As Game of Thrones’ cherubic assassin comes of age just in time for the general election, she talks sexual taboos and why generation selfie won’t be silenced
Taken from the spring/summer 2015 issue of Dazed:
Maisie Williams is fed up with being told that her generation is more concerned with selfie sticks than politics. “I picked up my voice at a young age and I wanna use it,” declares the Game of Thrones actress, who would rather protest for animal rights than pose for paps. “People think we’re fucking stupid and we don’t know anything about anything. It’s really degrading. I get a lot of adults who are like, ‘You don’t know shit,’ and it’s like, ‘You don’t know shit. You have no idea what it’s like to be 17 years old.’”
The star of the most downloaded show in TV history turns 18 just in time for the general election, but she’s still not sure which box she’ll be checking come May 7. “Mum was like, ‘Read the manifestos and vote for what’s good for you,’” she says, rolling her eyes. “And I was just like... ‘Err, none of this.’” Sitting in a north London breakfast spot in scruffy kicks and nose stud, Williams refuses coffee, but jabbers away like she’s buzzed off her nut, contorts her face like Pee-wee Herman, giggles along like your new best mate, shrieks when shocked, and explains the meaning of ‘thirsty’ with relish to any grown-up that’ll listen. It’s the same infectious personality that’s won her a huge following online, where she’s equally at home snapping herself singing Joni Mitchell’s famous lines “don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” as an elegy to her empty fridge as she is bumping to OT Genasis’ viral smash “CoCo” in the club.
Since entering cult consciousness at the age of 12, Williams – who was “raising hell in the 90s”, according to her Instagram bio – has left a trail of fire and brimstone in her wake. As Game of Thrones’ bull-headed badass Arya Stark, she favours her trusty blade, Needle, over needlework, and roams the Seven Kingdoms with a pageboy hairdo striking off foes from her kill list. Playing a murderous outlaw must have taught her a thing or two about cutting close to the bone: away from dragon’s den, she’s cultivated a taste for roles that veer away from trite teen tropes to shine a spotlight on the dark side of humanity. After recently taking on pervy hackers in Channel 4’s Cyberbully, she plays the lead in Carol Morley’s twisted school-set feature The Falling, released this month, which has more in common with A Clockwork Orange than the jolly hockey sticks of St Trinian’s.
In The Falling, Williams plays Lydia, the troubled daughter of a paranoid agoraphobic mother in rural England. It’s 1969, and Lydia is naive, sexually inexperienced and content to play sidekick to her magnetic friend (outstanding newcomer Florence Pugh) until a tragic twist puts her at the centre of a fainting epidemic in her panopticon-like all-girls school. Branded hysterical by doctors, suffocated by school ma’ams and maddened by her mum, she grows increasingly unhinged, plunging into a vortex of unknown emotions and forbidden pleasures as the film hurtles towards a skin-crawling climax.
Few Hollywood starlets would embrace going full-tilt teen tearaway so early in their careers, but, as her peers attest, Williams isn’t cut from the same spangled cloth. “I’ve never met anyone around that age more sure of themselves, more together or certain of their opinions,” says Ben Chanan, the Bafta-winning director and co-writer of Cyberbully. “She’s very opinionated about social and political stuff, but also about every tiny creative element of the filmmaking process – and she’s usually right.” Actress Maxine Peake, who recently starred in The Theory of Everything and plays Williams’ mum in The Falling, agrees: “Maisie is fearless. That is all you can ask for as an actor. Talent and bravery equals star quality.”
For Morley, Williams’ uncompromising attitude and knife-edge intensity made her a perfect fit for the role. The director hadn’t seen her act before, but scheduled a meeting with her potential leading lady after looking up a few of the actress’s spirited interviews on YouTube. “I wanted to get a sense of who she was, of how she related to people as a person – not as a role in an existing film or series,” Morley explains. “Lydia is a difficult role to play, because she’s not an entirely sympathetic person – she is full of contradictions, powerful at times, vulnerable at others, and often thrown into confusion.”
“She was absolutely mental!” recalls Williams affectionately of her first meeting with Morley. The pair are still close, and caught up over dinner last night. “But you kind of need someone like that for a film like this. It is quite weird.” She smiles impishly. “Like, at the beginning, Lydia is so insecure, but then as the film goes on, it becomes provocative.” She’s putting it mildly: after leading her mates in a teen rebellion, Lydia loses her virginity in an insane – not to mention illegal – tryst. It was her first sex scene, and Williams knew it had to be spot-on. “Sexuality in girls isn’t really explored as much as it should be. We’re quite cool with talking about sexuality in women or boys and men, but not girls. Everyone gets freaked out – it’s quite a taboo thing for girls to wanna have sex. Everyone’s like, ‘Oooh, we can’t talk about that!’ I think, as a girl growing up with that taboo, you feel wrong for meeting boys and stuff.”
