Arya Stark talks

Maisie Williams takes us inside Game of Thrones’ dramatic final season
By Alex James Taylor | Film+TV | 8 April 2019
Photography Itai Doron

It’s here. On 14th April the long-awaited (but also we never want it to end!) final season of Game of Thrones hits our screens, drawing to a close one of television’s most acclaimed series of all time. You’ve got questions, we’ve got questions, and we’ll soon have conclusions (of sorts). But in the meantime, here we revisit our HEROINE 9 interview with GoT star Maisie Williams, whose character Arya Stark is one of the few to have survived from season one to this year’s finale.

Maisie Williams has survived where many have failed. Ducking and dodging the slings and arrows of Game of Thrones’ trigger-happy writing team, this year will see Williams and her nine-year GoT alter-ego Arya Stark complete their journey by drawing the TV behemoth’s final season to a shattering conclusion.

In this debut and defining role, Williams has taken Arya from gamine ingenue to a revengeful assassin with a merciless kill list. Yet where Arya is a lone rogue, Williams is all about teamwork, a virtue realised through her latest project, Daisie – an innovative new app promoting collaboration and opportunities across the creative arts. This year also sees Williams take her stage debut in US playwright Lauren Gunderson’s two-hander, I and You, playing an ailing teen whose life suddenly gets flipped 360.

In a world where the noise can be deafening, Williams is proving that clarity and concision speaks volumes. She may currently hold enviable prescience into the future of Westeros, but it’s the spoilers to her own narrative that are set to make the most defining waves.


Alex James Taylor: Filming the last season of Game of Thrones must have been a very emotional experience.
Maisie Williams: Oh yeah. It was a really difficult season so it was a lot of hard work, but it’s the final year so everyone really went all out and worked themselves into the ground. I guess you’d look around the set and catch other people’s eye and just know that it’s the last time you were doing this, so you’d just take it all in. Despite it being the hardest season I’ve ever shot, it was just really wonderful and the perfect way to go out.

Alex: How was it at the final “cut”?
Maisie: So emotional, everyone was very teary. I said goodbye to everyone and we were going to go out for drinks that night but I just couldn’t bring myself to, because I couldn’t bring myself to say like a proper goodbye, you know? Because I don’t want it to be a goodbye, I’ll see these people again, we’re a family. So yeah, it was just very emotional.

Alex: It must be surreal having worked on the show with a specific group of people for nine years, and then just suddenly leave it all behind. It’s almost like finishing high school when everyone goes their separate ways.
Maisie: Exactly! I grew up with these people and they saw me grow from a young girl to a young woman. It really does feel like a family. With the trials and tribulations that come with this job and growing up in the public eye, going back to Game of Thrones each year has made all of that worthwhile.

Alex: Although it’s a family where every so often someone gets horribly slaughtered.
Maisie: [laughs] Yeah, not your average family.

Alex: When you first got the final script, what were your thoughts and emotions when reading it? Did it meet your expectations?
Maisie: I mean, the boys [Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] are great, they’re incredible at what they do and I’m so pleased with the story, I think the ending has just the right amount of sweet and bitter. There’s a lot of pressure on the finale but I think the boys have always known how they’ve wanted it to end, so they’ve been working towards that rather than making it up as they went along.

Alex: I’m always really impressed that none of the plot lines ever seem to get leaked.
Maisie: I mean, it does happen, and it’s heartbreaking when it does. But everyone who works on the show wants to protect it with their life, and as soon as someone doesn’t, we all know about it and they’re not one of us anymore. It’s unlike any job I’ve ever done, if you’re not nice and you’re difficult to get on with, you really don’t last very long. And I’m not saying that everyone who’s died on the show is a nightmare, not at all, but we just like to have a positive working environment and everyone wants to be there and cares about the show on a deeper level than it just being a job. So when you have that sort of trust and commitment from people, it makes it a lot easier to keep things tight-knit.

Alex: There are so many shock moments in the show where characters are unexpectedly killed off, when you get sent a new script are you a bit scared it might be you?
Maisie: Well apparently in previous years you got a phone call, but I don’t think they did that this year… in fact some cast members didn’t read the script until we did the read-through because they didn’t want to know beforehand. And there were tears. People were crying because of what happens in this series. I guess you aren’t supposed to see it coming if your character is going to leave. But making it to the final season was all I wanted.

“But everyone who works on the show wants to protect [the plotline] with their life, and as soon as someone doesn’t, we all know about it and they’re not one of us anymore.”

