Anya Taylor-Joy made quite the impression in her breakout role as the vulnerable Thomasin in “The Witch.” Since then, she’s been no stranger to projects that delve into horrors and the evil that men do, such as when she played a kidnapped girl in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split.” This career trajectory has caused some to dub her the next scream queen, but that label feels far too simplistic.
For one, Taylor-Joy only rarely plays the damsel in distress. In fact, she’s often the one to watch out for in films such as “Morgan,” “Thoroughbreds,” and in the upcoming “New Mutants” adaptation in which she portrays a mutant with sorcerous powers. Nevertheless, there’s still a desire to define her as a type of “it girl,” perhaps because her wide-set eyes and porcelain skin give her an otherworldly air that fits with these sinister storylines.
“In Hollywood people always want you to have a thing,” Taylor-Joy said in an interview with IndieWire. “People give you a thing, whether you want it or not. I followed the roles that I love and the story that I love. I never make the decision of, ‘I’m pretty good at horror, so I’m going to keep doing this right now.’ It’s more just like my characters just happen to inhabit very dark worlds.”
Instead of being drawn to a genre or tone, Taylor-Joy lets the role pick her.
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“It’s a weird sort of magic feeling when I read a script and I hear the character’s voice,” she said. “If I hear her voice instantly and I already start sitting like the person, I’m just like, ‘Okay, this person belongs to me, and I belong to them.’”
The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowi
This was the case when Taylor-Joy read for the part of Petronella “Nella” Brandt in “The Miniaturist,” PBS’ three-part miniseries based on the novel by Jessie Burton. Nella is a 17th century young Dutch bride who joins her husband Johannes’ (Alex Hassle) household in Amsterdam but doesn’t exactly find it welcoming. He’s been avoiding spending time with Nella, his sister Marin (Romola Garai) is sabotaging her, and the servants Cornelia and Otto (Hayley Squires, Paapa Essiedu) appear to be curtailing her movements around town.
“I think she’s very naïve at the beginning. She’s been told that she must be docile by society. She’s been told what’s expected of her for her entire life, so I don’t think she’s had any thoughts outside of that,” said Taylor-Joy.
Johannes purchases an extravagant dollhouse as a bridal gift for Nella, for which she engages the services of miniaturist to create items to furnish the dollhouse. Despite this gesture on her husband’s part, Nella continues to feel neglected. It’s only when she discovers the secret that everyone in the house has been keeping from her does she understand that her life will be very different from what she had expected.
“Because she finds herself in an unfamiliar situation, she actually becomes incredibly resilient,” said the actress. “It was really fun finding that. There’s a wonderful line in the second episode where Cornelia asks her, ‘Are you bargaining?’ She says, ‘Yes, I think I am.’ It’s her finding her own voice and her own strength in that situation.”
Another way that playing Nella effectively upsets the “scream queen” moniker is that her character — with the exception of one moment of extreme shock and surprise — keeps her emotions and reactions tightly reined in.
The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowicz
“I got quite frustrated with Nella sometimes, because she’s very quietly strong. She’s very quietly reserved and steadfast, and I’m kind of all over the place,” said Taylor-Joy. “Whenever I was crying as her or feeling her emotions, it was always under a level of, ‘But I’m Nella,’ and that feels tamped down in a sense.
“It was an interesting exercise as an actress. I think it was quite funny actually. We had a couple of emotional scenes in ‘The Miniaturist’ where the director would just be like, ‘You need to tone it down because your level of where you are is not the level where this character should be.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s the first time anyone has ever asked me to tone it down before.’”
The exquisite but constricting wardrobe also helped the actress understand just how constrained women were during that time.
“I’d never worn a corset before. Nella has one that’s conical-shaped. I still have scars on either side of my body from wearing it,” she said. “Eventually you kind of get used to it, but the first time I ever wore it I did think, ‘Oh wow, I can’t do this job. This is 14 hours a day in this.’
“I think as a woman it transports you,” she added. “It’s like an ancestral memory of, ‘Wow, they really didn’t want us doing anything.’ Running in that thing is hard. Breathing in a corset is difficult.”
The Forge/BBC/ Laurence Cendrowicz
Nella’s clothes also held her apart from everyone else. As another display of wealth, Johannes spared no expense for her to get a new wardrobe, and the colors and fabrics chosen are rich and sumptuous – all the better to have her stand out.
Taylor-Joy explained, “There’s been suspicions rising up about Johannes, and now they’re like, ‘Here, a wife. We present to you. If you don’t want to notice her, well tough, she’s wearing bright blue or bright gold.’ I remember the first time walking into the church and seeing everybody else dressed in black. I was like, ‘One of these apples is not like the other. Something is different here.’”
”The Miniaturist” continues to air at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 16 and 23 on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”