Maisie Williams has been playing one of the youngest and certainly most audacious of the noble Stark offspring since George R.R. Martin's best-selling novels were translated to the screen with HBO's acclaimed Game of Thrones, which launched in 2011. The Bristol-born actress was just 12 years old when she first breathed life into the fearless tomboy character, a favorite of viewers and of readers of Martin's series. Now, she's a 16-year-old who loves manicures and Andrew Garfield and who's become quite courageous in her own right as well. Ask her a question and she responds with a wisdom far beyond her years and a directness that is refreshing in Hollywood.
"Someone once told me that if you respect a person, listen to their opinion. And if you do not respect someone, then do not listen to their opinion," she said of the biggest lesson she's learned over the course of the past four years. "And that works both ways."
The day after the Game of Thrones Season 4 premiere in New York in mid-March, Williams sat in a floral print tunic top in a suite at a posh Midtown hotel, looking incredibly petite on the room's massive, but pristine couch. "I stress out so much about the red carpet and interviews and pictures, and, you know, not getting my skirt tucked in my knickers," she said frankly of last night's event. "You worry about all of that and then, that's all over and all of sudden [the episode is] playing and you're like, 'No! Wait! Wait! Wait a second. I'm not ready.' It's crazy."
Thrones is HBO's biggest series since The Sopranos, and Williams is perhaps still getting used to being part of a phenomenon that spans the globe. After stepping out of Arya's very dirty shoes at the end of a season, the teenaged actress tries to dust the character off of her, despite the affinity she has for Arya. One of the first things she does is get a manicure and on this March day, she's sporting black polish with daisy and skull designs.
"I feel like I need to do something just to get back to normal life. And when we finish shooting, I do get a bit sad, so it's just something that makes you feel better about yourself," she said with a laugh. "If you've got cool nails, you wake up and you're like, Oh, I'm happy now. I'm so easy to please. It's just getting back into Maisie again. I have to do something to just be me again, whether that's — this is going to sound really fake but — getting my extensions in or getting my legs waxed, just something to bring me back into my world. Sometimes I get a spray tan at the end of it, just because then you snap out of that world."
But it's difficult for Williams to fully escape the universe that Game of Thrones has created for her. She currently has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter and is approaching 200,000 on Vine. After the Red Wedding rocked the internet toward the end of Thrones' third season (SPOILER ALERT), Williams posted a Vine of her reacting to the loss of her television mother and brother, an event she first learned about from her real-life mother.
"When my mom told me about the Red Wedding, I couldn't get over it because I always thought the Lannisters were bad. I asked her, 'What happens in the Red Wedding?' She was like, 'Robb Stark and Catelyn die,' and I was like, 'But they're the good guys,'" Williams said, reenacting her naiveté. "Clearly I didn't know anything about Game of Thrones then... It was just like, Why would they kill my family? And then, in reading the script and growing up on this show and reading articles about Game of Thrones and talking to fans and stuff, I've now realized why good guys die. It's a twisted world."
Suddenly, Williams paused, pensively staring out the window onto New York City's bustling Columbus Circle.
"But it's so kind of true to the real world," she said finally. "I feel like a lot of people would quite easily stab you in the back once they get what they want. And you see that in people. You can help someone find their confidence and invite them to parties and, you know, give them the confidence to actually do whatever they want to do, and then, as soon as they [get to that point of], Oh my god. Now I'm popular. People like me because I'm being who I want to be, then all of a sudden, it's like, 'Bye, Mais.' And I'm like, 'Oh. OK. Bye then,'" she explains, getting increasingly zealous with each word, and thusly, more Arya-like.
Clearly, backstabbing and being left behind are things Williams has witnessed in her four years of fame. And it's also quickly apparent that living out your teenage years on one of the world's most popular television shows — and then trying to return to the real world off-season — hasn't been easy.
"Me and my best friend, the two of us are just segregated from the rest of our school," she said, offering an uneasy laugh. "They will tell you it's because I'm stuck up and I'm above myself and I'm too good for their friendship, but it's just because they never gave me a chance to be part of that at all. So, then, when I started doing my own thing and started doing something great with my life without them — I just thought, OK, I don't want to be popular in school. I want to be part of this world instead — and then, all of a sudden, I've got more Twitter followers than them and it's like, We hate you now. It's the weirdest thing." Williams sputtered more laughter as she said that last bit.
