The 23-year-old New Mutants star talks to Craig McLean about making revenge comedy ‘Two Weeks to Live’, why she wouldn’t jump to watch ‘Game of Thrones’, and why women have to create their own stories to escape tokenism
Maisie Williams zooms into view, all Eighties club-kid fashion, heavily kohl’d eyes and shaggy, bleached blonde hair. It’s a bold look, one she probably couldn’t rock while filming eight seasons of Game of Thrones – that eye-popping ’do wouldn’t exactly fit with Arya Stark’s stealthy revenge mission – but it’s of a piece with the chic open-plan kitchen from which she’s speaking.
This, it turns out, is chez Williams, but not in the way we might expect.
“I’m in Paris, and learning French, which is going… well!” she says, falteringly, laughing. This isn’t preparation for a production, she clarifies, “but I’d love to do a French-speaking film. It’s just for me, for now, but with the intention one day of making a movie. We came here three, four weeks ago – my boyfriend is working remotely like most people, so we thought it’d be a good opportunity because we love it here so much.” Spoken like a true, globe-trotting young acting A-lister who “isn’t really in love with any city that I’ve been to. I’m really happy just moving around and I have a wonderful job which allows me to do that.”
We’re not here to discuss the 23-year-old’s return to the world of fantasy little more than a year since that fan-frustrating final season of Game of Thrones. At the time of talking, the cinema release of would-be blockbuster superhero movie The New Mutants – in which Williams plays a mutant who can turn into a wolf (handy) – is still up in the air. Equally, she shot the film three years ago and it’s had a tortuous post-production process, so it’s probably as far in her rear-view mirror as all the hoo-hah about who really should have won the Iron Throne.
Plus, it was another alternative universe-set story. As the Bristol-born actor says, somewhat tellingly, “I’ve worked on a lot of different projects in a lot of different mediums – but I don’t know that I’ve worked on something that I would jump to watch!” she adds with another laugh. “They’ve been very commercially successful, but I don’t really watch that sort of thing that often. So I’m looking to work with someone who I can just feel my most creative with.”
Which probably explains her first proper post-GoT project. Two Weeks to Live is a zingy comedy series/revenge drama, the violence set in motion by a practical joke gone wrong concerning a fake apocalypse (way funnier, not to mention credible, than it sounds, honest).
“It probably wasn’t the most challenging thing that I’ve done. But I guess that’s also why it was great timing, because I’d just come off 10 years of HELL!” Williams hoots, leaning her face into her laptop. “No, 10 years of joy!” The six-part show was, clearly, a blast to make. She and Clifford, who has just won the Female Performance in a Comedy Bafta for Fleabag, clicked instantly, bonding over their shared experience of playing fan-favourite characters and the challenge of moving on from those.
“When you watch us onscreen, you can just tell we’re having a lot of fun. That’s an infectious thing for the audience. That’s what’s it’s all about, right? Moving the audience and them being able to feel what you’re giving, and I think this show really does that. And for me, it’s different to anything I’ve done before.”
This explains why she hasn’t use her global GoT fame to springboard into Hollywood blockbusters, as her Westeros bestie Sophie Turner has done with the X-Men franchise. “There are so many parts of the industry that I’ve never really experienced. And I didn’t want to price myself out of that, or run away from the opportunity to work on something like this.
“I’m sure every single person who was on Game of Thrones has been asked: what are you gonna do now?” she wonders in her relaxed, slangy speaking voice. “There’s always the accusation, or query, as to whether you’re going to do anything that was that successful again. But what we did on Game of Thrones was unprecedented, and if you try and do something like that again, you’re only gonna fail. Because that sort of thing only comes around once. A big box office smash viewed by millions and millions of people around the world – it’s never gonna top that. So that’s just not a fulfilling thing to go after.”
Two Weeks To Live, then, was a smart pivot, one that enabled her to flex comedy muscles while also show off her old fighting and stunt skills. “This was a really intense shoot, three, four shots per scene, and snappy and quick. You miss out on opportunities like this if you’re just trying to go for status.”
