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On Sunday evening from mid-April to mid-May, the whole world seemed to stand still. An estimated 44 million people held their breath for nearly 70 minutes each week, sending a silent prayer to the Gods that their HBO Go account wouldn’t crash. The sharp metallic clang of swords and the guttural roar of dragons could be heard echoing from headphones and windows across the country, and the following Monday, the Internet was ablaze with a fresh batch of hot takes. After 8 years, 73 episodes, and an unfathomable imprint on our cultural landscape, the grim and gory behemoth barrelled towards its bloody end, otherwise known as the series finale of Game of Thrones. Never one to shy away from the supernatural (dragons), the unnatural (incest), or the genuinely gut wrenching (no character, no matter how popular, was safe from the fickle hand of fate), the show ensnared us for years with its ability to be many things all at once. It was a shrewd and nuanced political drama, a titillating far-flung medieval fantasy, a sprawling character study that plumbed the dark depths of the human psyche, and, perhaps most importantly, a weekly communal event of epic proportions, one that we all collectively experienced. We grew up alongside these characters as they evolved and expanded over the course of eight years, an increasing rarity in a society shifting towards streaming and binging, as instant gratification takes the place of slow-burning storytelling.
A series finale is always a hard landing to stick, especially for a show as revered and labyrinthine as Game of Thrones. GOT has always delighted in skewing provocative and divisive, yet for all the questions the scorched earth of the final season raised, one stood out to me above the rest: is Arya Stark the most universally beloved character on television? The fearless and whip-smart Stark sister has been a fan favorite since season one, and her empowering evolution from scrappy tomboy to ruthless assassin hell bent on revenge was downright thrilling to witness. Rumor has it, GOT author George R.R. Martin’s wife felt so passionately protective of the character that she told him she would leave him if he killed her off. Armed with a blazing sense of self, a relentless love for her family, and the helpful ability to borrow people’s faces, she was the underestimated underdog who came out on top, capping her character’s arc by choosing to release her desire for revenge and live instead, ultimately setting sail to explore what lies west of Westeros. It was a rare and glimmering moment of hope amidst the stoic darkness of the finale, and it’s also an apt metaphor for the situation that Maisie Williams, the English actress who has been playing Arya since she was 14 years old, currently finds herself in.
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No matter who you think won or lost, the game is officially over, and the 22 year old Williams, who is known for her infectious sense of humor and rainbow-hued hair, is free to seek new horizons personally and professionally, the world beyond Westeros radiating with ripe possibility for the talented young actress, who has already used her newfound free time to launch an app called Daisie, a social network that helps creatives connect and collaborate on projects, and star in the upcoming superhero turned scary movie New Mutants. But where do you go after the show that epitomized epic and defined Sunday nights for a decade? And how do you let go of a character ingrained in your identity, one that you came of age inhabiting?
We enlisted another former child actor from the prestige television halls of fame, Kiernan Shipka, who played Sally Draper on AMC’s Mad Men from age seven to fifteen before landing her current role as the titular character on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, to chat with Williams about what it was like to grow up on set, how she navigated the emotional intensity of the final season, and her hopes for both herself and Arya in a post Game of Thrones world.
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Hi Maisie! I feel like we have a lot in common. We had very similar experiences growing up, just on different continents. When I was growing up, I felt like my character [Sally Draper] informed a lot of my own decisions and taught me a lot about myself. I’m curious as to what someone like Arya taught you about yourself as you were growing up?
For the most part, I tried to pretend that I was as confident as Arya! I wanted to believe that I was as outgoing as she is, but I’ve realized that I’m actually a bit more anxious and not quite as bold. When I meet fans, they sort of expect me to act a certain way, and that was always a bit confusing for me.
I was just desperately trying to figure out who I was. As you know, you do so many interviews and you don’t know the answers to a lot of the questions you get asked, so you just sort of go through the motions and try to convince yourself you have a good understanding of who you are. I think I was just stabbing into thin air trying to figure it out. I tried to be like Arya, but ultimately, I had to figure out who I was.
Do you think that mostly came from being away from set? Did you go to school while you were filming?
At first, I stayed in school and tried to juggle both lives like Hannah Montana. When I was about fifteen, I decided to leave school because I realized I wanted to focus fully on this opportunity. I spent a lot of time on film sets pretending to be really grown up. I’m very confident and comfortable in my life, but recently I’ve realized I spent far too much time in a world where I was determined to be someone else. I really did like school, but I also felt like I didn’t fit in there because I felt like a grown up, but then in the grown up world I also felt like I didn’t fit in because I didn’t know anything about life yet. So now I’m like, “What now? Am I a grown up or am I a child?”
