Game of Thrones is back. And, while every episode of HBO’s sprawling fantasy epic has its breakout character, the unequivocal star of the Season 4 premiere, “Two Swords,” is none other than Arya Stark, played by Maisie Williams.
When we last left Arya, she was riding with Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound (Rory McCann), to places unknown, when the duo came across a gang of four Frey soldiers eating at a campfire. Arya overhears the grunts mocking the deaths of her mother, Lady Catelyn, and brother, Robb. So, she approaches the men posing as a hungry girl, and flashes the Braavosi coin given to her by the silent assassin, Jaqen H’ghar. She purposely drops it, and when one of the soldiers goes to fetch it, she stabs him in the back of the neck with a knife, killing him. The Hound takes care of the rest, and Arya, startled by her actions, picks the coin back up and whispers, “Valar Morghulis.”
During the final fifteen minutes of “Two Swords,” Arya and The Hound come across Polliver and his cronies. Polliver is, of course, one of Arya’s sworn enemies, having knocked her to the ground during the attack on Yoren and his Night’s Watch recruits, stolen Needle, the sword Jon Snow gifted to her, and drove it through the throat of her injured orphan-pal, Lommy.
Arya finally gets her revenge. After The Hound tears the room apart over some chickens, the young Stark gal springs to action, cracking a clay pot over one of the men’s heads before driving a sword into his chest, and then gracefully slicing Polliver in the legs with a sword—showcasing some of her training from Syrio Forel—and reclaiming Needle as he falls to the ground.
“Something wrong with your leg, boy?” she tells him, regurgitating Polliver’s last words to Lommy. “Can you walk? Have I got to carry you? Fine little blade,” she says, pointing it at his throat. “Maybe I’ll pick my teeth with it.” And then, she shoves it slowly in. The camera pans up to Arya’s face. She doesn’t show a hint of remorse.
The Daily Beast sat down with 16-year-old Maisie Williams, who plays Arya, to discuss her character’s stunning transformation.
At the end of the Season 4 premiere episode, “Two Swords,” we’re treated to a very different Arya Stark.
I am so thrilled as well. Every year, it’s gotten good for Arya around Episode 4 or 5, so people are just like [*shrugs*]. You need a strong beginning to your story in order for you to be the contender for that season, in my opinion, because there are so many storylines. I feel like in Season 2 and 3, Arya wasn’t a massive contender in people’s eyes.
But this year, at the end of Episode 1, just when you thought things were going downhill, you’re treated to an Arya whose heart is now black and she’s rotten on the inside. There’s this line, “Nothing isn’t better or worse than anything. Nothing is just… nothing,” and one of the big things to take away from this scene is that Arya feels nothing. It’s not a good thing to feel because if it was, you’re only going to get knocked back down again, and if it was a bad thing to feel, then she’d be in a bad place. But she’s not. She just feels nothing towards anything and that’s how it plays out as the season goes on and more and more people are being taken off her kill list. She realizes, “This isn’t making me happy… why isn’t it making me happy?” She now identifies with The Hound when he killed Mycah. He didn’t feel anything because it was his job, and that’s how Arya feels.
"I think this year is Arya’s year...people are going to see her more seriously, not just this tomboy that you feel sympathy for."
The unforgiving world of Game of Thrones can make even people like Arya become hard.
Right. And even if Arya knew that Sansa, Bran, Rickon, and Jon Snow were alive, I feel like she’d just go, “Cool… good luck.” I don’t think she’d be very happy about it, she’d just think, “Well, I’ll keep fighting.”
So we learn that you shouldn’t ever get in The Hound’s way when he wants some chicken. What was it like to shoot that sequence?
We shot that in three days—my first three days of shooting, actually—and did all the dialogue, action, exterior bit, and stabbing bit. We shot it in Belfast at a legit hut on location rather than a studio. It was fun to shoot because I just got to sit back and watch for most of it. For Arya, she’s been in so many fight sequences of her own, it is quite nice to sit back and say, “Rory, you’ve got this one. Take one for the team, bro!”
And the way Arya exacts her vengeance on Polliver isn’t fast. She slowly thrusts Needle into his neck.
It’s very spontaneous as well, I think. It just comes out of her before she can grasp it. She’s surprising herself, constantly, and before she knows it she’s reciting these lines that she’s recited in her head night-after-night-after-night in a prayer. I think the audience is going to be a little confused when she says, “Something wrong with your leg, boy? Can you walk? Have I got to carry you?” they’ll be like, “What? She can’t carry him,” and then suddenly… and Polliver’s reaction as well is priceless.
How good have you gotten with Needle?
I’m great with Needle. Needle is perfect. It’s when they start to give me other swords that I don’t like it. Needle was always made for me and it’s my little baby. It’s not just another sword, it’s my sword, and it was dedicated to Arya. I feel like nobody can ever be quite as great with Needle as Arya is.
Arya and The Hound have such an interesting relationship now. She’s threatened to kill him multiple times and is a total liability for him, but he has a great deal of affection for her. He has an allegiance to House Stark, having saved Sansa and now Arya.
As much as The Hound tells Arya, there’s a whole chapter that he doesn’t, and I think that’s what Arya’s a bit skeptical of. She’s starting to see behind the big, rough exterior. This year, Arya and The Hound aren’t trying to kill each other and want to stay together, and quite like enjoying each other’s company, but they’d never let anyone—especially each other—know that, so they almost love to hate each other even more. In their heads they’re thinking, “Wow, this is quite good company,” so then they have to act even worse towards each other because they’re sickened of the thought.
