Maisie Williams: the Game Of Thrones star on cyberbullies and the fame game
At 12, the Bristol schoolgirl landed the role of Arya – and soon found herself juggling ordinary teenage life with online abuse and a growing fanbase
There was a moment, not long after Maisie Williams landed a role in the soon-to-be hit series Game Of Thrones, that the extent of her double life became apparent. One day, as the child warrior Arya Stark, she would be filming sword fights opposite Sean Bean and Kit Harington; the next, she would be catching the bus to school in Bristol – and everyday teenage life could be just as confrontational. Williams remembers receiving dozens of abusive messages on the social networking site Formspring. “I had an awful time,” she says. “It was around the time I was starting to act, and I knew exactly who it was, but it was all anonymous. Just awful things.”
She recalls sitting next to her mother on the train home from filming, and feeling trapped in another world. She was getting messages telling her that success had made her stuck up, that she thought she was too good for everyone else. “There were people all around me. And I was just stuck in my phone, stuck in this constant stream of what people thought of me.”
As Game Of Thrones grew from niche show to a global phenomenon, Williams was in the strange position of having an international fanbase and less popularity closer to home. She is reluctant to put this down entirely to classroom jealousy. “People just get kicks out of making other people sad,” she says, before admitting that her career played a large part. “No one ever said anything to my face, ever. It was awful.”
In the studio today, Williams is full of energy and life, chewing gum and blowing bubble after bubble so the photographer can get his shot – she’s a pro, after all, having got her break at 12. Dressed head to toe in bright primary colours and sporting heavy eye makeup, she looks like a carefree 1960s poster girl. But off set, the image is entirely different: the 17-year-old is back in trainers and a parka, her nose ring in, and after a quick roll-up outside, she’s ready to sit down and talk.
Williams was born in Bristol, the youngest of four children. She went to school in Somerset, before enrolling in a performing arts college in Bath. Game Of Thrones took a while to take off in America, she says, so she wasn’t instantly catapulted into the limelight. “It happened quite slowly. And I don’t think you ever really class yourself as famous, because there’s always someone who’s doing more, or having more hassle from people. I still feel like Maisie.”
But to thousands of fans, she is Arya, the youngest daughter of the unfortunate Stark dynasty, who embarks on an arduous journey across a continent in search of her family. Game Of Thrones depicts warring families in a fantasy, medieval-inspired universe: all sex, swords and intrigue, with the odd dragon thrown in. It’s violent and bloody, with a high body count: Arya is one of the few long-standing characters not to have been killed off. And perhaps it’s this longevity that accounts for her popularity: a single tweet from Williams (who has 750,000 followers) about the series will prompt a Game Of Thrones news story.
Williams has now left college, but she still lives in Bristol, recently moving in to her own flat. She says she has a pretty ordinary teenage existence, and her Instagram account proves it: pictures of her partying at Boomtown, an annual reggae, folk and world music festival near Bristol, singing Beyoncé to her pet tortoise, and showing off her nail art. After a night out she has everyone round to her place to watch David Attenborough documentaries. “I look at other people my age in this industry, other famous people my age, and they’ve just got famous friends. Which is cool, but I love being normal and just chilling at mine.”
Williams puts her groundedness down to her family, who are close, and laughingly tells me that one of her brothers has just got a job at Ann Summers,“which is so jokes”. If she had to get a normal job, she says, it wouldn’t be a big deal; nor is money an issue between them. “Maybe they [her siblings] can’t get that new pair of trainers until the end of the month, but I just look at how happy they are,” she says.
She is resisting the lure of London, at least until her friends have gone to university. “I don’t want to make that step just yet. I don’t want to be the first to leave, because I’m just loving it so much being 17.” She’s past the online bullying, and enjoying her freedom while she can. “Turning 18 is a big deal,” she says.
How different would her life be if Game Of Thrones hadn’t come along? “I’ve never known anything else,” she shrugs. “I don’t know what it would be like.” She admits she has had to grow up quickly, though. “I do think of 12-and-over as being ‘when I became an adult’. It’s strange when people say they don’t feel like they’ve grown up yet… I’ve had to learn a lot.”
Dealing with media scrutiny has been one of the biggest challenges. “When I moved out [of home], they put this spin on it that I fell out with my mother and wanted to be on my own, and it’s not that at all.” She was criticised for having piercings, because people still think of her as a 12-year-old. “It feels like society is saying, ‘Be yourself, but not like that,’” she says. “There’s that constant fight between being myself, and then being a toned-down version of myself – sometimes it seems being myself is ‘too much’.” She looks up to her Game Of Thrones co-star Lena Headey, as an example of someone who has got the balance right. “She’s a fantastic actress but she doesn’t live in the limelight. I never see headlines about her. I think she’s just cracked it – I don’t want to be on the pages of Hello! magazine.”
