Interview: Anya Taylor-Joy & Autumn de Wilde discuss ‘Emma.’ at the Eliot

Focus Features

The pair talk pastels, butch cupcakes, and the inspiration behind their new Jane Austen adaptation at Boston’s Eliot Hotel

Jane Austen adaptations are, in practice, very difficult to pull off. You don’t want your film to feel same-y, as a whole host of smart and well-acted films are inevitably lumped together thanks to their period trappings and shared interpretations of the source material. On the other hand, going too far away from your project’s origins is a risk in and of itself, and you risk losing the very thing that draws in an audience of Austenites to your work. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., out this week, seeks to do both, and succeeds handily, thanks to its directors’ impeccable sense of style in the mis-en-scene and cinematography, the skill of its screenwriter, Man Booker-winning author Eleanor Catton, and the wonderful work of Anya Taylor-Joy in its lead role.

Vanyaland sat down with de Wilde and Taylor-Joy at the Eliot Hotel in the Back Bay last week to discuss all things Emma.

Vanyaland: So what attracted you guys to this project? Obviously, there’s the fact that it’s an adaptation of Emma, but at the exact same time, I read something about you guys having a cosmic connection?

Autumn de Wilde: Yeah. Well, I was about to pitch on it, and part of my pitch was Anya as Emma and Johnny [Flynn] as Mr. Knightley and Mia [Goth] as Harriet, and Miranda Heart and Bill Nighy, they were all part of that pitch. Luckily, I got them. As soon as I figured out I got the movie, that night, I flew to New York to secure Anya.

Anya Taylor-Joy: Secure the joy, secure the Joy! Autumn walked into the restaurant, and we just sort of — I don’t even remember saying “Hello” to you, we just went straight into, “What’s your biggest heartbreak?” And she was crying, I was crying. Then the bill came and she was like, “You need furniture.” We went around to these antique furniture — I don’t need furniture, I don’t have a house. We were just shopping for my imaginary house. Which, one day, I will have.

Autumn de Wilde: Well, I love imaginary shopping, it’s one of my favorite past-times.

Anya Taylor-Joy: It was a kind of kidnapping of the minds, I think. We were in Emmaland from that day. She had gotten the movie the day before; I don’t remember saying yes to the movie, but I think I said yes to the movie. From that moment on, we were basically in communication and we just lived there the whole time. We were both very possessed and obsessed with Emma, that’s just the world we were in. Other characters sometimes got to dip in and out, but we were there, which is an incredible experience, and I wouldn’t want to share it with anybody else.

Autumn de Wilde: It was so cool. I’m a big Jane Austen fan, and it’s just so funny to me how some people are like, “Well, that’s for girls.” I think that’s so funny, I think she’s so rock ‘n roll.

Anya Taylor-Joy: Yeah.

Autumn de Wilde: She really knew people, and she did only write, granted, about the world that was immediately around her. She didn’t write about things she didn’t know about, about things she never experienced herself, and maybe that’s why, but —

Anya Taylor-Joy: She got it so right.

Autumn de Wilde: She got it so right that you can identify all of her characters in modern times. Everyone knows a Mrs. Bates, everyone knows an Emma, and then you also discover how much pieces of you are in a lot of these characters. That was the approach for all of the actors, was to humanize the character. Just keep doing those things that remind people that you’re human, not just a stuffed doll walking around, “I’m in a period film!” I like those movies, too. I love the escape of the period and all that.

Anya Taylor-Joy: I just got a really beautiful gaze forward into the future where a girl comes back to her apartment and she’s like, “He Frank Churchill-ed me!” It happens! Now there’s a term where we can be like, “Remember this?”

Autumn de Wilde: And that was — we all had moments like this: Men, women actors. “This is kind of like that thing that happened to me in junior high.” That’s great writing, I think. It also helps that our screenwriter Eleanor [Catton] wrote The Luminaries. She’s a brilliant writer and an incredible mathematician of storyline structure. I don’t know how else to say that.

Anya Taylor-Joy: It’s a really good way of saying it.

Autumn de Wilde: I could throw — there’s a lot of stuff that’s not in the book, that’s just from funny stories she told me and I was like, “Put that in the movie.” She could see how a certain character would say something like that, and weave it in. She understood the language so well that, in a way, those things feel like character expansions, and not fear-based modernizations of the story.

Anya Taylor-Joy: As characters, if you ever wanted to say something, you’d describe her as — what did you call it? An Austen translator?

Autumn de Wilde: Yeah, I wanted her to have an app, but they didn’t know that she’s doing it live.

Anya Taylor-Joy: I was like, “I feel this way, and I want to say this to Johnny and I don’t know how to do it.” She’s like [scribbles], “This is how you would say it.” It would be spit out in perfect Austen English. 

Autumn de Wilde: Definitely, the rule is to use too many words to explain yourself.

