“It felt like The Hunger Games,” Maisie Williams says down the line from Paris, where she’s been spending lockdown. “Everything was at stake.”
Weirdly, the tense experience she’s recalling isn’t from Game Of Thrones, the series that thrust her into the limelight as ruthless assassin Arya Stark. Instead, Williams is telling NME about a lighthearted backstage face-off between cast members on the set of Sky’s new comedy series Two Weeks To Live. The contest in question? Not a physical brawl but, erm, singing Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ at the top of their lungs.
“It felt like ‘The Hunger Games… everything was at stake”
“We had to stand up one at a time in the green room and belt it out,” the 23-year-old actor explains. “You couldn’t laugh – and it was just really uncomfortable. If someone actually tried and did a good job, it was even more uncomfortable. If someone actually tried and did a good job, it was even more uncomfortable. Endless fun! But we had to stop in the end because I could tell the crew were like, ‘Shut up, this is so annoying’.”
The jokey atmosphere behind-the-scenes reflects what we see on screen – the show has an infectious and addictively funny tone that makes it a prime candidate for your next feel-good binge-watch. In her first TV role since Thrones, Williams stars as Kim, daughter to paranoid and overprotective – but also quite badass – mum Tina (Fleabag’s Sian Clifford). She’s kept Kim, now in her early 20s, in almost total isolation for most of her life, in a hut in rural Scotland. Her daily chores are a little unusual – doing the dishes doesn’t quite compare to having to disembowel dinner – and instead of vitamins, she takes “pollution pills” from a translucent green box. Normal, everyday things like music, movies and going down the pub barely feature. Until halfway through the series, Kim genuinely thinks Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ is a poem her mum penned for her 21st birthday.
Like Kim, Williams had quite an unusual childhood. She auditioned for Game Of Thrones at 12, was a recognisable star by 15, and then had to deal with the fallout. She ended up being homeschooled for her last couple of years of high school because of the bullying she received from classmates. The joke’s on them, though, because since then Williams has gone from promising child actor to one of Britain’s best bright young things. She’s beloved by the fashion world, is trying to help other young people without industry connections get a leg up through her app Daisie, and post-Thrones has already made some exciting moves in her on-screen career.
Perhaps her experiences with fame – particularly at such a young age – make running off to a hut in the middle of nowhere more attractive. Williams reckons she’d manage with Kim and Tina’s off-the-grid lifestyle, which isn’t too dissimilar from the quarantine living many of us have been doing recently. “I think I would cope OK,” she says. “I’d need to be really warm and so would Sian – she has this thing where if her hands get too cold, she passes out. So we’d need a big, roaring fire cos it would be freezing and then we’d be OK.” She wouldn’t miss anything else? Not Netflix, Spotify or Instagram? “I guess I’d probably miss Deliveroo,” she concedes. “I hate cooking.”
One day, Kim decides it’s time to go and see what the outside world has to offer and sneaks off while her mum’s hunting down their next meal. The first place she heads to is the pub where her parents had their first date, accompanied by a box with her dad’s ashes in, and it’s there that she meets brothers Jay (Taheen Modak) and Nicky (Mawaan Rizwan). Over a pint of cider, she fills them in on her unusual background, telling them that when the end of the world does come, “the more off-grid you are, the better chance you’ll have”.
The boys invite her back to their house for more drinks and end up in a hypothetical conversation about what they would do if they knew they had only two weeks left to live – have lots of sex and eat tons of doughnuts is the consensus. Jay, in a bid to set up Kim and the recently dumped Nicky, decides to prank the naive newcomer with some cleverly edited video footage that shows a massive nuclear explosion that has set Earth’s remaining lifespan to just one more fortnight. Where most people would instantly see through the stunt, Kim – raised to believe the end times are imminent – jumps into her beaten up Jeep and heads off to kill Jimmy (Sean Pertwee) – the man who murdered her dad in front of her when she was a child.
