Maisie Williams has every reason to be cheery, even as she’s battling a cold. Her Emmy nomination for playing Arya Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones is as long overdue as any acting recognition has ever been: how many actors can claim to have taken a character from awkward little princess to dangerous warrior in the space of just six ten-episode seasons—and as part of a mammoth ensemble cast—without it ever feeling false or unjustified? Think of Arya, watching her father’s execution, helpless; serving the table of the man who architected that execution, incognito; making a list of sworn enemies she intended to kill, who were all bigger, stronger and more powerful than she could ever hope to be; suffering the painful lessons of Jaqen H’ghar, resolved to push back.
And think of Williams, too, whose short list of credits (Game of Thrones was her first acting gig, landed when she was 12) already demonstrates a range that teases the promise of a long, varied career. It’s impossible to find a trace of Arya in Carol Morley’s brilliant The Falling, in which Williams plays Lydia, an English schoolgirl in the 1960s who gets caught up in a fainting epidemic. Guest spots in Doctor Who and another film lead in Niall Heery’s Irish indie Gold are similarly distinct. These roles have been sidebars against the complex production demands of Thrones, but with only two more—shortened—seasons of the show ahead, what Maisie Williams does next seems certain to be special.
“It needs to happen organically,” she says definitely, as she sits down after Deadline’s shoot at BAFTA’s London HQ. “Everything that’s happened in my career so far has happened really organically, and that’s the thing I’m going to take with me. But when the time is right, I know I’ll be able, as an actor, to create a new character and have the confidence to do that.”
If Williams has anything in common with the girl she plays in Game of Thrones, it is a kind of mature confidence that belies her 19 years. It wasn’t always there, she says, and she credits Nina Gold, who cast Thrones, with being able to recognize how she might develop through her teenage years. “It worked out so amazingly. For nature to take its course, and for that to really work out well, is just what made the show what it is.”
The Falling seems like an important role for Williams in finding her place. “It came at a time when I’d just left school and I’d lost quite a lot of confidence. My body was totally changing, I’d just got my first proper boyfriend, and I was a very different girl then.” The shoot was tough, and Morley had gone “method” on her actors, instructing the crew and her adult co-stars to treat the schoolgirl cast strictly like schoolgirls, resulting in the “weird atmosphere” that seems to permeate the piece. “I felt like I was a young woman in the industry, and for the first time I didn’t need a chaperone, but then I was getting told off for eating my lunch without a coat on,” she says. “I’d be stood there, like, ‘Why does everyone hate me?’”
It was only when she watched Morley’s debut feature that she understood the director’s approach. Dreams of a Life was a small British documentary, which investigated the story of a young woman whose dead body lay in her North London bedsit, undiscovered—and, apparently, unloved—for three years. “I didn’t see that film until the day after we wrapped, and all of a sudden I got it,” says Williams. “I wasn’t fighting Carol at all, because it was the first film I had done all on my own, but I definitely did feel like, ‘Oh, this wasn’t what I thought.’ It just happens sometimes, that you read a script and you’re on a different page to everyone else.”
It was her first experience, she says, “of working with a director who will get what they want even if you don’t know that you’re giving it to them.” And despite the many millions who watch Thrones, she feels it’s the film that launched her career. “I have everything to thank that film for, because creating new characters is more difficult than anyone ever lets you know.”
She’s rightly proud of landing her Emmy nomination for this landmark season as Arya Stark, and is looking forward to a fine evening, celebrating the show’s success with her colleagues and friends. Kit Harington and Peter Dinklage are also nominated, and in her own category she’s competing against castmates Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke. “I’m going to have my two girls there with me,” she says, insisting it’s no kind of competition. “We always have a nice time when we’re back together. It’s never really about who’s nominated and who isn’t, or who wins and who doesn’t.”
She admires another fellow nominee, Maggie Smith—who at this point, one suspects, must treat award nominations certificates like the rest of us treat junk mail—for the longevity and variety of her career, and can scarcely believe she’s been mentioned in the same breath. “To still be creating new characters, and to still be smashing it at her age… It’s very difficult to grow old gracefully in Hollywood, and I can only hope I get to do that. A career that’s so varied, and working with so many people, helping them to make their careers go better as they help you to make your career go better; that is what I would love to have.”
I tell Williams a story about interviewing Smith, and how she told me that in all her years on stage and screen she had never been bothered by members of the public until she started on Downton Abbey. Now, they won’t leave her alone in their demands for autographs and pictures. Williams can relate. The fervor that surrounds Game of Thrones makes her life challenging at times, and the press scrutiny has been intense. “But it’s not something that would ever impede what I want to do with my life,” she insists. “It’s just very current at the moment. I look exactly the same [as Arya] and I feel like my face is still going to change and I’m going to grow as a person.
“I don’t think there was ever a time where I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to act.’ But there was a time when I was like, ‘I don’t want to be famous.’ It’s one aspect that I will say is not cool; it’s just not me. People think being an actor and being famous come hand in hand, and that if you don’t want to be famous you shouldn’t be an actor. But it’s like, who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do? I always enjoyed performing.”
She would always put her hand up for school plays, and loved being the center of attention, a contradiction she’s not oblivious to. “It’s when it’s almost demanded of you that you go, ‘Oh, I don’t want that, actually.’” But perhaps it makes sense of the lesson she learned on The Falling: disappearing into a character, as uncomfortable as it can be, seems to be where her love for acting resides.
Directing also fascinates her, for its craft as well as its promise of anonymity. “I watch directors all the time. When they say, ‘actors relax,’ and everyone goes off set, I just love sitting there and watching Mark Mylod, in particular, with his DP, P.J. Dillon, setting up the next shot. He was the first DP to light me as a woman; everyone else lit me like a child. I just love listening to them, and watching them, and if the right project came along, I would want to direct. I really do think I’d enjoy it.”
And she still hasn’t read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, on which Game of Thrones is based. “When I started, my mum deemed them inappropriate,” she laughs. “But also, at the time, I didn’t really understand the importance of that in my craft. I was a non-actor, never trained, and I never really had any passion for reading. I just was Arya when I was younger, and that’s kind of the way it worked out.”
Now, she’s reached the point in the show’s lifespan where it seems better to wait. So much has been tweaked and changed, and as of Season 6 the show is flying blind: Martin has yet to complete the books that will tell this side of the ongoing story. “I brought what I brought to Arya, and I’m thrilled with the character I’ve strangely created now. It would be amazing to go back and read them after the fact, and see exactly what she was supposed to be like.
“But I keep thinking how funny it’d be, if someone sees me on the London Underground reading Game of Thrones.” Get a Kindle? “Yeah! Then I can read whatever I like!”
Maisie Williams photographed for Deadline/AwardsLine by James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock at BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, London