Witness Anya Taylor-Joy: The ‘Furiosa’ Star on Making the ‘Mad Max’ Icon Her Own and Hopes for ‘Dune 3’

Anya Taylor-Joy
Jonny Marlow for Variety
If you want to become a dystopian feminist warrior, you’re not going to get much sleep. That was one of the first things Anya Taylor-Joy learned on the set of George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” prequel “Furiosa.” Under heavy coats of makeup, shooting in the Australian winter when daylight was scarce, Taylor-Joy wished she could have stayed in bed at least through the crack of dawn. Instead, she’d rise up in the middle of the night, ready to do battle.

“I had the earliest call time of my life: 1:45 a.m.,” the 28-year-old actress says on a recent Los Angeles afternoon. “I’d be like, ‘I just wrapped! What do you mean?! It’s a mistake!’” Taylor-Joy recalls the painful mornings now with a gleeful theater-kid energy. She chronicled her entire transformation as Furiosa, and took photos of her various makeup tests. She flips through her phone to show me.

The photos are startling: Of course Furiosa, whom viewers first met when she was played by Charlize Theron in 2015’s “Fury Road,” lives a rough-and- tumble life — she’s fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic world governed by road warriors. But the grit and grime covering Taylor-Joy’s face suggests hours in the makeup chair. “You will not believe how dirty I had to be for it to read on camera.” She pulls up a picture. “The first time I looked at myself in the mirror”— she fake gasps — “I was like, ‘Whoa!’ I looked like a creature from the Black Lagoon.” She’s covered in globs of brown and gory red. “That’s seven layers,” she says. “Of course, there’s blood — I’m always the ‘More blood!’ girl.”

Shooting in a sand-dune wasteland, Taylor-Joy worked through most weekends during the six-and-a-half-month shoot. One day, she woke up and realized something shocking. “I hadn’t seen anybody that wasn’t in wasteland hair and makeup in two months,” Taylor-Joy says. “I had not seen anybody looking regular.”

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Except for one constant companion: As a reward for throwing herself so deeply into work, Taylor-Joy adopted a fluffy Ragdoll cat named Kitsune. “I was like, ‘I’ll be getting a kitten when I arrive in Australia,’” she says. (The cat wasn’t scared of Furiosa, even with all that makeup.) “He came to work with me every day. I needed to funnel my love into something. My brain told me I needed something to nurture.”

A nurturing Furiosa? We’re a long way from Theron’s mechanical-armed badass. When “Fury Road” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival the day before it blitzed the U.S. box office, it was as if a bomb had gone off. After beginning his career with the first three installments of the “Mad Max” saga, from 1979 to 1985, Australian director Miller lightened up, making the oddball comedy “The Witches of Eastwick,” the weepie “Lorenzo’s Oil,” and movies in the “Babe” and “Happy Feet” franchises, about lovable pigs and penguins. But the road beckoned, and “Fury Road,” with its vision of high-octane matriarchy, marked his return to form. And in 2015, a year in which the box office would be dominated by the CGI-ridden “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Jurassic World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Miller’s practical-effects-driven “Fury Road” offered something different: a propulsive survival thriller whose ultimate special effect lay in its human-scale stakes.

And at its heart was Furiosa. Though the #MeToo tsunami would be a few years away, Theron’s Furiosa embodied a boiling-over rage women had begun feeling more comfortable expressing publicly. Bucking the bleak new world order, Furiosa rescues five sex slaves from the evil warlord Immortan Joe. Critics called “Fury Road” one of the best action movies of all time, and it won six Oscars after grossing $380 million worldwide.

It got there through force of will. Miller is a famously exacting director, a trait that remained in evidence on “Furiosa.” Taylor-Joy recalls geting one consistent note from him. “We’d do takes where he’d be like, ‘Do it again with your mouth closed,’” she says. “He has a thing about my mouth. He thinks when my mouth is open, I look too young.” So Taylor-Joy would jump back into another gut-wrenching scene with her jaw tightly clenched.

“This is the wasteland, and any outbreak of emotion is punished by death,” Taylor-Joy says. “Any empathy is punished by death — any kindness, really. It all made sense to me. I think the restrictions that were placed on me by George did create a radiation off the character, because she is being suppressed continuously throughout the film.”

This suppression may not be what audiences initially expected or even wanted: Since “Fury Road,” fans have eagerly awaited a sequel, one that might show what befell Furiosa after her liberation. But in 2020, Miller announced plans for a prequel. The new movie starts with Furiosa as a young girl in the utopian paradise known as the Green Place. We learn how her mother is killed, spurring her quest for revenge, and see Furiosa spend her teenage years held captive by the sinister Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). And, yes, the movie even reveals how Furiosa loses her arm.

