Photograph by Nicole Nodland for ‘Rolling Stone.’
There have been all manner of supernatural manifestations, many of them quite unpleasant, on HBO’s Game of Thrones, which begins its eighth and final season in April: resurrections, premonitions, psychic time travel, a killer shadow baby, a vast army of dead dudes, a fireproof queen, a zombie dragon, regular dragons. (And over in the unnatural category, a truly weird amount of incest.) But one of the first inexplicable GoT events was far more benign — sweet, even. From the moment a 12-year-old Maisie Williams caught sight of 13-year-old Sophie Turner at their 2009 chemistry read for the roles of the Stark sisters, their connection was deep and uncanny. “We were pretty much best friends from that second on,” says Turner, now 23.
“I thought Sophie was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” says Williams, now 21. “I get why they do chemistry reads, because when it’s right, it’s so right. Like, we’re best friends. And they could see that all those years ago, and it must have been real magic watching these two girls have the best time together.”
Even in the face of a potentially life-changing audition, “there was a lot of laughter that day,” says Nina Gold, the show’s U.K.-based casting director (who also discovered Daisy Ridley for the current Star Wars trilogy). “Maisie seemed like a very old soul in a very tiny body. Really quite Arya-like. Sophie was more of a little girl, which she certainly is not anymore.”
That year, Game of Thrones had its very first wrap party, in Belfast, Ireland, after cast and crew finished shooting its pilot, an episode that never aired. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss realized just in time that it was clunky and hard to follow — they recast several key roles and reshot it, saving their show. Turner and Williams, among the youngest cast members, may have been the first to sense something wasn’t right. As Weiss and Benioff recall in a joint email interview, the girls were distraught at the party: “We remember the both of them bawling and hugging each other, because they loved each other so much after only a few short weeks, and were afraid they’d never see each other again, because the show wouldn’t get picked up. It was a viable fear. But we’re very grateful that it didn’t work out that way, and that they both got to spend all those years with each other, and with us.”
Toward the end of Game of Thrones’ first season, the Starks’ lives collapse when royal intrigue leads to the arrest of family patriarch Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) — an all-too-decent man among vipers — on false charges, leading to the prompt removal of his head. Arya goes into hiding, disguised as a boy, plotting revenge, while Sansa is betrothed to monstrous child-king Joffrey. The girls were cast to the winds, heartbreakingly unprotected, crossing from innocence to darkest experience in harrowing story arcs that have always been the show’s emotional core.
After that, Turner and Williams wouldn’t get to shoot a single scene together again until their characters reunited in 2016 for Season Seven. That may have been for the best. “We’re a nightmare to work with,” Turner says. “If you’re working with your best friend, you will never get any work done, ever. Anytime we tried to be serious about anything, it’s just the hardest thing in the world. I think they really regretted putting us in scenes together. It was difficult.”
Photograph by Nicole Nodland for ‘Rolling Stone.’
Now that the two actresses are adults, that’s changed. Sort of. “It was great to have two insanely witty people playing off each other between setups,” Benioff and Weiss write. “Although they did decide to start talking in a Northern (English) accent, which may be real and may be their own invention — being Americans, we couldn’t tell. But they would sometimes talk in this accent all day. Every once in a while it would find its way into a scene, and we’d have to remind them Sansa and Arya don’t talk like that.”
In the summer of 1991, a genre-novelist-turned-midlevel-TV-writer booted up his already-outdated MS-DOS word processor, ready to create a new world. George R.R. Martin was 42 years old, fresh from a stint writing scripts for a lion-headed Ron Perlman on the CBS drama Beauty and the Beast, with more than a decade’s worth of acclaimed but unprofitable science-fiction, horror and fantasy prose to his name. He was supposed to be taking another stab at a sci-fi novel, but a scene from a different tale somehow came to him: young boys finding orphaned wolf pups in a bloodstained snowdrift.
