How Anya Taylor-Joy ditched rising star status to own iconic role in Mad Max prequel

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga official trailer

Source: Warner Bros.

Nine years ago, when Anya Taylor-Joy scored her first movie role in horror film The Witch, it was just a matter of time before she got a nod as a breakout star.

Taylor-Joy, 28, played the lead role of the wide-eyed, blonde daughter of a banished Puritan family in the 1600s who live on a haunted farm next to a remote forest.

“Nobody else understands the jump that our lives took after The Witch … we [including director Robert Eggers] had never made a movie before,” Taylor-Joy has said.

“We didn’t know if anyone was ever going to see it, and, literally overnight, the film exploded.”

The New Yorker wrote that Taylor-Joy was “remarkable in the role, her wide-eyed innocence entwined with a thread of cunning”.

The bilingual actor, who was a ballet dancer until her teenage years and didn’t speak English until she was eight, went on to make five films in quick succession after The Witch including M.Night Shyamalan’s thriller Split in 2016 alongside James McAvoy.

She made it onto Time’s list of emerging leaders and was nominated as one of BAFTA’s Rising Stars in early 2017 – the gong went to Tom Holland with his Spider-Man reimagining – but it secured her a place in the minds of Hollywood casting agents, producers and directors.

Including Australian Mad Max director George Miller.

Taylor-Joy scooped the awards pool in 2020 after playing chess prodigy Beth Harmon in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, reunited with Egger in The Northman, was mesmerising singing Petula Clark’s Downtown in 2021’s Last Night in Soho and eating hamburgers in dark comedy The Menu.

But then Miller, who admits the idea of a prequel had been with him for more than a decade, was convinced to cast her in the lead role of his post-apocalytpic Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.

“I was struck by her,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald this week during the film’s Australian premiere.

“It’s an intuitive response, first of all – but also she was so timeless.

“There was something intense and fierce about her. It seemed to overlap with the character that we had before [in Fury Road], and she had big shoes to fill.

“I started to talk to [Soho director] Edgar [Wright] about her and without hesitation, he said, ‘Do it, do it!’ He said she’s the full article, she’s got everything, she can do anything, and it proved to be the case.”

Anya Taylor-Joy still doesn’t have a driver’s licence despite starring in the fastest car movie of the year. Photo: Warner Bros.

In a cover story with Variety, where she talks about Furiosa, her cameo in Namibia for Dune: Part Two leading to speculation director Denis Villeneuve has cast her in a third chapter, Taylor-Joy shares her story of how she came to own the Mad Max role while in Australia for six months.

Constantly coated in thick make-up and dirt, living on location in outback New South Wales and inner Sydney through 2022, the A-lister shares insights on working with Miller, learning how to shoot guns, drive tricked-up vehicles, be bald and spend long hours on her own in make-up chairs.

“The first time I looked at myself in the mirror”– she fake gasps – “I was like, ‘Whoa!’ I looked like a creature from the Black Lagoon.

“There were some days when I definitely needed to de-stress … I developed a really strange addiction to stories about people who are fighting evil.”

Often waking in the middle of the night to be on set, she admits she found “comfort” in Stranger Things: Season 4.

“I had to have something on my phone that reminded me of the goodness in the world,” she said.

Taylor-Joy will join her cast mates at the Cannes Film Festival on May 16, the very place where she received the Trophée Chopard for breakout stardom in 2017.

Anya Taylor-Joy, with her co-star Chris Hemsworth, says she was lucky she got along with the crew so well but it was ‘unbelievably isolating’, she tells the SMH. Photo: Warner Bros. 

Born in Miami, Florida to a Scottish father and a Spanish-English mother, she spent her childhood in Argentina before moving with her family and five siblings to the UK.

She didn’t speak English until she was eight years old.

“At the school I went to when I first moved to London they would play the 2003 film, School of Rock, every Friday,” she told Buzzfeed.

“At that time, I didn’t really speak much English, if any, so that and Harry Potter and Jumanji are like how I learned English.”

Reprising the role of a young Furiosa after Charlize Theron’s Fury Road in 2015, Taylor-Joy says “Furiosa doesn’t talk much”.

“She’s a pretty silent character. I hope that’s part of the reason George chose me,” she said.

“Until I was doing Furiosa, I didn’t quite realise that’s been a lot of my career – a lot of my career has played out in my eyes”.

Variety says if Cannes marks the starting line for the film’s road to box office success – Fury Road grossed $US380 million worldwide – Taylor-Joy “will be sealed among the next generation of Hollywood’s A-list stars”.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga premieres nationally on May 23

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