In season 1 of Game of Thrones, Arya Stark is described as being like a sword. In the context of the character, it’s proven to be an apt description. Over seven seasons, revenge, retribution and bloodshed have all become hallmark attributes of Stark’s evolution from innocent waif to a cunning, strong young woman. Read this story and more in the latest issue of Highsnobiety Magazine.
For the 20-year-old actress who has effortlessly inhabited the role, Maisie Williams, the metaphor is equally accurate. Williams arrives in Boston by herself—unsheathed—cutting through the red tape of publicists, managers, and agents as she readies herself to be transformed in garments ranging from a Maria ke Fisherman leather corset top to a Zadig & Voltaire sweater which appropriately reads “muse.”
She’s in town shooting X-Men: New Mutants where she has been cast in the role of Wolfsbane–a transformative Scottish entity with a furry alter-ego—who will battle evil alongside a diverse set of other teens. She’s sort of like a Stark who becomes her own dire wolf, so it seems like a natural transition for Williams as far as tent-pole franchises go.
It also furthers her pursuit to portray female characters that aren’t cliché and defy conventional attitudes about femininity and beauty.
“It’s nice to be a part of this sort of new wave of characters being written and actresses coming into fame that don’t really stick to the norm,” she says. “I believe that my generation is one of the most accepting generations that there is, and I sort of see that reflected in film.”
Most young actors and actresses toil in commercial work and graduate to embarrassing cameos on short-lived TV series or score bit parts in low budget films before making the jump to more substantial work. However, when Game of Thrones creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff scoured 300 female actresses across England for their vision of Arya Stark, they plucked Williams from absolute obscurity in her hometown of Bristol.
The youngest of four children, Williams was raised by her mother and stepfather who encouraged her first passion: dance. The discipline lends itself to the strict rule of choreography where a single step doesn’t happen by chance. But when Williams was 11, she and her company found themselves exploring how improvisation classes could aid in their overall imagination as dancers.
It was there where talent agent, Louise Johnston, became impressed by Williams’s charm and encouraged her to consider trading in her ballet slippers for acting. With Johnston serving as her first agent, Williams auditioned for a part in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang—the sequel to the 2005 film starring Emma Thompson—but she ultimately missed out landing the gig because she looked too young.
Johnston could sense that Williams was already frustrated. Yet, she and Maisie’s mother still sold her on the aforementioned HBO series which would potentially allow her to portray a tomboyish character enamored by her brother’s exploits in battle.
The only problem: the audition interfered with a class trip to a local pig farm, which was particularly appealing to Williams because she absolutely adored animals, aided by a Noah’s Ark-esque upbringing which included 13 dogs, rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs, birds, and a hedgehog. Fortunately for Williams, her mother persuaded her to pursue the opportunity.
Her audition tape revealed a 12-year-old girl, cropped brunette hair framing her oval face, with that “it” factor that embodied Arya’s mischievousness and bravery. For Weiss and Benioff, she was their Arya. But for Maisie Williams, she just hoped to finally afford a new laptop.
Game of Thrones debuted in 2011—two days after her 14th birthday—and met with near-universal acclaim thanks to the ambitious scope of the series, rich characters, sprawling locales and its sheer unpredictability (well, for those that hadn’t read the books). As a novice in the entertainment business, Williams was initially baffled by the success.
She recalls sitting in interviews with her older cast members, who would praise the show’s writing. But it’s not that she didn’t think the writing was good, she was just in a stage where her own tastes were being informed. In the same way kids who grow up listening to seminal bands and artists instead of spoon-fed bubblegum pop usually turn out much more culturally savvy than their peers, Williams’s early exposure to GoT’s Emmy-winning scripts informed her level of discernment for future projects.
“For a long time I was just so in love with Arya.
I just thought she’s the best thing ever and
that no one else could touch her, and
she was just incredible.”
In retrospect, she feels a little spoiled having had the privilege of working on such a game-changing show, and now she admits it’s a bit difficult for her to find scripts of the same caliber. It’s through this same adult lens that Williams can reinterpret not only her approach to acting, but is also able to reconcile the lingering connection she has to the youngest Stark daughter.
“For a long time I was just so in love with Arya. I just thought she’s the best thing ever and that no one else could touch her, and she was just incredible,” she says.
But as she grew up—both as a young adult and an actress—she began to explore a more vivid emotional range, and through that developed an appreciation for her on-screen older sister, Sansa Stark. Williams is quick to clarify that she wouldn’t have done as admirable a job portraying the scarlet-haired Sansa as her castmate, Sophie Turner. However, she relishes finding a similar character in her post-Game of Thrones career that has to endure similar obstacles.
Whereas Sansa and Arya Stark’s physical and emotional journeys are fictionalized, Maisie Williams saw the show’s success take a real toll on her real life. Specifically, online bullying and real-life bullying from her school peers sullied what should have been some of the happiest moments of her young life. She was particularly brutalized by the anonymous app, Formspring.
Williams wasn’t the only one experiencing the vitriol. Prior to her own experience, Formspring taunts notably led to two suicides in New York City and another in England in which a girl become so overwhelmed that she stepped in front of a train rather than continue experiencing the torment.
As Game of Thrones rose in popularity, Williams ultimately opted for tutors in lieu of school and eliminated parts of her social media footprint to avoid any lingering problems.
“[On Arya & Eleven] It’s made it okay to see little girls not just in dresses, and it’s okay for little girls to look like little boys, and it’s not quite so shocking and awful anymore.”
“You don’t really get a day off from being famous,” she reasons.
She channels her experiences with trolling into the 2015 film, Cyberbully, which chronicles the dangers and effects of online hate—allowing the public to see Williams as a vulnerable character rather than just as the fearless Arya Stark.
