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.