Williams clearly has a calm, cool head for her business, and for herself, and always has – I met her on the Northern Irish set of GoT when she was 14 and she was as unflustered and down-to-earth as they come, even as Thrones mania was exploding around the world. As she advanced through her teenage years, she navigated child superstardom with apparent ease, even as she was becoming one of the best-paid teenage actors in the world – by the final season, she and Turner were reportedly earning £158,000 per episode. But there were no tales of excess or indulgence, no paparazzi shots of drunken stumbles outside nightclubs.
Her mum, she says, deserves much of the credit for shepherding her through onrushing fame, but at the same she time herself was “always so aware” of the possible pitfalls.
“Even when I was 12, people were like: ‘Ooh, are you gonna get a drug habit and ruin your life?’ That is the problem, I guess: the fact that you’re doing interviews when you’re 12 and no one’s ever addressing why that’s a really difficult and dangerous thing for you to do. Everybody wants you to have an opinion on something when you don’t know who you are yet.
As for her next professional steps, she’s looking… and looking. One area of firm interest is women-led projects. “Women telling female stories [is] really important, I think, if you want to create something that really does speak to women and that is really emotionally in tune, and powerful. We’re going through this phase of hiring women as, like, a token – they’re always onscreen, but they’re never behind the camera. There’s just a real mismatch there, because how can you expect a male director to know what it’s like to be a woman?”
She mentions The Falling, a critically acclaimed indie by Carol Morley that she made when she was 15. “I’m so proud of that, and I would love to do something in that vein. That’s a movie I would have watched if I wasn’t in it. Everyone sees me as, you know, 16, which is cool. But I mentally don’t feel like a 16-year-old, and it would be nice for me to play a woman who is as complex as I am.”
Female writers and directors with a possibly French-language project in need of a star who’ll bring talent, smarts and budget? You know who to call.
Two Weeks to Live starts on Sky One on Wednesday 2 September
“First of all, she’d have to be introduced to Elvis Presley…”
The Game of Thrones star, returning to TV for the first time since the HBO show ended, recently told NME what she would like to see for her character Kim if the series were to return.
“I think that her little mind would be completely blown by so many things,” Williams said. “I’d love to see her experiencing tribute acts. They’re so weird and we don’t think they are.
“First of all, she’d have to be introduced to Elvis Presley or whoever and then she’d have to understand that he’s dead and this person is just acting like him. It just makes no sense. Or I’d love to see her looking at doll’s houses.”
Williams continued: “The fact that we keep houses in our houses that are full of really tiny things?” she says. “People actually put in wiring and plumbing and shit like that, it’s just so extra. Kim really does call everything out, like, ‘Why do we do this? It’s so strange.’”
In a five-star review of Two Weeks To Live, NME said: “One of 2020’s best new shows, Two Weeks To Live leans into the witty humour of classic British comedies like Hot Fuzz and Brassic.
“There’s attitude and the story rolls along with a real swagger, but it never does the expected or takes itself too seriously. Season one’s final episode leaves the door wide open for a second series and lays to rest the ghost of Arya Stark.”
“I look up to Robert Pattinson, and I look up to Kristen Stewart. I love what they did,” Williams tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve really just been trying to understand what she did so well, the decisions she made and how that really affected the longevity of her career. So, yeah, I definitely do look up to the both of them, and yeah, I will be taking notes and following in their footsteps.”
Nearly 16 months after the series finale of Game of Thrones, Williams may have added a new wrinkle to the season’s most enduring moment, as well as its biggest swerve — which saw Williams’ Arya Stark strike the killing blow to the series’ big bad.
“[Kit Harrington] expected it to go [Jon Snow’s] way, too, and he even said, ‘It was going to go that way. Someone told me in season three that I was going to kill The Night King,’” Williams shares. “And then, he read the script, and it was Arya the whole time. (Laughs.) Yeah, I think it would’ve been too obvious. I’m glad that it was Arya, honestly. I think I had the best storyline of the final season.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Williams also discusses The New Mutants’ long road to the big screen, the movies that frightened her as a child and having to forget her fighting and weapons training for The Owners. Director Julius Berg also chimes in on casting Williams and adding a sledgehammer to her collection of famous on-screen weaponry.