In between shovelling scrambled eggs and salmon into her mouth, Williams admits that she has never had “a serious boyfriend that I’ve been in love with”, and so takes her cues from films such as Blue Valentine and Like Crazy (“real love stories that show you it’s not a magical fairytale”). It’s not that unusual to look to the movies for the lowdown on relationships – hey, even Magic Mike XXL can teach you a lot about love – but the regular trips to Belfast for Game of Thrones don’t leave Williams with much choice. She admires Like Crazy for its depiction of how messy the long-distance thing can get: “I met (the film’s star) Felicity Jones recently, and I was totally in my head wanting to say, ‘Like Crazy taught me so much about love and (as an actor) how to portray love with a complete stranger,’ but I got there and was just like, ‘Errm!’” She does that Pee-wee Herman thing with her mouth. “I couldn’t say anything! I complimented her on her dress about seven times, I think.”
“I’ve been lucky,” she qualifies, “but one thing that the best role in the world can’t give you is just being, like, a normal teenager. With (The Falling’s) Lydia, I was drawing on feeling quite secluded. Even though there are so many fantastic things going on, sometimes it doesn’t matter. You feel like, ‘Oh, I’d love to have this week off.’ I’d love to know what it would have been like to just stay in school – to be doing A-levels and thinking about which university I’m gonna go to.” She would have liked to study maths, she thinks. Algebra was her favourite.
“I don’t wanna be liked just because I’m pretty. That’s fucking boring, and I’m not that” – Maisie Williams
In fact, being an actress wasn’t even part of the plan for Williams – there was no Dina Lohan-style momager lurking in the wings, grooming her for stardom – but she stood out from the pack from an early age, even in her pre-teen dance classes. Like “Chandelier” dancer Maddie Ziegler? She hits back witheringly: “Yeah, and my mum was a dance mom, too.” As the youngest of four siblings (she also has two half-siblings), the reality of her childhood was more Homebase than Honey Boo Boo.
Williams began to push the parameters of pirouetting at age 11, attending an improvisation workshop with her local dance clique. “We’d never done acting or improvisation,” she recalls. “Lots of people just panicked, but I was like, ‘Oh my god, you can literally do anything!’ I had such a crazy imagination.” The event was run by local mum and talent agent Louise Johnston, who told Williams she should consider acting. “I never went in there intentionally to be an actress,” says Williams. “I just went for shits and giggles.” Recognising the confident kid’s raw ability, Johnston became Williams’ agent and arranged an audition for school holiday-seatbait Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. “I didn’t look old enough,” says Williams of missing out on the role. “There were lots of other brothers and sisters and you had to fit in with the family.”
Happily, the next role she was up for was one where she could own her difference. All the same, Williams had private reservations about keeping the appointment to audition for HBO’s big-budget adaptation of George RR Martin’s knotty, pitch-black fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire. It clashed with a school trip to the local pig farm, and she was convinced that her crush would end up canoodling with another pal at the porker party. But when Johnston gave her pitch – “(Arya) is a bit of a tomboy. She’s got an older sister who is more into the girly thing, but she just wants to play with her brothers and go into battle” – Williams was sold. And after she auditioned with a fiery monologue saying she’d rather slum it on horseback than recline on the feather pillows of Queen Cersei’s carriage, so was everyone else.
British actor Kit Harington, who plays Williams’ half- brother Jon Snow in the series, recalls meeting the young actress at a read-through six years ago. “She didn’t seem like a child actor,” he says. “She had an enthusiasm and professionalism that hadn’t been taught. I was kind of astounded that there was this 11-year-old absolutely nailing it, without anyone telling her what to do or how to do it. (Arya) is one of the hardest parts to cast, and what you’re really looking for is that character in the child. When Maisie walked into the room, that’s what they got. She had the energy of Arya, the cockiness and reckless abandon. They’re kindred spirits, really.”
You can bet that someone, somewhere is writing a tome tracing the fantasy heroine in pop culture from Princess Leia and Buffy to Katniss Everdeen and Arya Stark. As a tomboy prone to disguising herself as an actual boy in a man’s world, Arya’s pursuit of vengeance for her mum and dad’s deaths has emerged as the series’ most fascinating storyline. Last season climaxed with an unforgettable shot of her at the bow of a longboat travelling to the unknown city of Braavos, ready to embark on the next phase of her murderous mission. If Game of Thrones had its own version of the recent “This Girl Can” advertising campaign, you can bet Arya would be its poster girl. We need more people like her. “She’s a really interesting feminist icon,” says Williams of her character. “But also very unaware of that.”
The world has taken notice. “I saw Lupita Nyong’o at a Golden Globes after-party last year,” recalls Williams excitedly. “I went over and was like, ‘I respect massively what you’ve done.’ She said thanks and was very gracious. And then at the bar later on, she came over and was like, ‘I’ve just realised who you are! It sounds stupid, but I’ve learned so much from you. I watch Game of Thrones all the time, and honestly, being so new myself in this industry, I was just watching people who had done the same sort of thing.” What drew Nyong’o to Williams’ character? “I think it was just the strong women in film and television thing,” she shrugs, at ease with the compliment. “They aren’t written enough. Yeah, I think that was something she liked.”
