“Game of Thrones” has one of the strongest ensembles on television, but until now, its accolades have generally been reserved for its older cast members. This year, 19-year-old Maisie Williams has broken into the Emmy race for her harrowing turn as the embattled Arya Stark, rising from a blind beggar to the equivalent of “a Stark CIA agent,” as Williams describes her character at the end of Season 6.
Below, the British thesp tells Variety how she tackled Arya’s unorthodox underdog story, and what she hopes to see in the show’s shortened Season 7.
What was the most challenging aspect of Season 6?
The contact lenses, for sure – last season they were really exciting to use and I only had them for one scene and it was a cool thing to be doing on set. I wasn’t really too worried about this year, I didn’t really think it through, I guess, and then I got to set and realized I was gonna be doing all these stunt scenes and I was gonna be fighting Faye [Marsay] — well, actually not fighting, just getting beat to s–t by Faye — and realized there was going to be a lot more to do. We were also out in the sun in Girona and that made it really difficult, because although the contact lenses are opaque so everything is white, the light that comes through is really bright, so it was this strange squinting even though I couldn’t see a thing. Obviously they wanted to see the contact lenses, so there’s no point me wearing them and squinting. Various things made it a lot more challenging – I don’t know how the White Walkers and other people in films do it for so long. Four episodes was enough for me!
How did you feel about Arya being the one to kill Walder Frey [David Bradley], since fans have been itching to see him die since the Red Wedding?
I was so thrilled. [Laughs.] Honestly so thrilled. And that was all anyone really said to me – any of the crew. I feel like talking to the crew about the show, there’s so many of them that if you talk to a lot of different people about the show, and find out a lot of their opinions, you get a really good overall consensus as to what the world thinks of the show and what they enjoy and don’t enjoy. There’s so many people and they’re so varied and all from different departments and they’re all watching it for different reasons, so you get a really good idea of what people are rooting for and what they’re excited for.
Everyone, from all departments, said, “you have got the best kill of any kill ever. I don’t think there’s a single person in the world that won’t be thrilled that Walder Frey is gone,” so it felt very, very good. It was such a fun day – so many things just went so well with that scene. There’s this one take where we did a close-up and I slit his throat and he’s bleeding out and I got this perfect little speck of blood just above my collarbone on my neck. It wasn’t like Tarantino blood everywhere, just this one little speck and it happened naturally, it happened realistically, and you literally couldn’t have flicked a bit of blood on better, a makeup girl couldn’t have done it any more perfectly. And Fabian [Wagner, the show’s director of photography], the way he lit me in that scene, I was so stoic and cool – a lot of things went really right and it got a great reaction.
What are the logistics of filming a scene like that?
We all have changes of outfits, but it’s so time-consuming that you don’t really want it to come to that, so people are just on hand with towels for blood and props people are on hand to change out the pie and get a new pastry crust on top so you can reveal the finger again. There’s so much that goes into it, but people think that very dialoguey scenes would be difficult – which of course they are, but you get a good run at it and everyone gets into the flow of it.
A scene like that, it’s just a very disjointed day, so we started off doing the little bit of scene beforehand with the servant girl, you get into a normal dialogue scene and then you get into face changing, and Prosthetics steps in and gives me the face, and Hair steps in so I can whip off my wig, and then Props come in with the pies, and then David’s got to go away and put on a big rig and a fake neck and we’re all waiting around for a good hour while he does that. And then he comes back in and we get Armory on set with the knife and cutting him, and we get Special Effects with all the blood and making sure the blood squirts out perfectly – “do you want a dribble or do you want a spray?” – so it just means the day is very long and tedious, but it’s something that I very much enjoy. As an actor, nothing that you train in can prepare you for what you do on set; every day is so different and if you’ve got it down in a classroom, chances are it’s gonna be extremely different once you get onto a film set. It’s just about trying to nail what you want to do with a scene every time, regardless of who else is sat in front of you spilling blood and lighting flames and stuff.
Do you think it’s a good progression for Arya, that she clearly gets enjoyment from killing the people on her list?
It does worry me, because – I’m going to steal something that Kit Harington said in an interview, because it sounded really great – it’s sad when our heroes take it too far and they don’t just do their job, they actually enjoy it and you see a twisted spark behind the eyes. It’s worrying. I think it’s worrying because I care about this little girl, and she is still a little girl. As an audience member, you’re just like “Arya’s a badass and she kills people and it’s cool,” and it’s like, “yeah, thank you, I’m flattered,” but from a personal perspective, you can’t just be like, “I play a really cool character, she kills everyone!” That’s got no drive and no reason and no purpose. To me, as an actress, I try not to be like “this scene’s so cool!” I try and go into it like “why is there this weird smile on her face and how long has she thought about this and when did she find out about Walder Frey killing her family?” You have to justify it and make it a realistic thing.