Anya Taylor-Joy: Yeah, but it’s so much fun!

Do you ever have any issues with the verbiage? I can imagine that being a real pain.

Autumn de Wilde: There’s one word.

Anya Taylor-Joy: Just one word. I will preface this by saying, “imperturbable.” There was one day I got really sick, a month into filming. Something like that.

Autumn de Wilde: I’ve got to say, this girl is a soldier. There is nothing that takes her down. So when she gets sick, it was like —

Anya Taylor-Joy: I was on set, and Autumn was like, “Go home.” I will not leave, I will die on the set! But when I came back, there was one word I couldn’t say. Imperturbable. I really love language like this. Because my first movie was The Witch, I got to go straight into Jacobian English with a Yorkshire accent. That was just what I understood acting was; I went from “Yeah, cool man. Get the groceries,” to something else. I’ve always loved painting pictures with language, and what’s cool about Austen is that all of the characters in her book are so clever, even the ones that are considered less clever, that they really know the words that they are using. Just having argument scenes or when you’re trying to persuade your friend not to marry a certain farmer, you pick your words very carefully. That informs a lot of how you’re going to perform it. Then you’re like, “Okay, this word is the knife that twists and makes sure you understand.”

Autumn de Wilde: Anya really understands as an actor that just because it’s 200 years old doesn’t mean that — I mean, this is the world of Shakespeare, as well. You can’t treat every word like it’s about to be put in a museum under glass. Knowing which words are thrown away and which things are said off-the-cuff, which things are said with daggers, none of the actors needed help with that. So we were able to just play and they could experiment. That was a great thing for Emma’s cruelty meter. Sometimes she is cruel by accident, which is just as bad, sometimes, as doing it on purpose.

Absolutely. I noticed that Emma, in practice, is like your character in Thoroughbreds, quite a bit, in the sense that they’re both sort of manipulators. One’s very malicious, and the other’s not. How did you prevent that from sliding straight into the audience not being on her side? 

Anya Taylor-Joy: I think it’s in two things: One is in the writing. We begin the movie with Emma being very critical of a maid picking flowers, in a very abrasive way like, “Oh, I don’t want to be spoken to that way.” Then that is immediately juxtaposed with these flowers she’ll give to her best friend in the whole world, because she doesn’t want too leave the house. 

Autumn de Wilde: That’s something that I added the hothouse scene. I thought that opposite would be — when someone says, “You don’t know her as well as I do, she was mean because of this.” It was a way of doing that so the audience could see the immediate 180 in Emma that would be part of the film.

Anya Taylor-Joy: For understanding where Emma is coming from when she’s being that manipulative, that was really important to me. For somebody like Lilly, for instance, she either isn’t fully aware that she’s being manipulated, or she’s been manipulated and manipulating her entire life. So she doesn’t really know the difference between having real emotions and fake ones. With Emma, she’s so deeply lonely. She’s in a beautiful house with everything that she could possibly want, but she’s only ever had a friend who’s been paid to be with her, even though she does love her. Her father, who she adores, relies on her a lot. She can’t confide in him about certain things she wants to. You can see in that breakfast scene with her and her father, that exemplifies so clearly what she’s going through, which is, “I’m really bored, and I’m really smart, and I’m really lonely, and I don’t know what to do with that.”

I’ve always found it really interesting, because when other people break Emma down into a smaller story, they go, “She’s meddlesome, and she match-makes.” I’m like, okay, so she makes one match. One that is successful. The second match has nothing to do with her friend finding love, it has everything to do with, “You’re somebody that I really like, that I want to keep close to me. You’re going to marry somebody that’s of a class higher than yourself so that you can officially be my friend, and you can live down the road so I can see you every single day. If you marry this farmer, I will technically not be allowed to speak to you and you’ll be really far away from me, and that’s not on.” That feeling of understanding that makes her a lot more empathetic. As awful as it is when she says to Mr. Knightly, “I only want to keep Harriet for myself,” I think everybody’s loved someone so much that they’re willing to keep them shut-in close to them, rather than let them go.

Autumn de Wilde: When you do bad things just because you were going through a hard time, it does not justify that bad behavior. That’s something that we always have to look at ourselves. We know the reason why we’re doing things, and the victim card is easily played. Having compassion for someone going through a hard time is okay, but you don’t have to condone their bad behavior. I think this is a fantasy of forgiveness and also redemption and transformation. Often, friends that have this situation that they’re in, her and Harriet, you often have to walk away from a friend like that, that has betrayed your trust. They don’t ever seem to learn and because the cycle seems to be repeating. Jane Austen writes romantic fantasies, but also these fantasies of friendships that can’t truly be healed. It’s nice to look at that as an example of the potential we have to be better to our friends. 

It’s a very aspirational fiction in that sense. 

