Emma star Anya Taylor-Joy on that nosebleed scene and the joys of playing 'messy' women
Anya Taylor-Joy bleeds for her art.
In some cases literally, as when a satirical twist on a romantic proposal in Emma called for a nosebleed. "I was in the moment enough that my nose really started bleeding," the actress tells EW.
The minor malady lends the insouciant Jane Austen heroine the same complexity she has on the page. "People connect with the character because of how layered she is," Taylor-Joy says. "People are afraid of messy women. I wanted to make sure Emma was messy."
That messiness captured the hearts of minds of audiences who fell for this new take on Emma's story as assuredly as Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn). Taylor-Joy, who's in the awards conversation for her work in both Emma and The Queen's Gambit, infused the heroine Austen was convinced only she could love with a plucky confidence that often edges into a lack of self-awareness.
Ahead of this year's Golden Globe nomination announcements, we called up Taylor-Joy to get the tea on why she loved the role of Emma so much, how she felt portraying such a famous character, and just how that nosebleed veered into something all too real.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: While you were preparing, did the immense popularity of Jane Austen weigh on you at all, and how did you find your way toward making Emma your own?
ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: My brain does this very little clever thing where it hides from me the things that will stop me from doing something. It was only after I finished Emma that I was like, "Oh my God, what did I do?!" I'm quite grateful for that. But I just I desperately wanted to present the world with the way that the character was written in the book. I think the book has endured for such a long time, and people connect so much with the character because of how layered and complicated she is. I felt like I would be doing the work a disservice if I presented the world with a character that wasn't 3-D and very messy.
Yes! Culturally, we love to nitpick "unlikable" female characters, and even Jane Austen herself feared that no one would like Emma, so did you want to lean into that label for the sake of making her more honest?
Yes, because I think what's fascinating about Emma is that she's a good person, but she's also a child. She's a child that has had no real understanding of how her actions can affect people because she's been kept in this position of intense privilege where everyone just kind of acquiesces to her. Part of what makes her interesting to watch and to watch grow is the fact that she does make mistakes and that she is cruel, at times, and only when understanding her cruelty does she grow from that.
So often Austen adaptations don't quite nail the sense of humor or the satire that's inherent in her work. This absolutely does. You had a particularly difficult job because you have to bring that to life, but also bring to life a character who, at the start, is not very self-aware. How did you lean into the comedy of all that and bring it to life?
Something about being unaware, especially in the context of being young, in that sense, is inherently funny. But you couldn't be too aware of it. Autumn [de Wilde, the director] was very clear that all of us, whenever we were having freakouts about something as trivial as snow or the wrong lace on a pair of gloves, that this was like [the most important thing to] these characters. That level of heightened emotion and heightened pressure on situations that wouldn't seem incredibly pressurized to people who have real problems inherently makes it funny.
How do you approach playing satire? It's more of a literary technique on the surface.
One of the first things that came through for the character to me is that she's never necessarily had to hide her real face, unless she's in public. It was important to me that you as the audience could see Emma's thoughts flickering through her face whenever there wasn't anybody around. Because that makes the plastered-on, bemused smile that much more alienating. You're like, "Okay, I get it, there's a face for other people; there's a face when it's just you yourself." Thinking about the public persona versus the private persona helped in that respect.
The proposal scene with Mr. Knightley is so unique. How did that whole concept of the nosebleed come to life?
It was in the script from the beginning. Autumn told me about it in our first meeting. I used to have a lot of nosebleeds as a kid, and I just thought, "Oh, that's so perfect." What a beautiful human touch to add to what historically has been the big sweeping violins and the perfect white dress and they rode off happily into the sunset. It's like, "No, let's have some blood in there and let them scream at each other." It's far more realistic. But then, I can't describe. I don't know what happened, but I guess I believed I was in the moment enough that my nose really started bleeding. It was just so magic, and Johnny and I were looking at each other like, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, roll the cameras." Autumn was worried about me. She was like, "Should we stop?" and I was like, "No! Are you kidding? This is amazing."
Did you have a plan to do something with makeup or something and then it happened for real?
Yeah. The plan was to pause filming and add the blood and then continue. I provided the blood, so there was no need.
I would think it would be difficult to navigate the technical requirements of that and still infuse some romanticism into the scene, but it sounds like it was all just happening at once.
It was all just happening at once. But I was so lucky to have such a lovely screen partner. There are moments on set, and I'm very privileged to have experienced a few of them, where things just line up. There's an undeniable magic; I call it the perfect cake. When you have something like that altering your performance, it just makes it that much more visceral and real to you as a performer. The only fear I had afterwards was, "Please tell me I didn't get it on the dress!"
Speaking of the dress, your costumes are exquisite. When did you come into the wardrobe process, and did that help build who Emma was for you?
For Emma, because she loves clothes so much, I was so lucky I was right in there from the very beginning of making the costumes with Alexandra Byrne, our wonderful costume designer. We would just be together for hours. I'm talking eight-hour-long sessions of me just standing as a mannequin while these clothes were built into me. Alex and I decided on, "These are Emma's autumn colors," and, "This is the coat that she wants to wear when she's going to really sting this person." We got to add all of these personalities to it. It gave me such an in into the character because she loves [clothes] so much, and it really dictated how I acted. Emma is constantly aware that she's wearing gorgeous things, and so when she's talking to somebody she's showing them off.
What was your biggest challenge?
I really struggled with Emma at times. There were moments where Mr. Knightley says, "She's done badly indeed." I struggled with that. I couldn't understand why until I suddenly realized, "I have never in my own life been the bully"; I had always been the bullied. Being in the bullying position was something that I had to weed out to my own heart. It took a while to stop apologizing to Miranda [Hart] and to Mia [Goth]. After the scenes, I'd be like, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." They were like, "Brilliant, you did great. It is written in the script. You're supposed to say these things." But I feel so horrible. I give my feelings over very easily to these characters. With Emma in particular, I believed in her so much, and I knew she was a good person, and that made it tricky whenever she was being a brat.