Anya Taylor-Joy needs caffeine. "We started the press tour in Boston the...day before yesterday?" she reckons, relaxing into her seat in a West Hollywood hotel room after politely requesting an iced coffee from her publicist. "We did a whole day of press in Boston and then left at 5:00 a.m. for San Francisco and then flew into L.A. to start the screenings and junkets."
The 21-year-old actress, who broke out in The Witch and M. Night Shyamalan's Split, and co-star Olivia Cooke, 24, of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, are crisscrossing the country to promote Thoroughbreds, their part pitch black comedy, part psychological thriller that marks the directorial debut of playwright Cory Finley. The film centers on estranged friends Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke), two disaffected upper-class teenagers who reunite to plot the murder of Lily's stepfather. Having gotten to "lie in" till normal business hours this morning -- "which was, like, a godsend" -- the girls, in coordinating florescent orange and red dresses, remain remarkably chipper, and only slightly wary about giving in to java. "I think my heart rate is so, like, What time zone am I in?! that I'm just a bit nervous of caffeine," Taylor-Joy says with a laugh.
Both may need a steady IV drip of coffee soon enough. Almost immediately following Thoroughbreds, out March 9, Cooke will begin stumping for her next movie, the Steven Spielberg-directed Ready Player One, which arrives later this month. Taylor-Joy would have been in for the same, had her X-Men horror flick, The New Mutants, not been pushed back to 2019. Neither is bracing herself for what's to come, they both told me when we sat down to talk about crying away a character, remembering their co-star, the late Anton Yelchin (this marks his final film role) and only having one thing on their minds: "When's lunch?"
ET: Someone at some point described Thoroughbreds as American Psycho meets Heathers, and it stuck. Were those references you had going into this?
Olivia Cooke: No. It was more kind of Hitchcockian, the references. I mean, Strangers on a Train. Mulholland Drive was another one.
Anya Taylor-Joy: That was a big influence.
Cooke: I think they just do it 'cause it's, like, Heathers. Like, girls. You know?
Taylor-Joy: But I will say when I first read the script-- You know, I'd always wanted to be an actress and I always knew I wanted to make a darkly delicious, girl-centric movie that was cutting in a way that I think only women can be. And when I first read the script, I was just like, This is the movie! This is exactly that sort of Mean Girls-esque violence through dialogue that I enjoy.
Cooke: It's the delicious, manipulative nature that women have. More, like, Heavenly Creatures-esque with how dark we can go.
Taylor-Joy: Girls are very funny!
In that vein -- and I think this is where some of the Heathers comparisons stem from -- you get to play on the "rich bitch" archetype.
Taylor-Joy: Yeah! [Laughs]
Which may be a nasty, little phrase, but they are characters that are beloved by fans and become so iconic. I can imagine sitting in the theater and being like, Yaaas.
Taylor-Joy: It's so interesting because in this hopeful reckoning of era in women, which is wonderful, a lot of people are like, "They always have to be strong and really good." And I'm like, But we're just people. Everyone's just a person. And there are people that are deliciously nasty, and it's not fun to encounter them in real life, but on a screen, it is fun to invest in them and to see their twistedness. Because I think it speaks to when you see something like that onscreen and you laugh at it, it allows you to sort of exhale a little bit of your own, like, inner bitch. Which feels...nice!
Olivia, I imagine that playing a sociopath is somewhat counterintuitive to what you are generally expected to do as an actor, which is--
Yeah. To channel a character's emotions and, for this, you have to tamper down any of your own. Did you find that easier or harder to do?
Cooke: Well, I think the challenge was having this character who feels no emotions, but still being dynamic with the performance and still playing that manipulative nature that she has, and still play up when Amanda is acting and acting through these emotions. So, it was actually quite lovely to find the different levels of what she can turn up -- her fake emotions -- and when she's just by herself in her bedroom, how she can just be her completely muted self.
Taylor-Joy: And it's a real testament to Olivia's performance. I've now seen the movie a couple of times and when you first see it, I think, obviously, your first thoughts are like, Oh my god, what am I doing with my face? But having seen it a couple of times, there's a scene where Amanda is inebriated and Olivia has constructed such a well fleshed out, from the inside out character that you actually see all of these different emotions and you can connect to it in a different way and feel real empathy for her. And I think that's really, you know, her just being a phenomenal actress.