It was his first glimpse of the men of the Stark family, the clan at the center of what would become Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, and later, one of TV’s most ambitious shows. Martin knew, however, that the family was incomplete. “I wanted some girls, too,” he says 28 years later, sitting in his Santa Fe, New Mexico, office, where he’s still working on the sixth and penultimate book in the series, still using that same, now-ancient word-processing program.
By the time his narrative reached Winterfell, the snow-swept stronghold the Starks call home, Martin had created “two sisters who were very, very different from each other.” Martin set his story in a world where dragon breath is a weapon of mass destruction and undead White Walkers are a civilizational threat, but he modeled its less-fantastical elements on medieval Europe, the constrained roles of women very much included. “The Middle Ages was very patriarchal,” Martin says. “I’m wary of overgeneralizing, since that makes me seem like an idiot — I do recognize that the Middle Ages was hundreds of years long and took place in many different countries — but generally, women didn’t have a lot of rights, and they were used to make marriage alliances. . . . I’m talking highborn women, of course — peasant women had even fewer rights.”
At the same time, he notes, “this is also the era where the whole idea of courtly romance was born — the gallant knight, the princess. In some sense, the Disney-princess archetype is a legacy of the troubadours of the romance era of medieval France.” When we meet Sansa at the beginning of the book and show, she is a happy, somewhat smug occupant of a cloistered, fluffy world, a Disney princess destined to be tossed into a sea of horrors.
“She sees the world through rose-tinted glasses at the very beginning,” says Turner. “She is completely oblivious to who the royal family are. It’s like any Justin Bieber fan — they don’t realize Justin has his darkness about him.” The younger Turner was, herself, “a Belieber, with a whole wall in my bedroom dedicated to him. David and Dan always told me, ‘Look at Joffrey as if he’s Justin Bieber and imagine that life.’ That’s the trick — how to get Sophie to act!”
Photograph by Nicole Nodland for ‘Rolling Stone.’
Arya was always meant to be the opposite, “a girl who chafes at the roles she was being pushed into, who didn’t want to sew, who wanted to fight with a sword . . . who liked hunting and wrestling in the mud,” says Martin. “A lot of the women I’ve known had aspects of Arya, especially when I was a young man in the Sixties and Seventies. I knew a lot of young women who weren’t buying into ‘Oh, I have to find a husband and be a housewife,’ who would say, ‘I don’t wanna be Mrs. Smith, I wanna be my own person.’ And that’s certainly part of Arya’s thing.”
Benioff and Weiss had to carve their own course for the past couple of seasons, after outpacing Martin’s writing. “I’ve been so slow with these books,” Martin says, with palpable pain. “The major points of the ending will be things I told them five or six years ago. But there may also be changes, and there’ll be a lot added.”
Winter is here, both in Westeros and in this gentrifying East London neighborhood, where the season takes the form of gray skies leaking icy rain rather than a continent-spanning snowstorm that could last a generation. At 9 a.m. sharp, a groggy but cheerful Maisie Williams, straight off a plane from a Fashion Week trip to Paris, steps into a gourmet-vegetarian coffee shop right by her flat. She’s thoroughly burrowed into a cozy black turtleneck sweater over leather pants and leopard-print Coach boots. She’s toting a Coach bag festooned with cartoon characters, including a cute squirrel carrying a hammer — slightly sinister, she admits. (She used to have a Coach endorsement deal, which came with a free shopping spree.) “I feel hella rough,” she says. “But I look chic, so . . . ”
Maisie Williams in HBO’s Game of Thrones
Photo: Helen Sloane/HBO
She’s big on pink these days. Her hair, cut into blunt bangs, is a metallic shade of it, offering a striking contrast with her fierce black eyebrows. Her nails are pink, too. “I love pink so much,” she says from deep within her turtleneck. “It’s my favorite color in the whole wide world. I come into the office every day” — she founded a social-media-for-creatives app called Daisie — “and I get my pink laptop out with my pink hair, and I wear a pink hoodie and I have a pink background on my screen, and a pink screen saver. For so long I pretended that my favorite color was green — I thought I wasn’t a feminist if my favorite color was pink. And then I decided that’s fucking stupid.”
