Anya Taylor-Joy has only starred in four feature films, all of which opened within the past year, and already she’s become one of the most exciting young actors in the industry. She brought a haunting innocence to Robert Eggers’ stunning debut The Witch, she wreaked havoc in last fall’s Morgan, played Barack Obama’s college girlfriend in Barry, and now she stars opposite James McAvoy (or more like nine James McAvoys) in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest mind-bending thriller.

Split finds three teenage girls, including Taylor-Joy’s Casey, kidnapped and held captive in an underground facility by what seems to be a stern-faced, well-dressed man named Dennis (McAvoy). But we soon find out Dennis is just one of 23 alternate identities living inside of Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In addition to Dennis, there’s also Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy who likes Kanye West; Barry, a flamboyant Bronx fashion designer; and Miss Patricia, a strict woman who appears to be in control; plus Orwell, Jade, and Crumb. As the girls attempt to escape from Kevin/Dennis/Hedwig/whoever’s hidden dungeon, a whole slew of traditional Shyamalan-style secrets and twists unravel.

Despite often portraying characters in dark and menacing material, Taylor-Joy is a bubbling presence bursting with energy. She greeted me with a hug at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City earlier this month, and promptly plopped down on the hotel room floor as we talked about Split. The 20-year-old actress told me about playing a calm and reserved Casey opposite McAvoy’s wild variety of characters, the film’s message about empathy, and her improvised moment in the tense finale.

Mild spoilers follow for Split.

What was your first impression when reading a new M. Night Shyamalan script?

Because it’s Night and he’s super secretive, he hadn’t seen any of my movies. Nothing had come out yet. I had just come off Morgan, and I just got one side. I knew nothing about the script, I knew nothing. It wasn’t even specified which character I was reading for, but the second I read Casey I was like, “She’s mine, we belong to each other.” He then offered me the role and I was like, “Dude, I have to read the script.” I can’t just say yes to a movie. I have to be really passionate about it. And then I read the script and was just instantly in. I loved Casey’s connection with all of the characters. She’s also so still and so quiet and I was really interested to kind of try and see how much I could convey to the audience without speaking. Hopefully it comes across.

Yeah, it does. That’s what struck me most about her — she’s so silent, but you can tell there’s something beneath that.

Oh! Yeah, in the script it’s all stage directions. You know, randomly she says something, which is kind of powerful, because obviously if someone doesn’t speak that often you really pay attention to what they say. And most of what she says is kind of very astute observations. She’s a super smart chick. But I really loved and cherished being quiet. I’ve actually taken it into my own life. I’m now like, I just want to be quiet, I don’t want to talk.

There’s a power in that. How much did you know when you initially received that one side about the character?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing! Night doesn’t give anything away. The two sides that I had were the conversation that the girls have when they first get in there, where Casey’s like, “There’s a flower on the pillow, there’s a flower in the bathroom.” You know, like we’re important. I remember every single line that I’ve ever said and it is so annoying. [Laughs] They’re all just whirling around in my head. And then the second scene was Hedwig and I in the window.

So I got as much as I could with that. One of the first questions I asked when I met Night was, “Am I talking to a child?” and he was kind of taken aback. He was like “Yeah, but it’s not what you think it is,” and I was like, “Okay that’s cool. As long as it’s a kid, I know how I’m going to play this.” It worked out really nicely, but also meeting Night for the first time, we both saw each other and we’re like, yeah this is good. The vibes that we have going on
— much like Robert [Eggers], he doesn’t really have to say anything to me, I just kind of know what’s going on in his head. That makes working with him a real pleasure. We get sh-t done real fast.

James McAvoy is just incredible in this movie. Did you know in advance what each of his alters would be like or did you experience them for the first time on set?

We were very lucky that we had a week of rehearsals, which was paramount, absolutely paramount. Because obviously James is being so brave in this film. There’s a lot of room for failure and he just knocked it out of the park. But that became a thing of “what’s this character going to be like,” “what’s that character going to be like,” and how am I going to react to all of them? Because that was also something that really attracted me to the script, was the idea of working with one person, but having different reactions to everything.

Acting is really a give-and-take, it’s a dance. He hits me with a certain type of energy, so I give it back to him, and you kind of go to a different place each take That was so much fun to play around with, especially when he got to Patricia. I remember the moment all of us kind of looked at it and we were like, “That’s perfect. That’s so good.” And it’s a testament to his acting that he wouldn’t even have to speak to me and I knew which character I was speaking to.

Really?

His posture, just the way — you know that scene where he’s talking to Betty [Buckley, who plays his therapist] and he finally comes out as Dennis? He’s been sort of sitting as Barry, and all of a sudden you see him go like this, eyebrows furrowed, and mouth, and you’re like, “That’s a different person.” He had that ability with all of them. He’s so cool, and he’s a really nice guy, so that helps.

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What was the process of filming scenes with the different alters? Did you shoot each alter’s scenes one at a time, or did you hop around between them?

We hopped around quite a lot. The Hedwig scenes were always my favorite scenes to film just because I think the connection between Casey and Hedwig is actually really tender. There’s a real empathy there. They’re two people that are trapped — he’s a nine-year-old boy that will never grow up and doesn’t have any friends and is desperate for that and is seeking that in her. And obviously, she’s kidnapped and abused and so she’s not having the best of times either. But whenever we did those scenes that was really fun and we tended to film Hedwig [scenes] together, but Patricia and Dennis’ [scenes would] flop around all the time.

Kevin has 23 alters, but I think we see only eight or nine on screen. Were there any scenes you shot with the other alters that didn’t make it into the final cut?

No. We had it pretty clear that we had Patricia, Dennis and Hedwig and then obviously, you have the video logs. What was really fascinating about that was the scene right before Casey makes it out of the house, when [McAvoy’s] flipping between all of them and Kevin left the light open, that was just so emotionally exhausting for both of us. We’re obviously both at such a high level the whole time and I just remember sitting on that couch with him and being like, “Dude I don’t know how we’re going to make it through another four hours of this!” Especially that shot, originally the camera followed me all around the room. It was one take. We got it done, but we did it, like, seven times. So that meant going through the arc of, “Friends are being eaten, OK. Try and find something to find the door. OK, and now James is going psycho on me, cool. Find the gun.” It was intense, super intense.

Would you need to step away and take a break from it?

Yes and no. That was one of the few scenes that we weren’t hopping in and out of character. Because James and I, we both do that. We’re both joking around with each other and they yell “action” and then he’s holding me by the throat, we’re both terrified and it’s whatever. We find it very easy to jump in and out. That scene was harder and we just basically had to get away from each other because we were so, I mean I was covered in his sweat, he was covered in mine. We were all just so intense, at one point I was like, “Dude, I can’t even, no. I can’t even look at you right now. I need to take a second.” It was cool. It was hardcore.

For most of the movie you’re trapped in an underground basement. What was it like to film in such claustrophobic spaces?

I think because I had just come off Morgan [which] was so much worse because I’m very much a — even though the space was way bigger and I was in there by myself, I’m a very tactile person and I need people. I need specifically love, affection, people to touch me all the time. Because otherwise I don’t really, I don’t cope very well. On Morgan, everything is shot from the other side of the glass, so I was alone in a soundproof room watching everybody, but being completely separate from whatever was going on. That was very isolating and very lonely. I think it certainly helped me and Morgan, but it wasn’t the most psychologically healthy time for me. Whilst this was a much smaller room, it was super dusty in there, but you had all the crew, Night, Mikey [Gioulakis], James were there, the girls were there. You’re kinda just hanging out with all of your friends in a very small space. So it was sort of OK. It was like cramped camping.

Casey responds to the kidnapping much differently than the other girls, and we find out why at the end. Without giving too much away, can you talk about how you understood her through the context of her past and how that allowed her to relate to Kevin in a more emotional and intellectual way?

There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between Kevin and Casey. Casey is somebody that, unfortunately, because of what occurred to her when she was younger — which is something that no one should ever have to go through — she’s really shut down completely, and so there’s a part of her that’s already isolated. There’s a part of her that’s already trapped. So you shove her into another contained box, it’s just a bigger box. She’s already in a cage by herself and she’s already in a cage in the home that she lives in. The other girls, I think the lack of stimuli and the lack of real world, they can’t handle it. They go ape sh-t, essentially. They’re just trying to do that while she’s just more comfortable in the space.

And then I think their inability to grasp the fact of what’s happening in front of them. They’re convinced that this is just a crazy person that’s trying to scare them whilst Casey instantly is like, “Nah ah. This is way too crazy.” I think her knowledge of the natural world kind of allows her to believe that something like this is possible. You don’t know anything about the human brain, so how are you going to say, okay well these people don’t exist in that body.

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Every action that she takes is so layered. It’s actually pretty representative of the amount of layers [of clothing] that she has on. She reaches for the bucket, and with that she’s reaching for, she’s trying to appease him. She’s also showing her defiance and saying, you’re not going to scare me. It’s all so multifaceted that it was fascinating to just explore that. It was so much fun.

How controlled she was sometimes got frustrating because I wanted her — there are certain elements where I was like, “I can’t believe she’s still keeping her cool.” And then finally at the end when she just f—ing loses it, that wasn’t scripted. I got to the end of that tunnel and I just started screaming bloody murder. I was like, “I think she’s had enough. She’s done. She can’t.” You can’t be attempting to escape, being rejected. Attempting to escape, being rejected. At some point, you just f—ing snap. Like this girl has just done everything, and everything she’s tried hasn’t worked out. So it felt good to scream as her; by that point, I was ready. Night was like, “Ah, OK cool. That screaming, crazy, crying lady. I’m not going near that.”

That’s pretty amazing that even in an M. Night film there was room for you to bring your own reaction into the character’s story.

Yeah, absolutely. But I think Night trusted us. He had a group of people he knew were willing to work as hard as they possibly could for him and he demands excellence and I thrive in that sort of environment. I didn’t want to let him down. I loved him instantly and we formed a very, very close relationship. But I could not let him down and if something was even the slightest bit off, I’d be like, “No. We’re not done, that wasn’t perfect. You have to give me one more chance.” And he would.

I feel like you don’t hear that too often of actor-director relationships.

Yeah, my agent was saying that to me the other day. She was like, “You have really strange relationships with your directors because they are all your best friends.” I was like, “Well, duh!” You’re spending that much time with them and you’re trusting them with everything. And especially the most precious thing I have to give are my characters, they’re so real for me. I love them so intensely and I’m so protective of them and I’m putting them in their hands and they’re putting them in my hands. It’s our mutual baby, so you become super close to them.

The movie has the message that survivors of trauma are more pure and more evolved, and depicts them as both superheroes and supervillains. How did you understand that message — the idea that survival can enable good as well as evil?

Through pain?

Yeah.

I think something that was very important to me, and I didn’t even think about it when we were making the film — it didn’t occur to me. I hope that it’s clear that we’re not making a point about DID patients being bad people because anyone who sees the movie knows that it’s a jumping off point and it’s something that inspired Night to tell this story. But we take it into movie zone pretty damn fast. It’s very fantastical, so we’re not trying to make a real-life commentary.

However, I will say that I do think that there is great knowledge and intelligence in the saying that, if you’ve been through suffering you’re more empathetic. You’re kinder because — did you ever read Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur? It’s a beautiful book of poetry, absolutely stunning. I think every woman should read it. It’s astonishing. In it, she says something along the lines of, “How is it that you speak so kindly? How is it that you are so kind?” She responds, “because others have not been kind to me.” That’s a really nice way of thinking about this. I think it builds empathy and that’s something that allows Casey to empathize with Kevin. He’s not just a straight-up bad guy. You feel for the characters. Even Dennis, who’s the least likable out of all of them. He’s saying, “I’m trying to be good.” And I think he means it.

You’ve done a handful of genre films over the past year from The Witch to Morgan and now this. Is there a similar thread that’s drawn you to those scripts and to horror and sci-fi, and is that something you think you’ll continue with your future work?

I’ve always been so instinctual that I’ve never really thought about it that way. It just so happens. To me it always comes down to character and script and then director. If a character belongs to me, it’s mine. We belong to each other and I feel a fierce need to tell that story, and it just so happens that a lot of these characters have been residing in pretty dark worlds.

That being said, I really enjoy working in horror movies or genre films because I get the chance to exercise a lot of my own feelings. It feels really nice to feel for somebody else and to be in a controlled environment where you can scream, cry and break sh-t and people are like, “you’re a psycho!” That’s fun. But no, I don’t know about the future. I just hope to keep making movies that I’m really proud of and portraying characters that I love with all my heart, telling stories that I think are vital, and working with directors that I’d follow to the ends of the earth. That’s kinda the dream.

I can’t wait to see what you do next. I’m looking forward to Thoroughbred at Sundance.

Dude. Thoroughbred’s f—ing crazy. [Laughs] You have to check that out. Corey Finley is going to be a name that you will be hearing for a very long time. It’s nuts.


 

Split is now playing.