Cooke: Aww. Thanks.
Taylor-Joy: Happy morning! [Laughs]
In terms of acting out the fake emotions, there's a bit about "the technique," of being able to cry on cue. Is that something you already knew how to do?
Cooke: Well, I don't think "the technique" is a real thing. I mean, I tried doing it--
Taylor-Joy: At home, alone. [Laughs]
Cooke: I tried like, Oh, could I cry from just being like-- [She begins rapidly gulping in air.] You just end up having, like, a heart palpitation from lack of oxygen.
Taylor-Joy: "I need to breathe!"
Cooke: I can't just snap into it. I need to, like, think of sad things. [Laughs] Just have to think of really sad things, and then I just start crying! So, it is something that you have to go to a deeper part of your id for.
There is such a specific mood throughout this movie. What would you be doing in the moments before walking onto set to get into that headspace? Would you listen to music, or...?
Cooke: I think we were constantly in that mood.
Taylor-Joy: Yeah, we didn't have it let up. Ever.
Cooke: We lived two minutes away from the big house. We would walk to work, and I just think we were in it for four weeks. It kind of embodied us for that majority of time, which was quite lovely. I've never had that experience before. But we kind of were those people for a minute.
Taylor-Joy: And we each had our own room in the house which was our own room, but, you know, we couldn't put any of ourselves in it, because people used to actually live there. Olivia was in a little boy's room and I was in a little girl's room that was all pink with taffeta and different cuddly toys. I think we would just go in every day and go to sleep every day surrounded by and influenced by the nature of our characters and the society that they grew up in.
When you hit the end of those four weeks, does it feel like a sigh of relief to let the character go then?
Taylor-Joy: I got on a train the next morning -- because I had to go immediately to shoot another movie -- and I was on a train and I just hysterically cried for a while, because I'd spent the whole month defending Lily and being really on her side with everyone being like, "God, she's such a bitch." And I was like, No! You can't think of her that way! You know, She's so entitled to feel this way, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It was only in leaving it that I actually kind of understood the reality of the toxic person that I'd inhabited for a month. [Laughs]
Is that how you're able to shake off the character, by crying her out? Or does it take more than that? That sounds like a lot to sit with.
Taylor-Joy: Oh, it feels so good. But it was weird because Lily was kind of bookended in crying, because I had been shooting a movie in New York literally the day before we started filming. I had been playing this really cool, really intellectual, chilled-ass girl in New York called Charlotte [for the Barack Obama biopic, Barry] and-- Thank you!
[At this point, her iced coffee arrives, which she happily sips through a straw.]
Taylor-Joy: MVP! And the era of our movie was 1981, so I had been wearing these really cool '80s outfits and dancing to awesome music and then I got to Cohasset [Massachusetts, where Thoroughbreds filmed] and the first thing I ever did was a costume fitting. They put me in these preppy-ass clothes and I just cried, because I had to shed-- I love crying. Crying is awesome. I had to cry to get rid of Charlotte to get into Lily, and then, leaving Lily, the only way I felt like I could shed it was through literally exuding water. [Laughs] Out of my pores. To be like, OK, get it out. Get it out. And through watching the movie, also, it's very useful. I actually enjoy watching my films more than once, because I don't see it as myself onscreen. I feel like you take on a character and you protect them and you love them for a long time, but they only exist within your skin, and once they exist on film, you feel that you can just leave them there, because they exist in their own world and they are safe and they are protected and they are in their own narrative, so you don't have to carry them around anymore.
That is an incredible sense of detachment that I don't think a lot of people have. Not in a bad way. You hear actors all the time, saying, "I can't watch myself onscreen." To be able to say, that's a character, that's where they live, is incredible.
Taylor-Joy: Thank you. It's strange, because I'm still looking at them, thinking, God, I wish this girl would get off screen. Like, What is up with her face? But at the same time I try and make them as absolutely different from me as possible, because I think that the reason somebody writes a script is because they want to create a character and that character should be allowed to have their own voice and their own mannerisms and their own way that they hold themselves. Otherwise you're just kind of continuously playing yourself, and I find that a little bit boring. I like to create an entity that I can detach from.
What about you, Olivia? Were there tears for you?
