2020 was such a weird f-cking year for pop culture, but I feel like we can all agree Anya Taylor-Joy was one of the breakout stars of the year, yes? She began the year with Autumn de Wilde’s sexy, stylish adaptation, Emma., the last movie many people saw in theaters, and ended it with The Queen’s Gambit, one of the biggest shows in Netflix history, and one of the biggest pop culture moments of the year. Before 2020, she was “that girl from that thing”, maybe Peaky Blinders, The Witch, or Split, depending on your taste, but now she is fully “Anya Taylor-Joy”. She is a known entity, a movie star. Her upcoming projects include films from Edgar Wright (Last Night in Soho), David O. Russell (currently filming), and a reunion with The Witch director Robert Eggers for The Northman. She will also star as the younger Imperator Furiosa in a Mad Max: Fury Road prequel focused on the character, an unnecessary piece of casting, but you can hardly argue with putting Charlize Theron and Anya Taylor-Joy into the same company. ATJ is one of the biggest stars to emerge in recent years, it feels like she could easily go full-Jennifer Lawrence and dominate the under-30 A-list.
So here she is on the cover of the April issue of Vanity Fair, talking about her breakout year, which happened while everyone was stuck at home during the lockdown. She sounds very grounded about her success for someone so young—she’s 24 —and she doesn’t belabor the point when talking about acting. That’s tough to do, a lot of actors either get way too esoteric trying to crack the interiority of the craft, or they just don’t try at all for fear of sounding stupid. Also, it is clear that every director she works with adores her. Autumn de Wilde says, “She’s my muse. […] She’s the muse of quite a few directors.” David O. Russell describes her as “different and strange in ways that are fascinating,” and you can almost believe he might not be screaming at her on set. And Robert Eggers, who cast ATJ in her first big role, says, “You can be a great actor and not be a star, but Anya has both.” She certainly does have both, which is why she reminds me so much of Jennifer Lawrence circa 2010. She has the on-screen magnetism and the chops, and she has rapidly become a magnet for the cool kids at the directors’ table.
She also has the earnestness common in the younger celebrity set, which can be difficult for cynics to parse, but self-awareness and a robust EQ are the new cynicism and sarcasm. Honestly, I don’t miss the celebrity profiles that were all about how tortuously cool movie stars are—most of those ended up with follow-up, middle-aged profiles about how they blew their fortunes and their good will anyway. It’s not about making celebrities seem accessible, either, because ATJ doesn’t seem all that accessible. She’s way too accomplished at too young an age for that. It’s more that the prevailing sensibility among the rising generation of celebrities is about authenticity and even silliness in lieu of self-serious angst. Like can you imagine anyone who got famous before 2010 doing something like Tom Holland’s lip-synch performance of “Umbrella”? ATJ feels part and parcel of the New Celebrity: earnest, charming in an almost painfully sincere way, and not afraid to talk about her craft for fear of sounding silly. The 2020s will be interesting with this new generation of celebrity coming to the fore, that’s for sure.