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On the day we meet, Taylor-Joy hasn’t yet seen the final theatrical cut of “Furiosa,” but she’s seen a rough cut many times. “Within the first three minutes, I’m crying,” she says. “And afterward, I cannot speak. I found it very traumatizing to watch.”

Miller had a habit of showing her the dailies in black and white, although the film is shot in color. One of the reasons why “Fury Road” was so beloved (and such a nightmare to make) was that 90% of the special effects were performed for real, but “Furiosa” incorporates more CGI. In the version that Miller was showing Taylor-Joy, the CGI hadn’t been added yet. She could just see her acting, minus some of the chaos.

“Furiosa doesn’t talk much,” Taylor-Joy says. “She’s a pretty silent character. I hope that’s part of the reason George chose me. Until I was doing Furiosa, I didn’t quite realize that’s been a lot of my career — a lot of my career has played out in my eyes.”

Those eyes first bewitched us almost a decade ago. Taylor-Joy had wanted to become an actress after seeing “Atonement,” starring a 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan (who is two years older than Taylor-Joy). “I was like, ‘Wait, you can be a kid in an adult film?’”

In 2015, the same year “Fury Road” opened in theaters, Taylor-Joy found herself the toast of Sundance for her role in “The Witch,” Robert Eggers’ horror film about a 17th-century farm girl who succumbs to the lure of evil spirits. At 18, she wasn’t quite a kid, but her talent made her a prodigy. “I joke that I went to Sundance and I never came home, but it’s not a joke,” Taylor-Joy says. “It just happened.”

She continued her scream-queen run as a kidnap victim with surprising inner strength in M. Night Shyamalan’s late-2000s thrillers “Split” and “Glass.” And her eyes captivated the world in October 2020, when Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” made chess — and Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of a complicated, frustrating genius — feel layered and riveting. The series was a surprise hit, and a bored and locked-down viewership spurred a spike in chessboard sales.

Taylor-Joy’s career since then is a study in versatility: She played a sorceress in “The Northman” (a reunion with Eggers), and she scored a surprise zeitgeist hit playing a role initially meant for Emma Stone in the social satire “The Menu.” And her greatest recent coup was her buzzy cameo as an unborn baby in “Dune: Part Two.”

But “Furiosa” is arguably the biggest gamble of Taylor-Joy’s career, and her most challenging role to date. As Marvel slows down, the latest offering from the “Mad Max” universe represents a test of the power of big-budget franchise blockbusters for studio Warner Bros. And Taylor-Joy has big desert boots to fill. In the first trailers for the film, a voice-over that sounds like Theron narrates the hardships of Furiosa’s youth, but Taylor-Joy clarifies that it’s actually her speaking.

Jonny Marlow for Variety

“Really?” Taylor-Joy says when I tell her that I thought Theron had come back to read this dialogue. “Good!” And then she ribs me a little: “You’re shocked that I’m good?” she huffs. “Acting darling.” She adds, “I was channeling Furiosa’s voice. Gal doesn’t talk much. When she opens her mouth, it’s rusty in there.”

Warner Bros. is hoping that familiar raspy voice attracts moviegoers. “Furiosa,” which opens in theaters on May 24, will first host a splashy premiere at Cannes. The last time Taylor-Joy hit the Croisette was in 2017, when she received the Trophée Chopard for breakout stardom, presented, coincidentally, by Theron. But this time, if Cannes marks the starting line for the film’s road to box office Valhalla, Taylor-Joy will be sealed among the next generation of Hollywood’s A-list stars, alongside her “Dune” peers Timothée Chalamet, Austin Butler and Zendaya.

And she’ll prove herself a worthy successor to Theron, with whom she reconnected a few months ago. “We emailed a bunch and then finally met up at the Oscars,” Taylor-Joy says. “She is as wonderful and cool and gracious as you can imagine.”

Theron has said in interviews that she was disappointed not to be returning to one of her favorite characters. Originally, Miller — who wrote the script for “Furiosa” before Fury Road” — had planned to bring Theron back in a sequel. When he decided to make the prequel, he even toyed with using de-aging technology. But a couple of films convinced him that CGI had limits.

“I saw not only ‘The Irishman,’” Miller says, “but Ang Lee’s ‘Gemini Man,’ with Will Smith. Both of them were masterful directors, but it was never persuasive. I thought all people would be watching is Charlize looking young and knowing it’s an effect. And as time went on and we got into litigation with Warner Bros, we had to find someone younger.” (In 2017, Miller sued the studio over a $7 million bonus he claimed he was owed for “Fury Road.”)

One day, Miller’s friend Edgar Wright invited him to see an early cut of “Last Night in Soho,” in which Taylor-Joy plays an entrancing singer — Audrey Hepburn with an edge. Miller loved the film — but he couldn’t wait for it to be over so he could ask Wright about working with Taylor-Joy. “He basically said, ‘She’s incredibly rigorous, disciplined,’” Miller says. Wright connected the pair.

