“Women aren’t actually perfect Virgin Marys, so burn them...” hmv.com talks to the star, director of The Witch
Set in 1630 New England, The Witch follows the travails of a pious British pioneer family trying to survive and prosper in the unforgiving American wilderness. Their difficult life is made even more awful with the disappearance of their baby boy. Where did the child go? Did a witch take him? And how culpable was their eldest daughter, Thomasin, who was looking after the baby at the time?
Sorrow turns to suspicion as strange things continue to happen in and around the homestead, and the family starts tearing itself apart as they start to believe that, yes, they are being plagued by a witch.
hmv.com spoke to star Anya Taylor-Joy and director Robert Eggers about the power of witches, repression in early America, and the influence of the film’s period setting.
Robert, talk about growing up in New England vis-à-vis witches?
Eggers: “It sounds a little precious but New England’s past was always part of my consciousness growing up. We talked about it at school. There’s a weight around it. My friends and I would find these graveyards in the middle of the woods, because these woods were fields. So I think that was always part of my childhood imagination: ‘Oh, that’s the house that the witch lives in.’ Hiding in the cornfields, throwing corn cobs, all that New England-y crap, I did. And I used to go to Salem every Halloween. It was the best Halloween.”
Talk about the menace of the witch.
Eggers: “It’s complicated, and I have offended Christians and Wiccans and everyone. So I am very cautious not to say the wrong thing. [Late Carl Jung disciple] Mary-Louis von Franz talks a lot about how, in the high Middle Ages - in the days of chivalry and courtly love – there was also the cult of the Virgin Mary being at its height, because the medieval church didn’t work the feminine into their dogma. It kind of just came out culturally in a very positive way, as this goddess. Then through the evolution of time, people started saying, ‘Women in the real world aren’t actually perfect Virgin Marys. Burn them!’ This becomes the witch craze.
“Most of the women we talk about – ‘real’ witches – are persecuted herbalists, women doing their white magic, and then people [saying], ‘Oh, you’re a witch’ or whatever. And that was certainly a thing, but what was interesting to me was the idea that there are certain women who believed that they were evil. Not that they were actively pursuing evil necessarily. Someone who was mentally ill, perhaps we would say now [would] act out in a certain way. That’s how they could understand their actions.
“In a male-dominated culture having the witch as the symbol of the dark feminine became important in that time. I think that now, even though we’ve progressed in many ways, unfortunately, some of the shadows of that witch archetype still exist. Certainly in the unconscious and in the culture today.”
Anya, talk about your character Thomasin. Was it difficult to connect with a character who would have lived hundreds of years ago?
Taylor-Joy: “Thomasin was someone I instantly needed to play. It wasn’t something that was a choice for me. I had to do this. And Rob’s actually just said that Thomasin is the worst Puritan ever. She’s not supposed to be a Puritan. It’s not her nature. She doesn’t fit into that world. She’s got this fire in her that is consistently being doused down by her situation. She’s a woman, the time that she’s living in, the fact that the family doesn’t like her, she lost the baby… It’s consistently just dampening her down. She’s actually incredibly strong and fiery. I’m a girl. I went through the same thing that she did. So it was easy to connect in that aspect.”
Eggers: “And I think everyone can relate to feeling like an outsider; trying to find a way to connect and not being able to.”
Anya, the production design and costuming was immaculate and very true to the period. To what extent did that help get you into character?
Taylor-Joy: “Oh my goodness. The set was just… The first day we go there we just walked around the house and we were like ‘Wow. OK, this is a real place, and we are really going to inhabit this place.’ The dirt was great because I don’t like to wear a lot of makeup, and I just got spritzed down with dirt every day, and it was good.
“In terms of the costume, the first time I put it on I couldn’t understand how women dressed themselves. I was like ‘They need at least three people to do this. It’s impossible.’ Two weeks in I could do it in under a minute. But it underscored how repressed women were. It wasn’t just ‘Oh, you shouldn’t speak and your thoughts shouldn’t be listened to.’ It’s actually ‘We’re going to limit your movement. You can’t run as fast as we can. You’re going to struggle to do certain things that we can because we’re wearing breeches and big shirts and we’re just completely different.’ You look at Thomasin’s corseted little sister Mercy. Who would put a child in an outfit like that? She’s just waddling. It’s impossible.”
What is the attraction of evil?
Eggers: “It’s half of what’s going on in the world. People are curious. So whether or not you’re a person who is curious in spite of the fact that it’s scary and you don’t want to look into the dark corner but you’re curious about doing it or you’re a person who says, ‘Man, I’m just going to open up the cave and walk in. What’s going in here?’ there’s different kinds of people. But I think that given the culture we live in, it makes sense that we’re extra curious about this stuff.
“I think that if we were living in despair and horror I would probably be more interested in telling happy stories.”
Taylor-Joy: “I always see it as a denying of rules. It’s like if you don’t want to play by the rules, you look to evil because they don’t play by the rules.”
To the 17th century mind, what did the witch represent?
Eggers: “The witch was a witch. She didn’t represent anything. Now we talk about what she represents, but the witch…”
Taylor-Joy: “…was a real thing.”
What function did she have?
Eggers: “She was an answer…”
Taylor-Joy: “… to the unknown.”
Eggers: “To all these terrible things. If the cow stopped giving milk, if your baby died, the witch could be…”
Taylor-Joy: “…explaining the inexplicable.”