We were talking, coincidentally, about the many ways in which starring in the television phenomenon Game of Thrones has changed her life. About the fame, and the fact that everyone from David Cameron to Madonna has watched Williams grow up on screen, and can recognise her as Arya Stark, the Needle-wielding heroine of Westeros. And we were discussing the rich list of new projects – from a Marvel Universe film, to an ambassadorship for Cartier’s new Pasha de Cartier watch – that Williams has managed to land since the show finished last year.
“For me now it’s all about variety,” she says, acknowledging that after a role as defining as Arya, she could have easily been typecast for life. “I want to work on things that feel different, exciting and fresh. I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again, because there are so many different opportunities in film-making. I want to experience them all.” Her predicament: how do you move on from the role of a lifetime, if the role of a lifetime came at the very beginning of your life?
As such the shows and films in which you will see Williams this autumn couldn’t be more diverse. Before lockdown (which she spent holed up making audition self-tapes and watching Normal People along with three housemates in London), she had completed The Owners, a horror film about a home invasion co-starring Rita Tushingham, as well as the upcoming Sky comedy series Two Weeks To Live, with Fleabag’s Sian Clifford. Additionally, The New Mutants, which Williams filmed back in 2017, is finally out, representing her first venture into the comic-book world.
“The New Mutants, for me, was all about the character,” she explains. “I got to play a timid girl who is very different from everyone else that I usually get asked to play. Two Weeks To Live is tonally very different; it’s a dark comedy, and I’d never been on a comedy set before. Then The Owners is a psychological thriller set in the 1990s in the UK, so all the outfits and my hair are bonkers.”
Williams had taken on some small parts during her time on Game of Thrones (a Doctor Who gig here, a few short films there) and emerged from the show at 22, with almost a decade of experience under her belt. But after an eight-year stint as Arya, she was nervous about auditioning again. She realised that she needed to put herself out there, rather than wait and see what would come to her.
“It is almost harder because I had never been told no,” she says. “The second thing that I ever auditioned for was Game of Thrones, and that launched my career. There’s always competition, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve done, you will always lose out on roles. The industry is built upon rejection. I’m definitely learning that now – how to overcome the rejection and not see it as a personal thing. But learning to be told no is really difficult as someone who’s an established actor. No one’s got time for you when you’re like, ‘Oh I didn’t get the part in this thing.’ They’re like, ‘You just came off the most successful TV show of the decade, can you hang on a minute?'”
Williams grew up in Bristol, the youngest of four siblings, and was raised mainly by her mother after her parents divorced. Performing, she says, was all she ever wanted to do, as long as she could swallow the nerves. “I was such an attention seeker, I just always wanted to goof around with my family and make them laugh,” she remembers. “When I first started doing auditions, I went on the train from Bristol up to London, and when it stopped at Reading I would cry. I would cry until we got to Paddington, and then I’d be fine. The pressure was so much, I’d cry and think, ‘I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to go in.’ Then I’d do the audition and have the best time ever.”
The finale of Game of Thrones was watched by more than 19 million people – all of whom are undoubtedly grateful that Williams did pluck up the courage to enter that casting room. Her character transformed over the course of the show from 11-year-old tomboy princess of Winterfell, to faceless god, to Night King-slaying saviour of the Seven Kingdoms, gathering more fans with every show. Williams filmed 59 episodes, won an Emmy and toured the world with the cast.
“At the beginning, when I was young, I found it so exciting when people would stop me in the street,” she explains of the effect the fame has had on her. “I was so excited to just be famous. But the years go by and it gets less and less exciting. Then you start to feel like you’re selling more of your private life and you don’t have ownership over anything and people want to exploit that. I was very lucky that I had so many people protecting me, and I have such a great support network of people.”