The hair, in particular, is a declaration of independence, or at least of wanting a break from acting. “I guess, subconsciously, I dyed it because I didn’t want to work,” she says. “It’s a pretty good way of stopping that. And it just feels so good, so me. I’ve battled my whole adolescence with trying to put a stamp on my appearance, but also be a blank canvas as an actor.”
Her late-breaking embrace of a Barbie Dreamhouse color scheme is also a reaction to a decade of life as Arya Stark, which meant spending a chunk of her teenage years murdering people while wearing various shades of dirt-encrusted brown. Along the way, there were some uncomfortable, curve-suppressing wardrobe mandates. “I was becoming a woman,” she says with a sigh, “and then having to wear this thing that’s kind of like what the queen does — I think the queen has to have a bra that pushes her tits under her armpits. And it got worse, ’cause it kept growing, and they put this little fat belly on me to make it even out. I was, like, 15: ‘I just wanna be a girl and have a boyfriend!’ That was when it sucked. The first time they gave me a bra in my trailer, I was like, ‘Yes! I’m a woman!’ ”
Turner says that time was “really difficult” for Williams. “She’s going through all these changes, and yet she has to still look like a child and cut her hair short and look completely different to how she’s feeling inside. I think she really envied me because I got to wear the dresses and have nice makeup and nice hair. And I wanted the trousers and the boyish clothes!”
Williams on set filming Season Eight.
photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
Williams is past all that now. She is, in general, an entirely liberated young human, radiating so much youthful possibility that it’s almost contagious. She adored Game of Thrones, but it was also an ever-looming obligation for half of her life. “What’s hit me the most about the show ending isn’t the show ending,” she says, eyes shining. “It’s like, I’m free. I can do anything now.” She has a decade’s worth of showbiz money in the bank, having essentially earned herself a trust fund. “It’s like a moment where you can just really enjoy everything that you’ve worked hard for. These last six months, I’ve really just done that.” To wit, she spent New Year’s Eve in Berlin, indulging in a 24-hour-long clubbing stint. (“I went out at 8 p.m. and got home at 8 p.m.,” she says. “We were at every party, and also no party, at the same time.”)
She does have a big-budget movie in the can, playing the werewolf-y mutant Wolfsbane in the X-Men spinoff New Mutants, but the film seems trapped in corporate limbo, thanks to Disney’s pending purchase of Fox. She doesn’t mince words on the situation. “Who knows when the fuck that’s gonna come out,” she says. There were supposed to be reshoots to “make it scarier,” she explains, but they haven’t actually taken place. She says she saw one of her co-stars, Charlie Heaton, the other day and asked him, “What the fuck is going on with this movie?” He didn’t know either. She smiles. “Hopefully this interview will make everyone hurry up a little bit!” If it does ever come out, both she and Turner — who plays Jean Grey over in the main X-Men movies — are dying to get their characters together. “It would be ridiculously stupid if they didn’t do that,” Williams says.
Williams’ wide-open options are all the more intoxicating set against her childhood in the city of Bristol, England, where money was tight. There was also some early darkness, a situation she’ll hint at without quite explaining. She moved out at age 16 — not to get away from her family, but simply to get some space for herself after sharing a room with two sisters. Her parents split up when she was four months old, and she says her birth father is not in her life. (“My stepdad is, and I love him very much.”) She alludes to “hostility” in her family history. “It was a situation myself and my siblings and my mother, we went through together,” she says, declining to elaborate. “It’s made us all a lot closer but has in no way made anything straightforward.”