Maisie, since you’ve made several weapons quite famous over the years, can we officially add a sledgehammer to your trophy case as well?
Maisie Williams: (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s true, actually. I hadn’t thought about that. Yeah, there’s a knife in this and a sledgehammer. So there’s a couple of interesting weapons in this film. But yeah, I must start keeping a note.
Julius Berg: (Laughs.) That was a great moment from shooting. I was happy to offer her this new tool, and I think she really enjoyed it.
This was the first project you shot after Thrones ended, right?
Williams: Yes, it was.
Julius, how did you get Maisie on board for her first post-Thrones project?
Berg: I was quite lucky to cast Maisie after Game of Thrones. I worked with an amazing casting director named Daniel Hubbard, and he’s worked on so many amazing movies like Harry Brown and King Kong. He has a great connection with many amazing actors from everywhere, especially Maisie Williams. So we sent the script to her manager in London, and her manager liked it a lot. Then, she sent it to Maisie, and she also liked it a lot. So we had a Skype call with Maisie, and I had a great connection with her. It was very easy. After that, we started shooting. It was as simple as that.
After finishing a project of such massive scale, was it nice to go back to basics and be reminded that effective storytelling can also be as simple as a few people in a house?
Williams: Yeah, definitely. Although being part of a psychological thriller or a horror is always somewhat hyperreal, I did like that we didn’t have any green screens. A lot of the emotions are a lot more realistic and a lot more pared back. I had really missed that, and so I was glad to be able to just do a lot of really interesting dialogue scenes and see the power dynamics between two people and how that can play out when there aren’t any weapons involved.
Even though you’ve shot other projects during Thrones, does it still feel a bit bizarre when you find yourself wearing modern clothes on a set and not being draped in multiple layers?
Williams: (Laughs.) I mean, it’s definitely a relief. I was quite lucky in that my Game of Thrones outfits were always far comfier than other people’s, I think. Or maybe I just don’t complain as much. (Laughs.) But it was nice to be able to just get dressed in ten minutes rather than getting dressed in a half an hour.
Since you’d done fighting and weapons training for many years leading up to this film, did you have to consciously forget everything you’ve learned since Mary is not remotely trained in weapons or survival?
Williams: Yeah, absolutely. So much of the film and so much of the fight choreography, for me, was really centered around the characters. We were trying to understand why Mary gets walked all over in this film. And it’s because she’s always on the backfoot. Why is she always on the backfoot? It’s because of Terry (Andrew Ellis). Terry is constantly slowing her down, and I think that’s an intentional thing that the Huggins (Sylvester McCoy, Rita Tushingham) do. Halfway through the film, they make Terry physically so much slower. So I had to think about it more logically in terms of these characters and the situation rather than the training, the fighting and the muscle memory. It was really nothing to do with that. So it was a very different experience, for sure.
For some reason, I can just imagine you holding that knife with such skill that you had to correct yourself to not look as skilled.
Williams: Well, I found on Game of Thrones, they were always, like, “Look cooler. Do it faster. Be stronger.” So I feel like we got to a place on Game of Thrones where I looked very slick, but I don’t think that that’s so natural. (Laughs.)
Williams: I really didn’t go to the cinema much when I was a kid; I watched a lot of stuff at home. But I do have memories of watching movies at home. I watched Signs when I was, I don’t know, maybe like 5. (Laughs.) It was so scary, and it kind of really shaped my life, I think. Just being so terrified of aliens when I was so young. (Laughs.) Actually, do you know what I remember watching at the cinema? I watched Mars Attacks! at the cinema, I think. I mean, it’s not even a horror, but it did kind of scare me because I was so young. The part where the alien lady [Lisa Marie’s Martian Girl] bites off the guy’s [Martin Short] finger, I had this recurring nightmare where all of these aliens with massive brain heads would come out of my neighbor’s house and they would come up my stairs and they would come into my room and they’d bite my finger off. (Laughs.) And there were so many of them, and it all came from watching Mars Attacks! when I was really young at the movie theaters. (Laughs.)
Is wearing a stocking over one’s head as uncomfortable as it looks?