“[During filming], I got a bottle on the head a couple of times, which was really painful”
Williams is no stranger to nailing stunts and Two Weeks To Live lets her pick up her fighting skills from where she left off in Westeros, but this time there are fewer swords involved and more household furniture. As she brawls with Jimmy through his flashy pad, tables, walls, chairs and pillows become tools of revenge. Not every stunt in the high-octane sequences went according to plan though. “I got a bottle on the head a couple of times, which was really painful,” she laughs. “I also kicked Sean in the mouth and made his mouth bleed so I think we were even after that.”
Aside from the badass blow-ups and edge-of-your-seat drama, the show is also genuinely funny, often in a very meta way. Dialogue between characters regularly breaks down for them to deconstruct their exchanges. For example, when Kim first makes her way into Jimmy’s house and confronts him, they swap puns around the idea of the Grim Reaper, pausing their fraught battle to congratulate themselves on how “organic” the back-and-forth was.
Comedy isn’t something Williams is entirely new to – she appeared in short film The Olympic Ticket Scalper in 2012 and homegrown dramedy Gold in 2014 – but she’s never been so immersed in the genre as she is here. “It was completely out of my comfort zone, I was really nervous,” she says. “I’ve known that I wanted to do comedy, but actually doing it…
“The longer it went on without me doing comedy, the more terrifying it was. [Working on Two Weeks To Live] was quite intimidating, especially because Taheen and Mawaan are so unbelievably funny, but I think we pulled it off.”
“The longer it went on without me doing comedy, the more terrifying it was”
For the young star, stepping out of her comfort zone has become increasingly important. “That’s basically all I want to do from now onwards,” she says. “I think that so much great work comes from being super uncomfortable – as an actor, obviously, not for everyone. But when you’re pushed to some sort of emotional extreme in real life then, when you’re on camera, it just creates some crazy magic that you can’t fake. It’s just real.”
Surprisingly, given the nature of her career, Williams says she finds it “very hard to pretend” so being put in elevated states of emotion is key for her building believable characters on screen. “I always tend to draw on very real things that have happened in my life,” she says of her technique, but notes that it’s also a flawed approach. “It’s a very painful thing to do but, ultimately, is the way that it works for me. Being able to tap into things like that is difficult unless your senses are already heightened.”
Despite being far funnier and more down-to-earth than Game Of Thrones, it’s inevitable that viewers will compare the two. “Yeah,” Williams says with a groan that suggests all those miles away in Paris she’s rolling her eyes. “I think it’s just an impossible challenge… I don’t feel that there’s pressure but that’s only because there are so many other things I want to do. I also measure success in so many other ways.” Since leaving the HBO show, she’s set realistic expectations for the rest of her career. “I don’t think I’m ever gonna be a part of anything that’s gonna be seen by that many people or streamed in that many countries or costs that much to make again,” she adds. “But I get to have Sian Clifford as my mum – that’s the real win! There’s plenty of other things to be excited for.”
“I don’t think I’m gonna be part of anything that’s seen by that many people again”
As with most people, the pandemic has left Williams’ next steps undetermined. She’s already completed work on action thriller movie The Owners and long-delayed X-Men spin-off The New Mutants hits cinemas next Friday (September 4). Two Weeks To Live hasn’t yet been announced for a second season but, if it is, the actor has plenty of ideas for what Kim could get up to next.
“I think that her little mind would be completely blown by so many things,” she laughs. “I’d love to see her experiencing tribute acts. They’re so weird and we don’t think they are. First of all, she’d have to be introduced to Elvis Presley or whoever and then she’d have to understand that he’s dead and this person is just acting like him. It just makes no sense. Or I’d love to see her looking at doll’s houses.”
They are, according to the actor, also “really bizarre”. “The fact that we keep houses in our houses that are full of really tiny things?” she says. “People actually put in wiring and plumbing and shit like that, it’s just so extra. Kim really does call everything out, like, ‘Why do we do this? It’s so strange.’”
She has a point but there’s a deeper message behind her character that feels very relevant to the time we’re living through now. “I want people to take from it that this world that we live in and this society that we’ve built is so incredibly flawed,” she says, becoming serious again. “It’s OK to think that – and life doesn’t have to be taken so seriously because it’s all completely bonkers anyway.” As her Celine Dion sing-offs show, Williams is already living up to that sentiment.