Remember the little Arya Stark who fought her way through “Game of Thrones”? Maisie Williams was her. Today, at the age of 23, the Bristol-born star has seduced Hollywood – she recently starred in the blockbuster “The New Mutant” – but also the jewelry house Cartier, which has engaged her as an ambassador. For Numéro art, the actress, director, producer and muse agreed to incarnate the great masterpieces of painting, from Munch’s “The Scream” to Caravaggio’s “Bacchus”.
For an entire decade, her skill in wielding the sword electrified audiences the world over. She was the flamboyant Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, a child traumatized by adult vio- lence who, over the seasons, became a household heroine. Maisie Williams, who is now 23, did not enjoy a normal adolescence, but was plunged into a high-octane Hollywood existence. Last year she was back on the screen, both in the series Two Weeks to Live and the blockbuster The New Mutants. But she also took on the more glamorous role of ambassador to the house of Cartier for its new Pasha watch. Now a producer as well as an actress, highly committed to feminist and environmental causes, Williams is at last getting a taste of a more normal daily life for someone her age. When Numéro art interviewed her, in Paris where she was staying this summer, we found an actress in the full bloom of her youth, brimming with assured ideas and new ambitions.
Numéro art: You’ve been living in Paris for a few months. Why did you choose the the French capital?
Maisie Williams: I really like being here. I feel very inspired, much more than in London. Also, I’m working with my boyfriend [fashion-world entrepreneur Reuben Selby] on his brand’s first collection. We worked on it during lockdown and would like to do a fashion show at the Ritz. And since everything goes through Zoom, I’m much better off here.
Everyone knows you as an actress, especially in Game of Thrones, but your spectrum is much broader.
I’ve always considered myself a creative person. My true expression crosses several mediums. Limiting yourself to just one form of creativity doesn’t make sense to me. Music influences my acting, my personality is nourished by my relationship with fashion. The range of things that interest me is constantly expanding. Producing has taken a certain place in my life recently, and I’m planning on showcasing young artists. I’m also developing a series that I hope to fund before the end of the year. I’m writing it, producing it and intend to direct it. But it’s a long process! I’ve also been painting for two or three years. But I’m not forgetting my work as an actress – I’m going to start shooting a film about the true story of a ceramicist from the 1920s, which has helped me get into pottery.
What are you inspired by at the moment that fuels this creative whirlwind?
I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music. It puts me in a suspended state. Debussy. I find it very useful for refocusing. Creating such pure art is very powerful. I also set myself the goal of watching a movie a day. I’ve explored the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, Charlie Kaufman and Alex Garland, who wrote The Beach and also directed Ex Machina. I’ve watched a lot of Alma Har’el’s films, including her shorts.
You’re originally from Bristol, so you could have been in the series Skins, which was shot there and marked the 2000s with its trashy representation of teens.
I was eight when Skins started. I discovered it as a vintage series seven years later. [Laughs.] So I couldn’t have been cast. My debut in the audiovisual industry was very different from what you imagine when you think of actresses and actors from England. It’s very difficult to become an actress when you’re from a working-class family. You’re put in a “realistic” box and kept in reserve. Personally, I’ve never felt reduced to just one part of myself. I feel like I can walk into lots of companies and interest a wide variety of people. I have the ability to adapt to the people I meet, including professionally. I’m able to be charming, even if I don’t have social standing. In my opinion, this is the key to success. You have to know how to wear several hats.
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones, which ended in 2019. The role of Arya Stark brought you worldwide stardom, but most of all, you spent all your adolescence and more playing this tenacious character. Does the series seem like a time capsule to you today?
Yes it does. I see that part of my life as a very special mo- ment that will be frozen in time forever. From now on I’ll only be able to see it from the outside – I’ll never again know and understand my life as it was then. But it’s pretty healthy to think of it that way. What happened to me is incredibly bizarre, perhaps one of the most bizarre experiences a young person can have. I learned a lot about myself, I got out, that door is now closed. It’s a very powerful feeling.
Do you feel like you missed something from your youth and have reconnected with reality these past 18 months?
