When Maisie Williams was shooting a fight scene in her latest TV project, Two Weeks to Live, she took a blow to the head. “I got hit a couple of times with a glass bottle,” she says, matter-of-factly over the phone. I can’t see her face but I can almost hear her smiling, a faint giggle detectable between sentences. “I also kicked my co-star in the chin and made his mouth bleed. Other than that, it was pretty scrape-free.”
A kick in the face and multiple rounds of bottling might sound like the opposite of “scrape-free”, but perhaps it is for an actor such as Williams, best known for her role as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. As the noblewoman turned assassin, Williams’s fight scenes included some of the show’s most pivotal, such as the one in the bloody, battle-filled penultimate episode, The Long Night, which Williams trained for a year to film.
In Two Weeks to Live, a dark, deadpan six-part comedy airing on Sky One, she’s fighting yet again, although this time the punches come with punchlines, too. Williams plays Kim, a misfit who has been raised by her survivalist mother, Tina (played by Sian Clifford, AKA’s Fleabag’s horrendously uptight sister, Claire) in a remote part of the British countryside signposted only as “north of England”. On her 21st birthday, Kim runs away from home and enters the real world for the first time, discovering lies, love and that no one wears high heels to the pub. While the show doesn’t feel wholly original (think a politer version of The End of the F***ing World, with moments of Killing Eve-style high-jinx) Williams excels in her fish-out-of-water role, flitting between hapless and determined, worldly and childlike.
For Williams, now 23, the project has been awhile in the making. She first read the script four years ago while she was playing Stark. “I thought it was really funny,” she says. “But it was pitched as a film, and it’s hard to get a British film made, so we decided to make it into a TV show. It’s a cat-and-mouse chase with lots of suspense, so putting it into episodes made sense.”
A lot has changed for Williams in those four years, since the days when Game of Thrones was being beamed to millions worldwide (not bad for her first professional acting gig, which she landed at 12 years old). The show transported her from her home in the outskirts of Bristol, to destinations around the world, taking her out of school and thrusting her into the public eye.
Indeed, if Stark came of age before our eyes – developing from a girl into a strong and bold young woman – then so did Williams. Four years ago, when I was working in youth media, I remember seeing her – a blunt fringe in alternately pink or purple hair, a stud through her nose, adorned in androgynous high-fashion outfits – on the covers of style and culture titles such as Dazed, Nylon and Highsnobiety, not only an actor in the biggest show on TV but also something of an edgy, Gen Z idol.
Of course, it wasn’t just how she looked but what she said. Williams has lent her voice to a range of justice struggles – from water inequality, to trans rights, to Black Lives Matter (“Watching hate crime video after police brutality video only desensitises yourself to the murder of innocent black people. it’s poison and it’s sadistic,” she wrote in one Instagram caption, after attending a protest) – and used her status to encourage young people to vote (and to vote Labour). She has joined environmental campaigns and has spoken in support of gay marriage, describing her own sexuality as one that resists labels (“I fall in love with personalities and not people or genders”). And she has spoken about the problem of two-dimensional roles for female actors as either “the hot piece” or the girlfriend.
Kim, gladly, is neither of those things. Would Williams describe her character as a feminist? “I think so, although I don’t think Kim knows what that means. She hasn’t lived in society for 16 years and so the concept of masculine or feminine thinking hasn’t really crossed her mind.” Indeed it’s this innocence that makes her so compelling – her ability to simplify matters of love and trust that adults often overcomplicate. “It was good fun for me to see the world with rose-tinted glasses,” she adds.
I ask her about heroines in film and TV – how they usually look a certain way (eg thin, beautiful) or are motivated by an acceptable female reason, eg, defending their children. Arguably Game of Thrones was groundbreaking for having women characters who were hungry for money and power like everyone else. Does Williams think we are more receptive to these complex portrayals of women? “We’re in an interesting time,” she says. “We’re definitely seeing far more female characters, which is a great thing for me as a female actor. But I do think that women are being used as a token. It’s rare that you’ll see any women behind the camera or in the crew, or even female directors or writers or producers.”
“When the project is led by a man, female characters require a lot of input from actresses to bring out those “likable qualities, like relatability. So I am relied upon to figure out how to make this character better, because clearly they don’t know what they’re doing. It doesn’t need to be that way. There’s incredible women that can be hired but they’re just not.”
Although she doesn’t explicitly extend this criticism to Two Weeks to Live, Williams notes that she and Clifford spent time working on their characters and “pushed to bring a bit more reality” to their mother-daughter relationship.
The show does benefit from women behind the scenes, as writers and producers, and boasts a diverse cast. Two of the lead characters are British-south Asian, and I tell Williams I’m delighted to see British Asians not playing terrorists or colonial subjects. However, I can’t help but think of the many British POC actors who, put off by the lack of roles in the UK, have turned to the US. Are diverse projects easier to achieve in the UK or the US? “[Diverse projects] are easy to achieve everywhere,” she says. “People at the top don’t want to. And that’s the problem. It’s the same as everything: any government can end poverty in their country, but they don’t because they want to spend money elsewhere. With the film industry, women can be paid equally, and people of colour can have equal opportunity overnight. But some people have decided not to do it.”
Williams praises Sky and the production company Kudos for having standards around gender equality (and even their carbon footprint) for Two Weeks to Live. Should high-profile actors be helping secure these standards by declining productions without them?
“That is one way of doing it, and I think it has been quite successful. I think that a lot of the change will come through time. Right now massive shockwaves are going through the industry, with everything going from television to online and companies bursting out of nowhere and overtaking Fox or whatever. I feel invigorated by it, I feel excited for the future. I just like figuring out how to make this industry better for myself, and for people who come after.”
That sounds like a lot for one person to do, surely? “I’ve never really known anything else. My career has been during and post #MeToo. [Change] is all I’ve ever known. But there are still things I’m unhappy about, and being at the start of my career I have the energy to change them.”
I get a text signalling that our interview is drawing to a close, but I have to ask Williams about Bristol before I go: my in-laws live there and have instilled in me a sense of “Brizzle” pride. Is she a local superstar?
“Kind of!” Williams says. “Although I don’t get back that much, and if I do, I usually stay at Mum’s. I feel like everyone knew me when I was a kid, though.” Might she make a good Who Do You Think You Are? some day? “I did a DNA test recently thinking that I’d get some little surprise. And I am 100% English. Specifically the south-west, Devon and Somerset. My line of ancestors didn’t even leave the south-west. It would make a boring show.”
Or perhaps it would make a great show: about the young woman who broke rank and travelled the world and who – whether on screen or off – is always ready for a fight.
Two Weeks to Live starts at 10pm on 2 September on Sky One