The Rise of Anya Taylor-Joy

Image Credit: Nurinalman Nizam

In the wake of Anna Taylor-Joy’s Golden Globe win, Aoife Rooney takes a look at her career so far.

What marked her biggest year to date, Anya Taylor-Joy commenced 2020 by breathing new life into Emma, and bookended it with her most acclaimed role yet, as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Taylor-Joy has received critical acclaim for both roles, most recently becoming the first Latina to win the Best Actress Golden Globe in a Limited Series. She was also nominated for her title role in Emma at the same ceremony. 

It may be hard to believe that the Argentine-British actress starred in her first movie only six years ago: Robert Eggers’ The Witch, for which her performance was praised. The following year, she was catapulted closer to household name territory with her role in M. Night Shyamalan’s second instalment of the Unbreakable series, Split. Fast forward to late 2020, The Queen’s Gambit sets the record as the most-watched Netflix Original with over 60 million viewers, a feat which was later eclipsed by Bridgerton. The fact that a show focussing on chess could hold such a title is testament to the screen presence of Taylor-Joy and the vibrancy and fervour with which she equips all of her characters.

Taylor-Joy was born in Miami in 1996 and then moved to Argentina where she stayed for six years before settling in London. Taylor-Joy protested the move so much so that she refused to learn English for two years before giving in. The actress has cited films to be one of the factors contributing to her learning of the language. Taylor-Joy was scouted by a modelling agency while walking her dog when she was 15, and it was through this encounter that she was able to pivot her focus towards acting. 

Despite receiving recognition for her role in The Witch, it was her portrayal of Casey Cooke in Split that really cemented her face in the minds of movie-watchers. The role saw Taylor-Joy tackle the challenge of paying a kidnap victim at the hands of ‘Barry’ (James McEvoy) a man dealing with a dissociative identity disorder. Taylor-Joy’s character encounters the 23 different faces of one man, and in doing so, cemented her talent as one of the most highly sought-after actresses in the industry. While the film is primarily centred around McAvoy’s character, Taylor-Joy manages to compel the viewer’s attention - her ability to switch demeanour depending on which personality she is talking to as impressive as McAvoy’s ability to embody them. Since then, Taylor-Joy has been as busy as any relatively new actor could ever hope for. So far in 2021 alone, the actress is linked to three projects, including Last Night in Soho, directed by Edgar Wright, starring alongside Thomasin McKenzie, Matt Smith and Terence Stamp. 

Around the release of Emma, which saw Taylor-Joy in a singular leading lady role for the first time, there was understandably more coverage of the actress as it was not a big ensemble cast. While completing press for the film, she spoke of her anxieties in taking on the role; ‘I am the first ugly Emma and I can’t do this.’ One of the things that makes Taylor-Joy so endearing is how inherently likeable she is, unlike many successful young people in the industry, who defend their place not with talent but with connections or circumstance. Taylor-Joy is quite the opposite. She has proven herself to experience levels of imposter syndrome that we are all familiar with.

If one were to only look at the actress's two most popular recent projects, it gives an excellent indication of the courage and foresight she expels in booking roles. Emma was a considerable challenge in the name alone; it has been done before and done well. Gwyneth Paltrow played the role the same year Taylor-Joy was born, many undoubtedly arguing that, like many remakes of classics, there was no need to try and get yet more mileage from the classic Austen text. Despite concerns, it is now Taylor-Joy’s smirk that comes to mind when the infamous character is mentioned, her somewhat wildcard casting cementing her as a serious name in Hollywood. 

The same success was applied to The Queen’s Gambit, only tenfold. Again, from Taylor-Joy’s perspective, the role was a risk. While there are clear advantages to the role (a singular leading role promoted and financed by one of the streaming giants), it was still about chess, in the 1960s, from a female perspective. While the numbers clearly dissolve any doubt over the series' success, there is always some doubt that a niche concept might flop. It is undoubtedly arguable that the main reason that not only did that not happen, and in fact was resoundingly successful, was that Taylor-Joy embodied Beth Harmon so well. Her portrayal of everything from isolation and addiction, to solidarity and triumph, lends itself so eloquently to the game of chess that it is not surprising that chess playing websites saw unprecedented increases in traffic. 

One of the things that makes Taylor-Joy so attractive to a casting director is her ability to be unassuming if need be. She has the unique ability to blend in when she wants to on-screen, making her presence all the more known when she decides to do so. This was seen so expertly throughout The Queen’s Gambit: her ability to sit back and assume a dignified, self-assured stature, only to make sure everyone in the room was aware of her presence when she decided she wanted to be seen. 

While it is clear from her work that Anya Taylor-Joy is an unparalleled talent, she is merely getting started. The actress is cited to be currently filming an untitled David O. Russell film, which is rumoured to be out later this year. She is one of the busiest actors in the industry at the moment, a fact that is unlikely to change any time soon.