Maisie Williams’s performance as Arya Stark on Game of Thrones has helped make her a role model for girls everywhere — both an opportunity and a challenge. “I leave all of that at the door when I come back home,” she says, “because it kind of drives you a bit mental after a while.”
Thrones debuted two days after Williams’s 14th birthday; she’s now 20. As the biggest project of her life so far winds down, she’s coming into her own. “I think it’s quite exciting that the show’s coming to an end,” she says. “I think it’s a time to look quite positively at the future and really try to shape my career without being tied to anything.”
Williams spoke to TIME in March for our cover story on Game of Thrones, whose seventh season premieres July 16; here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
What does it mean to you that the show is winding down?
I think it’s quite exciting that the show’s coming to an end, not only because we get to tell the end of the story, which is what everyone’s been waiting for for a long time, myself included, but also because there’s a whole sector of opportunities that I have for after the show now. It’s nerve-wracking, and it’s going to be very sad to say goodbye to the show, but I think it’s a time to look quite positively at the future and really try to shape my career without being tied to anything. Although Game of Thrones has been the most amazing opportunity and has opened so many doors for me, for eight years, for six months of the year every year, I’ve been tied into this one job. And I never really realized what that meant until now it might be coming to an end, and I’m like, “Oh, I can just go traveling for a year — I can do anything, really!”
Have you been told where Arya will end up?
We just finished [season] 7, so I know marginally more than viewers at home. But in terms of the next season and the final season, we don’t find out anything until they release the scripts, and they usually don’t release the scripts until about a month before shooting, so I won’t know the end until the very end, really. People are quite surprised by that, but spoilers are so sought-after by fans and trolls alike that they try and send the script to the least amount of people possible, so as not to leak anything. It’s the way it has to go for this show. It’s quite nice, really: If I knew the ending right now, it’d be really difficult to keep it a secret!
Do you have hopes for Arya?
I would like her to meet with her family members again. I don’t really know how that would go down, but I would love for the Starks to be able to work together. That’s my hope for her future. It’d be really lovely to finally share a scene because that’s what we’ve been working for for so long.
It must be odd to be a castmate of all of these people and yet be isolated from the rest of the cast.
It’s really strange! We try to spend as much time as we can together when we’re not shooting. We stay in the same hotels; particularly in the more recent seasons where the cast members are getting whittled down every single episode. There’s less and less people around and fewer people to hang out with. When there’s three different units going on in three different countries, it does get a bit hectic, but as the scale of the cast comes down each season, it does make it easier to keep a handle on what’s going on everywhere without being in the dark too much. But yeah, whenever we come to South By [Southwest], or do premieres or awards shows, we all get to hang out, and it’s really lovely.
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What was it like to be a part of this very adult world as a young teen? Were you even allowed to watch the show?
I was allowed to watch the show, and I think Sophie [Turner] was too — I think Isaac [Hempstead Wright] watched an edited version. I was allowed to watch mainly because Arya was a part of a lot of the really violent scenes. I knew how it was shot and it was no longer scary or gruesome, it was more sort of fascinating. I think it was down to the parents’ discretion really and my parents didn’t really see an issue with it. I didn’t want to miss out on reading the scripts or watching the show, it was just the most exciting thing to ever happen to anyone in my family. We didn’t treat it like a normal TV show that you’d sit down and watch with your family. It was something totally new for us to watch a show one of us was in.
We always used to see the older cast members going out for drinks, going to the pub, our parents were like, “No, you’re too young.” It finally got to the age where we were old enough to go out and party and go out and drink, and everyone said, “No, we can’t go out, we’re too old now.” Everyone’s got their sensible head on, and honestly, it’s very disappointing! We’re finally starting to have fun, and the older cast members are like, “You’ve got to go careful,” and I’m like, “You weren’t careful when you were our age!” They’re giving us the talk.
Not only have you been through all your teenage years in the public eye, but you also play a character who’s a role model of sorts. Has the media spotlight been comfortable for you?
I haven’t been treated badly in the media. I think that it’s very hard to please anyone; I’m not from this world at all, and I feel very lucky to have been given a voice and a platform to hopefully make a change, and I want to use that as wisely as I can. If you ever put yourself in that position, there’s a lot of people who disagree with what you say and a lot of people who agree with what you say. If you put yourself in that position, you are going to face backlash — that’s just the way it goes. I wouldn’t really change anything that I’ve done.
