Maisie Williams Is Not Having Hollywood Nonsense
In our May cover story
It's a cool Thursday afternoon in Santa Monica, California, and Maisie Williams is skirting the paparazzi in a pair of purple vintage roller skates. “Arsehole," she curses under her breath. “Ugh, it's so bad in America. Back home in England, they just take the shot and go. Here, they'll follow you for hours."
The offending pap seemed to appear from out of nowhere, but then again, I'm not the 19-year-old sword-wielding star of the most talked-about fantasy series on television for six years running, and thus am not on the lookout for such things. I'm also not much of a skater, and have been spending the past hour desperately trying not to careen out of control and instigate a Red Wedding-style disaster, or, at the very least, injure the actress who plays Arya Stark, the fan-favorite character who sits firmly in the center of the zeitgeist otherwise known as Game of Thrones. In case you've been up in Wildling territory for the last half-decade, Arya, through sheer grit and a quiet toughness, is one of only a handful of characters to have survived every bloody season.
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“It’s okay,” Williams reassures me. “I can help you if you fall.” There’s a deep sincerity to her delivery, as well as a casual confidence, and I believe her. After all, this is a young woman whose character spent an entire season living in freezing mud, another traversing the countryside with a giant on horseback, and as of late has been forced to find her way through a foreign country while blind. Except looking at Williams, in her sporty, skate-ready knee socks and dainty nose stud, one thing is clear: Arya Stark may be Maisie Williams, but Maisie Williams is not Arya Stark. Still, the fandom around her character has certainly turned into a fandom around Williams, who boasts over a million Twitter followers, nearly two million Instagram followers, and her own YouTube channel focused on “Random Moments of Madness With Maisie.” She’s known for her self-deprecating sense of humor and her support of Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, and is quick to poke fun at Arya’s transformation from naive Northerner to poison-plying murderer.
“Online, I used to [present] a version of myself that was very clean and neat, and then I thought, ‘What’s the point?’ That’s the worst role model to be—to be someone else,” she says. Indeed, her Internet presence isn’t too far off from the girl skating effortlessly down the boardwalk, making jokes but also pushing herself to communicate more thoughtfully. “Being perfect is a bit disheartening,” she says. “Life’s too short and I want to inspire people to have fun and not take life too seriously. And if that means I make mistakes and say the wrong thing, then so be it. That’s kind of what being young and growing up is about. I’m learning like everyone else.”
Most profiles of teenage actresses spend plenty of time trying to convince the reader that said actress is “wise beyond her years” or an “old soul.” In fact, Jason Sudeikis, Williams’s co-star in the upcoming drama The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, argues that Maisie is “the living embodiment” of the concept of past lives. In the film, Sudeikis plays a widower who helps Maisie’s character, a homeless teen named Millie, build a boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean. While working together, he couldn’t help but notice Williams had “a certain ‘been there, done that’ wisdom, without a drop of cynicism.”
At the same time, Williams possesses an unfettered gleefulness, especially when discussing her new nephew or her blind pet turtle, Stevie, but it’s clear how this composed, thoughtful young woman was chosen to become one of television’s most dangerous characters: She has an undeniable self-possession and worldliness, and when she speaks about how the role of Arya Stark fits within the larger spectrum of popular female characters, she does so with a compelling weight and reverence. “I’m so grateful that the first job I ever landed taught me to never take a role that was ‘less,’” she says. “I’ve had the opportunity to play a lot of actors’ dream role—I don’t want to ever settle.”
When it comes to female characters, Game of Thrones has quite the spectrum: Cersei is a queen, Daenerys has dragons, Sansa is a survivor, but only Arya is a warrior. “Arya is really popular with a lot of people because she’s just a broadly funny character—witty, dry, ballsy, feminist,” she says. Her role stands out in a show where brutality against women is the norm. Last season saw heavy backlash when Arya’s older sister, Sansa Stark, was raped, an event that doesn’t occur in the book. Critics pointed to the fact that the women in the world of Thrones are all victims of sexual violence, and that no woman has control over her body—even Arya, who plays an entire season as currency for a character nicknamed The Hound.
Williams defends the show’s depiction of women, noting that its girl-power quotient can be found in the way that, even in subjugation, each woman is given as much motivation, backstory, and depth as her male counterparts. “They’re written as whole characters,” she says. “Of course, there are elements in the show where women are treated badly, but it’s representative of that era. And yes, it is disturbing watching a woman get raped on-screen, but it’s also disturbing watching kids getting killed, babies getting killed, horses being killed, basically everything you can think of on the show being killed, murdered, tortured.”
So, yes, Westeros is a brutal world, especially for someone as young as Williams was when she landed the part seven years ago. Still, her mom always let her watch the show. “For a lot of the most violent scenes, my character was there. I was there for the filming of Ned Stark’s beheading, I was there when Joffrey got his arm bitten. I was there for a lot. So it was more intriguing than scary for me to watch how it was all cut together.” And the nude scenes? “My mum was cool with that, too, like, ‘It’s where babies come from,’” she explains, matter-of-factly.
Williams’s on-screen sibling, Sophie Turner, cites Maisie as one of her best friends. “I’m very protective of her as a friend and as a quasi-sister,” says Turner. “It’s important for people to know that, despite all of her badassery and extraordinary circumstances, Maisie is still just a normal teenager and isn’t immune to the effect that words on social media can have.” Turner is likely referencing the complexities tied to mass popularity, something both she and Williams are more than familiar with. “Sometimes my fans say things like, ‘That’s not Maisie,’” says Williams. “I’m like, ‘How do you know what is not me? One, I have never met you, and two, I am not yours. I am myself.’”
