[Interview] Anya Taylor-Joy explains why ‘EMMA’ has shifted the fictional paradigm

‘Emma,’ starring Anya Taylor-Joy as its title character, expands its release this weekend on Friday, Feb. 28. Everywhere on Mar. 6. The film is rated PG, and is 125 minutes long.

Preston Barta // Features Editor

In 1814, renowned author Jane Austen pulled out her pen and paper, likely having no idea that she would be writing such an arguably revolutionary novel with Emma. Her work has inspired other pioneers of fiction, formed book clubs and sparked movies — and movies about her book clubs. Emma has entered the timeless library for many reasons, including its form and technique.

Its titular heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and capacity to meddle in the lives of her neighbors. This focus was undoubtedly a radical experiment in storytelling, but it helped many of us recognize — among other things — how many delusions we share with Emma. However, this isn’t a story that presents privilege and fails to analyze the human condition. Emma is all about growth, and perhaps that’s why we have seen many different adaptations.

The latest adaptation — directed by Autumn de Wilde in her feature filmmaking debut, and starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Bill Nighy — is not just another to add to the stack and move on. There are unique features about each iteration, from the early 1970s to Clueless (yes, that Clueless) and the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

What makes de Wilde’s take such a treat is how all the aspects of filmmaking come together to create a vision that is dipped in classicalism and topped with a modern cherry. It’s a whip-snap and charming series of misunderstandings and funny games of jealousy.

In a recent interview with Taylor-Joy (The WitchSplit and the upcoming Edgar Wright film Last Night in Soho), the young actress shared how everyone involved with the film was very much aware of what kind of adaptation of Emma they were making. It’s a reimagining that uses costumes, set design, performance and style to engage its audience.

“It’s a testament to [de Wilde],” Taylor-Joy said.

She recounted how before filming started, the director had everyone watch Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. “Without that, I don’t think we would have understood the level of physical comedy that she wanted us to bring to it.”

Everyone who was a part of the film came together to “plan how we were going to tell the story, with everything,” Taylor-Joy said. “There’s a hair story to tell, a costume one, and my emotional journey as an actor. It’s fun to watch now that it’s done because you can see how those choices work together.”

Taylor-Joy describes her character as someone who isn’t human at the beginning of the story, with her tightly wound curls, theatrical dresses and dissatisfaction with the people who surround her. However, as the story unfolds, and she meets new people — such as the dashing George Knightley and Mr. Elton — things begin to shift in her character.

“Emma’s hair looks so seamless at the start that it looks like it was stitched into her real hair. There’s even an ornament that hangs from it during one scene. Her costumes are so big and elaborate that she is not part of this world. As the story progresses, Emma’s hair literally relaxes. She starts to go toward clothes that maybe take their inspiration more from nature. They are less aggressive in their structure, bringing all the elements of storytelling together,” Taylor-Joy said.

Anya Taylor-Joy in a scene from Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma.’ Courtesy of Focus Features.

Many period dramas don’t dare to take many risks. As Taylor-Joy puts it, it’s as if the filmmaker treats it like a work of science fiction because it happened so long ago. Looking at it from a 21st-century point of view, it may seem alien to some to absorb a world like this and all its private moments.

“These are still people. They have bodily functions and panic attacks. They may not have the words to articulate what they are dealing with, but they have them,” Taylor-Joy said. “It was imperative for us to rehumanize the characters and remind viewers that these are human beings who were messy and aren’t just frolicking around in the fields, always looking perfect. We portray private moments to give the film more truth.”

When asked about what Emma has taught Taylor-Joy about herself, she quickly answered that the character made her more empathetic about her younger self.

“Emma is 21. I’m 23, but I feel like I lived a lot in those 23 years. There were some elements when I was 18 that I would look at with a lot of — maybe shame is too big of a word, but I think you understand what I’m trying to say. In playing Emma, there’s an understanding of how you have to learn [from] mistakes to be a better person. That brought me more empathy for myself and other people as well,” Taylor-Joy said.