That was followed by a long phone call, after which Taylor-Joy put herself on tape for him — reenacting the famous monologue from 1976’s “Network” in which Peter Finch declares, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!” Taylor-Joy had never seen the film, but she nailed it, making the iconic moment of rage her own. Miller called her with a note, and she then sent him a second tape, showing that she’d be adept at following his direction.

Finally, Miller offered Taylor-Joy the job by calling her and saying something to the effect of “So when you come to Australia…” She recalls processing his words in slow motion. “I think it means I got it,” she remembers thinking. “Cool!”

Taylor-Joy had seen “Fury Road” in a movie theater in Belfast while she was making “Morgan,” a 2016 horror film. “As a team bonding experience, we went to see it,” she says. “I stood up in the theater and clapped at the end of it.” Years later, when word broke that she’d been cast to play the next Furiosa, she was back in Belfast — this time shooting “The Northman.” “I saw the news go worldwide,” she says. “I sort of screamed and ran around my apartment.”

As a ballet dancer, she’d undergone rigorous training all her life. But the process of becoming Furiosa required extra steps. “I was doing weights” — squats, lifts and rows — “and they helped for sure,” Taylor-Joy says. “The stability weights give you, particularly in your shoulders — ballet dancers’ arms are very strong, but it’s all floaty.” She adds, “It was about being able to hold myself up, and to hold these weapons too. I have a slight frame, and these are heavy guns.”

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She went to a gun range in Los Angeles to learn how to shoot. But during the making of “Furiosa,” for the sake of the crew’s safety, Miller never used real bullets or even blanks. “George was like, ‘Nothing will be coming out of them,’” Taylor-Joy says. She had to perform the guns’ kick herself. “So I experienced what it was like to shoot these individual weapons, and then you have to fake it.”

Furiosa famously sports a shaved head in “Fury Road.” Taylor-Joy was game to get a buzz cut, but Miller wouldn’t let her, for two reasons. First, he wasn’t sure if they’d film in order, and Furiosa goes bald in the final act of the film. And the second was for the sake of preserving her hair. “I said, ‘Please!’” Taylor-Joy recalls. “But George is such a softie. He saw my hair and he said, ‘It’s beautiful. Don’t do it.’” Instead, Taylor-Joy settled on wearing a prosthetic bald cap molded to her scalp. And in the scene when Furiosa finally goes warrior mode and shaves it all off: “That’s a second bald cap that has hair that I can actually cut.”

Another challenge: Furiosa drives fast, an obstacle given that Taylor-Joy doesn’t have a driver’s license. “I don’t think I allowed myself to think about crashing anything,” she says, adding that she’d try to get more sleep the nights before she shot the big chase scenes on motorbikes and other “Mad Max” vehicles.

Hemsworth laughs when asked about filming these scenes with an unlicensed driver. “At the time, I wasn’t aware,” he says. “I think she automatically gets a license by default, doesn’t she?” He envisions Taylor-Joy marching up to the DMV: “‘Here’s my driver’s test,’ she’d say, and hand them a ticket to ‘Furiosa!’ And then the instructor should be like, ‘Oh yeah. We get it. You can do it!’”

“Fury Road” was a notoriously difficult shoot, between the real-life crashes, budget restrictions, shifts in weather (unlike “Furiosa,” the 2005 film was shot in Namibia) and animosity between its two lead stars — Theron and Tom Hardy. But Miller says that “Furiosa” didn’t have such hardships.

Hemsworth, who modeled his villain on ancient Roman leaders, dons a prosthetic nose that gives Bradley Cooper’s schnoz in “Maestro” a run for its money. “I spent about four hours in the makeup chair,” he says with a groan. “Twas justifiably irritated by the end of it. That really helped my performance-there was a nice amount of pent-up rage simmering under the surface.”

Taylor-Joy, too, found herself spending as many as five hours a day getting ready. Playing the solitary Furiosa made her prone to bouts of loneliness. Under so many layers of makeup, and physically apart from her co-stars, she’d spend long stretches of time inside her head. “There were some days when I definitely needed to de-stress,” Taylor-Joy says. “I developed a really strange addiction to stories about people who are fighting evil.”

Like what? “I found real comfort in ‘Stranger Things’ Season 4,” she says. She’d watch scenes from the Netflix series between takes. “I had to have something on my phone that reminded me of the goodness in the world,” she says.

Passing the time came naturally to a woman who knows life as a nomad. She grew up in Argentina, and moved to London at 6 as the youngest in a family of six kids. She always saw herself as a tomboy who loved to play outdoors. “My dad is a powerboat racer,” she says, “and we love Formula One.” The only reason she doesn’t have a driver’s license, she says, is that she doesn’t have a place she thinks of as a permanent home (though Los Angeles is where she hangs her hat when not shooting). “I’m never in one place long enough to get one,” she says. “I also feel like I probably need to learn how to parallel park. That’s something I don’t know how to do.”