Currently, Williams is attending a performing arts college, a level of schooling in the U.K. between primary education and university. "We can leave school at 16, which is what I chose to do," she explained. It still hasn't been easy for her. "I see a little bit of it, like Why are you here if you're famous? But you've never made it! It's just frustrating! If I were to be like, I don't need to go to college anymore because I have made it in the acting business, my college friends would be like, Oh my god. She's such a bitch. If I go to college and am in Game of Thrones, they're like, Why are you even here? You're famous already. You can't win. You just can't win," she explained wistfully.
Williams seems to constantly be finding herself in these no-win situations when it comes to those outside of the celebrity world understanding where she's coming from. "It's huge in the U.K. if someone's doing well, to put them down," she said. "That's what we do all the time. It's kind of like a cultural thing. If you do something right, you don't congratulate yourself because you're a stuck-up bitch. It's much easier to take criticism in the U.K. than it is to take a compliment because we just don't do that. So obviously, then it is strange when people at school see my Twitter with people going, 'You're perfect!' 'We love you, Maisie!' 'You wear amazing clothes. Oh my god.' And, of course, I know that it's not true and I don't take that opinion to heart because I don't know that person, you know? But to people at school, that's a massive threat and they feel like I'm soaking all that up and just completely loving it, when actually, it doesn't mean anything to me at all.
"If someone says something bad about you, and you do not respect them, then don't listen. But equally, if people tweet me saying how perfect they think I am, I do not know that person, therefore I will not listen to that because they don't know me and they don't have the right to have that opinion of me. And when people say, 'If I'm having a bad day or I feel down about something, I just go to Twitter because it's a really humbling place and people make you feel good about yourself. I'm like, 'I don't think that's right.' Because they don't have the right to have that opinion on you. I don't think Twitter is a platform to build your confidence on at all. Not at all. It's very easy to be like, They're only saying bad things because they don't actually know me and they don't know my side of the story. But actually, they're only saying good things because they only know your side of the story."
Still, Williams was quick to explain that she is "not ungrateful of Twitter comments. Not at all. You say, 'Thank you' and you're polite about it … But we don't know each other," she said.
"That's a lesson in life for everyone, not just the world of fame. This whole segregation between famous people and other people is complete rubbish," Williams said sternly, as an aside. "If you're having a down time at school and people are bullying you, they don't know you. They don't have the right to have an opinion on you."
And perhaps that's why Williams feels so passionately about Miley Cyrus, who she brings up in the midst of our conversation about being judged by peers.
"Everyone's saying Miley Cyrus has changed, when actually, everyone changes. Maybe she isn't doing some of the right things and maybe she could handle some things differently, but stop saying that she's changed and that she's going mad because everyone is allowed to be who they want to be," said Williams, gesticulating quite wildly with her hands and nearly bouncing off the couch with earnestness. "We first met Lady Gaga when she was already Lady Gaga. You never knew what she was like when she was 12. And if we did, we'd say, 'She's changed.' It's like, 'No, actually. She hasn't. She's just becoming who she wants to be.' Unfortunately, Miley Cyrus was the goody two-shoes Hannah Montana and is now becoming, I think, kind of this amazing pop icon. And people hate that and they try to say, 'Oh, she's letting down little kids that watched Hannah Montana.' But that was years ago. Everyone grows up and moves on. Those kids who watched Hannah Montana are going to grow up and move on too. And I don't feel like she handles everything perfectly, but everyone makes mistakes too."
It sounds like Williams has actually learned quite a lot from Cyrus, who was around Williams' age when she started her run as the fictional Disney Channel pop star. Unlike Hannah Montana, however, Williams' Arya isn't meant to evince innocence and purity; she's a rough-and-tumble survivor who is willing to get her hands bloody in pursuit of what she views as justice. But despite that, there's a common ground between what the two actresses have faced, growing up in the public eye while playing characters that are beloved around the world.
"One thing you've got to remember in this industry is that you're never gonna please everyone, so just stop trying," the 16-year-old actress said, again sounding wise beyond her years. "If you're constantly trying to please everyone else, then you're just gonna be an unhappy person. As long as you are happy, then leave other people alone. Do not make other people unhappy to fuel your happiness. That's not right."