It’s impossible to imagine anybody but Maisie Williams playing Arya Stark on HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, but she almost didn’t get the part. When the British actress returned to her hometown to open a community event in 2014, she revealed that she almost didn’t bother showing up to her GoT audition because it clashed with a field trip to a local pig farm. Luckily for Williams and fans of her now iconic character, she passed on the pigs and tried out for the show instead — a decision that changed her life.
Like her on-screen siblings, Williams has grown up with her Game of Thrones character. Arya became a huge part of her day-to-day life as she went through her formative years, and while the pros definitely outweigh the cons, the experience wasn’t always fun for her. When Game of Thrones blew up in popularity, it catapulted the cast to levels of fame the actors and actresses never could have anticipated, and that was particularly hard for the younger cast members to navigate. From her first audition to her life outside of Game of Thrones, this is the untold truth of Maisie Williams.
Game of Thrones was Maisie Williams’ first gig, but it wasn’t her first audition. Speaking to Winter is Coming in 2011, the youngster revealed that her first try-out was for a role in the sequel to the Emma Thompson-led kids comedy Nanny McPhee. “I didn’t get the part but did get down to the final two,” Williams said. “At the time I was really disappointed but I now realise that I did well to get that far.” Losing out on the role almost made Williams pick the school trip to the aforementioned pig farm over her Game of Thrones audition, but her agent knew that she had what it took to play Arya Stark.
“I have to say that at first I wasn’t too keen, I was still thinking about Nanny McPhee 2,” Williams said. “But all auditions are good experience so I went along and after the first audition in London I knew I wanted to be Arya.” Though Nanny McPhee Returns actually went down pretty well with the critics, Game of Thrones clearly chews it up and spits it out, so we suppose it’s true that when one door closes, another one opens.
She quit school at age 14
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In order to concentrate on Game of Thrones full time, Williams left school at the age of 14. To be considered employable in the U.K., you need at least five GCSEs grade A-C, but Williams has a grand total of zero. British tabloids honed in on this fact when it was made public, but the teen actress’ mother was quick to defend the family’s decision. “Maisie was given a lot of opportunities that we didn’t feel we could turn down to concentrate on education,” her mother, Hilary, explained to the Daily Mail. “I know a lot of people wouldn’t agree with that, but that’s what we decided to do. At the time, Maisie was filming, there were appearances and other things — she didn’t have the time to sit her exams.”
It’s not that Williams’ mother doesn’t value education. In fact, she worked as a university course administrator before giving up her job to work as her daughter’s personal assistant. However, Hilary believes there are other paths to take in life. “When I see her on the red carpet, she handles it really well and that’s a good set of skills to have in life,” Hilary said. “If she needs to go back and do GCSEs she can, and will also have the money to get tutors to help her to do it.”
Maisie Williams returned to school to try and finish her GCSEs a few seasons in to the Game of Thrones series. Sadly, she soon discovered that being mega famous made her an instant target for jealous bullies. According to In Style, Williams was subjected to “brutal online bullying” from classmates, which forced her to quit school for a second time and hire private tutors instead. “I struggled with the pressure to fit in and always worried about saying the right thing,” she told the mag. “It was strange because I put on the personality of the girl who was ‘Maisie Williams’ but really struggled in my personal life.” She went into more detail about that tough time in her life when she spoke to The Guardian in 2018, telling the British newspaper that she went through a “really dark phase” when she returned to full-time education. “Leaving school, and then going back and having this awful experience, made me really bitter about life and people,” she said. “People let you down and they hurt you.”
That’s all in the past, however, and unlike her famously vengeful Game of Thrones character, Williams doesn’t hold any grudges. “I don’t want to excuse anyone’s behaviour, but being 15 and feeling threatened by someone who’s successful, that seems like quite a human thing,” she said.
Arya and Sansa are real-life BFFs
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Maisie Williams and actress Sophie Turner (who plays her on-screen sister, Sansa Stark) clicked instantly when they met at Game of Thrones auditions, and they’ve become genuine besties in the years since. “I had to do the same scene about five times with three different girls auditioning for Sansa,” Williams told Winter is Coming in 2011. “One of whom was Sophie Turner! We immediately got on well and both wanted each other and ourselves to get the parts so that we could meet again.”
When the pair sat down for a chat with Rolling Stone some eight years later, Williams said that she was in awe of Turner when they met. “I thought Sophie was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” the actress said. “I get why they do chemistry reads, because when it’s right, it’s so right. Like, we’re best friends. And they could see that all those years ago, and it must have been real magic watching these two girls have the best time together.”