It is strange: My friends always say to me, “It’s like you’re two different people. I see articles about you in BuzzFeed” — but then they see my Facebook posts, and it’s like “I can’t associate the two people, because I know Maisie from back home, but then there’s the Maisie the rest of the world knows.” I feel the same way. Not that they’re dramatically different people, but I leave all of that at the door when I come back home and leave all of that behind, because it kind of drives you a bit mental after a while. It’s really nice to talk to people not about work, and just to talk to people about, like, “Did you see that boy who had his trousers tucked into his shoes?”
MORE: Sophie Turner: I Want Sansa Stark to Have ‘More Kills’ on Game of Thrones
Tell me more about where you came from.
I am from Bristol, in the southwest of England. I grew up between Shirehampton and the outskirts of Bristol — my mom and dad were separated so I spent time with both of them growing up. Went to school just near there, a regular school where my brothers and sisters also attended. Then at 15 I left school, it was the height of Game of Thrones, I left school because the school was not very accommodating — they actually politely asked me to leave because my attendance was bad, which was kind of a strange time, and then I moved out when I was 16 and started living on my own in Bath. And recently, flew the nest to West London. But I go home as much as I can, every weekend — I go home next weekend and I can’t wait! I only really moved to London because my work is there. If it was up to me, I’d stay in Bristol forever. I love my normal life, and I don’t ever want to lose that. I remember going season-to-season, people coming up to me and saying “Your life is going to change!” Saying it quite excitedly. And it’s like, well, your life can change, if you want it to, but you don’t want to make your life change too dramatically, you can live as normal a life as possible.
Is there a day of shooting you look back on as particularly special?
I really enjoy doing stunts, I always have. I’ve had a couple of days on set where I’ve had quite physical work, and I find it good fun. I really enjoyed working with Faye [Marsay, who played the Waif] last year, the whole chase around Braavos was just so fun. It was really tough, but it would feel so good coming to the end of a day on set, where not only was it emotionally draining but physically draining as well. A lot of people would argue with the amount actors get paid, and I completely understand. But days like that when it’s so physically draining, you don’t feel as bad for earning so much. Because you get into bed, aching and tired, and it feels like you’ve done real manual labor. In my head, it makes me feel not so weird about this industry. It’s just exciting — I love in this job when you can use all of my body and not just my facial expressions and inner emotions. It’s nice getting to run around like a kid.
It’s all the harder because you’re trained to fight left-handed, and you’re right-handed. Did you have to unlearn how you move your body?
No, I’d never done combat training or fighting or any martial art before. I wasn’t really right-hand or left-hand dominant. I used to do gymnastics, and in gymnastics you do everything with both sides of your body — you split with your right leg and your left leg, and you do cartwheels on your right hand and your left hand. You learn to do everything both ways. Because of that, I was just quite eager to get started with my left hand, and now it feels strange to hold the sword in the right hand. And the stunt guys always come in and say “We have this routine for you” and I have to remind them, “Can we rechoreograph the whole thing, because I’m not doing it with my right hand.” It’s quite exciting, and I did a couple of fencing lessons early on in the show just for myself; they said fighting left-handed puts you at a big advantage because people are used to fighting people who are right-handed.
MORE: The 20 Most Essential Game of Thrones Episodes
I was impressed that Dan and David brought in Ed Sheeran as a guest star because you’re a fan — What has it been like working with them? Is it easy to bridge the generation gap with them as bosses?
They’ve always been great with us — the whole cast, but particularly with me and the younger cast members. I almost forget they’re our bosses. We go out and have fun together; we go out to great meals, and they treat us so wonderfully. We are like a family — none of us could have imagined the scale of the show, even David and Dan who pitched the show to HBO could never have realized this is how big it was going to get. I think all of us are in awe of the scale of the show, and it’s nice for us to be in that same boat together. It does feel like we’re in that same boat, and it doesn’t feel like they’re loving the fame and they’re our bosses. We’re traveling through this industry together, kind of in shock. We’re all just so grateful but a little bit, like, what the f—.
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