In the story, Emma has a big heart. She may not always act from the best of intentions, but she learns a lot along the way (as does the audience). This is best illustrated in one of the film’s pivotal scenes when Emma meets with some friends, and she speaks her mind about one of the people in her company, Miss Bates (an excellent Miranda Hart of Spy fame).

L-R: Anya-Taylor Joy and Johnny Flynn’s chemistry generates sparks in ‘Emma.’ Courtesy of Focus Features.

“Emma is a completely different person by the end of the film. What she is, is grown. She’s humbled. She’s more understanding of the human condition than she has even been before because she’s never had the experience to be able to learn it,” Taylor-Joy said. “What was fascinating about Miss Bates’ scene — and what continues to fascinate me — at the screenings that I have sat in, there’s a collective gasp from the audience when Emma says what she says. It always amazes me how everybody takes a breath. What I’ve realized is the reason that happens is that Emma has committed a folly, but it also checks the audience. We’re all people, and we all tend to fall into the mob mentality.”

At the beginning of the film, you may realize that you’re laughing along with and at Emma as she talks about Miss Bates, a middle-aged spinster who may drive you up the wall, but who also has universal goodwill and a gentle temperament. Emma’s impatient treatment of Miss Bates during that sequence reveals the less appealing parts of herself and ourselves.

“During that exchange, when Emma is very much cruel, you realize that you’ve been laughing at Miss Bates, too. It checks the character, and it checks the audience. It certainly checked me as an actor,” Taylor-Joy said.

There are many other aspects of the film that stand out, such as the charming dance sequences (which Taylor-Joy said they treated as if they were shooting a spy thriller because the scenes play with the audiences’ expectations and perspectives of the characters). But what is perhaps most notable outside Emma’s arc is the tangible chemistry between Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn as George Knightley.

Emma is a patient firecracker. It’s a story that likes to play with your views on the characters. You may want one character to lock lips another certain character, but then, all of a sudden, you fall in love with another pairing. This is where the theme of misunderstandings comes into the picture. How the misconceptions play out between Emma and George is what gives de Wilde’s film its ultimate beauty. Taylor-Joy and all her company cast a love spell through their work.

Emma expands in theaters on Friday, Feb. 28, and opens nationwide on Mar. 6.

After-dark interview questions:

What is the movie that taught you about love?

Anya Taylor-Joy: “I think the first movie that I can remember was My Girl, and how absolutely shattered I was after that film. The first place I was ever allowed to go to by myself was the Blockbuster down my street. I took it very seriously. I would go and pick a movie. I remember when I picked up that film, I thought it was just going to be a cute story about a couple of kids. When Thomas J. died in that movie, it genuinely taught me about love and grief for the first time in my life. I think I’ve been drawn to those stories ever since, that idea of first love and first loss. It’s so universal, and yet it never really goes away. I think everyone can remember the first time they loved and lost somebody.”

You were in Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and you’re about to shoot his next film, The Northman. What did watching his second feature, The Lighthouse, inform more about him as a filmmaker to you?

Taylor-Joy: “Robert, I and everyone who made The Witch, we’ve never grown apart. That movie was such an important bonding experience. We all became a part of each other’s day to day lives. So, I’ve been hanging out with Robert, my friend, the whole time since making The Witch. When I got to see The Lighthouse – and I got to see it with [Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie], who also made The Witch with me – it just confirmed what we already knew, which is this is a truly unique auteur. That’s what he is. He will make incredibly poignant, important rural work. Obviously, having a friendship is wonderful, but at the end of the day, we’re both artists. To be able to be on set again and make art, that’s special. I think we work very, very well together.”

In addition to Emma, Anya Taylor-Joy has four other projects releasing this year, including The New Mutants, Last Night in Soho, Here Are the Young Men and the television mini-series The Queen’s Gambit.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.