She put it all into Arya, into the character’s traumatized grief and capacity for violence both frenzied and calculated. (“Arya may have a higher body count than almost any other major character on the show,” Benioff and Weiss write, “but she’s almost always been justified in the violence she’s done in one way or another.”) “I drew on a lot of very real emotions that I felt in my life,” says Williams. “People would always say when I was 12, ‘How could you ever — what did you draw on?’ They just don’t know anything about my past. It’s such a freeing thing being able to explore these emotions in a really safe environment. I think it was really helpful for me when I was 12, 13, to just, like, go crazy, and then you go home and you’re like, ‘Phew, what a good day.’ ”
She truly enjoyed Arya’s bloodiest moments. “You can feel the adrenaline,” she says, rather dreamily. “It feels incredible because it’s all pretend, it doesn’t matter. But when else do you get to do that? There was this shot we did at the end of Season Three when I’m stabbing the guy in the neck. They got me a sandbag and a fake knife, and they had blood going, and they were just like, ‘Stab! Just go for it.’ My God! You can feel ‘Ahhhh!’ ” She sips her coffee. “It was good.”
She was so young when she got the part that she hadn’t really decided to be an actor yet. She had intended to become a dancer, but was recruited by an agent who spotted her in an improv class. Arya was her second-ever audition. “I remember looking around the room at all of these really pretty girls and feeling really scruffy,” she says. “The audition I’d gone to before, in my screen test they were like, ‘We’re gonna change your top.’ I remember being so humiliated and knowing there was something about me that wasn’t right. Before that, I’d auditioned for ballet schools and stuff, with my grubby tights and crooked teeth, and all these stage kids were like they were in an advert. Even that young, I could feel that.” She grins. “But for Arya, it’s perfect. That was exactly what they wanted. Fuck you and your perfect smile!”
Williams is as animated and expressive as Arya is locked down, with zero poker face. “When I’m myself, people ask me all the time, ‘What’s wrong?’ It’s because I’m not aware of what my body’s doing, and I’m feeling raw emotions just as they come.” As Arya, she feels like she accesses something almost superhuman. She blinks less; her breathing becomes more shallow. “I feel hyperaware,” she says. “You know that movie Limitless? I feel like that. Arya is very calculated in the way that she conducts herself — she doesn’t like people to know what she’s thinking.”
Williams did go through a recent, inexplicable phase when her own emotions felt inaccessible. She couldn’t cry, onscreen or off. (“I’ve come out of it,” she notes. “I cry every week.”) It coincided with Season Eight, in which Arya apparently reconnects with her humanity. “It was really amazing, perfect timing because Arya’s just starting to feel again for the first time,” she says. “So it was actually kinda beautiful the way it was working. Because usually I’m trying to play Arya with no emotion, whilst feeling everything. And this time I was feeling nothing while I was trying to feel something, and it worked . . . I think.”
If the Lady of Winterfell asks you to do a tequila shot with her, protocol compels you to comply. In truth, Sophie Turner does not, at the moment, look all that much like Sansa Stark, even if her posh, mellifluous accent gives her away. (“Let’s get this pah-ty stah-ted,” she says.) Her ponytailed hair is back to its natural blond; she’s adopted an incongruously all-American look of white tee and pale blue jeans, currently set off by red bowling shoes. On her ring finger is a mammoth, blinding diamond, courtesy of her fiance, Joe Jonas, who designed the ring himself. She felt like bowling, so we snagged a private area at Bowlmor in Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers, not too far from the Nolita apartment she just moved into with Jonas. (“Our bedroom is still full of boxes,” she says, “and we have two dogs living in there as well.”)
“I bet Maisie didn’t do a shot in the coffee shop,” she says, picking up a bowling ball. She decides to list her name as “Boy George” on the digital scorecard above, claiming, dubiously, that they look alike. When the drinks arrive, she downs hers and grimaces. “Ucch,” she says. “I hate how it tastes, but it gets you drunk.” Williams describes Turner as the most simpatico scene partner imaginable — they run through even non-GoT scripts together. So it follows that Turner also cheers on fellow bowlers with near-ecstatic fervor: “You’ve got this! Believe in yourself! . . . That was fucking brilliant!”
