ELLE-Maisie Williams is tucking into a plate of avocado toast. ‘I don’t think anyone looks at the younger generation and goes, “I’m so inspired by you guys,”’ she says.
The statement is an ironic one, considering how many men and women of all ages want to be more like Arya Stark, the princess-turned-serial-killer-with-a-cause she portrays on Game of Thrones, the fantasy series from HBO. The show grew from a cult hit to a worldwide smash, with devoted fans on every continent – thanks in no small part to child heroine Arya and her highly creative ways of avenging her family members’ deaths.
‘I’m the serial killer everyone’s rooting for,’ she says.
And root they do. No doubt this is because Arya has become something of a feminist icon, using her sword training to bring an end to tyrannical men who beat and rape women, who murder the pregnant and who cut the throats of mothers. Game of Thrones has been accused of misogyny in the past, but it’s been fascinating to watch the narrative turn in favour of powerful women.
‘I DON’T THINK ANYONE LOOKS AT THE YOUNGER GENERATION AND GOES, “I’M SO INSPIRED BY YOU GUYS,”’
And it’s not just her character Arya; take Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who are no longer just the wives or sisters of powerful men – they’re running the show. Maisie has enjoyed seeing her character turn to the dark side, too. After having earned a starring role in the record-breaking television show at the age of 12, she has grown up before our very eyes, becoming a young force in Hollywood who is as bold and uncompromising as her popular alter-ego.
Maisie makes no apologies for her textbook Generation Z-isms. ‘We are the future, with our vlogging and phones and all that,’ she assures me. And as we lunch in a hotel restaurant in London’s Soho, Maisie (dressed in a very un-Arya-like fluffy pink jacket) is grinning a lot more than you might expect if you’ve seen her serious, dour-faced character in action on the show.
‘Personally, I love watching YouTube videos,’ she says cheerfully. ‘Jenna Marbles making a soap bed for her dog, that’s what I want to watch.’
Maisie embodies a unique mix of social and cultural awareness, plus endearing goofiness, which is all part of her appeal. For example, when she saw a Daily Mail headline broadcasting that she’d attended a charity ball wearing a dress with no bra, she posted a revised version on Twitter with a correction stating that she helped ‘raise thousands for the NSPCC’. Maisie is charitably and politically minded. And yet her feed is also filled with gems like this: ‘If you’re having a bad day, just look at this picture of me holding a cow’s nipple while in Barcelona many years ago.’
As we chat, it’s easy to forget that Maisie has the CV of a woman two or three times her age. She was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama in 2016, and her upcoming projects include a starring role in Marvel’s X-Men horror film The New Mutants. But she’s quick to clarify that nothing will ever quite match the experience and sprawling narrative arc of .
IF YOU’RE HAVING A BAD DAY, JUST LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF ME HOLDING A COW’S NIPPLE’
‘I think until last season [seven], Arya was always killing the baddies,’ says Maisie. ‘But then we saw her start to use those manipulative powers. It’s not until she had that whole dialogue with her sister Sansa in the last season that you realise what she’s become, that she’s being awful to someone who we love. For me, it was a really great moment as an actor to be able to play the character you love as a baddie. It felt so amazing, even though it’s an awful scene. But she rights her wrongs in the end. Also Sophie [Turner, who plays Sansa] is my best friend. Who gets to be on set with their best friend? Me! We lift each other up.’
As for the misogyny accusations, Maisie says: ‘For me, [Game of Thrones] is a medieval world in which women don’t have a lot of rights, and yet they still prevail. But I do think that as the seasons have gone on, it’s become more and more amazing for women. And this final season is going to be incredible. It just feels great, being on set with all these girls. They’re all ruling, you know, they’re all back on top – it’s pretty impressive.’
Though Maisie must feel pretty chuffed to still be in the show at all, considering how many central characters have been slain, inspiring countless fan pages and memes in the process. ‘Season one to eight, that’s what I wanted. I was in the first episode and I want to be in the last,’ she says.
With a connection that spans nearly a decade, commonalities between Maisie and her character Arya were always inevitable. ‘When I was younger, the similarities between us were quite black and white: I was a tomboy who liked to climb trees. But now, I’ve changed and I realise they’re more subtle. Like, we’re both hot-headed and I jump the gun.’ She takes a moment to reflect on this. ‘My kill count is nowhere near hers, though,’ she adds, with a glint in her eye.
Maisie grew up in Bristol, as one of four siblings with her single-parent mum, who worked as a university administrator. ‘She’s such a strong woman – an amazing mother who let us follow our dreams, so we went for every opportunity we got.’ Maisie has since paid her mum back all the money she spent on her, which felt ‘amazing’ to be able to do. ‘We don’t come from a place of much financial security.’ They are close, with ‘a very strong bond’, but as Maisie explains, a close family doesn’t mean you always admit how you’re really feeling – just as a big role on television doesn’t mean you’re actually happy.
In fact, playing Arya has at times been tough for Maisie, who uses an acting technique called emotional memory: ‘I find it very helpful, but it’s horrible. You have to draw on things from your own life. So sometimes, to get inside Arya’s head, I’m thinking about some awful things. It’s hard to just drop that and let it go.’
When she needs help turning Arya off, her boyfriend Ollie Jackson is there to help. ‘Everyone just wants to have someone they can hang out with, who is a friend and a boyfriend, and Ollie is that,’ she says. Together, they live in a flat in east London. Maisie insists she is a hermit, spending much time with her dog Sunny, an excitable shihtzu she rescued from a shelter as a puppy and describes as a ‘country-bumpkin dog’. She relies on her mum to dog-sit when work requires her to travel.
When conversation turns to what’s next, Maisie admits that, as she grows older, she’s at a crossroads. ‘I’m still young, but I could play a 21-year-old with their own family – getting offered that sort of part is very intriguing. More recently, I’ve been reading scripts of 16-year-old characters and thinking, these are complex girls I couldn’t have played when I was 16, but now I can really get into their psyche.’
WE’RE BOTH HOT-HEADED AND I JUMP THE GUN’
Any minute, she’ll also launch the career social-networking app Daisie, which she created so young people can follow their professional dreams and not have to give up through lack of contacts in the industry. ‘It will be a place for young creatives to post portfolios or show reels of the work they’ve made so far, and find someone who wants to work with them,’ she says. Maisie Williams: a woman who kills with swords and kindness.
Maisie Makes her stage debut in October in I & You at The Hampstead Theatre. Pick up ELLE’s October issue, on newsstands now, for our Selena Gomez cover interview and so much more.