Maisie Williams leans back into a white leather sofa in a London studio, hard to miss with her bleached hair and eyebrows to match. Marine Serre moons decorate her arms and a black beret and Coperni bag sit by her side. There are too many wardrobe must-haves on the 24-year-old actor to take note of as we introduce ourselves and Williams talks about her continuing battle with car sickness – an issue exacerbated by her drive into the capital.
Most notable about her attire, though, is her black T-shirt, which reads, or rather shouts, “The Sexy Young Assassins” – a tribute to one of the most iconic, society-rupturing bands there ever was: the Sex Pistols.
The band rose to prominence during a period of rage, anti-fashion, drugs and uprooting traditional values. The Sex Pistols’ second single, God Save the Queen, was released in 1977, the same year as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and was promptly banned by the BBC and most independent radio stations. Their only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, reached the number one spot on the UK charts. And probably the most recognisable name of the era, Sid Vicious, the band’s bassist, died of a heroin overdose two years later. It was a whirlwind epoch that made a long-standing mark on British culture.
But Williams’s T-shirt isn’t just a fashion choice – it’s the kind of top that usually makes you want to ask the wearer to name three of the band’s songs – she has spent months filming Pistol, the upcoming Danny Boyle-directed miniseries about the Sex Pistols and the punk era, so it’s extremely likely she would have done her research.
She has come straight from something the industry calls ADR – a process of polishing up dialogue in rowdy scenes. And judging by the leaked images of the cast on set, the outfits, the glam and what we all know of Britain’s punk era, rowdiness will no doubt be taking centre stage in the show.
“[Boyle] creates an atmosphere – more than any director I’ve ever worked with – of authenticity,” Williams says excitedly. “If something looks chaotic on screen, it was chaotic on the day. If he wants people to be scared, there’s a sense of adrenaline on set. If he wants people to lose their minds and scream and shout, the whole atmosphere is tense and high stakes. He will not compromise on that, ever.”
Pistol isn’t set to be a normal biopic. Sure, it’s based on guitarist Steve Jones’s memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, and focuses on band members Sid Vicious (played by Louis Partridge), Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon), drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) and the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). However, Boyle’s exploration of the time goes beyond the band, pulling in other names that are synonymous with punk.
Iris Law plays Soo Catwoman, known for her signature hairstyle of flared “ears” dyed black against the rest of her bleached crop, which managed to retain an almost unobtainable level of uniqueness, despite the constant search for originality at the time. Dylan Llewellyn has been cast as Wally Nightingale – the original guitarist in the band that became the Sex Pistols, who was ousted by McLaren for not fitting the image he wanted. Williams herself plays punk icon Jordan (real name Pamela Rooke), whose powerful look came to define the identity of punk culture, making her a figurehead. Rooke took her moniker from Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby, a character known for her alluring nature and deceit. But worlds away from F Scott Fitzgerald’s character, Rooke transformed from a teenager who lived and breathed ballet in the picturesque town of Seaford on the English coast into the mother of punk as we know it.
“Jordan said that no one looked like her, no one dressed like her. No one dared to. People didn’t understand it, they thought if someone is dressing this way they must be a prostitute. They didn’t understand that it was fashion, that it was expression. It was a real defining part of the punk movement to be able to express yourself in that way,” Williams says.
Jordan became increasingly prominent on the scene, thanks to her job at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea, London, which by that point was called Sex. Photos of her scattered around the internet personify the younger generations’ idea of what punk really was, how it felt and who moved within those circles. There’s a gnarliness to them, an up-turned lip here and there, the cultural revolution visible in the background.
Even though Williams is dressed the part on the day of our interview, you wouldn’t quite characterise her with well-used punk terms like “antichrist” or “anarchist”. Indeed, her quiet laughter after making jokes and her poised, thorough answers indicate the opposite. But then again, looking at the actor, you probably wouldn’t have expected her to be slitting throats while on a murder-fuelled rampage across Westeros as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones either. And that’s what, from the first ten minutes of our chat, seems to be the most compelling aspect of the actor: her ability to shapeshift, to transform into characters that appear to be so far removed from who she really is, whether by nature or time period.
It was through the cunning, independent and fierce character of Arya that most of the world got to know Williams while she was in her early teens – it’s a role that needs little context or background information. She became a fan favourite, especially towards the end of series eight, when she killed the Night King, essentially saving most, if not all, of the other characters in the behemoth show. But beyond the screen, and beyond playing a character that was in many ways very different from her, she was a young girl trying to navigate adolescence through keeping her two lives separate.
“I surrounded myself with people who either hadn’t watched [Game of Thrones], didn’t really care about the show, or did care about the show but didn’t want to talk about it. With people who weren’t really interested in that world,” the actor says of how she spent her downtime while filming the show. “I really felt like Hannah Montana, with it one half of my life. Slowly, as I’m getting older, I feel those two parts of myself becoming one again, but I think, to get through it, I tried to section off my life between the two things.”
At the time, Williams was, on the one hand, a face that was appearing on millions of television screens around the globe, but on the other, a girl learning about herself and the industry through her characters, and through the perpetual mental debate of how she wanted to be seen. Her characters did play their part in accelerating her maturity, she says, but what really made her grow up at a faster rate was the outside world trying to understand a young girl who probably didn’t fully understand herself yet.
“The part that makes you grow up quickly is the part of the industry that asks you to be aware of yourself,” she says. “You know how teenagers go through phases – it’s really hard to do that when you’re in the public eye because, week to week, you can be contradicting yourself. So as soon as I said something, I was like, ‘OK, that’s who I am,’ and you move further and further down the path of someone that you think you’re supposed to be.”
Now, instead of trying to shape herself under the world’s gaze, Williams is approaching identity with a more nonchalant outlook that acknowledges differing opinions and doesn’t try to appeal to everyone. “I’m happy for people to just see me the way that they see me. I can’t control it. That’s the thing about identity – the more you try to actually shape that, the less people respond to it. So whether people think that’s vanilla and boring or cool and interesting, it’s kind of out of my control,” she says, smiling.
It would be hard to ignore the fact that Williams’s outlook on identity, of wanting to burn her own path through life regardless of what others say or think, is characteristic of the punk movement. It’s a newly adopted perspective that may have been the result of her being so intimately involved in recreating that world. Or rather, it could have grown out of the close relationship that formed between her and Jordan, who was one of the only consultants on the show from the punk era. The two worked closely on hitting the nail of authenticity firmly on the head, with Jordan giving insight into what people wore, where everything took place, and the relationships that string the characters in the series together.
At first, Williams didn’t believe she had much in common with Jordan: their two worlds ostensibly seemed quite removed from each other. But what they may have lacked in similarities when they were first acquainted, they eventually made up for in affinity, and an understanding that other people’s perceptions of you aren’t gospel. Williams came to realise that what united her with Jordan was that they have been continually misunderstood through life. The world saw them the way that it wanted to see them, before they had a chance to open their mouths.
“It wasn’t until I was in that situation that I realised this is maybe what Jordan felt like – that it was actually just who she was and she was doing what she knew. But that can be interpreted as anything when people don’t really know you,” Williams says.
Perhaps relinquishing control over how you are perceived by others is something that Williams learnt from Jordan. Or maybe the time was right for Maisie Williams to slip into the skin of a punk legend and to command the character with the same force that she now commands her own life with… All rooted within the constant reminder that her identity is hers for the sculpting, and to never, ever mind the bollocks.