Williams: I am so glad that you asked because yes. It hurts so badly. (Laughs.) My eyes were just streaming to the point where when it was my last shot with the stalking on, I just ripped it over my eyes so that my eyes could breathe for the first time. I’m not really a whingy person, but I think my eyes are just quite sensitive. My eyelashes kept getting folded in, and they were just sticking me in the eyes. And so, yeah, I just had to do everything I could to keep my eyes open and not have tears streaming. Well, there actually are. There are tears streaming down my face, but you can’t see them because the stalking is just soaking them up. But I’m glad you asked because it sucks, and I literally would not wish it on anyone. (Laughs.)
Lately, when actors such as yourself come off of big projects, there’s a tendency to go the indie route for a while. Rob Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are obvious examples of this. Since you shot The New Mutants during Thrones, I’m not counting that as a post-Thrones project, but is The Owners an indication that you’ll be going indie for a little while? Or is there no grand plan at the moment?
Williams: No, I would say absolutely [about going the indie route]. I mean, the industry is very different to what it was when Twilight ended in that television has skyrocketed recently and not as many indie films are being made. The people who have these really wonderful indie stories have now started stretching them out and making them into TV shows because it’s more likely to get made. There are still indie filmmakers, and I have been meeting with a lot of them. But if there are enough indie movies who want to cast me, then yes, you can say that I will be doing indies for a long time. (Laughs.) But I know that the industry is different now, and so I have to be weary of that, also. But, yeah, I look up to Robert Pattinson, and I look up to Kristen Stewart. I love what they did. I mean, I love what Kristen Stewart did before Twilight, but I really have watched so many of her movies since. I’ve really just been trying to understand what she did so well, the decisions she made and how that really affected the longevity of her career. So, yeah, I definitely do look up to the both of them, and yeah, I will be taking notes and following in their footsteps. (Laughs.)
Have you wrapped your head around the fact that in 5 years or so, you’re going to be on sets with young actors who were literally named after you or Arya?
Williams: (Laughs.) I hadn’t thought about that. I have never encountered an Arya. I’ve encountered a couple of Arya cats, people have tweeted me pictures of their children, but I don’t think I’ve ever met an Arya in the flesh. But yeah, there are going to be girls that grow up, and they’ll have no idea who they’re named after. Maybe, they’ll watch one day, but it’ll be so part of a different time — a different time where we all sat down and watched a show every Sunday night at 9 p.m. (Laughs.) These kids are just never going to experience television or film in the same way that we experienced that show, so it is funny to think about.
But it’s not just Arya; Maisie is popping up all over the States, too.
Williams: Oh my gosh. Wow. That’s cool. Well, Maisie is a really old name, actually. When my mom told my nan that she was naming me Maisie, my nan was horrified because, to my nan, it was like an old lady’s name. And so that’s, like, what? Four generations before myself when Maisie was super popular amongst babies? So, yeah, I’m glad that people like the name. I’ve always loved my name. It’s always been quite different. I like that it’s got a lot of letters. I’m glad that people also like the name. (Laughs.)
Is there a Thrones group text and have you used it to playfully tease Kit (Harrington) with a GIF of Arya’s big dagger moment?
Williams: (Laughs.) Actually, no, not that. We do tease Kit, but it’s usually about other things, which I probably can’t say. (Laughs.) But I don’t tease him about the dagger moment at all, but maybe I should. That’s a new weapon that I can use. (Laughs.)
Obviously, that was such a left turn since everyone expected him to do the honors and kill The Night King.
Williams: Yeah, they did. He expected it to go that way, too, and he even said, “It was going to go that way. Someone told me in season three that I was going to kill The Night King.” And then, he read the script, and it was Arya the whole time. (Laughs.) Yeah, I think it would’ve been too obvious. I’m glad that it was Arya, honestly. I think I had the best storyline of the final season. (Laughs.)
Without a doubt.
Williams: Yeah. (Laughs.)