Turner, second from left, in Season One of ‘Game of Thrones’ in 2011.
On her left bicep is an occult-looking triangular tattoo based on “Plato’s theory that the soul is comprised of three parts — reason, spirit and appetite.” Her older brother Will got a matching one; he’s supposed to be the “spirit” part. Her eldest brother, James, is “reason,” but he opted out of the tattoo. “I’m appetite,” Turner says. “Because I’m hungry for everything. I need everything. Not materialwise, but I need to do these jobs and I have to consume everything. And, also, I like eating.” On the back of her right arm is an outline of a bunny with something a little off about its back legs. “It has no significance whatsoever,” she says. “A lot of people say it looks like bunnies fucking each other.”
She heads over to an adjoining billiards room, which happens to have two huge, distinctly throne-like chairs at one end. “Quite appropriate,” she says, curling up rather unregally in one of them. Turner has another big project, the X-Men movie Dark Phoenix, out in June. She’s optimistic about the film, calling it “Dark Phoenix done right” – a small jab at the notoriously awful X-Men: Last Stand, which butchered the same storyline. “Every other scene in Dark Phoenix is, like, the most intense scene I’ve ever done,” she says.
Stepping out as the title character in a superhero franchise brings some pressure. “I’m just a nervous wreck at the moment,” she says, though you’d never know it. For all her apparent lightness of spirit, Turner has had what she describes as mental-health issues. “Definitely,” she says. “Depression for sure, anxiety, all of those things. I still experience it, but I had therapy, I’m on medication, and I feel so much better. The fact that I spoke to someone changed my life.”
She was hurt by social media posts suggesting that celebrities’ newfound openness about such issues was “a trend.” If anything, it’s simply famous young people following wider trends. “It’s definitely a generational thing,” she says. “My mom still asks me, ‘Why do you need a therapist?’ ”
Turner is also just a “very emotional person,” with a deep wellspring of empathy. She used to lie in bed at night and literally “cry for my character,” bemoaning Sansa’s endless parade of perils at the hands of some of the worst men in any world. “The things that girl has gone through are just unbelievable and awful,” she says. Sansa’s was a slow journey toward mastery of her environment; she was always smarter than she might have seemed, with Turner showing us just how acutely she examined her world through crystalline blue eyes.
Sansa’s travails hit their nadir in Season Five, when she married the monstrous Ramsay Bolton. On their wedding night, he raped her in front of another character — an agonizing-to-watch scene that may have been the most controversial in the show’s history. It was far from the only instance of sexual violence on Game of Thrones, and for some, it was the final straw. “Rape is not a necessary plot device,” Jill Pantozzi of the feminist website the Mary Sue wrote, announcing the site would no longer be “actively promoting” Game of Thrones. Benioff and Weiss defended the episode, but it’s an apparent sore point. When I asked how the reaction changed their approach, they deleted the question from their email interview.
Turner with Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow.
photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
Turner anticipated the criticism, and simply disagrees with it. “I think the backlash was wrong because those things did happen,” she says, mentioning GoT’s medieval roots. “We can’t dismiss that and not put it in a TV show where it’s all about power — and that is a very impactful way to show that you have power over somebody.”
For Turner, the fact that the season ends with an “empowered” Sansa presiding over Ramsay Bolton’s well-deserved gruesome death — she helps arrange for him to be consumed alive, piece by piece, by a pack of his own hungry dogs — “made it a really great storyline. Killing him with the dogs, that was the most satisfying scene. It made me so emotional because I’ve been waiting so long for her to stand up to the people who have done her wrong.” Turner also relished Season Seven, as a newly savvy Sansa finally began to master the show’s rites of power. More than one fan theory has the show ending with Sansa ascending to the Iron Throne as Westeros’ ruler — a long shot, but now an entirely plausible one.