Well, one thing is for sure: you’re a businesswoman! Are you enjoying the experience of making your app, Daisie?
It still feels strange to hear people say that about me. It’s been wonderful to take a step away from the world of television and create something that I have control over, rather than being part of someone else’s vision. Being able to understand what it is we’re making and convey that to a team of people who want to build it with you, that’s been really exciting. It’s also been a huge learning experience. Our launch went really well, and now it’s just about improving what we have and listening to what our users want.
When you were filming, did you feel like you found a balance between life on set and your personal experiences that weren’t related to Game of Thrones, or do you feel like you were just fully immersed in that world?
I was really excited in the beginning and wanted to involve myself heavily in this new life. Then in between shooting and going to school, I started to go to all of these conventions. Have you gone to any of those for Sabrina?
I’ve only done one Comic-Con. But they can get intense!
Exactly! So in between shooting I’d do those conventions, and then I’d go back to shooting. Then I started getting recognized on the street and that’s when I decided I needed to take a step away. Finding that balance is difficult, but ultimately I think it was important for me to have my own personal life away from being an actor and being Arya Stark. When I was able to take a step back, that’s when I felt the most sane.
Having friends that aren’t in the industry was really helpful for me.
Definitely, and going back home and being with my siblings. I was very keen to go back home and get back to regular life and not dwell on this crazy world. Having good friends around you that aren’t necessarily huge movie stars keep your feet on the ground.
You shot the last season of Game of Thrones over six months, right?
The last season was actually more like ten or eleven months. Every other season was shot over six months, but for the final season they decided to go longer because why not?
The last season can feel so emotionally intense. You’re doing so many things for the very last time. What was that experience like for you?
You know, in the beginning we’d always say things like, “This is the last first day we’re ever going to have!” It got to the point where I had to just shut it out because I was so busy thinking about being overwhelmed by the fact that this is the last time we’re doing this that I couldn’t actually focus on doing a good job. So there was a moment there where I just had to pretend that we were going be doing this again next year, in order to not get overwhelmed by it. But then when it came time for me to actually wrap Arya, I hadn’t mentally prepared myself and I was in denial for a long time. It didn’t hit me the way I thought it would until quite a bit later.
Even now, everyone does these amazing posts on Instagram and they all make me cry but I can’t for the life of me think of what I want to say because it feels so huge. So in my head I think I’m still just denying that it’s over? (laughs)
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You’re like, “What are you talking about, Kiernan? The show hasn’t ended.” (laughs) I understand that because it was over for you so much earlier than it was for the general public. Since so much stuff is either on streaming or headed in that direction, Game of Thrones felt like one of the last collective efforts of people watching the show week by week. I feel like anywhere you were, you could tell it was Game of Thrones’ final season, because everyone was debating and theorizing about what was going to happen. Obviously, it’s a show that everyone adores, but there was also just this excited energy in the air about it, especially here in LA. I’m wondering what that experience was like for you. What was it like to watch everyone watch the last season?
It’s incredible. That’s what kept the show alive and that’s what we did it for, for the water cooler chat and for people to debate what’s going to happen. It’s amazing to be part of something that people love that much.
In terms of my own life, I’ve tried to stay away from it. I think I was trying not to think about it too much because it can drive you insane, and as I said, I’m a bit of an anxious person. It’s weird to be on the Tube without your headphones and realize that everyone is talking about your show. I still like to try and live a normal life. But the fact that it has that much impact on people still blows my mind.
Let’s talk about social media. It’s such an odd world we’re all living in. There are a lot of positives, but it can also get really negative really quickly. It can be such a gnarly comparison trap. How did you manage that growing up?
In the beginning, every time a new episode came out, I’d be online looking at all the articles and checking in on people’s opinions about everything, from the book fans who disagreed with the fact that we used a white horse instead of a black horse to personal opinions about how I looked. My mom basically made me stop looking at the comments, especially because it was obviously upsetting for her as well. Not that they were even that bad, but it just takes one little comment and it will stick with you for, well, years. (laughs)
Totally. It’s like, “Ok, User12345, you actually really upset me.”
Exactly, exactly. I rarely look at comments now. I’m even thinking about shaking up the way I use social media entirely, now that the show is finished. I try to just let whatever comments people leave wash over me and not affect my day-to-day life.
You also tweet, which I admire, because I’m scared of Twitter.