Williams creates a sense of balance in her life by devoting her time to causes she believes in. In 2015, she joined thousands of protestors in London’s Trafalgar Square to voice their displeasure with dolphin culling. She insinuates that even her charitable spirit and concern over animal welfare has ruffled feathers because there are those that can’t understand creating change beyond human rights. But considering she grew up surrounded by animals—and has to work with a variety of digital and fictional creatures in her day job—she remains a champion of animal welfare.
“If we all fight for the same thing, then all these other causes don’t get solved,” she says.
That same year, she made a “kill list” of politicians, entertainers and media magnates—including David Cameron, Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, Gary Barlow, Jeremy Clark, Boris Johnson, Rupert Murdoch, Kanye West and Russell Brand—in an effort to encourage the youth to vote in the UK election in order to fight back against men who had “kicked their future in the teeth.”
She’s also been a staunch advocate for women’s rights, something encouraged by her mother’s own battle with breast cancer, as well as her own experiences seeing the over-sexualization of young actresses in Hollywood. Williams’s philanthropy and activism stems from an example set by fellow Game of Thrones castmate, Lena Headey, who portrays Queen Cersei Lannister.
She has watched Headey champion women’s rights for Plan International and was invited by her to experience firsthand the challenges the International Rescue Committee (IRC) faced when dealing with the refugee crisis in Greece.
“I think that any activist’s main goal is to be put out of business,” she says of working tirelessly to solve the world’s ills.
The actors involved with Game of Thrones have seen their performances become so convincing that the public have had a hard time separating their fictional actions from the real people behind the characters. Jack Gleeson—who portrayed the devious Joffrey Baratheon—was often chastised for being a real monster. Similarly, Lena Headey echoed that people always expected her to be a “wicked witch” in real life just like her character, despite her extensive charitable background. When she appeared on Conan in 2013, Headey recalled a situation when someone approached her as she was buying a table and asked: “Are you that bitch?!”
However, Williams isn’t so quick to dispel the similarities between herself and Arya Stark. She describes both herself and the character as being hot-headed, jumping to conclusions and often times being their own worst enemies.
”You see that a lot this season,” she hints. “She gets herself into trouble a few times.”
Emmy voters validated Williams’s portrayal of Arya Stark in 2016—where she was honored alongside co-stars Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke for their work as Supporting Actresses in a drama series.
It’s rather fortuitous that in the subsequent months after she was recognized, the world latched onto another pre-teen female character—Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven from Stranger Things—who like Arya Stark, emotes a similar adult intensity, has lost her mother, and finds kinship with a wicked man. The similarities aren’t lost on Williams.
“Millie’s work was so great, and the character is so amazing. It is just wonderful to see more young girls in those sort of roles. I know that Arya was part of that,” she says. “It’s made it okay to see little girls not just in dresses, and it’s okay for little girls to look like little boys, and it’s not quite so shocking and awful anymore.”
It may seem rather gloomy to broach the idea of the “end” to an actress who is only 20 years old. But with her time on Game of Thrones nearing its conclusion, she’s acutely aware that it’s appropriate to begin formulating next steps.
One element that excites Williams is her newly-formed production company with partner Dom Santry, Daisy Chain Productions, whose goal is to develop and produce UK-originated short films, theatrical features and high-end television dramas. Her hope is to give young screenwriters, directors, and actors an outlet for expression who will in turn provide fresh eyes and unique perspectives that you don’t get with industry veterans.
“I want to give other people the opportunity to make incredible things,” she says. “There are so many members of my generation that have all the talent and just no platform.”
Daisy Chain’s first production, Stealing Silver, a film focusing on a young woman’s relationship with a mysterious man across the road from her, finds Williams serving as both executive producer and as the female lead.
Williams also seems to understand that no matter what she accomplishes as an actress or behind-the-scenes-creative—having notably earned a European Shooting Star Award (which also helped launched the career of Daniel Craig) at the Berlin Film Festival for her role in Carol Morley’s feature The Falling—there may be no escaping her Game of Thrones past. She admits playing Arya Stark has been one of the most successful things she’ll ever do despite new projects on the horizon like Mary Shelley opposite Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, Early Man with Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston, and plans to write and direct her own short film in 2018. But there is no sadness in her blunt assessment. She seems eager to recoup a lifestyle similar to her Bristol upbringing. There’s even talk of traveling for years on end if she felt so inclined.
“I could do anything, and I haven’t had that feeling for a long time,” she says.
As for the one question planted in the minds of Game of Thrones fans everywhere: what’s going to happen to Arya Stark by the end of the series? She doesn’t give any definitive answers, but rather offers a wistful view of what she hopes Arya’s fate is.
“I just want her to be happy and be safe and for someone to look out for her,” she says. “She’s become so independent, and she’s got quite a hard-ass attitude. I think that it’d be nice to have peace of mind that she’s being protected by an elder. Not sure who that would be. But she’s had it rough, and it’d be nice for her to have a nice hunk. Can’t imagine that really happening—this is Game of Thrones—but in my world that’s what I would like for her.”
Williams doesn’t answer like she’s talking about a fictional character; there’s a sense that in some ways, she’s also talking about herself, and the many female GoT fans that have seen a bit of themselves in Arya Stark. What’s evident is that as an actress and a fan-favorite character, Maisie Williams has certainly helped sharpen a stronger point of view for women everywhere.
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.
- Words: Alec Banks
- Photography: Kenneth Cappello
- Styling: Jenny Haapala
- Hair: Nero using Amika
- Make-up: Ayaka Nihei using Urban Decay
- Photography Assistant & Tech: Tucker Leary
- Styling Assistants: Delia Socorro Hernandez & Lydia Triano