As we wrap, I just want to touch on The New Mutants, which was greatly affected by the Disney-Fox merger. Unfortunately, whenever a film is delayed, people’s imaginations tend to run wild. Has it been frustrating for you to see conclusions being drawn before anyone had even seen the movie, especially since you couldn’t come out and correct them? [Writer’s Note: This interview took place prior to The New Mutants’ release on Aug 26.]
Williams: Well, not frustrating at all. I feel like anyone speaking about any movie in any capacity is a good thing, especially one which hasn’t come out yet. I liked that people were speculating, and I don’t believe when people say online, “Oh, who even cares about this film anymore? Who’s even going to watch this film?” I just don’t believe people that are like that because I’m like, “Well, you are, because you’re still talking about it even though you don’t care about it.” (Laughs.) So I think it’s only a good thing. I actually think our numbers are going to be good because of that very reason. There’s so much mystery as to why this film was shelved for so long, and really, I think it was a lot simpler than any of us really had thought. But the drama and the excitement of, like, “It was supposed to be reshot and it’s supposed to be terrible,” I think that just draws people’s interest. I mean, that’s just free promotion for 3 years. There are people who wish that they had people talking about their films. (Laughs.)
The Owners is now available on digital HD and on demand.
“I Feel Myself Coming Back To The Surface”: Maisie Williams On Her Cathartic Quarantine
Maisie Williams returns to our screen this week in revenge comedy Two Weeks To Live as Kim, who leaves her overbearing mother (Fleabag’s Sian Clifford) behind to avenge her dead father’s killer. Along the way, our heroine encounters obstacles that allow Williams to utilise her Game Of Thrones-era combat skills once again – albeit with Needle swapped out for rather more 2020 ammunition.
“The original storyline was that a virus broke out and the world was going to end,” Maisie told Miss Vogue, having dialled into a call from her current base in Paris. ”I had to do ADR [dubbing] from my bedroom, because there actually was a virus going on, so we changed it to a nuclear war. The storyline we had chosen became real — it was our reality and not just a story.”
Playing Kim gave the actor an opportunity to get her teeth into a comedy role for the first time. “I first read the script about four years ago when it was a film, and thought it had real potential. If something can make you laugh, then the chances are it will make other people laugh, too,” she explained. This isn’t to say that nailing comic timing was without its challenges. “Comedy is terrifying and intimidating to do,” said Maisie. “Even if I could do this show again I would do so many things differently, and I’ve learned so much for the next comedy role that I do. I always see things that I would want to do differently. I think watching yourself is painful!”
Maisie appears to have no qualms about the dearth of damsels in distress on her CV. “I don’t usually get to read [for roles] like that, because aesthetics-wise, I don’t really look [like] the stereotype of a damsel in distress, which is also all made up and all in our own heads anyway. I just think that people don’t see me that way, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself that way either.” According to Maisie, her body of work reflects a feeling she’s had since she was a child. “I have always felt very different to the girls and women I grew up around, and a lot of that comes out in my art. I think that I do wear that with me everywhere I go. I do feel different, but that’s something that I embrace.”
It’s all part of an ongoing journey towards acceptance for Maisie, who says she has recently begun to rediscover the confidence she lost during her teenage years. “I got really lost and I didn’t know what to do, and would second guess everything about myself. I really feel myself coming back to the surface again, and I think this lockdown has helped that. I feel very different from the girl who went into quarantine, and I feel so much more confident.”
Her advice to other young women who have experienced similar struggles? “No one else is as cool as you are, and trying to be like anyone else is going to cause you a lot of pain. I think that people just need to let go of the expectations in their head – expectations of other people but also of themselves – and learn to exist in this world as they are, and learn to be better to themselves and other people.”
Maisie’s cathartic quarantine also coincided with her settling into a new city: she moved to Paris just before the lockdown was introduced. “I’ve been learning French which is something I’ve always wanted to do, so that’s been really enjoyable. I’ve also just been reading a lot and drinking tea. I didn’t have anything to complain about, and I know it hasn’t been that way for everyone,” she told us. “I’ve been trying to be happy with what is happening today – even if that is just being stuck in your house – and being grateful for everything that I have. I can definitely relate to that feeling of wanting tomorrow to come, and wanting things to be better or different or more – or whatever it might be. I can see why Kim escaped her mother’s clutches and went after a more exciting life.”