Cooke: No! No. I don't know. It was quite nice playing someone who doesn't have any emotions for that time. [Laughs] And just being in that mode, being quite logical with everything instead of being so emotional. No, I think it takes me a couple of days, just to--
Cooke: Yes, settle. To get out of work mode, and I think I went back to Manchester to my mum immediately after we finished Thoroughbreds. So, going back to Manchester and being in my mum's house and being in my bedroom that I grew up in, that immediately puts you in your place as a person and as a human and as someone's daughter. [Laughs]
Taylor-Joy: That must be really centering.
Cooke: Centering for two days, and then I'm like, All right, I need to go. I need to leave.
You shot this movie two years ago. Since then, obviously, Anton passed. [Yelchin died 14 days after filming wrapped.] When you watch the movie now, do you find that it's difficult, or that it can actually be a nice experience, because you get access back to that time?
Taylor-Joy: You know, it's so interesting, because I think people expect you to detach from it and, at the end of the day, he is our friend that we lost and so, it doesn't get easier. But what has been wonderful in sharing the movie with other people is seeing how much people love him.
Taylor-Joy: It's really humbling and beautiful to see all of these people that you don't know just stand up in appreciation for the talent and absolutely beauty of this man. Nothing can make it better, but that is a wonderful thing to know, that at least your sentiments are shared with a whole bunch of people.
Is there one scene in particular that you remember filming with him?
Cooke: The bathtub--
Taylor-Joy: The bathtub? Yeah! [Laugh]
Cooke: Because he was doing some incrrredible, incredible acting.
Taylor-Joy: Both of us were like, [Slow claps] "This is great!"
Cooke: It completely took us out of the scene. We were just looking at each other like, This is good. But take after take, he was like, "No, it's not good enough. It's not good enough." And we were like, This is Oscar worthy…
Taylor-Joy: Leave it. Like, Anton, this is really good.
Cooke: He was like, "It's not! It's not! I need to do better! I need to do better!" And then he got there.
Taylor-Joy: I think that's such an incredible thing to have, is it wasn't about being good enough for anybody else. It was about being good enough for his own standards and his character. So, even though the two of us were like, This is f**king amazing, man. This is incredible. He was just like, "No, it's not right." And then when he got it right, we were both like, Yeah. OK. I get it. Like, That was beyond anything.
You both have starred in big films already, but you have some big, biiiiig movies on the horizon. Olivia, you are essentially going right from this to Ready Player One, which is Spielberg huge. And Anya, you nearly had this back-to-back with New Mutants. Does this feel at all like a turning point in your career? Or like the calm before those storms?
Cooke: Nooo...It ebbs and flows, doesn't it? I don't think you can really get yourself into the mentality of, [In a faux Valley girl accent] "This is it. This is my f**king moment."
Taylor-Joy: "I'm about to be sooo big."
Cooke: "I've been waiting for this my whole entire life. Everyone better shut up, because I am number one."
Taylor-Joy: [Laughs] Ready Player One!
Cooke: I am Ready f**king Player One! [Laughs] But I think it comes in peaks and valleys and when you get into that mentality, then I think where do you go up from there? If you think you're number one or this is it, then how do you improve and how do you get better and how do you make more creative choices and more dynamic choices and how do you work with people that you've always wanted to work with?
Taylor-Joy: Yeah, I think it's very interesting because you get a lot of people who come up to you and say that kind of stuff, of like, "This is about to be huge!" And it's weird because-- I don't want to talk for Olivia, but I think we share the same sentiment where you're just like, I did my job. And I got to be a part of something that was really cool, but I'm not thinking about the peripheral, like, meaning of all of this. It's just I got a job that I was very lucky to get and I went and I did it and I love it and I guess now it's going to come out. At least for me, if I was thinking about it in that sort of sense, I'd be a quivering wreck. It's just a lot easier for s**t to happen and then you're like, OK! This is what's going on now! If you keep thinking about the work, then I think you're going to end up a much nicer person rather than thinking about the hype.
Cooke: Right. It was huge on the day when we got the job and when we arrived on set for the first day.
Taylor-Joy: You're like, Oh my gooood. And then you actually have to wake up at 5:00 a.m. for the next three months and do it.
Cooke: And then the novelty wears off and two weeks later you're like, "I'mmm soooooo tiiiiiired." [Laughs] "When's luuuuuuuunch?!"
Taylor-Joy: "When's lunch?" The number one question on every actor's mind, always.