It sounds heavy: Shooting your first movie — the Sundance horror indie “The Witch,” hitting theaters everywhere Friday — in the woods of remote Ontario.
“I really should have been more concerned about going,” says star Anya Taylor-Joy with a laugh. “I had just turned 18, I was going to be alone with no WiFi, no cell service, and I’m going to be making this really, really bizarre movie. But it never entered my mind. I was just like, ‘I’m going!’”
The acclaimed film stars Taylor-Joy, now 20, as Thomasin, a teenager in a Puritan family who take up in a cabin on the edge of a forest. There, they find their worst fears coming true: namely that evil exists in the form of a frightening witch, who first takes the family newborn then comes back for more.
Being her first film, Taylor-Joy also didn’t realize till later this is not how all movies are made. They had a limited budget, which meant dealing with things like camera dollies sinking into the marsh. There was also the fact that, even way up north, the snow wasn’t going to stick around forever.
“The whole film had to be gloomy, so when the sun came out we’d be like, ‘Damnation!’” she recalls, mock shaking her first. “Eventually it got to the point where all of us were in the woods picking buds off of trees, so it could still pass as winter. We willed this film into existence.”
Taylor-Joy was born in Miami, but she’s never lived in the States. Her family immediately relocated to Argentina before moving to London when she was six. “I did not enjoy that decision. Now as an adult I can say, ‘Thank you so much, you gave me so many opportunities,’” she tells us. She even refused to learn English for her first two years there, but she thinks that wound up helping her acting.
“I don’t personally enjoy this quality of myself in real life, but I can’t help but mimic people,” she explains. “If I’m in a room I will pick up on the way people are speaking and I will go there. It’s not a choice. That’s great for movies.” On “The Witch” she could always grasp the broad Yorkshire accent the family has by chatting with Lucas Dawson, who plays her younger brother.
In person Taylor-Joy is very friendly and chatty (she describes herself as “a very extroverted introvert”), qualities she had to tame while playing Thomasin, who’s very quiet and not sure what to make about pubescence — which, given their old time religion, winds up making her family think she’s in league with the entity.
“Everything about being a Puritan — to me, anyway — seems to be going against what it means to be human. You’re trying to tamp down your most base human instincts,” Taylor-Joy says. “Thomasin is so withdrawn and conflicted, because people didn’t talk about puberty in those days. While the family is very afraid of her, she doesn’t know what the hell’s going on either. No one’s saying, ‘Honey, you’re experiencing hormones, this will pass in awhile.’”
Inevitably, “The Witch” can be read as a fright fest that’s also about humanity’s fear of women, then and even now. She agrees it’s insane that we’ve only spoken in earnest about pay inequality in the last year.
“That’s an ancestral fear that has been in society for such a long time. It’s been inherited from generation to generation to generation. That deeply rooted fear comes from the deepest, darkest part of you,” she explains. “It’s something a lot of people have forgotten. I’m glad Rob is bringing this up again, because it’s primal.”
Though she says there’s still more progress to be made with gender rights, she’s been shocked that many of the scripts she’s been sent since “The Witch”’s debut at last year’s Sundance have featured strong female characters — which is to say with flaws and grit. “Those should not be anomalies,” she says. “The fact that I’m reading them means they’re out there. Ergo, why isn’t every girl getting this opportunity?”
Taylor-Joy has already shot a big-budget film, “Morgan,” by Ridley Scott’s son Luke, and is still working on M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split,” opposite James McAvoy. She’ll always hold a torch for “The Witch,” though.
“I read the script very late at night, alone in my bed. When I was done my body collapsed in on itself. I was a nervous, frightened, anxious mess. I couldn’t articulate where it was coming from,” Taylor-Joy recalls. “That feeling I got from ‘The Witch’ is the feeling I’m going to be chasing my entire life. It’s about a compulsion to tell a story.”
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