Alex: Yeah, I bet you didn’t imagine you’d make it all the way to the end when the show first aired in 2011. It’s an amazing arc for both you and Arya.
Maisie: I know! From episode one to the final season. It’s been really wonderful to grow up with Arya and not have that story cut short, because it means that my story hasn’t been either. So it’s been really special to be able to grow her as well as myself, going through that same transition as a young woman in this world, and how the things you think of as being the be-all and end-all of existence shift so much, and you find a new way of handling life.

Alex: How is it now stepping away from Game of Thrones, something that has been such a constant in your life.
Maisie: I’ve loved playing Arya and she’s always a real challenge, but I do feel… I read an interview with Cillian Murphy and he said, “My only two constants are to challenge myself and to try not to repeat myself.” As an actor, I feel like that ethos is so important, and whilst playing Arya, other characters that I’ve chosen to play have always slipped into a similar pattern, which is not good as an actor. So on-the-one-hand it’s going to be really sad not being Arya anymore, but it also feels like I can really let go and do something new in my career, which is just really exciting. And of course I could’ve done that before, but remember this is the first thing I ever did, so I’m still trying to figure out this whole acting thing [laughs]. Moving forwards, it’s going to be nice to let her go and start afresh.

Alex: And playing a character such as Arya for such a stretch of time, you must learn certain things from her story that can perhaps help you in your own.
Maisie: Certainly. Something that I’ve learned from her, but haven’t necessarily nailed just yet, is just being so black and white and honest with yourself and the world, and so fearless in that sense. I was very fearless growing up, but as you get older I think everyone loses that a bit and you start to overthink situations.

“People were crying because of what happens in this series.”

Alex: You start to worry about the consequences of things. As a kid you have zero fear.
Maisie: No fear at all. I think that fear is something that I recognise in myself and sometimes I wish that I could let it go a bit, but at the same time it’s who I am. But I love how bold Arya is, and I wouldn’t mind having a bit of that.

Alex: From an outsider’s point of view, I’d say you’re pretty bold.
Maisie: [laughs] Maybe just internally then I need to start convincing myself more.

Alex: Definitely, you’ve used your position to address issues you feel strongly about, like cyberbullying and politics.
Maisie: I’ve always been very hyper-aware that the world I came from is just a million miles away from where I am now, and so I’ve always felt that I owed it to myself – and to the girl I was and the life I could’ve had – to really speak up and speak out, even when it’s really hard. But I’ve definitely needed to find the balance because I’ve had so many sleepless nights when I was fifteen or sixteen worrying about things I’d said and how they’d been construed. It isn’t an easy route, it’s easier to keep your mouth shut.

“Something that I’ve learned from [Arya], but haven’t necessarily nailed just yet, is just being so black and white and honest with yourself and the world, and so fearless in that sense.”

Alex: Does this make you cynical at all, having your words misconstrued?
Maisie: It doesn’t make me cynical. Sometimes it knocks you back and it’s hard, but other times it’s totally worth it, it’s worth the pain because I’m not going to back down on this. So it really is just all dependent on the situation. But I’ve definitely had to find the balance, because you can’t start jeopardising your own mind and sanity. You have to pick your battles.

Alex: In today’s world people are so quick to criticise and therefore everyone is under such scrutiny, especially those in the public eye such as yourself. People aren’t being allowed to make mistakes anymore.
Maisie: Exactly, you’re never going to please everyone. Everything you do, no matter how good or right you think it is, it’s always going to upset someone, and then no matter how bad you think something you did is, there’ll always be someone like, “It wasn’t that bad.” So it’s just the world that we live in. The more I grow up and I travel and the more cities that I work and live in… the world is just so big, so big. It sounds so simple, but it still just completely blows my mind. I think as soon as you accept that, you just realise that whatever you do is just a tiny little step, right? And whenever that doesn’t work and it feels like the world hates you, it’s just a tiny little step anyway.

Alex: It’s all about perspective.
Maisie: And it’s not for everyone. I’m not saying that if you don’t use your voice you’re a bad person. If you want to just be an actor, that’s fine. And people rinse you all the time if you’re an actor and you speak out, they say, “What do you know? You’re just a stupid actor.” Just pick your battles.

