Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner on their unbreakable sisterhood, surreal teenage years, and the most anticipated finale ever
There have been all manner of supernatural manifestations, many of them quite unpleasant, on HBO’s Game of Thrones, which begins its eighth and final season in April: resurrections, premonitions, psychic time travel, a killer shadow baby, a vast army of dead dudes, a fireproof queen, a zombie dragon, regular dragons.(And over in the unnatural category, a truly weird amount mersin bayan of incest.) But one of the first inexplicable GoT events was far more benign — sweet, even. From the moment a 12-year-old Maisie Williams caught sight of 13-year-old Sophie Turner at their 2009 chemistry read for the roles of the Stark sisters, their connection was deep and uncanny. “We were pretty much best friends from that second on,” says Turner, now 23.
“I thought Sophie was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” says Williams, now 21. “I get why they do chemistry reads, because when it’s right, it’s so right. Like, we’re best friends. And they could see that all those years ago, and it must have been real magic watching these two girls have the best time together.”
Even in the face of a potentially life-changing audition, “there was a lot of laughter that day,” says Nina Gold, the show’s U.K.-based casting director (who also discovered Daisy Ridley for the current Star Wars trilogy). “Maisie seemed like a very old soul in a very tiny body. Really quite Arya-like. Sophie was more of a little girl, which she certainly is not anymore.”
That year, Game of Thrones had its very first wrap party, in Belfast, Ireland, after cast and crew finished shooting its pilot, an episode that never aired. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss realized just in time that it was clunky and hard to follow — they recast several key roles and reshot it, saving their show. Turner and Williams, among the youngest cast members, may have been the first to sense something wasn’t right. As Weiss and Benioff recall in a joint email interview, the girls were distraught at the party: “We remember the both of them bawling and hugging each other, because they loved each other so much after only a few short weeks, and were afraid they’d never see each other again, because the show wouldn’t get picked up. It was a viable fear. But we’re very grateful that it didn’t work out that way, and that they both got to spend all those years with each other, and with us.”
Toward the end of Game of Thrones’ first season, the Starks’ lives collapse when royal intrigue leads to the arrest of family patriarch Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) — an all-too-decent man among vipers — on false charges, leading to the prompt removal of his head. Arya goes into hiding, disguised as a boy, plotting revenge, while Sansa is betrothed to monstrous child-king Joffrey. The girls were cast to the winds, heartbreakingly unprotected, crossing from innocence to darkest experience in harrowing story arcs that have always been the show’s emotional core.
After that, Turner and Williams wouldn’t get to shoot a single scene together again until their characters reunited in 2016 for Season Seven. That may have been for the best. “We’re a nightmare to work with,” Turner says. “If you’re working with your best friend, you will never get any work done, ever. Anytime we tried to be serious about anything, it’s just the hardest thing in the world. I think they really regretted putting us in scenes together. It was difficult.”
enioff and Weiss had to carve their own course for the past couple of seasons, after outpacing Martin’s writing. “I’ve been so slow with these books,” Martin says, with palpable pain. “The major points of the ending will be things I told them five or six years ago. But there may also be changes, and there’ll be a lot added.”
Winter is here, both in Westeros and in this gentrifying East London neighborhood, where the season takes the form of gray skies leaking icy rain rather than a continent-spanning snowstorm that could last a generation. At 9 a.m. sharp, a groggy but cheerful Maisie Williams, straight off a plane from a Fashion Week trip to Paris, steps into a gourmet-vegetarian coffee shop right by her flat. She’s thoroughly burrowed into a cozy black turtleneck sweater over leather pants and leopard-print Coach boots. She’s toting a Coach bag festooned with cartoon characters, including a cute squirrel carrying a hammer — slightly sinister, she admits. (She used to have a Coach endorsement deal, which came with a free shopping spree.) “I feel hella rough,” she says. “But I look chic, so . . . ”
She’s big on pink these days. Her hair, cut into blunt bangs, is a metallic shade of it, offering a striking contrast with her fierce black eyebrows. Her nails are pink, too. “I love pink so much,” she says from deep within her turtleneck. “It’s my favorite color in the whole wide world. I come into the office every day” — she founded a social-media-for-creatives app called Daisie — “and I get my pink laptop out with my pink hair, and I wear a pink hoodie and I have a pink background on my screen, and a pink screen saver. For so long I pretended that my favorite color was green — I thought I wasn’t a feminist if my favorite color was pink. And then I decided that’s fucking stupid.”
