With the hit series behind her, the 23-year-old British actress is ready to forge her own path, both with a new crop of films and as a brand ambassador for Cartier’s Pasha collection.
Last fall Maisie Williams turned heads during Paris Fashion Week, wearing matching outfits (and makeup) with her boyfriend, Reuben Selby, while sitting front row at Thom Browne. This year, the actor spent her summer in Paris, building partnerships with brands such as Cartier, Jacquemus, Courrèges, and awaiting her next chapter. “As an actress, the best advice I received was to put my personality aside in order to find one that matches each role,” she says. “In fashion, it’s different—you have to understand exactly who you are to be able to represent the brand and the look.”
It’s nearly impossible to forget Arya Stark’s personality. The ruthless warrior Williams played from ages 13 to 21 (eight seasons) on Game of Thrones was beloved among a cast of distinct, oversized personalities. Arya began as a mischievous young girl and grew into an avenging assassin—a tomboy surviving in a male-dominated world. And it can’t be easy to experiment with one’s masculine side while also becoming a young woman; nor to build one’s own character when playing someone else. With short hair and flattened breasts, Arya had to grow up very fast and learn how to protect herself. Williams too. Both Arya and Williams have silenced their critics in different ways: the pretenders to the throne for Arya, and the internet trolls that have disparaged Williams’ looks. Both subverted feminine stereotypes. We’ll never forget Arya discussing her period between battles, reminding Jon Snow that women continually see more blood than men. Now Williams is free to take back her own body and become herself.
For all that blood and violence, Williams is still not finished, and joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe in her role as Rahne in the latest X-Men movie, The New Mutants. Sitting amid the horror and superhero genres, The New Mutants is a real lockdown movie, perfect for a generation traumatized by the global pandemic. “The young mutants are in lockdown in a medical center, apparently to protect themselves and understand their powers, since they don’t know their nature or how big they can get,” she says. “My character is discovering her sexuality, falling in love with another girl, and they are protecting each other instead of fighting. It offers a new perspective to the Marvel movies. It’s somewhere in between The Breakfast Club and Stephen King.”
Coincidentally, confinement seemed to be a theme, with two other related projects from Williams this year. In the TV series Two Weeks to Live, she stars as Kim, a young woman who has been raised in violent doomsday-prepper isolation for years. She rejoins society to avenge the death of her father, and quickly finds herself mixed up in a prank gone horribly wrong. Williams also stars in The Owners, a horror film based on a graphic novel, in which a group of young lawless kids try to break into an old Victorian mansion owned by an elderly couple. “It’s set in the ’90s, so I created a style for it, full of denim and with bleached hair. Like everyone else I’m obsessed with ’90s style,” says Williams.
The actress has also recently invested her time and resources into her own production company. “I created Pint-Sized Pictures with two girlfriends to showcase unknown women’s talents,” she says. “We’re working on music videos, short and long films, and sometimes shows. As for the name, it’s because I’m short, the height of a pint!”
From supporting creative talents and mentoring young women to establishing her own style in acting and fashion, Williams is very much a product of her generation. Add to that animal activism, too. After the many years spent in Westeros, she’s determined to make up for lost time.
Maisie Williams for L’Officiel
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.
Even among superheroes, the X-Men have long been a metaphor for growing up, fighting oppression and finding one’s own space within a society that hates and fears them. Perhaps you’ll find that those themes sound too familiar for comfort in 2020, given everything that’s been going on in the year so far.
While she’s keeping her plans for it on the down-low, it’s hard to ignore how an endeavour like it feels particularly relevant at a time when multiple cultural movements are emerging to question and rebalance traditional power dynamics.
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.”
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