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'Game of Thrones' Q&A: Maisie Williams on Arya Stark's Trial by Fire

The young star talks about rage and the meaning of family

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark on 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan
May 1, 2013 12:50 PM ET

When you talk to Maisie Williams, the first thing you want to say is "Congratulations." The talented young performer had never acted before landing the role of Arya Stark, but instantly imbued the character with personality and pathos seemingly beyond her years. This week's episode was a showcase for her skill at accessing complex emotions within a child who's seen more horror first-hand than most adults ever will. And from watching a killer go free to asking for the impossible regarding her slain father Ned Stark, it was her finest hour.

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This episode required you to be very intense, scene after scene. When Arya yells "Burn in Hell!" at the Hound, that hit as hard as anything in the swordfight. How did you manage to stay in that headspace for so long?
I watched it all put together, and it does look quite intense. But it didn't feel like that when we were doing it, because that was the last bit of that scene that we did. It took two days to shoot, and the whole day had been building up to it. I got to the end, and it just all came out. But all of those scenes in the last episode were filmed over a long period of time, and there were lots of times, like in the big fight scene, that I wasn't needed. So I had a lot of laughs, because I wasn't actually on camera. It starts to make you feel a bit depressed and unhappy doing so many emotional scenes, so when you have any free time, you just enjoy it.

The Hound gets away with murder, and you can see how disillusioning that is for Arya.
Yeah, because the Starks are so loyal, and the right thing to do would've been to kill the Hound. It really gets to her when these guys are all about what the Gods think. She's like, "What? This guy is actually guilty!" She realizes that not everyone has the Stark trait of going by the book. She gets forced into just going with it, but she has that last push where she grabs the knife and runs over. This is what these guys believe in. I think she respects that, but at the same time, she's like, "You're mad. If you wanted this guy dead, you should've just killed him."

Arya's been exposed to so much violence that of course she would look at it that way. When you want something done, you just do it.
It's changed her, especially being at Harrenhal [the Lannister stronghold/torture prison from Season Two] and seeing all that. She realizes that even if she's fair about things, the rest of the world isn't. If she wants something done, she's going to have to do it herself. That's the way everybody works, so she's going to have to match them. Otherwise, she's going to fall behind.

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She obviously has family on her mind in this episode. But when she tells Gendry "I can be your family," it sounds like she might mean something very different – even if she herself barely realizes it yet.
When I first read that scene, it really got to me. I always knew that Arya and Gendry were going to take separate paths, but when you actually see it. . . I was really getting on well with Joe [Dempsie], and it was just like "Oh, this is going to end now." Then you go in do it. At first I read it as "You can come to Winterfell, I'll show you how everything goes, and you can come and sit at the table with us." I thought it would be a bit like Theon. But when I was doing the scene, [director] Alex Graves said "When you say that last line, 'I can be your family,' say it like 'I love you.'" And that's the take that they used. On the day, we didn't cut in between. We kept going, and going, and going again, which I really liked; otherwise, you get out of it and you have to try and build yourself back up to that point again. Sometimes I was really crying, and then we'd pull it back. I don't know how many we did, but the last one we did…We settled on the one when I said it like "I love you," and it really works.

I'm glad you brought up her Stark upbringing, because in this episode, she makes her most direct reference yet to her father. When you take it out of context, "Could you bring back a man without a head?" sounds grotesque or even absurd. But when you hear her say it, the need for her dad in her voice is so strong, it takes your breath away.
I know. You see this vulnerable side to her. Putting myself – someone my age – in that scene, I'm watching all of the scars that [Beric Dondarrion] shows her, all these different injuries that he's had, and she realizes that there's nothing actually missing. He didn't lose an arm or anything – it's just cuts and stuff. She thinks, "Well, maybe that isn't possible, because...I don't know if the head goes back on, or…" But she has to ask the question. It's a bit of an. . . I don't know. I don't want to say an immature question, but she half doesn't believe it, really. She knows that you can't, she understands that, but it's that vulnerable side, you know? "Is it possible to do that?" She doesn't really think you can. You see a younger side to her then, and how much pain she's in.

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You and your fellow young castmembers have suddenly become very acclaimed for working with very difficult material. How have you been dealing with fame?
It all happened gradually. When all this started, I was twelve, and when the show first aired, I was thirteen, maybe fourteen. The first season wasn't as big over here as it was in America, and it got bigger and bigger each season, so we've had a chance to adjust to it all. But we went over to America a little while ago, and that was just crazy. There were people waiting outside the hotels. I don't know if I could deal with that every day. I never really thought about acting before this, but it turned out that I quite like doing it, so I'm just having fun doing what I'm doing. As long as I'm having fun, I really don't mind what happens. I know Arya is a very well-liked character, and I would never want to not do her justice, so I'm trying my best to think how a scene would go and what I think she'd say. If other people agree with me, that's really good!

There are Arya fans who want something nice to happen to her – for her to not live on the run anymore. And then there are others who want Arya to become the biggest badass on the show – to kill her way through her enemies list and take the Iron Throne. Which side are you on?
Neither. I never really looked at it that way. Arya should be on her own. Maybe she sees her family again, but a lot has happened – she's seen so many things that it's never going to be the same. She'd be safe because she's so dangerous and people don't want to mess with her. That's how I see her ending up. Not home with her family, because that's just. . . That's so boring. It'd be cool if she was still out there kicking ass, but not just being "badass." I'm taking a middle path.

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