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Anya Taylor-Joy on Playing Jane Austen’s Clever, Callous Protagonist in ‘Emma’

It was an evening of elegance at the Los Angeles premiere of Focus Features’ “Emma” on Tuesday night. The red carpet was lined with pastel floral arrangements at the DGA Theater, priming visitors to be transported to the ornate pageantry of Georgian-era England, as depicted in this new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic tale.

Anya Taylor-Joy, who stars as the film’s titular meddler, reflected on the pleasures and challenges of playing a role in this highly mannered social sphere.

“It’s quite fun when you’re angry, especially when you’re in a film that’s as farcical as this one is. … You can sort of swish your skirt out of the room when you’re leaving,” Taylor-Joy told Variety. “But in terms of the corset, it definitely helps you feel a bit more together at 5 o’clock in the morning, because I’m usually in sweatpants and I don’t feel like I can handle anything. But once you’re laced in, it’s go time.”

The actor gets plenty of opportunities to swish her skirt during the film, relishing in the pettiness that Emma tactically employs against others.

“I think [Emma’s] a handful, but she’s a beautiful handful. … Not in terms of looks, but in terms of complexities,” Taylor-Joy said.

“Emma” begins in Austen’s own words, describing the mistress of Hartfield as “handsome, clever and rich,” and noting she “had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The novel and the film’s ensuing conflicts are primarily spun out from Emma’s manipulative behavior as she plays matchmaker to her peers without registering the collateral damage she causes by acting on her presumptions of the emotions of others.

Screenwriter Eleanor Catton developed a better understanding for the antiheroine in the process of adapting the novel, calling her a victim of “intellectual starvation.” “I found the more I read the novel, the more sympathy I had for her, [though] the first time I read it, I found her quite monstrous,” Catton mused.

“I think [Emma is] kind of a d—, honestly,” director Autumn de Wilde quipped. “She is extraordinarily intelligent, but she has almost no experience being a friend.”

The manner in which Emma lords over the wealthy gentry provides a veritable playground for De Wilde, filled with exacting social codes that can feel earth-shattering when broken. A photographer best known for documenting musicians, De Wilde’s consummate attention to detail makes adapting Austen’s social satire a particularly fitting directorial debut.

“I’ve had a long road for a lot of different pursuits,” De Wilde said. “I’m grateful because I had a whole bag of tricks I learned along the way. … It’s an exciting culmination of a lot of things I’ve always been fascinated with.”

Following the premiere screening, cast members Mia Goth, Johnny Flynn and Bill Nighy headed for the after-party with Taylor-Joy, Catton and De Wilde (who told Variety she’d snuck a whiskey flask into the premiere in her cane), held a few blocks away at the Chateau Marmont. The gathering spilled out onto the veranda, where guests — including John C. Reilly, Elijah Wood, Jason Reitman and Diplo — could help themselves to a dessert table of pastel sweets or have a handkerchief embroidered with their name.

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