Season 6 has been particularly troubling for fans of the Starks, given that not only does poor Rickon end up dead, but Arya, Sansa, Jon and Bran all step over that moral line at various points. It really does seem to signify the end of innocence for all of them.
Right? What did everyone expect, we’ve had it the worst since episode one – literally, one of the youngest Starks gets pushed out of a window in episode one, and every episode since, people have just f—ked us over so badly. [Laughs.] And now, hopefully we get our revenge, but we’re also gonna be a little bit messed up by it all. And who can blame us? Hopefully we stay sane and we stay on the straight and narrow, or we can just become a band of outlaws and just run riot, that’d be fun too!
The surviving Starks have changed so much since Season 1 – what do you think would surprise her most about Sansa, Jon and Bran when she meets them again?
I think she would be surprised at how bad they’ve had it too. She feels so alone; they all have for so long. Upon meeting them and discovering that they’ve all had it so bad… she’s almost hoping for a reunion where everyone’s like, “oh, Arya, you’re safe!” But they’re all hoping for that, they’re all hoping for a safe family to stretch their arms out and be like, “oh, thank goodness you’re home,” but actually we’re all just a bit tired, we’re worn out and we’ve lost our naïve, childish fun, and I think that’s what she’d be shocked by the most, that she wasn’t the only one going through hell and no one is quite the same anymore and they never will be again. I think that would be quite sad for her.
Jon and Arya were always the closest Stark children — do you think learning that they’re cousins would change anything for her?
I feel like they would still very much be close. I feel like Jon would find it difficult to accept Arya for who she is now; he’d want to be loyal and heroic and protect his little sisters, and that’s not a life for her anymore. That was never really what she wanted to have in life and now she’s definitely not going back — she’s far more effective to fight with Jon than any of his other soldiers. She’s been training for years, she’s effectively like a Stark CIA agent, and I think if they would meet again, Jon would brush that off. It’s not a rude thing, I think he would just be trying to take the responsibility of keeping the family alive, seeing as it’s gone pretty badly since we all left — he would feel like he owed that to Ned and he owed that to the Stark name to keep us safe. It wouldn’t be out of cruelty, but I don’t think he would understand that it’s a foolish thing to do and Arya would be an incredible piece in battle and she would be very helpful and effective.
Who do you most want to see Arya interact with next season?
It would be wonderful to work with one of the Starks again, but I just want her to see Melisandre or Cersei and not be dead at the end of it. To cross another big name off the list – but then I feel like people might come for me, because although everyone doesn’t like Cersei, we kind of love to hate her and I love to hate her. For the story it would be cool to meet either one of those and put a sword into them.
How do you feel about the shorter episode order for Season 7?
It sucks for the audience because they love the episodes, but what we’ll never do on this show is drag it out, and I’m so thrilled about that. Too many shows start out about making a great show, and by Season 6 it’s about making money and all they want to do is write more episodes and make more money. This show makes a lot of money, and it would be easy for HBO to be like “we’re gonna do four more seasons and we’re gonna extend them to 12 episodes.” I really respect David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] for holding their ground and for HBO to be like “no… we’re gonna tell this story and we’re gonna end it and that’ll be final.”
Good things must come to an end or they’re not good anymore. It doesn’t last forever and we’ve done what we came to do, it’s time to wrap this up, and it will have the ending it was always supposed to have, and that’s very special. David and Dan started writing this show knowing the end, not knowing that it might actually come around and we might be allowed to make that many [seasons] — at the beginning we were just willing to make one [season]. They started this with an end in sight, and so it’s exciting to be closing it… I’m just excited to see everyone again – we start a lot later this year because winter has arrived, so that can’t happen in sunny Belfast.
What’s the best part about your Emmy nomination?
The film industry, any performing industry, is very ageist – for one reason or another, younger people get bypassed for a lot. It’s one of the most difficult things to change, because the only people who fight for it are young people, and by the time anyone’s willing to listen, they’re grown up and they’re not a young person anymore. In the UK at the moment, a lot of 16 year olds are fighting to get the vote, and by the time anyone will listen to them, the ringleaders of that will then be 18 and it’ll be like, “well now you can vote, have fun!” But it’s like, that wasn’t really the point, so it’s really tough, and it’s the hardest thing to fight, because you can only really fight it from being a young person.
It feels amazing to be acknowledged by the Academy, and just mindblowing, really — it’s not something that happens all the time because I won’t be young forever, so it means an awful lot to be 19 years old. And there will be people younger than me who have been nominated and younger people than me that have won — it’s not about that … just to be a part of young actors being acknowledged is very special.