Before me sits a teenager. A small and slight 19-year-old in a skirt and a jumper and a pair of boots, with painted nails, and an animated way of chatting, flip-flopping from one subject to the next. She loves social media. And she loves dolphins. And she loves her iPhone. She’s quite like a lot of young women in a lot of ways – except she’s famous. Properly, properly famous, with more than 1.5 million Twitter followers and a phenomenal 4.5 million Instagram followers.
Maisie Williams is famous because of Game of Thrones, of course. She’s been playing the brave and spirited Arya Stark since 2011, a role that has endeared her to millions around the world. But there’s more to it than that; there’s a frankness and an openness to her that means she reaches an audience beyond GoT fandom. There’s an authenticity to her and a fierce desire to put the world to rights that stands out amid anodyne social media posts or standard magazine interviews. She feels interesting – and interested.
Today we’re here to talk about a new Netflix film, iBoy, in which Williams stars. Based on a young adult novel by Kevin Brooks, the film, set on a gang-plagued London estate, explores a world where a teenager is bestowed with smartphone-related superpowers. Our hero is like a Superman for the iPhone age and Maisie Williams is his love interest, Lucy. With another actress, the role could have felt weak but Williams shines. Being a member of Generation Z, the kids who grew up in the digital age, Williams clearly connects with the story of cyberbullying, and when the character of Lucy is sexually assaulted, she brings pathos and depth.
The Pool: Cyberbullying seems to be something that is close to your heart, is that fair to say?
Maisie Williams: Yeah, not just close to my heart but something that I know and something that I know that maybe someone in the generation above doesn't. People criticise social media, and they criticise the internet and technology but this is what I've got. The themes [of iBoy] are dark – the internet isn't a place that should be underestimated and it is a very powerful place. That's what I love about Netflix taking it on, they were really keen to show gang violences as distressing, and they were keen to tackle this rape head-on because it is something that happens and it's something that we should open a dialogue on.
I go away to America and my mum will follow what I'm doing online
TP: I think it was really interesting what you said about it being a generational thing. Because it strikes me that parents are struggling to understand how to manage smartphones for their kids – and whether they should allow them.
MW: I don't know why phones are seen as a bad thing. I don't understand where that comes from, when people are like, "Oh, we'll forget how to read or write." No we won’t! No matter what, people are always going to be afraid of change and afraid of new things that they are unfamiliar with and that's just the way it goes and it happens time and time again throughout history. Technology is just the newest thing to hate on, I guess.
TP: And yet I can see why parents would be frightened of it when you think about cyberbullying and not being able to help – they feel shut out don’t, they?
MW: Yeah, like I say, the internet is not something that should be brushed off as this terrible place because it isn’t – but it can be. So it's important for us to recognise those tell-tale signs of issues going on online and do something about it. I've always been so pro-internet and pro-technology because it's so foolish to think that it's going to be damaging to us. It can be, but only if it's not treated with respect.
TP: So you're a big social media user?
MW: Yes. For me it's what all my friends use to communicate and what I use to communicate with people across the world – and with my family. So I go away to America and my mum will follow what I'm doing online.
TP: So in that sense it's quite typical 19-year-old use.
MW: Yeah, I just happen to have a lot more followers than a lot of my friends but I wouldn't say that I use it any differently or view it any differently. I still have opinions and I still say things that people disagree with.
TP: Yeah, but that must be intense if you're famous. Because if you say something controversial, it can be online news hours later.
MW: Absolutely, and that's the decision that you make. You think do I want to be opinionated about everything or do I think it's worth it? Do I think it's worth the backlash that I am probably going to get from this? Do I think it's really something that is worth my time and possibly my emotion?
TP: You're pretty thick-skinned then?
MW: No, I wouldn't say I'm thick-skinned but I sometimes just think that this is more important than your feelings, if there's something that I genuinely think I need to stand up for – I do a lot of work for a dolphin project and lots of people argue that there are people in the world that are starving and dying, why are you fighting for the dolphins? You can either sit and fade into the background and not stand up for anything or you can try and use this platform. And I feel like it's something that I should do.
TP: Your character in iBoy endures a devastating rape. There's a lot of discussion around rape being used as a plot device and rape being portrayed on TV and I wondered what you thought of that.
MW: I think rape is something that is definitely still seen as a taboo and I don't like it to be used as a plot point. For a long time they [the makers of iBoy] denied it being called a rape in the story because it was too much for an audience and it would lose viewers, which is just awful. It's like something that we can't talk about because it's so disturbing but it's happening every day, day in, day out. Yeah, OK, it being used as a plot point, I can see that argument, but ultimately I think it shines a light on a subject that people don't talk about and don't hear enough about and don't care about enough. For me, that was why it was amazing that Netflix got involved, because they weren't afraid to call it a rape and to give Lucy her third act that she deserved, that was one of the main things that attracted me to the role. In the third act, she confronts her attackers.
TP: There's revenge there.
MW: Well not even revenge, but it's just what she has to say about it. There's a real moment of her coming to peace with everything that's happened and it's something that no one really – it's something that I haven't seen enough of, I don't feel. Someone being able to come to their own resolution after a pretty traumatic attack. I think it deserved to at least be called a rape when a lot of people didn't even want to use the word rape.
I think rape is something that is definitely still seen as a taboo and I don't like it to be used as a plot point
TP: When you come to a script do you read it with your principles and your feminism and with an eye for that?
MW: Yeah, particularly with iBoy and with Lucy – the first draft that I read I wasn't as convinced with as the script that we ended up making and it did take a lot of changes and the third act was rewritten and I ultimately was far happier with her ending.
TP: Would you ever think of writing or directing or are you wedded to acting?
MW: I love acting and I will always enjoy acting, but I have always thought about directing. Not writing, I couldn't write a story but I could take a story and then put it on to the screen I feel.
TP: We definitely need more women directors so that’s –
MW: Well, we need more women directors to be given a chance. They're all out there.
TP: That's a very good point.
MW: I've been lucky enough to work with three very early on in my career. Carol Morley for The Falling and then Nour Wazzi who I did a short film with called Up On The Roof and I'm in talks to work with Vicky Jewson.
TP: You seem like you'd be good at being on film sets, you’d be a good director.
TP: I guess you grew up on film sets, didn't you?
MW: Yeah and I just always loved listening and everything that goes into making them. I just like watching people and thinking how are you going to portray this through the way you direct this? Through the cameras that you use and the angles that you use, how are you going to portray what goes on in this scene? It's just something that I've always loved watching and something that I feel like I've got a grasp on.
TP: Well, if we have more women directors we'll have more women's stories told.
MW: Yeah that's the thing, the first thing I think is I'll direct what I know and I know how to be a woman.
iBoy is availaible on Netflix now.
This interview has been edited for sense.