Taylor-Joy is already planning her next adventure. She’s just scored tickets to see Paul McCartney performing at a tribute concert to Jimmy Buffett at the Hollywood Bowl tonight, a surprise for her husband, the musician Malcolm McRae. “I think I just won best wife of the year,” she says, “so I’m excited.”

The news that Taylor-Joy got married two years ago was a surprise to the world when she finally came clean about her husband on Instagram last month. The couple eloped in secret on April Fools’ Day in 2022 in New Orleans, but she didn’t wear a wedding ring or speak about him in public. “We took our two best friends,” she says. “It was magical.” How long had they dated? “Oh gosh,” she says. “We were together not very long, is the answer to that question. When you know, you know.”

Their parents weren’t even with them when they tied the knot. “Malcolm FaceTimed his family from the church,” she says. “We were like, ‘Hiii!’ But they knew we were engaged for a little while.”Taylor-Joy marks time through movie roles. “We got engaged while I was shooting ‘The Menu.’” (The film shot in fall 2021, in Savannah, Ga.) Although close family members knew about the engagement, “we kept it a secret from our friends until some newspaper blew it up,” she says. They later had a 150-person ceremony in Venice, Italy, in October 2023. Of the elopement, she explains: “It was for us. It was romantic.”

The next big big secret she kept? Her cameo in Dune: Part Two.” As Taylor-Joy tells it, she met with director Denis Villeneuve for another role in the film before she left for Australia to shoot “Furiosa.” (“Denis is one of my all-time favorites,” she says. “Arrival is my comfort movie.”) But at the meeting, Villeneuve told her that her schedule on Miller’s shoot wouldn’t allow her to simultaneously depart for the fictional planet of Arrakis.

“Before I even sat down, he was like, ‘I want you to be in “Dune,” but you can’t do it!’” Taylor-Joy recalls. “I was like, ‘Please?’ I skipped all the stages of grief and went straight to begging I was like, ‘I can do this. I can be in Australia and Abu Dhabi at the same time.’ He wanted me to be part of the universe. We kept in touch. I just had this feeling that it wasn’t over.”

So while filming “Furiosa,” she kept asking her agents about “Dune,” but they told her that the production had begun without her. Then, on the day she arrived back in Los Angeles from Australia, Villeneuve called her with a madcap proposition, sounding giddy. “He said, ‘I made a deal with the studio: If I was on budget and on time, I could do this.’” By “this,” he was referring to a small role at the end of the film where Taylor-Joy appears as Paul Atreides’ younger sister, Alia,all grown up. Her mere existence as a projection of the family’s future feels like a promise that the franchise isn’t over.

“Anya was Alia as soon as I met with her,” Villeneuve says in an email. “In fact, I realized after the fact, she has always been Alia. Anya feels out of this world, as though she belongs to some other dimension, one step into the dream.”

She didn’t tell anyone about the cameo, which shot with a scant crew in Namibia. “I told my husband and my parents,” she says, adding, “and I took my mum.” She claims that Villeneuve kept it so under wraps that “no one at the studio knew. My face had been blurred out” in early versions of the film.

At the London premiere this year, Taylor-Joy shocked movie fans by walking the carpet, revealing her role. “I asked Denis to tell the cast beforehand,” she says. “I said, ‘I can’t just show up. Please don’t do that to me.’”

Will there be another “Dune” in her future? “I hope so,” Taylor-Joy says.

Villeneuve is all for it. “Shooting with Anya in Africa was nothing short of magical,” he says. “Her generosity, candor and passion truly moved me. I can’t wait to go back on Arrakis with her.”

If there’s a “Dune” Part Three, Taylor-Joy will find her schedule even more packed than it is now. But before she has time to return to outer space, or possibly to Furiosa — if Miller’s latest futuristic vision hits big — she has plans of her own. With or without a driver’s license, she sees herself behind a new set of wheels. “I know the exact kind of car I’m going to get,” she says. “Ferrari Dino, in yellow.”

Taylor-Joy speeding down Sunset with the top down in a canary-colored vintage Ferrari would certainly attract paparazzi, but she’s not going to let that stop her. “My agents, my friends are like, ‘This is the dumbest thing in the world,’” she says. “I’m like, ‘I’m attracted to this car. I need to have this car. I don’t care.’” Soon, all of Los Angeles might see this freshly minted movie star hit the gas and go, go, go.

Styling: Ryan Hastings; Makeup: Georgie Eisdell/The Wall Group; Hair: Gregory Russell/The Wall Group; Manicure: Diem Truong/ Star Touch Agency/ Dior Le Baume; Shell Dress: Cheney Chan; Feather Top: Dior


From Variety US