The girls became so close in such a short space of time that they were “distraught” at the thought of the pilot not getting picked up. “We remember the both of them bawling and hugging each other, because they loved each other so much after only a few short weeks, and were afraid they’d never see each other again,” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said during a joint interview.
Williams and Turner were ‘a nightmare’ on set
Game of Thrones casting director Nina Gold also agreed to speak to Rolling Stone as part of the magazine’s piece on Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner. According to Gold, their first chemistry audition was a joy to behold. “There was a lot of laughter that day,” she recalled. “Maisie seemed like a very old soul in a very tiny body. Really quite Arya-like. Sophie was more of a little girl, which she certainly is not anymore.” Williams is now all grown up, too, but when she got the chance to shoot with Turner years down the line, the pair found it hard to act like adults.
When Arya fled King’s Landing following her father’s beheading in the first season, it meant that Williams and Turner (whose character was betrothed to the king who killed their dad) wouldn’t get to shoot a single scene together again until their characters reunited years later for Season 7. The way Turner tells it, the showrunners probably preferred to keep them apart. “We’re a nightmare to work with,” she admitted. “If you’re working with your best friend, you will never get any work done, ever. Anytime we tried to be serious about anything, it’s just the hardest thing in the world. I think they really regretted putting us in scenes together. It was difficult.”
Her favorite kill on Game of Thrones might surprise you
Arya Stark dispatched of more than 60 people during Game of Thrones’ run, many of them in shocking and memorable circumstances. Who could forget the way she put her training at the House of Black and White to use when exacting revenge on Walder Frey? Of course, her most famous kill is a no-brainer: She took out The Night King when all seemed lost in Season 8. But neither of those kills are her favorite.
Speaking to The Guardian, Williams revealed that her all-time favorite was the killing of sadistic child abuser Meryn Trant, though Trant’s in-story crimes have nothing to do with her decision. “I had turned 16 then, so I had just started being able to work adult hours,” Williams explained. “When the scene ran over, we were able to stay overtime, rather than me having to stop filming and pick it up again the next day. Every time they went overtime, they ordered pizza. We’re talking a crew of 100 people, so this is a lot of pizza!” It wasn’t that it was particularly good pizza, it was more to do with the fact that she was munching on it while clutching a fake dagger covered in fake blood. “I remember thinking: ‘Wow, this is my life, I’ve given up school for this,’ and just thinking it was the coolest thing ever,” she said. “So that was a fun death.”
Fame triggered some major mental health issues
When she appeared as a guest on the Happy Place podcast in 2019, Maisie Williams opened up about her mental health and how she became addicted to reading people’s criticism of her online. “It got to me a lot, because there’s just a constant feed in your back pocket of what people think of you,” she said (via Digital Spy). “It gets to a point where you’re almost craving something negative so you can sit in a hole of sadness, and it’s really bizarre the way it starts to consume you.”
Some of her issues remain. “I still lie in bed at 11 o’clock at night telling myself all the things I hate about myself,” Williams admitted (per Cosmopolitan), but the actress has made a great deal of progress just by taking “a step away from it all.” However, being famous in the age of social media means you can never completely escape the vacuum. When she does use social media, she urges people to be respectful of one another, though it doesn’t always pan out that way. “If you’re trying to teach manners on the internet, you’ve got another thing coming,” she said.
In 2016, Williams raised awareness about this widespread issue with the Channel 4 drama Cyberbully. “Trolling is the biggest thing that anyone faces, and it’s easy to dismiss, but it does hurt,” she said while promoting the show. “As much as we like to say we don’t care, of course we do.”
She waged war against dolphin hunters
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Maisie Williams has shown her support for numerous charities and worthy causes since becoming famous, but there’s one cause, in particular, that’s clearly very close to her heart. In 2016, the Game of Thrones star used Instagram to document her second trip to Japan, but this wasn’t exactly a vacation. She was in the country to raise awareness about the controversial Taiji dolphin hunt. The event made headlines worldwide in 2009 when a documentary titled The Cove exposed the horrifying annual practice of hunting and capturing thousands of dolphins — a tradition that most Japanese citizens were allegedly not even aware was occurring.
Williams is urging everyone to stop attending dolphin shows, which she says fuel the hunting in Japan. “These animals travel the ocean,” the actress said (via The Seattle Times). “That’s what they explore daily. No tank will be big enough. No tank will ever be deep enough, ever be exciting enough.” Her campaigning seemed to have some positive effect, with the number of dolphins killed among “the lowest numbers observed in recent years,” according to a report by the Sea Shepherd organization.