Williams is a feminist, though it’s not an issue high on her agenda. “There are creepy things that people say online that I shouldn’t have to read,” she explains, “but there are bigger things going on in other countries.” We talk about actor Emma Watson’s recent UN speech, in which she talked about her reasons for becoming a feminist, and the need for men to be onside; Williams says she is impatient with this kind of “first-world feminism”. “A lot of what Emma Watson spoke about, I just think, ‘that doesn’t bother me’. I know things aren’t perfect for women in the UK and in America, but there are women in the rest of the world who have it far worse.”
You can hear the passion in her voice, and Williams campaigns for a number of causes: breast cancer is one, “because my mum had it”, and another is online abuse. Inspired by her own experiences, she is starring in a Channel 4 drama called Cyber Bully. Williams plays Casey, a teenage girl who is held prisoner in her bedroom by a computer hacker who, over the course of an hour, taunts and manipulates her, threatening to leak compromising photographs unless she does exactly what he says. Drawing on several real cases, as well as the recent celebrity nude photo leak, the drama is mostly a solo performance. Williams contributed to the script, keen to ensure that the portrayal of teenagers’ online habits was accurate. “One thing we didn’t want it to be was patronising,” she says. “I just wanted it to be real. When I’m watching Hollyoaks and texts come up on the screen, with all the LOLs, it’s like: people don’t say that any more.” She is dismissive of those who don’t take cyberbullying as seriously as other forms of bullying. “I think it hurts even more,” she says. “Kids are killing themselves. It’s very serious.”
Maisie Williams and Sean Bean
Maisie Williams with Sean Bean in Game Of Thrones. Photograph: Rex Features
Now 17, her own life is becoming easier. “I’m completely out of the system, which is probably one of the best things that’s ever happened.” She is in touch with just one or two friends from school. “My mum isn’t friends with anyone she went to school with, and when she told me that, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t have to be friends with these people for the rest of my life, I’m going to meet so many new people,’” she says.
She is close to her mother, who has complete access to her Twitter account, never tweeting but keeping an eye on her timeline. (It was partly this, she says, that helped her cope with the cyberbullying, knowing that her mum was seeing what she saw.) “I know that it’s not the same for all teenagers,” she says. “I have so many friends who say: ‘You talk to your mum about this? Your mum knows that you’ve lost your virginity?’ But we’ve just got a really good relationship – we can talk about things.”
She has also deleted some online accounts. “Why do I need to hear what other people think of me? I’m happy.” She recognises this is not such an easy step for many teenagers. “Those years are such a strange, strange time, because you’re just constantly trying to do the right thing and be liked. Or just go under the radar and fit in. And before you know it, you’re being attacked by everyone and it’s really scary.”
Right now, she is back on the Game Of Thrones set. Series five will air in early spring 2015, and Williams is naturally, contractually vague about what is in store, though she does hint that “there’s a big ending for Arya. They’re basically breaking her down, and you get to see behind the cracks.”
She still hasn’t read George RR Martin’s books, mainly to avoid getting the storylines confused while she was performing (subtle changes and cuts have been made for the TV adaptation). But she has promised Martin she will read them soon. And it’s possible that the series will continue beyond the book narrative. “We’re coming to the end now, so I don’t know what they’re going to do next year,” she says. “It’s the end of Arya, as far as anyone knows.”
She has another film role in The Falling, playing a girl who starts a hysterical fainting outbreak in a 1960s girls’ school, which premiered at the London film festival in October. Then there’s The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, a film starring and produced by Jessica Biel, about a widower who teams up with a wisecracking girl (Williams; who else?) in order to build a raft to cross the Atlantic. She is also rumoured to have been cast as the lead in The Last Of Us, the film version of the zombie apocalypse survival game.
So, can Williams cope with the next phase of the fame game? Her ambition, she says, is to “be as normal as I can and do what I love for a living”. But she admits to enjoying the adulation. “There’s something so wonderful about just stepping out of a car and people screaming. You can make someone’s day just by being there,” she says, looking incredulous. “It’s mad and I still don’t get it.”
Cyber Bully will be on Channel 4 in early 2015.
Source: The Guardian