Actress predicted successful future years ago

 

You could say Emma Woodhouse was the world's first influencer - a very bad one.

That's the feeling you get when you watch Anya Taylor-Joy play Jane Austen's meddling miss, in the new hipster movie version of the classic novel.

Directed by photographer Autumn de Wilde, the visually stunning adaptation is like a giant Instagram shoot, all sumptuous floral decorations and arty cake stacks, with a filter so pretty you even notice the paint shade of the church pews.

Taylor-Joy says she thinks Emma would be an influencer if she was around today.

"She would be queen of the socials and by the end would come off all of them," she says. "She would learn that things are not about appearance but actually about taking care of one another and that moral, good people are more important in her life than people just for show."

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence," wrote Austen and the same could be said of Taylor-Joy. At 23, she has had a career start aspiring actors could only dream about, bursting on to the scene in 2015's cult-hit The Witch, followed by roles in M. Night Shyamalan's Split and Glass, The Dark Crystal and Peaky Blinders.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma Woodhouse in Emma. Picture: Liam Daniel/Focus Features
Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma Woodhouse in Emma. Picture: Liam Daniel/Focus Features

Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph in a hotel in central London, she says it was her destiny.

"My Mum has this crazy video of me when I was about eight asking what I want to be when I grow up," she says, to which she answers an actor, adding, "I'm going to be in the right place at the right time and it's going to happen for me."

Which would sound arrogant, except it is exactly what happened. At 16 she was scouted as a model by Kate Moss's agent while walking past Harrods, then while on a photo shoot, Downton Abbey's Allen Leech overheard her reading a poem and introduced her to his agent. Simple as that.

Now she has taken on one of the most beloved characters in literature, starring alongside musician Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley, Callum Turner as Frank Churchill and Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse. She is treading in the footsteps of Gwyneth Paltrow, but then it has been an incredible 24 years since Paltrow's acclaimed version was released, before Taylor-Joy, who was raised in Argentina and the UK, was born. She hadn't watched Paltrow's film and "wasn't going to after I got the role, because it would have freaked me out too much."

She had however, read the book - many times. Taylor-Joy says she first read Emma when she was 11, "I am a bit of a literary nerd," and adored it because Emma is one of the least likeable of Austen's heroines.

Joy predicted at a young age things would fall into place for her older self.
Joy predicted at a young age things would fall into place for her older self.

"Austen said she created a character she didn't think anybody was going to like apart from herself," she says.

"There has historically been a pressure that heroines have to be easy to like and I was really excited to create a character, who, when she was cruel, was really cruel but you learn she has a good heart."

The role is set to catapult her into the mainstream, which makes it all the more surprising she almost quit during rehearsals.

"I had made 22 or 23 films in five years and I suddenly had a crisis of identity," she says. "One of my closest friends said, 'What are you talking about? You love acting. This is how you are going to find peace.' She was right. I learned so much about myself playing Emma. It felt like a coming of age story of Emma on-screen, as well as my own."

The beautiful, articulate and earnest Taylor-Joy may appear to have a charmed existence but she emphasises her real life happens off social media.

"It's an easy way of connecting with fans," she says.

"But whenever I am having a really good time just by myself, I am not on the socials."

Despite being a fan, she isn't keen to take on more Austen - not even Elizabeth Bennet.

"It's going to be hard to top Emma," she says, adding she would consider Cathy from Wuthering Heights.

Johnny Flynn stars as George Knightley in the movie. Picture: Liam Daniel
Johnny Flynn stars as George Knightley in the movie. Picture: Liam Daniel

Perhaps Johnny Flynn could be her Heathcliff - the English folk singer, who is also playing David Bowie in the upcoming Stardust, is a revelation in the movie, including a shot of his naked bottom.

In a "take that Mr Darcy," sequence, the camera follows Mr Knightley laboriously dressing in the costume of the Regency period, rolling on stockings and all.

"It was something Autumn wanted," says Taylor-Joy. "Because it has never been seen before on screen it is very informative - I don't think people know much about how men dressed in the Regency period. But also, we have so much of the male gaze in film, she wanted to employ the female gaze to contrast.

"Johnny was a good sport - luckily he is a wonderful man and was up for it."

It was, according to Taylor-Joy, destined the pair worked together.

"I have feelings about people and I remember listening to his music when I was 14 and thinking, 'I'm going to know that person at some point.'

"He was the only Knightley we met because from the second he walked in it was pretty clear the dynamic we had was going to work. We formed a deep friendship incredibly quickly and it was such a pleasure working with him every day," she says.

A secene from Emma.
A secene from Emma.

As well as predicting the future, Taylor-Joy also has a photographic memory and says she can learn her lines by emotionally connecting with her character. There is one scene where Emma gets a nose bleed - which Taylor-Joy summoned up for real.

It also means she gets to relax while everyone else rehearses, which you would imagine would be annoying for her co-stars, if she wasn't just so nice.

"Unfortunately, it promotes me as being lazy, because at the end of the day I am so tired after shooting for 14 hours, I don't want to be learning lines, so I get to go home and rest and learn it the next morning in the make-up trailer," she says.

She is equally laid-back about her career. After Emma, she is appearing in X-Men movie The New Mutants with Maisie Williams and Charlie Heaton, horror film Last Night In Soho with Matt Smith and Viking saga The Northman with Nicole Kidman and shows no sign of slowing down.

"I believe what is meant for you won't pass you by. It is a philosophy that I live my life by," she says.

Miss Woodhouse would approve.

 

* Emma is in cinemas Thursday