“Sexuality in girls isn’t explored as much as it should be. Everyone gets freaked out – it’s quite a taboo thing for girls to wanna have sex” – Maisie Williams
Seeing as she spends the best part of the year as an Amazonian spirit in Peter Pan spats who skulks the Seven Kingdoms ominously intoning “Valar morghulis” (“All men must die”), it’s perhaps inevitable that Williams became au fait with feminist thinking earlier than most. In December, she was quoted as being “impatient” with Emma Watson’s “first-world feminism”. The reports frustrated the young actress, who actually thought Watson’s UN speech was “amazing”, and wasn’t used to having her 19-to-the-dozen dialogue being picked over for clickbait. Today, she clarifies what she was really getting at: “It’s not perfect for me and for people in my position, it’s totally not perfect, but there are so many women that can’t speak out about how shit things are.” Basically, Williams was checking her privilege: using her own voice to illuminate the fact that many females don’t have one. Her self-awareness is rare. The criticism really upset her, though, and she emailed Watson to apologise for the headlines. The reply in her inbox read, “I understand, and I’ve been in that position.”
The depressing irony? Her interview was to promote Cyberbully, a one-off drama exploring just how easy it is to put someone down when there’s a screen in-between. A welcome antidote to TV’s typical teen portrayals, Williams’ character in the show, Casey, faces an extreme version of the kind of struggle you suspect Angela Chase would endure if My So-Called Life was rebooted for 2015. Casey is a smart and witty girl, who, like most teenagers, has sometimes slagged off her classmates, and may have taken the odd below-the-neck selfie. While Skyping her best friend one night, Casey’s laptop is invaded by a hacker, who accuses her of being a cyberbully in scary, HAL 2.0 synthesised tones.
Williams felt the urgency of the script’s message, but the first draft seemed a bit out of touch. Knowing that the show had to give an authentic voice to the complexities of online life, she sat down with director Ben Chanan and went through the dialogue line-for-line. “I thought, if it’s gonna be good and people are really gonna watch this, pay attention and learn from it, then it has to be more believable.” Williams struck a red pen through every ‘BFF’ on the page, but she was erasing from the heart. The project had struck uncannily close to home, bringing back painful memories of cruel jibes from schoolkids and strangers when she took the role of Arya in Game of Thrones. “It still makes me feel really hot inside when I think about all the horrible things that they said. It was nasty, but it was something I could draw on.”
Any digital native will be familiar with the way that online abuse can turn your day topsy-turvy, so it’s no surprise that Williams’ survival instinct makes her so popular with fellow teens – just check the comments on her selfies for evidence. Channelling the uncertainties of adolescence into her powerful performances, Williams treats her roles more like soul-searching challenges than assignments – and has emerged as a spokesperson for her generation in the process. As all the best actresses know, you can only fake it till you make it for so long. Williams doesn’t only start the conversation, she knows how to be the change you want to see.
Next week, she’s boarding a plane to New Orleans to play “a bit of a gutter rat” in an indie movie, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. “She doesn’t take any shit,” Williams explains of her character. Naturally. The shooting schedule has her there for Mardi Gras, and she’s excited. When Williams is excited, she bops on the balls of her feet and lets out an “eeeee!” from the bottom of her throat. It’s disarmingly endearing. And after that? Cyberbully colleague Chanan can see her directing one day. A folding chair behind the camera would suit someone who considers the message as carefully as the medium. Florence Pugh, her co-star in The Falling, predicts even bigger things: “Five years from now,” she says, “Maisie could be running the world. And I would not be remotely shocked.”
“Whether I like it or not, I’ve become influential to people,” says Williams as she gets ready to leave the cafe and pack her bags for the Big Easy. “I don’t wanna be liked just because I’m pretty. That’s fucking boring, and I’m not that. Lots of young people in this industry try and play it cool, but it just makes them look like arrogant dickheads. I’d much rather be liked because people realise that I’m standing up for myself.”
hair Raphael Salley at Streeters using Schwarzkopf Essence Ultime; make-up Gemma Smith-Edhouse at LGA Management; nails Adam Slee at Streeters for Rimmel London; set design Janina Pedan at The Magnet Agency; photographic assistants Chris Rhodes, Jack Symes; styling assistants Louise Ford, Laura Page, Joey Ebbutt; hair assistant Delphine Bonnet; make-up assistant Rebecca Davenport; set design assistant Keira Fox; digital operator Lee Whittaker; on-set production Sylvia Farago; on-set production assistant Rose Easton at Sylvia Farago Ltd; production Julia Hackel at Intrepid; post-production Studio Private
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