The hair, in particular, is a declaration of independence, or at least of wanting a break from acting. “I guess, subconsciously, I dyed it because I didn’t want to work,” she says. “It’s a pretty good way of stopping that. And it just feels so good, so me. I’ve battled my whole adolescence with trying to put a stamp on my appearance, but also be a blank canvas as an actor.”
Her late-breaking embrace of a Barbie Dreamhouse color scheme is also a reaction to a decade of life as Arya Stark, which meant spending a chunk of her teenage years murdering people while wearing various shades of dirt-encrusted brown. Along the way, there were some uncomfortable, curve-suppressing wardrobe mandates. “I was becoming a woman,” she says with a sigh, “and then having to wear this thing that’s kind of like what the queen does — I think the queen has to have a bra that pushes her tits under her armpits. And it got worse, ’cause it kept growing, and they put this little fat belly on me to make it even out. I was, like, 15: ‘I just wanna be a girl and have a boyfriend!’ That was when it sucked. The first time they gave me a bra in my trailer, I was like, ‘Yes! I’m a woman!’ ”
Turner says that time was “really difficult” for Williams. “She’s going through all these changes, and yet she has to still look like a child and cut her hair short and look completely different to how she’s feeling inside. I think she really envied me because I got to wear the dresses and have nice makeup and nice hair. And I wanted the trousers and the boyish clothes!”
Williams is past all that now. She is, in general, an entirely liberated young human, radiating so much youthful possibility that it’s almost contagious. She adored Game of Thrones, but it was also an ever-looming obligation for half of her life. “What’s hit me the most about the show ending isn’t the show ending,” she says, eyes shining. “It’s like, I’m free. I can do anything now.” She has a decade’s worth of showbiz money in the bank, having essentially earned herself a trust fund. “It’s like a moment where you can just really enjoy everything that you’ve worked hard for. These last six months, I’ve really just done that.” To wit, she spent New Year’s Eve in Berlin, indulging in a 24-hour-long clubbing stint. (“I went out at 8 p.m. and got home at 8 p.m.,” she says. “We were at every party, and also no party, at the same time.”)
She does have a big-budget movie in the can, playing the werewolf-y mutant Wolfsbane in the X-Men spinoff New Mutants, but the film seems trapped in corporate limbo, thanks to Disney’s pending purchase of Fox. She doesn’t mince words on the situation. “Who knows when the fuck that’s gonna come out,” she says. There were supposed to be reshoots to “make it scarier,” she explains, but they haven’t actually taken place. She says she saw one of her co-stars, Charlie Heaton, the other day and asked him, “What the fuck is going on with this movie?” He didn’t know either. She smiles. “Hopefully this interview will make everyone hurry up a little bit!” If it does ever come out, both she and Turner — who plays Jean Grey over in the main X-Men movies — are dying to get their characters together. “It would be ridiculously stupid if they didn’t do that,” Williams says.
Williams’ wide-open options are all the more intoxicating set against her childhood in the city of Bristol, England, where money was tight. There was also some early darkness, a situation she’ll hint at without quite explaining. She moved out at age 16 — not to get away from her family, but simply to get some space for herself after sharing a room with two sisters. Her parents split up when she was four months old, and she says her birth father is not in her life. (“My stepdad is, and I love him very much.”) She alludes to “hostility” in her family history. “It was a situation myself and my siblings and my mother, we went through together,” she says, declining to elaborate. “It’s made us all a lot closer but has in no way made anything straightforward.”