When the show ended, I had a strange feeling, as though I’d been pretending to be an adult for ten years when in fact I wasn’t. A few months ago, I downloaded TikTok, which is a very detailed gateway into my generation’s brain. What young people think and feel runs through this app in one way or another. I understood everything I’d missed as a teenager. While I was in lockdown, I connected with my younger “me,” the reckless 15-year-old – a recklessness I didn’t have back then. It was lovely. Now when I’m in contact with people my age, I see myself as less of a stranger. I’m more natural. This wasn’t the case in the world of movies and series, where I pretended to be an adult. I’ve been doing it for so long… It took me away from something. I was happy to finally take off my mask, so to speak.
Your generation seems more inclusive and more involved in the future of the planet than those that came before. Why would you say that is?
Our generation is more lucid, for sure. I feel respect and awe for the planet we live on. The future matters to us. It’s hard to say why, but we no longer accept certain behaviours. Why haven’t others before us taken up the challenge of kindness and inclusion? I can’t say. What’s certain is that, in the past ten years, the development of technology has been a milestone. Political struggles have been another. A new world is emerging, and many people are desperately clinging to the old one. There are so many unknowns. I feel it very strongly: we’re at a turning point. It’s like humanity was inside a pressure cooker. I think historians looking back at our era 200 years from now will consider it a time of major importance. In this context, extraordinary works can be born and art will hold a central place.
What are your plans for the future?
I don’t plan much in my life. My goal is to make others happy, to help them discover new perspectives. As an actress, a lot of the things I do are difficult and intense. I’d like my contribution to the world to be more and more positive, and the least sad possible. I want to direct in order to accomplish my vision. I’ve been fascinated by this profession since I started as an actress.
Your character in Game of Thrones has often been associated with the word “badass,” meaning someone mighty and indestructible, a warrior. Do you claim it?
I’ll tell you the truth: to me, that word doesn’t mean much. Frankly, it’s kind of a crappy expression, right? I think people feel the need to put labels on women when they aren’t “feminine.” At any rate it’s one way of getting them to fit into a box. I know it’s supposed to be flattering and kind to say “badass,” but I think all women have extremely diverse layers within them. It’s true that I take on roles like Arya Stark, which are supposedly typically masculine. But you shouldn’t focus just on that. Women can be fragile, and that’s great too. “Badass” is used too often. We deserve better!
Maisie attended the Ami Alexandre Mattiussi : Photocall – Paris Fashion Week, I have added photos to our gallery, enjoy!
CHARLIE HEATON: So how do we do this? Do we just start? I wrote some questions.
MAISIE WILLIAMS: You actually had to write questions? I thought they were just going to give you questions.
HEATON: I’m prepared. Where are you living right now?
WILLIAMS: Technically I live in London, but I’ve been flitting around a bit. I don’t really know where I want to live. I don’t think we want to be in London anymore. I think we quite like being in the countryside, but whether we stay in Britain or we go to France, we’re still deciding.
HEATON: I remember you mentioned that you didn’t know where to call home. I think you actually said, “I don’t really love being anywhere.” That resonated with me, because we have this job where we don’t ever feel settled. You move around a lot.
WILLIAMS: Just out of curiosity, where did you end up buying?
HEATON: In Atlanta.
HEATON: I’ve spent time in New York, but I found that it’s a great place to visit. Every time I go somewhere, I’m like, “This is where I want to be.” And then I’m like, “But do I want to live here?” So it was a surprise for me to buy this place. I like Atlanta because it’s calm, and I’ve got friends here, so it makes sense.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’m trying to figure it out. I have had a couple of different places, and I rent them all out at the moment, but I guess what I really missed is having a place which is my own, that I always go back to.
HEATON: I’ve lived out of a suitcase for four years. When you’re a young actor, you’re expected to live a transient life. You start to feel a bit anxious about that. I read somewhere that you’re learning French. How’s that going?