Naturally, when the world is introduced to your character as a child—and your child self is available for viewing 24-7 to anyone with an HBO Go account—it can be hard to convince the public that you are anything but. “When I step out with a shorter skirt on, or a little bit more makeup, people say, ‘What’s happening?’ But this is what I do in everyday life. It’s who I am.’” And it’s true: A quick search pulls up headlines depicting shock over how pretty Williams looks on the red carpet, as if everyone had expected her to show up in character, her sword Needle by her side.
For Williams, navigating the dichotomy between wearing rags and dried blood on set and glamorous gowns at the Emmys or the SAG Awards is a nonissue, having done so now for about a third of her lifetime. Frankly, she’d rather be hanging out at home. “It’s really important for me to be in my own bed. That’s how I get back to reality—not living out of a suitcase, moving back home again, unpacking my stuff. I say that Game of Thrones is negative numbers, and red carpets and stuff are positive numbers, so I always come back to zero every time just to regroup.” Williams is also the baby of her family, and her siblings and mother help keep her feet firmly planted. Her professional team does the same: “I have a really great group of people around me who I trust 100 percent. They are very honest and let me be who I want to be, and nurture that rather than giving me a personality. It’s easy to let yourself take off, but I am so in love with my life, everyone at home, and the life I used to have that I have no intention of changing.”
Still, she admits that sometimes she worries she’ll lose her Maisie-ness to the madness of Hollywood. “Honestly, this industry frightens me—it scares me seeing people who are evil,” she says, before stopping herself and then laughing. “No, not evil. But seeing people change. Seeing what this industry has done to me, and then having to pull it all back again. I am very happy with who I am, and people always say, ‘Don’t change,’ but no one ever intentionally changes. It is frightening.” She pauses. “If I saw myself in 20 years’ time, and I was a dickhead, I would be like, ‘Why did this happen? Who did this to you?’”
Sudeikis, who belongs to one of the maybe five households in America that don’t watch Game of Thrones, witnessed firsthand the frenzy surrounding his young co-star during the making of The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. “She’s in the eye of a storm that has a great deal of modern repercussions, mostly Internet-based. Whether it’s photos being leaked, or home addresses being shared, this is a position that mostly females find themselves in in this day and age,” he says, adding that, at times, such external forces can cause “a callousness” to develop. Still, he is not concerned in the least that such factors could ever erase Williams’s signature quirky charm. “She’s already ahead of the game,” he says.
Indeed, Williams is part of a new generation of stars, one that is growing up in front of our Insta-eyes, receiving comments and likes on their every move. “It is quite a natural thing for teenagers to be confused,” she says. “There is a label for everything now, which is okay, because some people need labels.” This refreshingly laissez-faire attitude extends to her personal life: “I’ve never sat up and thought about my sexuality for hours. It’s like what Shailene Woodley said: ‘I fall in love with personalities and not people or genders.’ I have no problem with anyone who would want to be labeled, but I also think that it is no one’s business.” Then, in a very un-Stark way, she adds, “Do what you want.”
Doing what she wants, even if it doesn’t follow a traditional Hollywood trajectory, is certainly Williams’s M.O. Case in point: She actually dates like a real teen. “I have a boyfriend,” she shares. “I met him at school.” She pauses, and then smiles. “He’s really sweet.” Of course, even this comes with a self-aware levelheadedness: “I feel like I’m in love right now, but I don’t know what I am going to feel like down the line. That’s why I am kind of closed-minded about marriage—I don’t even know if I want to get married.”
Life, for Williams, seems normal—relatively speaking. Aside from the lone paparazzo, our somewhat wobbly, uncoordinated efforts have gone mostly unnoticed by passersby—until a teenage boy tentatively approaches Williams to ask for a picture. She exudes a near-sisterly warmth, thanking him for saying hello but politely declining, wishing him a lovely day. He doesn’t seem dejected, but instead smiles, apologizes, and goes on his way.
“I still don’t feel like I owe anyone anything,” she says, as we skate past the young fan. “If I don’t want a picture one day, I don’t have a problem saying no. I know some people get really weird about that, like, ‘You’re so mean.’ But if I was really in love with someone, I wouldn’t just want a picture. I would want to hang out with them,” she says.
Judging by Instagram, it’s quite clear that she’s more than generous with her willingness to pose. And yet it’s understandable how one might find it difficult to get “back to zero” when everyone in your vicinity is pestering you about whether Jon Snow is dead or alive. (Sidenote: I asked. She expertly deflected.) “I can do normal things, but not in a normal way,” she explains. “When I go out clubbing, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re that girl from that show!’ So I wear caps.” (Another sidenote: Turner says Williams is an excellent dancer.) “When I go to a music festival, I wear a mask, because, well, it is fun to wear masks, and also it is nice to walk around without taking pictures all the time,” adds Williams.
Music, it seems, brings Williams to that zero sweet spot. So does roller-skating. As she glides down the path following Santa Monica Boulevard, her enthusiasm is contagious, even with the approach of one of the most anticipated premieres in television history weighing heavily on her shoulders. Here is Maisie Williams: straddling adolescence and adulthood, normal life and Hollywood pageantry, Westeros and the real world. And, to her, finding that tricky balance is the only game worth playing.
Hair: Bryce Scarlett for The Hair Shop at The Wall Group. Makeup: Jen Fiamengo at Walter Schupfer using Chanel Beauté. Manicurist: Stephanie Stone at Nailing Hollywood using Formula X in Infinite Ombré Kit.
NYLON's May issue hits newsstands April 26.