She put it all into Arya, into the character’s traumatized grief and capacity for violence both frenzied and calculated. (“Arya may have a higher body count than almost any other major character on the show,” Benioff and Weiss write, “but she’s almost always been justified in the violence she’s done in one way or another.”) “I drew on a lot of very real emotions that I felt in my life,” says Williams. “People would always say when I was 12, ‘How could you ever — what did you draw on?’ They just don’t know anything about my past. It’s such a freeing thing being able to explore these emotions in a really safe environment. I think it was really helpful for me when I was 12, 13, to just, like, go crazy, and then you go home and you’re like, ‘Phew, what a good day.’ ”
She truly enjoyed Arya’s bloodiest moments. “You can feel the adrenaline,” she says, rather dreamily. “It feels incredible because it’s all pretend, it doesn’t matter. But when else do you get to do that? There was this shot we did at the end of Season Three when I’m stabbing the guy in the neck. They got me a sandbag and a fake knife, and they had blood going, and they were just like, ‘Stab! Just go for it.’ My God! You can feel ‘Ahhhh!’ ” She sips her coffee. “It was good.”
She was so young when she got the part that she hadn’t really decided to be an actor yet. She had intended to become a dancer, but was recruited by an agent who spotted her in an improv class. Arya was her second-ever audition. “I remember looking around the room at all of these really pretty girls and feeling really scruffy,” she says. “The audition I’d gone to before, in my screen test they were like, ‘We’re gonna change your top.’ I remember being so humiliated and knowing there was something about me that wasn’t right. Before that, I’d auditioned for ballet schools and stuff, with my grubby tights and crooked teeth, and all these stage kids were like they were in an advert. Even that young, I could feel that.” She grins. “But for Arya, it’s perfect. That was exactly what they wanted. Fuck you and your perfect smile!”
Williams is as animated and expressive as Arya is locked down, with zero poker face. “When I’m myself, people ask me all the time, ‘What’s wrong?’ It’s because I’m not aware of what my body’s doing, and I’m feeling raw emotions just as they come.” As Arya, she feels like she accesses something almost superhuman. She blinks less; her breathing becomes more shallow. “I feel hyperaware,” she says. “You know that movie Limitless? I feel like that. Arya is very calculated in the way that she conducts herself — she doesn’t like people to know what she’s thinking.”
Williams did go through a recent, inexplicable phase when her own emotions felt inaccessible. She couldn’t cry, onscreen or off. (“I’ve come out of it,” she notes. “I cry every week.”) It coincided with Season Eight, in which Arya apparently reconnects with her humanity. “It was really amazing, perfect timing because Arya’s just starting to feel again for the first time,” she says. “So it was actually kinda beautiful the way it was working. Because usually I’m trying to play Arya with no emotion, whilst feeling everything. And this time I was feeling nothing while I was trying to feel something, and it worked . . . I think.”
On her final day shooting Game of Thrones, in Northern Ireland last year, Williams was still in her no-crying phase. She felt numb. “I went back into my trailer after we wrapped,” she says. “I took a shower, ’cause I was dirty. Arya is always dirty.” She stood outside, washed clean of Arya Stark, taking in “really glorious sunshine, the nicest day.” She went into the assistant directors’ trailer and grabbed a beer as the crew officially marked the end of the line: “This is a wrap on Game of Thrones.”
“I didn’t go out that night,” Williams says, “because I didn’t want to say goodbye to everyone again. You can’t be like ‘Goodbye forever’ to this show. You can’t put that weight on any day. It’s like a divorce. It takes a very long time.”
Whatever happens, at least we got to see Sansa and Arya Stark together again, safe at home — however briefly. “Sansa, this whole show, the only reason she has willed herself to survive is for her family,” says Turner, who has a ‘The Pack Survives’ tattoo, quoting the show. “The power of family and unity is so strong that it can keep people alive. That’s the biggest thing I’ve taken away from the show: Family is everything.” She smiles, sitting in her bowling-alley throne, vaping. “I think Papa Stark would be very proud of us,” she says.