She runs her own digital startup
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Despite the downsides to fame, Maisie Williams is well aware that she’s one of the lucky ones. Landing a role on any show is a dream come true for young actors, never mind an HBO epic such as Game of Thrones. Williams thought there should be a platform for aspiring creatives from every corner of the industry to collaborate, so she went ahead and made it. With the help of camera assistant friend Don Santry, the actress created Daisie, an app that provides a “safe place for people to upload their work even if it’s just an idea, without being criticised,” Williams explained to i-D.
“We celebrate what an idea could become rather than something polished and final,” she said. “As much as possible we try and suggest others in the community who can help with the project you are working on.” The Daisie office is located in London’s Shoreditch area, a new mecca for digital startups. Williams already has 17 staff members at her disposal, though by her own admission, she sometimes has to wing it a little. “I sometimes find myself in very grown-up situations and I’m like: ‘Who thought this was a good idea?'” she quipped to The Guardian. “But if there’s one thing Game of Thrones taught me, it’s how to pretend! No, I joke, really.”
One of the most jaw-dropping moments from Game of Thrones Season 8 was Arya hooking up with Gendry, played by the much older Joe Dempsie. “It’s obviously slightly strange for me because I’ve known Maisie since she was 11, 12 years old,” a 31-year-old Dempsie told Entertainment Weekly in 2019. “At the same time, I don’t want to be patronizing toward Maisie — she’s a 20-year-old woman. So we just had a lot of fun with it.” Fun isn’t a word that Williams would use to describe the experience, however.
When it came to filming the scene, those present were “really respectful” about the whole thing, but that didn’t stop it from getting super awkward. “No one wants to make you feel uncomfortable which kind of makes you feel more uncomfortable, because no one wants to look at anything that they shouldn’t look at, which in turn makes you feel like you look awful,” the actress explained. She first learned about the shocking scene from co-star Sophie Turner, who called Williams the second she read the script: “Sophie said, ‘Whatever you do, you have to skip to this episode, this scene first.'”
When the episode aired, rumors about a body double made the rounds, but Williams seemed to dispel these when she revealed that she had permission to “show as much or as little” as she wanted. “I kept myself pretty private,” she said. “I don’t think it’s important for Arya to flash.”
The negative reaction to Season 8 of Game of Thrones means it will go down in history as the worst-rated season of them all, but there were a number of people who picked faults with Season 7, too. The most offensive moment to the masses was arguably in the Season 7 opener when British pop star Ed Sheeran inexplicably pops up among a group of Lannister soldiers. He wasn’t the first famous person to make a cameo, but in the past, those appearances had been subtle. This was anything but. Sheeran’s uncomfortable delivery of his lines left viewers shaking their heads, and it turns out, they’ve got Maisie Williams to thank for it.
According to showrunner David Benioff, the show reached out to Sheeran with sweet intentions. “We knew that Maisie was a big fan of Ed Sheeran and for years we’ve been trying to get him on the show so we can surprise Maisie,” Benioff said. “This year we finally did it.” Benioff seemed triumphant as he explained the origins of Sheeran’s jarring cameo, but the backlash from fans was severe. Sheeran may have even deleted his Twitter account due to the online abuse. The singer later joked that showrunners should kill off his character just to appease insulted fans, and he appeared to get his wish. It was confirmed that his character had “his face burned right off” in the Season 8 premiere (via Vanity Fair). “He’s got no eyelids now.”
After experiencing the ups and downs of fame early in life, Maisie Williams wants to regain some normalcy now that Game of Thrones is done. During her appearance on the Happy Place podcast, the actress explained why she doesn’t want to get sucked further into showbiz. “People keep asking me, the show is gonna end what do you want, and I’m like, honestly I want a normal life with people that I love and people that I know are true and care about me,” she told host Fearne Cotton (via Express). “And I don’t want any of this crazy, crazy world because it’s not worth it.”
Of course, Williams isn’t about to disappear from the industry. She debuts as Wolfsbane in the X-Men movie The New Mutants, and she’s also starring in The Owners, a thriller set in the ’90s. When it comes to cementing herself as a Hollywood A-lister, however, Williams just isn’t interested. “My agents say things to me like, ‘We’ll raise your profile,’ and I don’t really understand what that means because to me it sounds like getting a whole lot more famous, which is something I’m not interested in,” she told The Guardian, adding that she could retire happy tomorrow. “If this show is the greatest thing I ever do, I did OK. I didn’t do too bad.”