it bombed critically and commercially – though Taylor-Joy clearly enjoyed the experience of playing superpowered teen Ilyana Rasputin.

As she told fellow actor George Mackay for Interview Magazine: “She was the first character I ever played who stomped into a room. The first day on set, I was like, ‘I’m about to be a real dick to a whole bunch of people, then grow a massive arm and have a huge sword. All self-consciousness must go out the window, and you’ve just got to throw yourself into this right now.'”

This is a recurring trend in Taylor-Joy’s work: her chameleonic ability to transform for a part, either physically or emotionally. There’s a sense she could portray almost anyone.

One of my favourite performances of hers is in Edgar Wright’s 2021 dark fantasy Last Night in Soho. She plays Sandie, the epitome of 1960s British cool, pitched somewhere between Cilla Black and Diana Rigg in The Avengers. Taylor-Joy, in a film that mixes horror, toxic masculinity and even time travel into a vivid brew, is stunning, both in performance and style. She owns every minute she’s on screen. You can understand why she remained attached to a film Wright had been trying to make since he met her in 2015, the year of her breakout role in The Witch.

Last Night In Soho
Taylor-Joy with Matt Smith in Last Night In Soho. Credit: Universal Pictures.

Taylor-Joy once told Entertainment Weekly how Wright’s balletic sensibility as a director chimed with her earlier training as a ballet dancer. “I naturally see scenes in beats,” she said. “When I’m going through it in my head, I’m almost dancing a bit. And Edgar does the same thing with directing. Every one of my projects has presented me with a different kind of challenge or a different way of getting into character, and being able to be directed lyrically was a real pleasure for me. It melded both of my loves of dance and acting.”

By all rights, Last Night in Soho should made Taylor-Joy a star, except Wright’s film underperformed in the sluggish Covid landscape, despite positive notices. The Northman, her 2022 reunion with Eggers, saw the actor play Olga of the Birch Forest in an arresting and often brilliant Viking saga. But it was far too niche and arthouse to project her into the stratosphere, as excellent as she is in it. (Sadly, scheduling meant she missed portraying the female lead in Eggers’ forthcoming Nosferatu remake, the role going to Lily-Rose Depp instead.)

Still, Taylor-Joy’s star remains in constant ascendance. A guest turn in the much-loved Peaky Blinders, solid turns in otherwise underwhelming films such as David O Russell’s 2022 ensemble Amsterdam, or voicing Princess Peach in the billion-dollar earning The Super Mario Bros Movie in 2023 (ironically by far the most commercially successful film she’s been in), continue placing her within projects of increased renown. I still want to see her act in more films like Mark Mylod’s dark satire The Menu, in 2022, where as unwitting diner Margot in Ralph Fiennes’ ghoulish restaurant, she’s both dazzling and relatable.

Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu
Taylor-Joy in Mark Mylodf’s The Menu. Credit: Searchlight Pictures.

It’s the line Taylor-Joy repeatedly toes: between the knowable and unknowable. She can be one of us or an enigma, depending on the part. We have all known a Sandie, a victim of a particular ecosystem, but we don’t all know an Olga or an Alia. These are characters in worlds beyond our understanding, places Taylor-Joy can fit. Not all actors can convince in those spaces, but she can. Wright perhaps described it best: “An actor can disappear completely, but a movie star can do that and also have awareness of the camera in the same way that Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo or Cary Grant would. Anya has a lot of that old-school Hollywood star wattage about her.”

Hence why as Furiosa, she stands tall as a beaten-down heroine fighting against the odds in a cruelly masculine world. The film’s shoot was arduous, as Fury Road was before it, and Taylor-Joy talks of the performance as transformative, lonely and a multi-year filming experience she has yet to process.

“I wanted to be changed,” she told The New York Times. “I wanted to be put in a situation in extremis where I would have no choice but to grow. And I got it.”

You can feel that in Furiosa. Growth. She goes to a place we haven’t seen her in before as a physical performer.

The seeming under-performance of Furiosa at the box office won’t, if there’s any justice, put paid to Anya Taylor-Joy’s ascent to stardom. Roles for directors including Scott Derrickson and Romain Gavras look set to follow. It might be hard for her to follow Furiosa, however. That looks to be a role that left a mark. Whether it makes or even breaks her career remains to be seen, but the question of whether Taylor-Joy is a star has, for my money, already been answered.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his podcasting and books, via Linktr.ee here.

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