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Alex: So I want to talk to you about Daisie, the new app you’ve recently launched. It’s such a great idea, can you tell me a bit about the story behind it and where the idea stemmed from?
Maisie: Well me and my friend Dom met on the Netflix film iBoy. He was a camera loader and we became mates and then we decided to start our own production company and began making movies. Both Dom and myself got into the industry through complete luck, but a lot of our friends couldn’t do the same, they couldn’t recreate what happened to us and we identified this issue with breaking into the industry. For some people it’s literally impossible, it isn’t because they aren’t grafting hard enough or that they aren’t good enough, sometimes you just can’t get that foot in the door and people don’t know who you are. So we found this problem and decided that we could fix it with this app. At the beginning it was sort of like a LinkedIn for the creative arts, but it doesn’t really work like that because artists don’t want to market themselves as the right person for the job, you want the work to come as a by-product of the work you’re already creating. So we shifted it slightly into more of an Instagram-y social network for people who are in the creative arts and want to connect with others. It isn’t about follow counts, it’s about growing your chain of people through working together and the amount of connections you make. So Joe Bloggs from wherever now has this chain of people in his area who he’s worked with and collaborated with; maybe he did lighting for one person, and then did sound for someone else, whatever he’s interested in, he’s filled in and helped these other people who are trying to make a show reel or a portfolio of pictures. For example, a young, aspiring model can find a fashion photographer and a designer, and together they can further their own careers. That was the idea behind it. And now it means that I’ve had to learn a completely new set of skills, such as pitching and finances, and it’s not the world that I’m from. I’m not claiming to be the next big tech person, at all [laughs], but it’s where I’ve found myself and it’s an issue I know I can try to fix.

Alex: I love the fact it democratises opportunities across the whole country. The creative arts often gets accused of being very London-centric, but this spreads opportunities further afield.
Maisie: Completely, and it offers opportunities to people from smaller cities by putting them in touch with like- minded individuals. For so many young people, they have a dream, and it’s like a pipe-dream, but before they’ve even had a chance to really explore their art, they have to get a job and they can’t think about it anymore. The only way you can really explore and grow as an artist is by someone else giving you the chance to do that. So even if it’s not a career, it gives people the chance to explore different arts and try their hand at things they are interested in. I was a dancer before I was an actor and I was convinced that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until someone was like, “Hey, why don’t you try this?” and I gave acting a go and realised this is my calling in life. But it happens so often where people don’t get the opportunity to really play and get creative.

Alex: And enjoy it.
Maisie: And enjoy it! We’re doing this for other people to enjoy but also for ourselves. So I just want people to be more inspired to think of the creative arts as a serious career path, and not to be laughed at by certain teachers [laughs].

Alex: I think the idea of a chain connection instead of followers or likes or friends is a very important point. The arts are slowly getting sucked into this idea of social media numbers being the be-all-and-end-all, which is a dangerous game. But Daisie places the emphasis on collaboration.
Maisie: It eliminates the popularity contest, and it eliminates people doing stupid things purely to get views. It takes it back to the idea of someone wanting to grow as an artist, and it takes it back to really internalising and thinking, “How can I be better?”, “You’re inspiring, what can I learn from you?”. It really brings it back to you being your own biggest competition, and I think that’s really important. I’ve always been my own biggest competition, I’ve always wanted to do better than before and I think that’s far more important than peeping into other people’s private lives and wishing you had what they do, it takes it away from the personal, gossip-ness of social media and places it in the realms of your career and creating a portfolio to represent yourself to the public. I think that’s so important for the younger generation, because so many people put everything online – which is absolutely fine – but I think Daisie just encourages the idea of how you portray yourself as a creative, not just through your personal life, but through your art.

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Alex: A really positive aspect of Daisie is that you’re encouraging people to socialise and collaborate in real life through social media. People often get so wrapped up in the online world that, as a society, we are perhaps paying less attention to real life experiences and relationships, but Daisie is clever in that it flips that idea and encourages people to meet and collaborate in real life through social media.
Maisie: Yeah, that’s what I want. You know, I’ve had a million people message me saying, “We should link”, “We should connect”, this and that, and it’s a great idea, but until you have a platform where you can actually share ideas – upload this, take it down, edit it, change it, move it, put it back up, “What do you think about this?”, “I love it, why don’t we change that bit and move this” – it can be hard to see that through. We pull favours all the time, what if you can pull favours from strangers who live around the corner?

Alex: Like a creative arts Craigslist.
Maisie: Exactly [laughs].

Alex: Have you enjoyed working on something that allows you to step away from the acting world for a bit and explore different skills?
Maisie: It’s been really interesting. I was in Silicon Valley recently talking about the app and pitching it. It’s just a very different world, and I’m very keen to learn. It’s been a lot of hard work but I really enjoy learning new skills.

Alex: How involved were you in the technical aspects of building the app?
Maisie: Not very involved [laughs], just involved to the extent where I’d go, “Timmm, there’s a bug.” [laughs] But no, that’s not my field at all.

Alex: What have people you’ve told from the film industry said?
Maisie: “Can I invest?” [laughs]

Alex: And you have an account?
Maisie: Of course, you can find me at @maisie.

Alex: You’re also hitting the stage soon for your debut play, I and You.
Maisie: I am, and I honestly cannot wait. At the moment, with Daisie and my office nine-to-five, if you will, I have a lot of structure, which is something that I’ve really missed, working in this industry. So then going on to do the play, it’s exciting because the schedule is as much of a nine-to-five as you can get in this career.