Twitter is funny. I turned 18 about a week before I could vote in the general election, and then shortly after that I had to vote about whether or not I wanted to stay in the EU. It was my first introduction to politics and I was so into advocating for voting and I would use Twitter to spout my opinions. It has a lot of beneficial uses, but it wasn’t worth jeopardizing my mental health to try and get people to vote. There are other ways of doing that. Now I honestly just go on Twitter to find funny videos. I also have a group of fans who follow my every move and tweet me everyday. They have a little group chat that they added me to. It’s so nice that they’ve adopted me into their lives.
Going back to Game of Thrones for a minute, do you have a dream for Arya post show? What do you think she’s up to?
I hope she’s having a lot of fun! I hope she’s training. I hope she gets to use her sword skills, not necessarily for killing people, but maybe just for sparring. I hope she’s righting wrongs in the world. Arya’s seen a lot and I hope that she is able to become a protector of the people. Either that or she’s been eaten by a Kraken. (laughs)
Let’s hope it’s not the latter. You want that spin off! Would you ever entertain the idea of returning to this character?
I can hand-over-my-heart say that I don’t think there’s going to be a spin off. The show was only what it was because of David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss], the show’s creators. They brought me into this world and it would be strange to do something without them. But I do think playing Arya again would be wonderful. I miss her a lot. I think the show needs to stew for a little bit, but maybe a ways down the road?
Do you feel like Arya and the other female characters on the show informed your feminism growing up? How was it seeing the show portray all these multi-dimensional female characters?
I met so many incredible women who were so experienced in this industry and had a lot of amazing advice. Being supported by women as a female actor was incredible and really helped me through some difficult times in my personal life.
The show in general has been quite a milestone for women in film. Particularly the final season, with the characters being predominantly women, it was a great step for a show that constantly pushed boundaries and shocked audiences. The fact that the women did prevail is really important.
Now, going into the rest of my career and thinking about what stories I want to tell and what characters I want to play, I feel like I’ve been really spoiled by Arya. It’s made me want to protect myself moving forward and not settle for anything less than the hand I’ve already been dealt.
I can totally relate. You get off a show and you start getting sent scripts and you’re like, “Oh my god, these are not good.” It’s kind of a jarring experience because you’re accustomed to a certain level of quality.
Not to mention that the pressure was off when I was on the show, and now everyone is watching and waiting for what I’m going to do next. But you know what? If I don’t do anything that’s as iconic as Game of Thrones, I won’t be mad about it because it totally changed people’s expectations of what a show could be.
Speaking of what’s next, New Mutants is coming out. The trailer looks amazing!
Yes! It was really exciting to me that they wanted to tell this epic superhero movie but make it into a horror film, and sort of spin something we’ve seen before on its head.
What other kinds of roles are you looking to play?
At the moment, I’m just reading a lot and figuring out what’s out there. This show has taken up so much of my time, and there are so many movies I haven’t gotten to see in the last few years. I think it’s important to know what is out there so I can make an informed decision. I’d love to be able to tell you exactly what it is I want to do next, but I’m still trying to figure that out myself.
I feel that. If I ever read a book and a character is even remotely around my age, I’m always like, “I could option this…” Every book is turning into a movie these days.
My agent is like, “If you read something you like, we can make it ourselves!” It’s a lot of pressure. I can’t just read for fun anymore! (laughs) I think it would be fun to do a biopic. I like doing serious pieces from the past. There are so many beautiful stories to tell.
Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to act? For me, it clicked in the last couple of seasons of Mad Men.
It’s almost the opposite. In the beginning, I was like, “Obviously I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life!” Now that I’ve been given some time off, it’s not like I’m never going to act again, but I’m just trying to figure out some other things that I enjoy. I don’t want to sign another ten year contract for awhile. A lot of TV is incredible right now but those shooting schedules are just wild. You went back to TV with Sabrina…how has that been for you?
It was the right role and the right time. I always say it’s the material over the medium. If Sabrina was a movie, I’d want to do it just as much. Also, my experience filming Mad Men was so chill – they filmed ten minutes from my house and I wasn’t working all the time and when I wasn’t working I was just being a kid. It felt like truly channeling Hannah Montana in a very tangible way. (laughs)
I took three years off and it feels good to be back, but the schedule is gruelling. It’s nice to do a movie where you can put all your energy into it for two months and then just be done and exhausted and satisfied.
This has been such a pleasant experience. It’s so nice to be interviewed by a fellow actor. I’m looking forward to meeting you – it’s bizarre we haven’t met yet.
I know! It’s a crime. It’s a tragedy. I’m excited to meet you soon!