“In the beginning, I was jealous of Maisie,” says Turner, “because she got to do all these sword fights and be the badass. I was like, ‘I know my character is very powerful.’ Sansa adapts better than Arya. If Arya was in Sansa’s situation at the beginning, she would have had her head cut off. And if Sansa had been in Arya’s position, Sansa would have been bullied to death. . . . It was really frustrating how slow it was, but it just makes it all the more satisfying. I’m happy she’s only just coming into her power now.”
She sees parallels between Hollywood and Westeros. “There’s a lot of Sansa in me,” Turner says. “You go into something and you think it’s going to be a huge dream, and then you figure out, ‘Oh, wait. I have to be very strategic about everything. And Harvey Weinstein is Joffrey or Ramsay. Probably worse than that. A White Walker.’ ” She never had to work with Weinstein, but another disgraced figure, Bryan Singer, did direct her previous X-Men outing. Singer also directed Bohemian Rhapsody, and Turner echoes that film’s star, Rami Malek. “Our time together was, like Rami said, unpleasant.”
Turner’s upbringing, in Central England, was infinitely more comfortable and uneventful than Sansa’s, largely divided between the Game of Thrones set and school. (She did have a deranged stalker for a while in high school: “It was horrible,” she says matter-of-factly.) Her teenage rebellions were exceedingly normal, in the vein of sneaking vodka from her parents’ house to drink with friends in the park. Like Williams, she planned to be a dancer at first; at age 11 she turned down admission to the highly competitive Royal Ballet School in favor of acting classes.
Turner never thought she’d get engaged so young, or at all. “I was fully preparing myself to be single for the rest of my life,” she says. “I think once you’ve found the right person, you just know. I feel like I’m much older a soul than I am in age. I feel like I’ve lived enough life to know. I’ve met enough guys to know — I’ve met enough girls to know. I don’t feel 22. I feel like 27, 28.” As for the “girls” part: “Everyone experiments,” she says with a shrug. “It’s part of growing up. I love a soul, not a gender.”
On her final day shooting Game of Thrones, in Northern Ireland last year, Williams was still in her no-crying phase. She felt numb. “I went back into my trailer after we wrapped,” she says. “I took a shower, ’cause I was dirty. Arya is always dirty.” She stood outside, washed clean of Arya Stark, taking in “really glorious sunshine, the nicest day.” She went into the assistant directors’ trailer and grabbed a beer as the crew officially marked the end of the line: “This is a wrap on Game of Thrones.”
Photograph by Nicole Nodland for ‘Rolling Stone.’
“I didn’t go out that night,” Williams says, “because I didn’t want to say goodbye to everyone again. You can’t be like ‘Goodbye forever’ to this show. You can’t put that weight on any day. It’s like a divorce. It takes a very long time.”
For her part, Turner totally cried, “because I cry at everything,” she says. She was particularly moved when Benioff and Weiss presented her with a storyboard of their favorite Sansa scene, which happened to be her very last scene of the entire show. Turner already has it hanging at home; no one’s noticed.
“I feel very satisfied with the ending of the entire show,” she says. “Every story arc came to a really good close.” (Williams offers a cryptic hint: “After I read Season Eight, I watched Season One — there’s a lot of similarities.”) For whatever clues it may offer, Benioff and Weiss mentioned two finales they admire: “Breaking Bad stuck the landing. We always talk about the Sopranos ending — as controversial as it may have been at the time, it’s hard to imagine a better ending for that show, or any show.”
Whatever happens, at least we got to see Sansa and Arya Stark together again, safe at home — however briefly. “Sansa, this whole show, the only reason she has willed herself to survive is for her family,” says Turner, who has a ‘The Pack Survives’ tattoo, quoting the show. “The power of family and unity is so strong that it can keep people alive. That’s the biggest thing I’ve taken away from the show: Family is everything.” She smiles, sitting in her bowling-alley throne, vaping. “I think Papa Stark would be very proud of us,” she says.