Since its premiere in 2011, HBO’s Game of Thrones has undoubtedly managed to shock, stun, horrify, and amaze a unified fanbase of diehard book lovers and devoted show watchers. An adaptation of plot-heavy fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, the television series is bursting with more characters, elaborate settings, and unexpected twists than you can swing a sword at.
If there’s one thing Game of Thrones is known for (besides its award-winning storytelling and memorable roles), it’s the series’s ever-increasing body count of characters both great and small in service, making it one of the few shows where no character feels safe or sacred enough to escape death.
One of the most enduring characters within the feudal society of Westeros, and one that has successfully managed to survive the on-screen events thus far (not to mention undergo one of the biggest transformations), is fan-favourite Arya Stark, a role played by English actress Maisie Williams.
The youngest daughter of the House Stark clan, a prominent family of Martin’s imagined seven kingdoms’ world, Williams’s awe-inspiring character begins as a rebellious, wild-spirited tomboy continuously diverting herself away from society’s gender norms. Faced with a hefty road of hardships, Arya soon shifts from victim to aggressor, transforming into an assassin and lady warrior bordering on the supernatural, whose thirst and willingness for revenge sees her master a talent for swordplay and nimble, martial-arts swagger.
“I honestly had the best time doing the stunted scenes. There’s never a dull moment playing Arya,” says Williams by phone from her home in the U.K. The actress reveals that a background in dance allowed her to master some of her own swashbuckling moves with ease. “It was a lot of crazy fun pretending to beat the hell out of each other,” she laughs.
Certain sparring scenes would get really intense and tricky, and Williams praises her incredible stunt double for stepping in to execute the bigger, show-stopping moves. “With the stunt team, I worked on making [my moves] look more angry and evil and not so balletic and sweet,” she adds.
With the highly anticipated eighth and final season of the fire-breathing, family-betraying, back-stabbing, White-Walking drama airing this April, Williams remains super tight-lipped about which way the storyline is going. She confesses, however, that wrapping the saga back in July was sombre for everyone involved.
“This whole season was really, really emotional. When I came to shoot my final scene, I had already watched a lot of people wrap and seen all the tears and heard all the speeches,” she says. When her own finale arrived, Williams says she was ready to leave her decade-long role behind. “It was just a really beautiful day, and a really great final scene for me. It felt like the right time to say goodbye to Arya,” she expresses.
During Game of Thrones’ impressive tenure on television, fans have closely watched Arya Stark mature on-screen and, simultaneously, followed Williams growing up off-screen as well. The 21-year-old actress was only 11 when she first auditioned, and 12 when she started filming the show. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime breakout opportunity that has thrown Williams into stardom, and garnered the actress a social media following in the millions. But, as the story usually goes, there’s a dark side to the level of exposure the star received, especially at such a young age.
“There are times when people feel like they own you, especially when you’re going through your adolescence and trying to figure out who you are and really put a stamp on your personality,” she says. “There are a billion people saying, ‘Oh that’s not right. This isn’t you.’ That was really, really confusing as a 15-year-old,” she continues. “I felt like I was constantly trying to do the right thing, say the right thing, not piss people off, but also trying to become my own woman.”
Despite the trials during her teenage years, Williams wouldn’t trade in her experience, and is thankful for her fans around the world. “It’s bizarre, but obviously amazing, when you go to a place you’ve never been in your life on the other side of the planet and there’s hundreds of people screaming at you. The scale of the show is unbelievable,” she says. For Williams, her fanbase can’t be beat, as swarms of show watchers have continued backing her on non-GoT projects. “They just dedicate their lives to supporting me. I’m so grateful for people like that. It makes you feel incredible.”
What’s more, as a child actor with no prior formal training, Williams adds that GoT was her schooling. “The calibre of actors I’ve been able to work with on the show has been such a high standard. It’s not every day you get to work with actors like that, and I was surrounded by them from such a young age. It’s just been so beneficial to me,” she emphasizes. “Everything that I do and everything that I’ve learned is from watching people. The show really smashed it out of the park with incredible actors.”
Similar to the way Arya Stark’s journey across continents throughout the show gained her powerful relationships with other key characters, Williams too has developed tight-knit connections with fellow actors off-screen.
Although they may play combative Stark sisters in the series, little is sweeter than the real-life bond between Williams and fellow actress Sophie Turner. The two have regularly documented their hangouts on social media, and even come complete with their own hashtag, #Mophie.
Williams has also formed a unique friendship with Lena Headey, who plays the cunning, cruel, and cold Queen Cersei. “Lena has always treated me like a young adult. Even when I was a kid, she never treated me as one,” she says.
That feeling of equal treatment and recognition from such a veteran co-star was huge for Williams, as navigating life while in the spotlight felt particularly unusual. “I really loved that, because it was such a weird world; one week, I was at school having to raise my hand to ask to go to the toilet, and the next week we’re with fans signing autographs,” says Williams. “She just always respected me.”
Between filming the final season of Game of Thrones—two years in the making—Williams shot Marvel horror flick The New Mutants, made her stage debut at Hampstead Theatre in Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, and managed to find time to launch a tech start-up.
Last year, Williams teamed up with her good friend Dom Santry to create Daisie, a social networking app aimed at fighting nepotism within the arts and entertainment industries by giving users access to a network of creators that they would not have had otherwise.
The idea was born out of personal experience, given that her rapid rise was a stroke of luck, she says. “There’s huge injustice in the industry; it’s very hard to break in. There are so many people who are at the top of their game, who probably graduated from a really expensive school, or who have very successful parents,” states Williams. “It’s very difficult for people like me to break in. The set of circumstances that got me into the industry are really ones that can’t be recreated.”
When Williams and Santry first started the company, Daisie was a small team of six. The duo has since been able to raise capital and grow the business to 16 employees. “It’s been amazing. Now we’re just working away,” she says, adding that a desktop version of the app is launching in April. “I truly believe that this is something that can help people. We really poured our heart and soul into the company.”
A complete shift from being on camera, entering the tech world was a no-brainer venture for Williams. “In terms of who I am and the things that I speak out about, the injustices that I’m aware of, I feel it fits perfectly,” she states.
Williams says acting will always play a role in her life, but now that she doesn’t have the intense commitment of Game of Thrones anymore, and with her current focus on Daisie, she’s enjoying the time off to plan future moves. “I’ve already achieved so much more than I thought I ever would that it makes me really excited to figure out what I’m going to do in the next decade.”
Photography by Rankin
Styling by Mike Adler at Angela De Bona
Makeup by Emma Day at The Wall Group
Hair by Earl Simms at Caren Agency
Manicure by Ami Streets at LMC Worldwide
Art Direction by Daniel MacKinnon
Styling Assistant Mahatma Michael
The final season of Game of Thrones premieres April 14, 2019 on HBO.