Arya Stark is one of the most interesting characters on Game of Thrones — she’s fiercely loyal, marches to the beat of her own drum, and unapologetically vicious. Maisie Williams has been perfect in the role for 5 seasons now, but Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have long maintained that she was the hardest to cast. Her success in the role can be attributed to both her own innate talent — and the instincts of the casting director. But it also stands as the ultimate example of a little-discussed notion: if you want a realistic adolescent girl on your screen, cast an inexperienced actress.
When you think of great child actors, you think of Anna Paquin in The Piano — it was her first role. You recall Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild — that was her first role, too. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is anchored by the affecting anger and vulnerability of first-timer Katie Jarvis. Earlier this year, the award-winning Turkish-French film Mustang focused on five teenage sisters, and the majority of the cast were regular girls director Deniz Gamze Ergüven scouted on the street.
Like Arya Stark, these girls have the wildness of childhood about them, mixed with a burgeoning awareness of the adult world. Like Arya, they’re simultaneously uninhibited and self-conscious, carelessly cruel and easily wounded. You don’t get that from performances that feel practiced, polished, or familiar. We don’t see Kristen Stewart’s lip-biting for the hundredth time or Shailene Woodley’s distressed face or Jennifer Lawrence’s freakout face. Not to discount their talent or blame them for their own overexposure, but performances lose power after you’ve seen the actresses bantering on talk shows and giving practiced, camera-ready smiles on magazine covers.
At this point, nearly six seasons deep in Game of Thrones, we’ve seen Maisie Williams on the talk show circuit and on magazine covers. We’ve seen her goofing around with Sophie Turner (Sansa) and read her obligatory “celebrity gives their take on feminism” interview. (Because if there’s any group that naturally is an expert in the subject, it’s celebrities, and when they’re inevitably wrong we must light the torches and grab the pitchforks.) The illusion should be up, but somehow, Arya Stark remains steadfast and believable.
Maybe it’s because Williams doesn’t have an air of celebrity even as more and more people know her name, or maybe it’s just that Arya is so cemented, Williams would have to be involved in some sort of international scandal — and even then, many Game of Thrones fans would still see Arya.
But Williams’s performance as Arya Stark is a golden beacon for the alchemy of raw talent and adolescent characters. Let’s just hope she survives Season 6 with her eyes intact.