WILLIAMS: It’s going well. Every time I think I’m fluent, I realize I don’t have a clue how to say anything, but I’m going back to Paris to learn some more. I’ve been going to this school called Alliance Francaise, and it’s really great. It’s been nice to spend this downtime concentrating on something because when you don’t have a role to prepare for, or a script to read, or an audition to do, you can feel a bit lost. It’s been nice to use this time and do something that’s all my own, and not for anyone else.
HEATON: If these questions are boring, you can just say, “Stop asking me these dumb questions.” We’ll do a couple of Game of Thrones questions and that’s it. What did it feel like on your last day on set? Is it burned into your memory?
WILLIAMS: A lot, actually. I was just so hyper-aware, every day of the final season, because I really wanted to savor every last piece of it. A lot of my final scenes were in episode five, which was the battle episode, and I was covered in blood, dust, and rubble, so it was really hot. Before every take, I’d have to lie down and they’d pour this icky blood over my eyes, and then they’d put the dust on top, and then more blood. And we’d reset it every single take. I’d have to tilt my head to the side so that the blood went sideways, across my eyelids. It was uncomfortable, but every time I was like, “I’m never, ever, ever going to get to do this again.”
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I think because I had really savored everything, by the time it was over I was ready to let go. There wasn’t any part of me that was clawing at it to stay. And now I’ve come to realize there’s so many parts of the industry which I haven’t even touched, and it’s really exciting to meet with filmmakers, producers, and writers who work on things of all different types of scale, and learn things that are so new to me. I feel ready to show everyone the other parts of myself which they’ve never gotten to see before.
HEATON: I got to watch Two Weeks to Live, which I really loved. You worked on that with Sian Clifford, who I met once and who was so lovely. What was it like to work with her?
WILLIAMS: Sian is truly the kindest soul that I’ve ever worked with. She’ll go out of her way to tell people that she really respects their work. It sounds so simple, but it’s rare to meet people who dedicate their lives to lifting others up. From the readthrough, we were completely on the same page about the characters, the traps we didn’t want to fall in, the mistakes we didn’t want to make, what we needed to amplify, and what we wanted to hold back on. She’s nothing like her character in Fleabag. She’s so sweet and lovely, but she does bitter and angry so well.
HEATON: That’s really nice to hear. There’s something to be said about just being nice.
WILLIAMS: It goes a long way. The age of people being rewarded for poor behavior is slowly ending. We have the best job in the world, and I don’t know why people need to be so angry, because it’s so joyous. And especially right now, we’re at this breaking point. So many parts of society are desperately trying to cling onto this old world, and things are progressing so fast, and it’s such a pressurized moment in time. To be making art right now is special. What we do is going to be around forever, I think. There’s no need to be so mean during that, because you’re so lucky.
HEATON: In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of shows with strong female leads, like Fleabag, Killing Eve, and your show. You’ve been pretty outspoken about that kind of representation. Do you want to talk about that?
WILLIAMS: I’ve had such a wonderful opportunity to play amazing characters in the beginning of my career, and I’ve learned so much from the women who came before me, because it’s meant that I’ve had a new and a better experience than some of them. It’s like passing the baton. But we’re at a point where unless there are female writers, or female directors, or female producers who can bring these stories to life, there will always be a disconnect between the material and how it’s put together. A lot of people rely on female actors, like, “Can you just sew up all these holes that we haven’t quite figured out? Because none of us know what it’s like to be a young woman in society today.” That’s fine, but there are incredible female writers out there that are doing this already, or incredible female directors who can help with this very problem.
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I was defined by so many of these characters. I grew up watching Sarah Connor in Terminator, or Ripley in Alien, or Trinity in The Matrix. Coming off of Game of Thrones, I was like, “When am I going to play that character?” And then I looked back and realized, “Oh, I think I’ve done that.”
HEATON: Oh, you have. I did want to ask about that cool fight scene in episode two, because I felt it had nods to Game of Thrones. Was it fun?
WILLIAMS: I’ve never really done hand-to-hand combat before. Everything I did on that show was with weapons, which I did enjoy, but it was so much more fun throwing fists.
HEATON: It’s so brutal. How long did you do that for?
