Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams: online bullies tried to ruin my life
Maisie Williams has some sage advice for young people using the internet: “Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t want your mother to read.”
You can take that or leave it, but, unusually for someone famous proffering guidance, it comes from a girl who knows all too well of what she speaks. Williams, at 17, has been in the public eye since she was 12. She plays the tomboy princess Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, arguably the world’s biggest television show and almost certainly the one with the most rabid fanbase. That has meant two things: one, her every online utterance, her appearance and her past has been scrutinised – and mercilessly critiqued – by millions of people she will never meet. “You get it every single day. Sometimes you can tell it’s just people that are very excited, and sometimes it’s people that genuinely want to say something nasty. As much as you can say these people just do this for kicks, it does hurt.”
And two, she became an instant target at her school in Somerset for being 'that girl on the telly’. This being the internet age, most of the carping was done anonymously online – in her case, on an app called Formspring that allowed users to withhold their identity. “It was the worst year of my life. I had such an awful experience with it. I knew who the girl was who was sending anonymous things: 'You’re weird because you’re not at school. You’re a stuck-up bitch because you talk about it [Game of Thrones] too much. No one likes you, we all just pretend to like you because you’re rich and famous.’ Horrible, horrible messages. Mum’s like, 'Just delete it.’ It’s easy for an adult to say that, but when you’re in this world and your body’s changing and your hormones are everywhere, you just want to fit in.”
It means that she had already done all of the research she would ever need when it came to starring in the new drama, Cyberbully. It’s a very modern, cautionary tale that runs in real time over 47 minutes. Williams play Casey, a girl with a laptop who, while Dad cooks supper downstairs, goes through the whole gamut of mental torture that the wonders of social media are capable of providing, all from the comfort of her bedroom.
I meet her on set at Three Mill’s Studio in East London, in her lunch break, wearing ripped jeans and with a nose stud, much like any other 17-year-old. Though home is still in the West Country with her Mum, Hilary (who gave up her job to be her daughter’s PA and chaperone) these days Maisie is almost permanently on the go – the minute she has finished Cyberbully she will return to Belfast to continue filming the next series of Game of Thrones. She has already filmed parts in three further movies, including Carol Morley’s The Falling, that will appear this year. It all means she has had to grow up fast – after five years of worldwide fame you might expect her to have been media trained to within an inch of her life, but Williams retains a teenager’s candour and chattiness. She is not so scared of a headline that won’t admit to her own failings.
“I was horrible too – I started sending horrible things back. But when you’re 13 and someone says something nasty you don’t want to ignore them. You want to hurt them like they’ve hurt you. You get in to this bitchy cycle. Now I look back and think why did you even bother? But it’s easy to say that now I’ve matured and I’ve figured out what I want to do with my life.”
Her choice was acting, though it’s tempting to say that acting chose her – aged 12, Arya Stark was only her second audition, once she was spotted by an agent at Bath Dance College. Having won the part it took her all round Europe for filming and ultimately out of school altogether at 14, without a GCSE to her name. Suddenly her face was on bus sides and posters, her twitter followers were clocking up at 1,000 a day and she was being invited to fashion shows and premieres. Looking back she says that she can see why the 'popular’ girls at school rounded on her.
“We see that even though you can have six million friends on Facebook, you can still feel very alone. We see that even if you’re the nicest person in the world, if someone can take the power of your laptop and use the stuff that you have on there against you, you can be made out to be someone completely different. It’s basically one big learning curve for her. Everything can be twisted and used against you.”
Thanks to her age, and experience, she was allowed input on the Cyberbullying script. “We want this to be really believable for teenagers because as soon as it’s not, they don’t take it seriously – it’s just another grown up trying to write a thing for kids. I totally get that. I sit and I watch Hollyoaks and I think, 'No one types like that on their phone. No one says 2 instead of to’. That automatically takes it away from being serious and real.”
Game of Thrones has a budget of around $100m a series, a cast of thousands and films over nine months on locations from Belfast to Dubrovnik. Cyberbully is unliley to have a hundredth of that budget, was filmed on a single set in East London over two weeks, and Williams’ character never once leaves her bedroom. The contrast could hardly be more stark.
“It was a huge learning curve,” she says. “But I’m so, so glad I’ve done it. As an actor you’re constantly looking to be pushed. To just be in one room on your own with a camera was very scary and daunting at the beginning. I’m used to being a small part of a massive production. This was the opposite.”
Yet this small production offers up a substantial message to teenagers like Williams, who have been the victim of bullying. And her closing advice to them is simple: “Honestly? It would be to switch it off. Delete your Facebook. It’s very harsh because you think, 'God I wouldn’t be able to keep in touch with my friends’ – no one texts any more. I don’t have anyone’s number I just Facebook them. But I’d say if they’re your real friends, they’ll stay with you.”