Autumn de Wilde: It’s a good thing. It’s not just like, she’s rich and pretty so it’s okay. Johnny Flynn said that Mr. Knightley has a tendency to mansplain and then not like mansplaining. I thought that was such a great observation. In order for that famous line at the end, “I’ve lectured you and blamed you, and you’ve borne it better than any woman in England could’ve borne it,” in order for that line to ring true, you have to understand Mr. Knightley is almost always mad at Emma. He hates that he feels like he has to yell at her. I think they’re both meddlesome in some different ways. “Meddlesome” being a controversial word, because it’s mostly used for women.

Anya Taylor-Joy: Yeah. I’m not the biggest fan of “meddlesome.” Females are “meddlesome,” men are “interested.”

One question I had about the visual styling — it feels very much in the intersection of modernity and period fiction in the sense that it’s not afraid to be awkward in its humor and very stark in its design, things that we associate either with incredible warmth, or stark coldness. You’re sort of in the middle of those two lanes. How did you formulate the design of the film? 

Autumn de Wilde: I like to tell stories in color; the actor’s a layer, the world’s a layer, the movement and comedy is a layer of storytelling, and I think that color can do that, too. But I think that the Georgian period was really colorful. Color was how you showed your wealth, and we have grown accustomed to what we see in museums as how it was, but we’re looking at faded color and faded wallpaper and faded paintings, even. In doing my research, all of that color is based on real colors used. They loved painting wood and hand-painting panels. Women painted tables, they were all excellent craftspeople. You can tell in the dishes; in the dishes, the colors don’t fade. The personal things that I add is if you make color edible, everyone is drawn to it. It’s not like this is for girls and this is for boys; everyone wants to eat a beautiful pastry.

Anya Taylor-Joy: You once told us that no man ever reaches for the manly-looking cupcake. That is so true. No man is ever like, “I want the butch one!”

Autumn de Wilde: I love Wes Anderson’s work so much because of his intelligent use of color. I’m very influenced by Jacques Tati’s use of color in a lot of his films. In a lot of movies, the color is there to draw you in and makes you not want to leave. It can do a lot. In this case, I sort of thought of Emma’s town and her house as her dollhouse, and it really helped make her house — it doesn’t really work unless you have this unified vision. When everything is like that, you start accepting the reality and want to live in it. So it was fun to tell my departments to not hold back. I think they’ve had to hold back a lot in their work sometimes, and so all of the departments really embraced the use of color to tell a story about each character. It’s a satire of the class system, and it really helped to say that Emma was the queen bee of that.

Anya Taylor-Joy: I’m going to invite you to tea and make every cake imaginable, don’t eat them. They’re for pretty, they’re not for food.

Autumn de Wilde: We’ve been to places like that, where we’re like, “I guess I’m not supposed to eat this.” I had also read that sugar was another way to display wealth, so I did that a bit. But the Georgians were really into symmetry like me, so all of the tables are extremely impractical to actually eat from. There were certain plates that were meant to be in the corners, and you were never going to be able to reach that. There were whole cities made out of sugar–

Anya Taylor-Joy: It’s so intense. It was amazing. Every time we did a dinner scene or a tea scene, I would show up on set maybe 15 minutes before I had to just to be like, “Oh, my goodness.”

Autumn de Wilde: It’s all period-accurate food. Lots of crazy jellies. I thought that was really funny, how impractical a lot of the food was and how — another person had a theory that Mr. Woodhouse was so worried about eating for a very good reason. Almost everything they served was room temperature. So that line that Eleanor added in, like, “Don’t do — I wouldn’t advise the custard,” Mr. Woodhouse probably protected everyone from salmonella. He was ahead of his time. This was part of my pitch, this color. I had the support of the studio and the producers to really go for it. If I had to use a house as is, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, because I wouldn’t have been able to update the wallpaper, for instance. That wallpaper in the dining scene is a Georgian pattern, it’s a reproduction.

Anya Taylor-Joy: You can now understand why I want her to design my house. She’d be so excited to do it. Like walking into a room and be like, “Autumn…” and she’d be like, “I know, that couch, it’s yours, I can see it in the future!”

Autumn de Wilde: It’s so great that Kave Quinn and Alexandra Byrne worked together so closely. That amazing evening three-piece lounge suit of Mr. Woodhouse’s, that looks amazing because of the chair he’s also in. So when we put those patterns together — I was at the meeting — we were like, “Whoa!” So it was really a community of great minds making those colors work. Anyone that works in color well, knows that once you do a vision well, it doesn’t distract. It’s really a place you want to escape to. You don’t need to have opinions on whether or not you want to do that, because it’s a whole world. I love going into space, I love Middle Earth, I love the Regency period. Just give me a complete world. How Hobbiton was made? That’s my style — just plant the gardens a year before. If you let me do that, I will.