Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy give the Heathers a run for their money in this pitch-black Sundance favorite—and both of them are only just getting started.
Written By | Drew Fortune
In an early scene from writer-director Cory Finley’s icily seductive Thoroughbreds, the socially inept Amanda (Olivia Cooke) tells the immaculately groomed Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) about the “technique.” With false tears streaming down her cheek, Amanda conjures emotions like a seasoned actor—without any of the nagging humanity.
Lily has the look of a young socialite, but prefers to hide in the echo chamber of her uncaring stepfather’s mansion. Amanda, mousy and disturbingly blunt, has all the characteristics of a sociopath—she openly admits to feeling nothing, except for boredom and hunger—but cannily avoids hospitalization via a proliferation of pills and family wealth. In their upper-class Connecticut surroundings connection is a rare commodity, and Lily and Amanda feed off each other like soul-sick vampires.
“After reading the script the first time, I didn’t really know who this person was,” says the 24-year-old, British-born Cooke. “She’s been ostracized in her community, but I didn’t want to stamp a mental illness on her. She talks about how she’s been diagnosed with every mental illness in the D.S.M.-5, but her problems don’t fit under one umbrella. She’s not one size fits all.” On the flip side, Lily is a repressed, ticking time bomb completely out of touch with her emotions—until she meets the (initially) more damaged Amanda.
As the two bond over the “technique,” it’s not long before Amanda begins to feed Lily’s hatred of her stepfather: a big-game hunting, authoritarian doofus who speaks to Lily only in awkward passing. Once murder is on the table, Lily’s mask of sanity soon begins to crumble.
“I see my characters as real people,” says Taylor-Joy. “From the second I read Lily, I knew her, which makes me feel awful,” she adds, laughing. “I knew how to do it, and how I wanted to tell her story. The only difficult part was the shedding of the Lily skin. It sounds crazy, but I believe that when I’m filming a movie, I’m not just Anya. I’m Anya living with Lily, or whomever I’m playing. I love my characters, and I have to be able to defend them. People would say, ‘Lily’s such a bitch,’ and my hackles would instantly rise. It was only after the movie ended that I truly understood that I had been playing a toxic, messy individual for a month.”
The film marks Cory Finley’s first experience behind the camera, having adapted the story from his own play. When asked if any nerves bubbled to the surface, Taylor-Joy laughs. “Cory makes me laugh, and he’s very cute about it. He said that he was a ball of nerves on our first day, but I never would have known. He graced the set like a beautiful, six-foot-five unicorn—until after, when he’d say to me, ‘Does it usually take that long to light? Did I do that the right way?’ He was an utterly fearless, peaceful leader.” The finished film has the staging and repartee of a play, but it never feels claustrophobic—and the two leads pull off the acerbic juggling act with a clear sense of mutual connection.
“Our scenes were like a tennis match, and I was really excited to explore those dynamics with another actress,” says Cooke. “I knew Anya’s work, and thought she was amazing in The Witch. I was incredibly excited to work with her.”
Both actors were already best known for psychodramas: Cooke had a four-year run as Emma on Bates Motel, while Taylor-Joy has starred in both The Witch and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. In a lot of ways, the film feels custom written for them. “We shot the whole thing in 22 days,” says Taylor-Joy. “I think we instantly had chemistry, and over the course of the first day, we became synonymous. I’d step with my left foot, and she’d match. I wonder if it’s something that will ever go away, because it’s been almost two years since we shot, and we’re still doing it. I think we’re very deeply connected.”
Thoroughbreds got a warm critical reception at Sundance in 2017, and was soon snatched up by Focus Features. But it also lingered for months without a release date—which Taylor-Joy characterizes as a matter of waiting for the perfect moment. “I can’t speak for Focus, but we wanted to get it out at the right time, and this feels like the right time,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like two years for us. We had a very positive response at Sundance, and I’m quite glad the film has had a bit of breathing room. We got to enjoy it privately before sharing it with everybody.”
Shortly after the film wrapped, the world lost Anton Yelchin, who plays a put-upon hitman that gets entangled with Lily and Amanda. Some of the film’s best scenes involve Yelchin, Taylor-Joy, and Cooke ping-ponging off each other; Yelchin is quietly hysterical as a wannabe gangster and small-time dealer, turning in work that makes his loss sting even more fiercely. “He was a dear friend to many, and the most beautiful person I could have ever hoped to meet,” says Taylor-Joy. “He was an absolute force of live-wire electricity who brought such a big heart to his characters. It was beautiful to see how unanimously loved he was.”
With upcoming high-profile roles (Taylor-Joy will reprise her role in Shyamalan’s Split follow-up, Glass, while Cooke will soon be seen in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One), both lead-actresses value their privacy and worthy projects most of all. “I don’t know if it’s ever good to be popular, because you can become unpopular so quickly,” says Cooke. “I don’t even have social media. I like that I can walk around my neighborhood in Brooklyn, listening to Perfume Genius or SZA, without getting bothered. It’s pretty simple and basic.”
As for Taylor-Joy, the thrill of coming to work is something that hasn’t waned, and hopefully never will. “It’s never entered into my mind to want to be famous. I’m a very private person. I just want to continue playing people that drive me and I care so much about. The hours are ridiculous, but I wake up at 4 a.m. saying, ‘Hell yes. Let’s tell this story.’ I hope that passion never dies.”