Two Weeks To Live will air tonight on Sky One and is available to stream in full.
I guess my career has been pretty extraordinary. Until this point, I’ve never really had a direction and I’ve allowed myself to be pulled through this industry. Me as a person? I would say I’m a control freak so from here on I see myself having a clear plan and goal.
What achievement are you most proud of so far?
To be recognized by the Academy [of Television Arts & Sciences] for my role on Game of Thrones is something that I’m really proud of.
What does it mean to be successful today?
Success is a positive mental attitude. You take from the world what you put in; I’m currently manifesting my happiness and success.
Success is entirely personal – it’s never about the status which comes with the work that you’ve achieved. It’s always about the way you feel about the work you’ve achieved, and if you’re doing something which you find unfulfilling you’ll never see it as success.
What’s left for you to achieve? What other achievements are you striving for?
Too many to count. I want to direct and produce; I see art and creativity as fluid, so I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of what film and television can be.
At what point did you realise you wanted to use your celebrity status towards something bigger, grander and more personal?
When realised people had a preconceived idea of the sort of person I was before getting to know me.
Anyone has the power to change the world, especially those with influence. I believe we were put on this earth to do more than just exist, I want to leave the planet in a better state than the way I found it because I think that’s my purpose. I don’t want to only be a mother for my children, but I will also be a mother for the world.
I rely on other people for energy. I find conversation to be an excellent way to understand the thoughts within your brain. I think we need other people to be a better version of ourselves and for that reason collaboration is the most important thing in creativity.
You used to one of the youngest actors of your generation. What’s it like to grow up in your industry?
Growing up in the industry is like being the youngest child in the family. You watch the people before you, you see their decisions and actions. You learn from their mistakes and you choose the way you want to be similar, and also different.
Generation Z has an experience unlike any generation that’s come before. We’re on the cusp of something so monumental, we can’t even see it or understand it yet. To be growing up in this era and creating art feels other-worldly. I know the emotions captured today will be around for hundreds of years, because this new age of technology will inhabit the veins of our society for the rest of eternity.
Describe your generation in three words.
Mischievous, compassionate, riotous.
Do you have a motto that you live by?
Get that head, get that bread, then leave – peace out.
How did you start your career?
My career came to fruition through persistence. I love to perform more than anything in the world. At every opportunity to be seen by a new audience or to meet new people who were linked to the industry, I made sure I was there even from the age of eight.
The biggest challenge I faced as a young woman in the film industry would be my body image. There’s immense pressure on young women to look a particular way. We need to be striking but in a soft, appealing way. To be curvy but with a slim waist and skinny arms. At a certain level the decisions stop focusing around talent and they purely come down to aesthetics.
What does time mean to you?
I used to feel like I was running out of time, but that was because I used to fill my time with pointless things. Now I see time as being precious and I don’t want to waste it.
What’s more challenging, being an actress or an entrepreneur?
Being an entrepreneur is pretty stressful. Business brings out the worst in people and having to compete with personalities like that is draining.
What’s your message to young women like yourself?
Never let the people who don’t care for the real you distract you from loving who you are. Don’t waste time being anyone other than yourself.
Linda Hamilton or Sigourney Weaver.
What was your reaction when Cartier approached you?
I was extremely flattered. It’s such an honour to be approached by a brand as famous as Cartier.
The Pasha watch was initially created in 1985. What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think about the ’80s?
Princess Diana and her athleisure.
We are surrounded by devices that tell time. Why do you choose to wear a watch? What does it represent to you?
My phone represents chaos – every five seconds it’s a notification or an email or a text. My watch literally gives me more time in my day, it’s magic.
How would you describe the watch you’re wearing?
It’s a subtle reminder of how far I’ve come without being flashy or insensitive.
The distinct design of the Pasha watch challenges the predominance of round shapes in watchmaking and amplifies its presence, originality and singularity. How do you relate with the watch and the spirit of Pasha de Cartier?
I see my style as being fluid in terms of gender and I think this watch is empowering to wear for women like me.
Two Weeks to Live comes to Sky One next month.