Anya Taylor-Joy’s fingers are covered in giant rings. The biggest boasts two snakes intertwined, like an infinity sign, but with the heads of lions. The snake, she says, stands for rebirth, while the lions represent pride.
“They’re my knuckle-dusters,” the actress says, laughing at jewelry that could cause real damage in a scuffle. “I’m a woman. You’ve got to be prepared for this kind of s—.”
The smallest ring, meanwhile, bears a modest witch sign — a shout-out to “The Witch,” the indie horror that a year ago made her the Next Big Thing. Since that film’s rapturous reception at Sundance last year — and hit bow at the box office — the marketplace has already been clogged with Taylor-Joy movies. She headlined the star-studded horror-thriller “Morgan” last fall, and “Barry” — with her as one of President Obama’s college girlfriends — hit Netflix in December.
She’s back to horror once more with “Split,” the latest M. Night Shyamalan. Taylor-Joy, now 20, plays Casey, a high-schooler with a traumatic past who’s one of three girls kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy), a troubled man with 23 personalities. Waking up in a basement prison, they try to escape before their persona-shifting captor does them harm.
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Still, Taylor-Joy doesn’t think the movie is an attack on those with mental disorders. She even finds it empathetic towards Kevin, and his other guises, including Dennis, the most sinister, Patricia, a matronly English woman, and Hedwig, a pre-teen boy.
“Patricia desperately wants to be a woman, but is stuck in the body of a man and can’t do jack s— about it. Hedwig will never grow up — that’s so sad. Even Dennis, he’s trying to be good,” she explains. “None of them will ever have the experience of having their own body. They have to share it.”
Being an M. Night movie, "Split" of course brought the actress to Philadelphia. She fell in love.
“Something I’ve done with every film I’ve done is I’ve become very friendly with the crews,” she says. “They’re usually from wherever it is we’re filming, so I got out with them and I get to experience [places] like a local.” That’s how she discovered a jewelry store called Halloween, which is where Stevie Nicks shops. (“I’m the biggest Stevie fan of all time,” she adds.) And her favorite Philly food, she decided, was at Blackbird Pizzeria, especially the vegan truffle pizza.
“I was vegan when I was working there, and I was vegan up until I started working in Spain, where being vegetarian is hard enough,” Taylor-Joy recalls. “I’d never go back to meat, but everything in Spain is either meat or cheese. At that point I was so hungry, I just said, ‘Feed me!’”
One not-so-pleasant “Split” experience involved shooting in the dark, dank, grimy tunnels in Kevin’s cavernous lair, which was filmed under an abandoned mental asylum. “I had the worst bout of food poisoning you could ever imagine,” she remembers. “I would throw up in a bucket in between takes. They were like, ‘Anya, want to stop?’ I’d say, ‘No, I’m hardcore!’”
Taylor-Joy is basically a nomad now, but she’s always been a world traveler. She was born in Miami, but raised in the U.K. and Argentina. She still spends Christmas in the latter, and this year she was able to screen “Split” for her family and friends.
“Usually, when I watch my movies it’s pretty stressful for me anyway. I’m looking at my face and trying so hard to focus one everybody else’s work. I’m like, ‘Oh god, Anya, why are you on screen again? Stop ruining the movie for me!’” she says. “But to watch this movie with people you’ve known since you were tiny, it’s like you’re traumatizing them. My mom cried the whole time.”
Most of her films so far have been intense, too. “My grandparents are desperate for me to do a romantic-comedy. I told them not to hold their breath,” she says. Not that comedies are out for her, but it would have to be more along the lines of “Juno.” “I’d love to do a comedy like that at some point — really dry.”
At least the film she’s bringing to this year’s Sundance isn’t a horror. “Thoroughbred,” co-starring Olivia Cooke and Anton Yelchin, is a thriller involving deception and murder, not multiple personalities or homicidal goats. And she formed yet another bond with a writer-director, namely Cory Finley, in addition to Shyamalan and “The Witch”’s Robert Eggers.
“My agent the other day said, ‘You have a strange relationship with all of your directors, because you’re friends,’” she recalls. “All the directors of my movies are the people I hang out with. We go and get dinner, we go dancing. You have to have so much trust, and the relationship you build is so intense. It requires so much love from both sides to work.”
Taylor-Joy says she texts all the time with both Eggers and Shyamalan. “They’re both my mentors,” Taylor-Joy tells us. “Robert’s like my best friend of all time. Night calls me up and says, ‘Would I be proud of your choices? What movies are you doing?’ If I have a question about something or if I want to do a project of not, I call Night and we talk about it.”
Not that working with him was a walk in the park. “Night is very specific — and direct,” she says with a knowing laugh. “He demands excellence from you — which I love. You’re inspired by him. The first second I met him, he was like, ‘This is my favorite character I’ve ever written. No pressure.’ I thought, ‘OK, I’m acting opposite Betty Buckley and James McAvoy and you just told me that. I am so chill right now.’ I really wanted to do a good job for him. You want to rise up to his expectations.”
Besides, she’s making a career out of this crazy profession. “I act because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to breathe,” she says. “Acting just makes me so much more stable.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge