M. Night Shyamalan is a director whose films are widely praised for their high concept ingeniousness, beautiful camerawork, and soul recalibrating twists. But they're rarely commended as acting showcases, even though a handful of performances in his films serve as near-career highlights for the actors performing them (Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," Mel Gibson in "Signs," Bryce Dallas Howard in "The Village").
Shyamalan's latest mind-bender is "Split," and features a handful of peerless performances. "Split" is the story of a man (played by James McAvoy) who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, meaning that he has 23 personalities living in the same body. His shrink (Betty Buckley) tries to get through to him and, all the while, he has three teenage girls locked up in a subterranean lair. One of these girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), is a bit of a black sheep and her own mysterious past is teased throughout the movie.
If you don't know Taylor-Joy yet, you will. As Casey, she brings a quiet strength and wily intelligence to the role. It's the kind of star-making performance that feels like it only comes around every so often. And what makes it even more incredible is that it's following Taylor-Joy's breakout role in Robert Eggers's "The Witch" from last year.
I got to sit down with Taylor-Joy in New York City to talk about "Split," what it was like working for Shyamalan, whether or not she knew that "The Witch" would be such a sensation, and, given the movie's unexpected ending, if she'd be back for further adventures.
Moviefone: Most of the movies you've made so far have been genre-based. What's the appeal of these movies for you?
I don't think about it that way. I never thought, "Now I'm a serious actor and I'm only going to do genre movies." I just follow my characters. I have a real instinct for This is my character and if I don't do this I am going to die. It just happens that those characters and those stories exist in darkness. But that said, it's been really good fun.
What about this character made you think, I have to do this?
It's either an instinctual thing, or my heart goes like this [makes a motion of her heart beating fast]. With Casey, I just heard her voice. I really did. The first thing I read of anything was sides [specific scenes that are taken from the script], because it's Night and he's secret. So my scene was the window scene. And I just heard her voice. It wasn't even specified who I was reading for. It was just one of the girls. Instantly, Casey's voice came so strongly for me I never even considered Marcia or Claire. And then, when I read the script ...
Something that is very common for me in all of the characters that I do play is that I love them. It's an intense love and it's kind of scary sometimes because I'm not very good at sticking up for myself but if you mess with my character, you're going down. I go mama bear protective over it. I loved Casey so much. We're similar but we're also very different beings. She's so quiet and, as you can tell, I never shut up. She's so quiet and so observant and has such a strong core strength. Her inner world that she's built to protect herself is so rich and deep and I really wanted to see if I could challenge myself to communicate with the audience without speaking. Because most of her stuff in the script is stage direction, it's not dialogue.
How much did Night let you know about the character?
When I met Night to do the audition I got nothing. Absolutely nothing. But from the second I met him I thought, I have to work with you. I have a very strong feeling with directors, too, and I love directors. It's an aspect of my job that I absolutely love -- getting to work with these incredible people and create something bigger than yourself. So he offered me the role, and I said, "Well I have to read the script." And he said, "But I've offered you the role." I had to tell him that it doesn't work like that. I've been so proud of my work thus far, even if other people didn't like it, but it was my choice and I'm very proud of that. So, after I read the script, I knew I was in.
Of all of James McAvoy's personalities, which were the most fun to play against?
Ooh ... I'd have to say it's a combination of Patricia and Hedwig. If you had to say, "Which relationship did I enjoy the most?" It would be Hedwig. The scenes with him in his room were just so intense. With James dancing at you and you have to tell yourself, "You're scared, you're scared, this isn't funny." But with Patricia, I had such a visceral reaction to her as a person. She's so desperate to be a part of the girls that she fetishizes them in a way. Anytime she would brush my hair, it would make me extremely uncomfortable. After the take was over I'd say, "It's James, it's fine." But him with the brushing was like, Ahhh, this isn't fun ...Was he actually dancing to a Kanye West song?
Yes, he was. We did it twice. One was with a Kanye West song and one was with the song that's in the movie. But I can't remember which Kanye West song it was.
Did McAvoy talk you through what he was going to do, or was it a complete surprise?
We were lucky enough to have a week of rehearsals prior to filming. So I met James, we shook hands, and he proceeded to spoon me on Night's couch. And I was like, "OK. And this is just my life now. Cool!" But he's so fearless in this film. I feel like a lot of actors couldn't have done it, because there's a big possibility for failure. And he just knocked it out of the park. I have to really commend his ability to move his face. I could tell which character I was talking to just with the flicker of an eyebrow.
Oh, yeah. He would straighten his posture, the eyebrow would go up, and I would say, "Patricia." Instantly. He wouldn't have to say anything. But I was also seeing it through Casey's point-of-view. So, at the end, when he's flickering through all of the personalities, Casey is done. And I was done, too. I was like, "I don't understand anything. Bye!"
We were told not to explicitly discuss the ending. But is there a possibility for you to be a part of future adventures?
I would love to. I would love to!
So you'd do another movie with Night?
Oh, absolutely. After Robert, he's the director who has had the biggest influence on me. He's changed the way I act, forever. He's given me such a love for the craft. I always knew I loved acting, but now I'm in love with what I do. He demands excellence, and it's a privilege to work with someone who pushes you in that way. He's a friend and a mentor but working with him is different. When you have someone you vibe with like that, it elevates working to a whole other level.
Congratulations on your BAFTA nomination. That was this morning, right?
When you were making "The Witch," did you have any idea it was going to have this impact?
Oh, hell no! I will remember this moment for the rest of my life. And I would like to preface this by saying everyone that made that movie is my legitimate family. It was the first time I ever felt like I fit in. But I remember seeing Robert, in my puritan gear, covered in blood, and I said, "You know, we made a really cool movie but it's a shame nobody will ever see it." And he said, "I know, I know." We were completely calm about it. Then the reaction that we got at Sundance was so unprecedented. I guess we hit the zeitgeist at the right time.It's so weird seeing you in modern clothes.
And talking with a normal accent.
Yes! Was it hard for you to learn that dialect?
Not at all. It's super annoying for me and people get irritated with me because they can't figure out my accent. And the reason they can't figure out my accent is because I don't have one. I spoke Spanish until I was 8. And so when I speak English I just mimic whoever I am around. I grew up my whole life having a thick English accent and I'm here for two minutes and I'm already using the accent. So not only was the language super poetic but we had a little boy, Lucas, who was from Yorkshire. I would just talk to him for two minutes before going up and I'd be fine.
OK ... one last question: Would thou like to live deliciously?
I am! [Laughs]
"Split" is out this Friday. We'll have more from writer/director M. Nigh Shyamalan next week, including a discussion of the movie's seriously insane twist.