WILLIAMS: The whole sequence, from breaking into the house to the end of the fight, was probably four or five days. But really, the big fight, we did it in two nights. We didn’t have long at all to shoot the entire show, so all of the shots were planned before. We had a really strong plan of action, which I’d never experienced before.
HEATON: Also, late last night me and my housemates got to see The Owners.
WILLIAMS: Was it scary?
HEATON: It was fucking creepy. Have you not seen it?
WILLIAMS: I did. I thought it was really scary, but it’s hard to know.
HEATON: Natalia [Dyer, Heaton’s girlfriend] had to leave the room three times. She was like, “I’m done.” Speaking of new experiences, was this your first full-on horror movie?
WILLIAMS: I really wanted to do a psychological thriller. I’ve always loved the genre, and this was set in rural England in the ‘90s, so I thought the imagery would be really cool.
HEATON: For sure. I’m from Bridlington, so I’m really familiar with that lower-class council ‘90s feeling. You’re from Bath, right?
WILLIAMS: No, I was born in Bristol, and then I moved to Bath when I was about 16, so I spent a lot of time in both places. But yeah, that feeling of no escape, very little opportunity, and a lot of petty crime, that was just how we grew up, so it was awfully familiar.
HEATON: I wanted to ask you about this, because coming from Bridlington and Bristol, it felt almost impossible to become an actor. Even being on EastEnders felt untouchable. Do you ever think about that? Because when I go home and I go to the local pub with my old friends, I do get that feeling. It’s difficult being from a working-class background and coming from a small town to trying to break into acting. It is, unfortunately, a little classist. A girl in Bridlington sent me a message saying, “I wanted to be an actor, but I decided it’s probably not going to happen, so I gave up. But then I watched Stranger Things and read you were from Bridlington, so now I’m trying to get into drama school.”
HEATON: I understand that.
WILLIAMS: I think the fear of never escaping stops people from ever getting out. I’ve never really spoken to you about how you got started.
HEATON: I grew up in Bridlington until I was 16, and I lived with my mum and my sisters. I finished school, got my GCSE’s, and at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was in between music and acting, but my dad lived in London, and I knew I wanted to go there, because whatever I wanted to do, I knew there was more out there than just this town. And I remember my mum being like, “Just make sure you apply for Bridlington Sports College in case you change your mind.” That was the first big decision of many. I moved to London and lived with my dad, and for those first six to eight months, I was super lonely. My dad didn’t really know how to look after a 16-year-old boy. He’d leave me two pounds in the kitchen and be like, “Go get some beans,” so I lived off fried beans and toast. But I stuck it out. And in the beginning it was music. I met a few bands, my uncle had a recording studio, and within the first eight months, I’d joined this band and we did a UK tour. Things were going in the right direction. Then I joined another band, and I got to tour in Canada and Japan, and at that point I was like, “I’ve made it. I’m only 18 but I can die now.” But then my dad wanted rent. He’s like, “You’re 18 now, you’re paying rent.” You’ve only been supplying me with beans for the last two years, and now you want rent off me? For God’s sake. But my sister was like, “Come with me to this casting. If they take you on you could maybe get some commercial work on the side and make a few grand.” And I was like, “A few grand? Wow.” That’s where it began, in an advert for EE, in a conga line with Kevin Bacon. That was my first job.
WILLIAMS: No way. You’re in an EE advert?
HEATON: I was in an EE commercial doing the Conga.
WILLIAMS: I’m so glad I asked. I had no idea. That is perfect.
HEATON: I got two grand, and congaed with a movie star. I was pretty happy.
WILLIAMS: And then Charlie Heaton was born.
HEATON: I would say this to anyone trying to do this. Just take what you can, because you never know what’ll happen.
WILLIAMS: I’ve always got the same advice for people. You’ve got to take every opportunity, even if it’s not an end game. It all pushes you forward, and it’s all going to make a difference. And it will make a wonderful segment in an interview one day.
Makeup by Carole Truquès.
With the hit series behind her, the 23-year-old British actress is ready to forge her own path, both with a new crop of films and as a brand ambassador for Cartier’s Pasha collection.