Williams says that if she hadn’t had her mother chaperoning on set, and true friends in the cast -particularly Sophie Turner, who played her on-screen sister, Sansa Stark, and was herself only 14 when filming began – she would have struggled with life in the spotlight. “I struggled anyway, really, we all did,” she admits. “But what was so wonderful was that we had so many actors on the show who had been acting for a long time. They gave incredible advice and let me rant on about, ‘Oh, I feel my words were misinterpreted in this interview.’ I was surrounded by people who could tell me, ‘It just happens, you have to let it go, it’s not a big deal.’ That made it all a lot easier.”
Co-star Kit Harington, who played Williams’s older half-brother, Jon Snow, on the show is full of praise for how well Williams and Turner handled themselves. When, in June 2018, he married co-star Rose Leslie, who played the alluring wildling Ygritte, his on-screen sisters were there. “They are like my surrogate younger siblings,” he says. “I found myself [recently] talking to Maisie with great adoration and love and care, but with a tone to my voice that was not right, and it made me realise she is not the kid I remember, she is very much an adult. I love that woman.”
Williams says that while she’s happy to have moved on, grown up and found new beginnings, she savoured every last moment of the Game of Thrones experience. “I was really careful in the final season to not take it for granted,” she recalls. “Even on the cold, ridiculous nights – I remember being hung from these ropes in an entirely leather outfit in the rain and then it started snowing… you’ve just got to laugh, haven’t you?”
Since leaving the show, Williams says, she’s also been able to crystallise and enjoy her sense of personal style more. Where once she couldn’t change her appearance too drastically, now she is relishing the opportunity to switch hair colours and make-up looks regularly. Often she coordinates with her 23-year-old boyfriend, the Contact model agency co-founder Reuben Selby, and the couple might be pictured on the front row at Paris Fashion Week with matching candyfloss-pink hair, or sweeps of red eyeshadow, or in his ‘n’ hers bouclé suits.
Something she likes about the Pasha de Cartier watch that she endorses (and duly strokes on her wrist throughout the interview) is that “it’s never been specifically gendered,” she says.
“And I would say that my style is very much like that. I have a lot of influence from when I was growing up with my brothers and the way that they would dress. We’re all becoming more accustomed to the fluidity of clothing and identity, and I really try to carry that with me as much as I can.”
Williams joins actors Rami Malek, Troye Sivan, Willow Smith and Jackson Wang in the advertising campaign for Cartier. She says that she feels like ‘a kid in a candy store’, and she can’t believe her luck that fashion ambassadorships can be a bonus role for actors these days. She’s always loved clothes, but learning about her style and what she actually likes, she says, came via many rounds of red-carpet appearances as a teenager. Looking at each year’s series premiere for Game of Thrones, you can track her style evolution via minidresses with tights and boots (2013), through a phase of full, ladylike skirts (2016) to where she has settled now.
Another creative outlet that Williams is ‘still figuring out’ is social media. She has switched her approach in recent weeks, she says, to stop herself from becoming a ‘performative activist’.
“When I was a teenager, social media was exciting and new and you could invent yourself online,” she explains. “I wanted to share everything like my friends did. Then obviously I got a much larger following, so there was pressure to not say anything stupid.”
At about the age of 14, she found it harder to cope with the noise online from fans and critics. “I went through a time when I found it difficult to listen to people’s opinions of me constantly,” she continues. “When you are 14, people still want you to be a kid, but you’re also trying to be a grown-up. And you don’t know which one you’re supposed to be and you’re stuck in your body. That was a difficult time.
“I became really outspoken, but it was only because I was very insecure. I learnt to just speak about things I felt really passionate about and didn’t get involved in every single political issue, but now I’ve come to the point where I think there’s all this performative activism, where it’s like it only counts if you can post about it. Isn’t it better that I’m just learning and being a better person, rather than talking about it on social media?”
“I do have a bit of a plan for the first time,” she grins, her huge hazel eyes opening up. “Through my whole career I haven’t set any goals, and it’s been fine, but recently I’ve been like, ‘OK, let’s try and manipulate this situation we’re in and nail down some things I want to do.’ It’s been really helpful, even from a mental health perspective, feeling like there’s some sort of direction. I’m not just floating through the world and waiting to see. Now I’ve got an idea.”