Alex: I’ve always wondered how actors can just switch it on and off, going from an intense month-long shoot to suddenly being back at home in-between jobs.
Maisie: It is difficult. Trying to build a social life, and friendships, it’s hard. It really is all or nothing. You get so close to people because you have all the time in the world one moment, and they’re like, “Maisie’s free, we’ll go out!” and it’s great. But then you’re like, “So, I’m going to be away for the next three months in a different country and I’m not going to see any of you at all.” And life goes on, of course…

Alex: And you come back and your mate’s engaged…
Maisie: [laughs] And someone’s got a child. So it’s just a weird life.

Alex: And the play is your debut stage performance, is that daunting?
Maisie: You know what, ever since I was tiny, all I’ve ever wanted to do is perform. What you lose a lot in film is that finished piece that you do from start to finish, with a play you can look at the audience and be like, “I have got you all for the next hour and a half, and you’re going to listen to everything I say.” There’s something about that which I love. I’m just so excited. I don’t think stage freight is anything I’ve ever really got, if anything it lights a fire under my ass to just really go for it.

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Alex: How did that role come about, were you looking to do a play?
Maisie: Not at all. We’ve had a few plays come through in the past, but it’s never really felt like the right time. However the stars really aligned for I and You, and the storyline is just incredible. I’m so excited to show people and it just feels like the perfect opportunity to take some time out to do a play.

Alex: I love the plot line and the idea of someone totally unexpectedly entering your life and just flipping it 360 – opening your mind up to new possibilities and ideas.
Maisie: Yeah, not someone being like, “Oh, come and live in my mansion with me,” but an interaction you have with someone being so catastrophic in the way that it just blows your mind. It’s really cool. It happens every day, you think you have everything figured out and then someone just comes into your life and flips it all. And not even in a romantic way. It goes back to what I was saying before, the world is just so big and it’s full of so many amazing people.

Alex: Are you also enjoying the fact the play is in Hampstead? You’re actually working in London for once. You can just nip to work like a normal person [laughs].
Maisie: [laughs] I know! I can just get on the Overground and hop off. It’s really exciting to be living in London and working here too. My dog is going to come live with me because he was living with my mum whilst I’ve been away, so now I have a fairly settled life he can come back and live with me. I can’t wait.

Alex: Is there a play or performance you’ve seen that made a particular impact on you?
Maisie: I watched The Crucible on Broadway a year or two ago and was totally blown away by Tavi Gevinson’s performance as Mary. I think it was her Broadway debut too. You always think of it as Abigail’s story, but when you have someone so compelling playing Mary, it was just incredible.

“I feel like the characters I play, they quite often draw on a trauma from a previous life or from within themselves, and I think it is something that I feel comfortable doing, and almost cathartic in my own life.”

Alex: You’ve also got X-Men: The New Mutants coming out next year…
Maisie: Yeah, it comes out around Summer next year.

Alex: It’s a really interesting take on the comic book movie genre, reframing the story as a straight-up horror flick.
Maisie: Exactly, the two writers, Knate [Lee] and Josh [Boone], they’d always found the comics really scary and there’s some really amazing horror themes in the books, so they wanted to spin the classic superhero movie on its head and create a really dark thriller. I also think there are so many amazing franchises at the minute, so it’s important to do something different in order to compete and stand out. It was really great to be involved with something that changes it up and delves into unchartered territory.

Alex: Also, the demographic for superhero movies has aged in recent years as directors look to show a darker, more realistic side to the genre. This film totally plays into that.
Maisie: Absolutely, I think it’s something Deadpool and Logan did so wonderfully, they grew with the audience.

Alex: It also spins the traditional narrative around, placing the superhero characters as the victims in an environment they can’t really control.
Maisie: It’s really interesting seeing teenagers learning to use their mutant powers, I think it’s a fascinating concept, like, what was Wolverine like before he learned to control his powers.

Alex: It’s like the superhero equivalent of coping with hormones and puberty [laughs].
Maisie: Exactly, you put all of these young people in a confined area and they all desperately try to kill themselves and each other [laughs].

Alex: Throughout many of the roles you’ve played, there’s been a sense of being somewhat unhinged or an underlying danger, is this something you notice when selecting jobs?

Maisie: I feel like the characters I play, they quite often draw on a trauma from a previous life or from within themselves, and I think it is something that I feel comfortable doing, and almost cathartic in my own life. My own teenage years were hardly normal, so approaching different characters and approaching them in a way that is real and honest, it’s a nice sort of therapy, I guess [laughs].

Game of Thrones season 8 begins on 14th April on HBO.

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