You spoke earlier of characters contending for viewer’s eyes during a given season. Is there light competition among the cast to see who has the most gripping storyline?
Definitely. It’s a show with no lead character and one where there isn’t a goodie or a baddie—we only think Arya Stark is a good guy because it’s told from her point of view, and we think Polliver is a bad guy because he’s killed Lommy, but he could just be a guy doing his job with a wife and four kids to feed back at home. No one is good and no one is bad on Game of Thrones, it’s just how we’ve shown it. But when you are on a show where the spotlight is up for grabs, you’re like, “Hey, David and Dan, thanks for writing me such an awesome scene.” And I think this year is Arya’s year. She’s got some really fantastic stuff coming up and people are going to see her more seriously, not just this tomboy that you feel sympathy for.
How were you cast as Arya?
I always wanted to dance and I wanted to get recognized in the dancing world so I did a talent show where I met a lady who later became my agent, and convinced me that acting was something I should be a part of. I did an audition for a film through her, Nanny McPhee 2, but didn’t get the part, and didn’t know if acting was for me. I did get to meet Emma Thompson during the audition and I saw her recently at the SAG Awards and she said, “Oh, hello you!” and I don’t know if she meant, “Oh, hello you, you’re in Game of Thrones,” or “Oh, hello you who auditioned for me when you were tiny.”
My second audition was for Game of Thrones. They’d already finished casting but they couldn’t find anyone, so they opened up casting again and let a few more girls in. There was a lot of luck involved but I was right for the part. I auditioned with a couple of scenes that they’d made up that weren’t on the show, included one with Arya and Sansa and one with Arya and Gendry.
So you grew up as a dancer, which doesn’t seem very Tomboy-ish.
No, it’s not! A pretty typically girly thing. I always wanted to be a street dancer like Justin Timberlake. That was my dream. And then I started doing ballet and tap, and then did freestyle and jazz and pointe work, and then did contemporary lessons and starting singing and doing musical theater. I have tried everything.
Have you tried to sneak a dance move onto the show? The Arya Shuffle?
David and Dan aren’t using the talents they have on this show wisely! [Laughs] There’s a video that went viral of my dance class and me ages and ages ago, doing this street dance outside. There’s so much stuff of me dancing on the Internet, but people don’t realize that it’s there.
How do you get into Arya Stark mode?
As far as getting into character, that’s never been a deal for me at all. You’ve always got to justify your character’s moves otherwise you’ll never be able to portray anything believably, and for me, I’ve never had trouble justifying Arya’s decisions. This year, though, has been very different. It’s been harder to play her. I can’t justify her decisions quite as easily anymore. I’m a bit scared of her, almost, and not quite sure what she’ll do next.
Her transformation seemed to begin last season when she stabbed one of the soldiers mocking the death of her mother and brother in the neck.
A lot of people really hated it because they thought Arya was doing it because she could, whereas it was more an impulse thing and, when it was over, it surprised her, too, and she was questioning it. “Was that the right thing to do? This isn’t what Syrio taught me.” So, I think she had a lot of issues with it, and then you pick her up this year, and it’s been about four days to two weeks from the events of last season, and I think in that time she’s thought it over, and being with The Hound, she’s picking up on the brutality that The Hound uses, is learning a lot from what he does and how effective that is, so she thinks that she did what she had to do to get the job done.
The Red Wedding Vine was amazing. Was that the biggest OMG moment on the show for you so far?
It was more just me sitting on my sofa and waiting for the Tweets to come in, and then going, “HAHA! We kept it a secret! Yeah, bitch!” We kept that a secret so well, apart from The Metro or some newspaper in the U.K. that did an article on it. Why do that? Why spoil it? You want to watch it. It sucks otherwise. And for anyone to ruin it for other people, it’s the stupidest thing you can do. You just don’t have enough of an imagination to get engrossed in this with the rest of the world and you want to be the great guy that spoils Game of Thrones, when actually you’re not the great guy at all and no one respects you for that.
"You’re the Joffrey of TV writers."
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
Are there any hidden talents among the Game of Thrones cast? I know Hodor is a DJ.
Yeah, Christian can DJ. Sophie [Turner] can do a Shakira impression—a really good one. She can also do really fantastic interpretive dancing.
I heard that you and Sophie prank people at hotels by playing ring and run?
Oh my god… no, never. No, we do, totally. Only people that we kind of know… OK, a lot of times it’s people that we don’t know, too. We just do crazy things. We’ll go sit in the hotel corridor and just stare and wait ‘til someone gets off the lift and they’ll just have to walk by us to go to their rooms.
Like the two little girls in the corridor in The Shining?
YES. Just like that.
So who hangs out together among the Game of Thrones cast?
Me and Sophie hang, and then all the boys hang, so Finn, Kit, Richard, Alfie, and Gethin when he was on the show, although they all still hang anyway.
Since Alfie’s sister is Lily Allen, has the whole cast gone to a Lily Allen concert together?
No! Because Lily stopped for a few years. When I first met Alfie he said, “Whenever you want tickets to Lily, just let me know,” and then all of a sudden it was, “Lily Allen’s retired,” and I was like, “NO! What the HELL!” But now she’s back. I met her and I am the biggest fan. But yeah, no matter what storyline you’re shooting and where you’re shooting, everyone hangs together. There is a Croatia lot so Peter, Lena, Pedro, Nicolaj, Jack, Finn, and Sophie—they all hang because they’re always there. And then the Belfast boys hang. We’re all friends, but those are the cliques. It sounds like Mean Girls, doesn’t it?