Last fall Maisie Williams turned heads during Paris Fashion Week, wearing matching outfits (and makeup) with her boyfriend, Reuben Selby, while sitting front row at Thom Browne. This year, the actor spent her summer in Paris, building partnerships with brands such as Cartier, Jacquemus, Courrèges, and awaiting her next chapter. “As an actress, the best advice I received was to put my personality aside in order to find one that matches each role,” she says. “In fashion, it’s different—you have to understand exactly who you are to be able to represent the brand and the look.”
It’s nearly impossible to forget Arya Stark’s personality. The ruthless warrior Williams played from ages 13 to 21 (eight seasons) on Game of Thrones was beloved among a cast of distinct, oversized personalities. Arya began as a mischievous young girl and grew into an avenging assassin—a tomboy surviving in a male-dominated world. And it can’t be easy to experiment with one’s masculine side while also becoming a young woman; nor to build one’s own character when playing someone else. With short hair and flattened breasts, Arya had to grow up very fast and learn how to protect herself. Williams too. Both Arya and Williams have silenced their critics in different ways: the pretenders to the throne for Arya, and the internet trolls that have disparaged Williams’ looks. Both subverted feminine stereotypes. We’ll never forget Arya discussing her period between battles, reminding Jon Snow that women continually see more blood than men. Now Williams is free to take back her own body and become herself.
For all that blood and violence, Williams is still not finished, and joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe in her role as Rahne in the latest X-Men movie, The New Mutants. Sitting amid the horror and superhero genres, The New Mutants is a real lockdown movie, perfect for a generation traumatized by the global pandemic. “The young mutants are in lockdown in a medical center, apparently to protect themselves and understand their powers, since they don’t know their nature or how big they can get,” she says. “My character is discovering her sexuality, falling in love with another girl, and they are protecting each other instead of fighting. It offers a new perspective to the Marvel movies. It’s somewhere in between The Breakfast Club and Stephen King.”
Coincidentally, confinement seemed to be a theme, with two other related projects from Williams this year. In the TV series Two Weeks to Live, she stars as Kim, a young woman who has been raised in violent doomsday-prepper isolation for years. She rejoins society to avenge the death of her father, and quickly finds herself mixed up in a prank gone horribly wrong. Williams also stars in The Owners, a horror film based on a graphic novel, in which a group of young lawless kids try to break into an old Victorian mansion owned by an elderly couple. “It’s set in the ’90s, so I created a style for it, full of denim and with bleached hair. Like everyone else I’m obsessed with ’90s style,” says Williams.
The actress has also recently invested her time and resources into her own production company. “I created Pint-Sized Pictures with two girlfriends to showcase unknown women’s talents,” she says. “We’re working on music videos, short and long films, and sometimes shows. As for the name, it’s because I’m short, the height of a pint!”
From supporting creative talents and mentoring young women to establishing her own style in acting and fashion, Williams is very much a product of her generation. Add to that animal activism, too. After the many years spent in Westeros, she’s determined to make up for lost time.
Maisie Williams for L’Officiel
Maisie, you once described success as getting to learn things on set that you didn’t think yourself capable of. Has that influenced the characters you choose to play?
(Laughs) That’s funny that the young me was like, “I want to learn new skills!” I get what she was saying but these days I’ll do a film because I like the genre or because it’s something more tonally interesting to me. I think I’ve done a lot of big action stuff and a lot things that are somewhat surreal and hyperreal, so I guess I’m now really craving doing something which is a lot more authentic and a lot more honest to the girl who I am. I feel like there’s so many other sides to myself which I haven’t been able to show yet.
So you want to move away from these more physically demanding action roles?
I’m interested less in that and more in something like Blue Valentine, where it’s a very intense relationship, whether that’s romantic or just friendship or whatever, and it’s just very rooted within now. You just see two flawed people who are trying to navigate the world together — less physically draining and more emotionally draining, I guess.
And that kind of character can be just as, if not more, complex and interesting as one who is a fighter or a hero.
I think that there’s so much strength in women who aren’t the typically masculine view of powerful. I think this is something that Taylor Swift and Lana del Rey speak about all the time… So many of the women I’ve played have been overly masculine and they’ve been applauded for that, but there’s also a strength in a woman who isn’t shouting and screaming; a woman who is incredibly vulnerable and is just in some ways more complex. There’s a part of myself which is like that too, and I really try and learn about that. I’m very sensitive to my own emotions but also to other people’s, so the thought of creating a story between two people where there’s so many questions to be answered, that just really interests me.
Apparently when you played Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, you drew on a lot of your own feelings and past experiences. How do you go about channeling those emotions for a part?
Yeah. I think it’s called emotional memory, I can’t remember the exact term, but basically, you find a time in your life where you felt something similar to this and you try and understand why it made you feel that way and what it was about and why it affected you. Then you manipulate the situation that you’re doing on screen, and fit it into those very real memories and emotions. A lot of my real idols speak about their process and quite often speak about the art of pretend and imagination and being able to push that very far… But sometimes you can push it too far and things can become too real, and you can lose yourself a bit.
It sounds like it has the potential to be an almost torturous experience, reliving all those very real emotions.
It does… I think that because I was so young, I didn’t really know how to protect my own emotional state. I did that quite often where I dug up a lot of things that made me feel horrific emotions — and that’s what I ended up being praised for, you know? But I think now I’ve learned to protect myself more and not have to dig things up that hurt as much. I still do that, but there’s a way of doing that now which is more about the imagination.
How do you do that?
I think what really helps for me is when I can play a character who has an accent! Then it’s like a distance between yourself and the character. You can also do that with costume and make up… Being able to create this new person is ultimately something which really protects me at the end of the day: being able to remove all the make up and the wig and the clothes and leave it at work, and then go home and be myself again.
What about when the role isn’t so far removed from yourself? Does that make it harder to leave it on set?
Well, sometimes when you’re playing a teenage girl, like for example Mary from my last film The Owners, who is just like you or similar to you, you can get lost in it and it can become very honest and real. I think a lot of women, not necessarily me, but a lot of women can relate to her situation of giving so much to a relationship that is not giving enough back to you. So that film for me was a lot more gritty and… I don’t want to say realistic because horror movies rarely are, but there was something about it that was more authentic. But the role that really stuck with me in that way was Lydia from the film The Falling, It’s about an all-girls school in the sixties. Lydia’s best friend dies and after that, she sort of has these bouts of hysteria and starts becoming a negative influence on a lot of the girls around her.
What was it about the role that stuck with you?
It was such an interesting time in my life, I had left school but I just so desperately wanted to fit in, but nothing about me was ever supposed to fit in. I didn’t know if I was a grown up yet or if I was still a child. I was working on set on my own, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I think the combination of all of those things went into this film and I can see it all on my face. Looking back I feel bad for that girl because I was so lost. But for the movie, it’s so wonderful and it’s the proudest thing that I’ve ever been a part of… And I can say that now because I’m here and although I’m still a very emotionally sensitive person, I’m also a much happier person! (Laughs)
Emma Stone said that she used to think that being a sensitive person was a curse — but lately she is trying to use that as a compelling force for discovery and change.
Oh, she’s a longtime idol of mine! I have always related to a lot of the things that she’s said, so it’s very interesting that she said that. I’ve found that this sensitivity can be a curse and it can be really painful… I definitely am trying to manage my worries and anxieties and combat a lot of things with rationality and evidence. But when you are a panic prone person, that’s just like the battle of overcoming your mental illness. I try and meditate a lot. I meditate every night before I go to bed because otherwise I can’t sleep… So it’s just a lot of combating things with calmness and with reality. And the thing I think I’ve learned the most this year is being able to be empathetic.
In what ways?
I think the most painful thing is when I carry so much for other people. Like, I’m learning that you can be aware of someone’s feelings and help them, but you don’t have to take responsibility for them. You don’t have to hold this weight for them. Ultimately that’s their journey and there’s nothing you can do which will change that. People have to change things for themselves. Learning to not take the responsibility for other people’s emotions really does set you free.
Maisie Williams interviews for The Talks.