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Interview: Actress Maisie Williams talks ‘Heatstroke’ and being a child star

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On July 9, the Chico Movie Examiner conducted an over-the-phone interview with actress Maisie Williams about her feature film debut, “Heatstroke,” which is now playing in select theaters and can also be watched via VOD. Williams is best known for her role as Arya Stark in the hit HBO show, “Game of Thrones.”

“Heatstroke” is based on the Hannah Nyala novel, “Leave No Trace.” In the film, Williams plays Josie O’Malley, a rebellious teenager who goes on a trip to South Africa with her father, Paul (Stephen Dorff), who spends most of his time working and less with his daughter. Also on the trip is his girlfriend, Tally (Svetlana Metkina), whom Josie doesn’t like.

An unexpected encounter with some arms dealers costs Paul his life. Josie and Tally are now left to fend for themselves as they steer clear of the killers in an area that contains hyenas, hot weather, and scarce water resources.

Williams talks about her role in the film; what it was like to work with wild hyenas; and how it is to be a child actress. Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: Now, I’ve never been to South Africa. So, after doing this film, what are some survival tips you can give me if I encounter a hyena or if I get stranded in the desert?

Maisie Williams: Don’t freak out. [laughs]

Don’t make sudden movement; just be calm, and they’ll be calm, and… yeah. That was, like, the dumbest piece of advice ever, but it’s the most effective – it works. [laughs]

DW: [laughs] So, just stay still, remain calm, and wait until they go away?

MW: Yeah, I guess so. Just let them do whatever they want to, and don’t be aggressive toward them or be threatening in any way, and they won’t be aggressive or threatening in any way to you. That’s kind of what we were told. Just be respectful that they are kind of here as well, and they want their own little space. [laughs]

DW: I had read that the hyenas were wild unlike the animals that are used on “Game of Thrones.” Do you think having the hyenas be wild served as a benefit for you in making your performance more realistic?

MW: Yeah, totally. I mean, the fact that they were jumping over and licking me on the face or things like that were real in all the fact that we did have to kind of treat them… you know, they were unpredictable, and that was nice; it was good to be in that situation. Hyenas shouldn’t be domesticated; that’s not what they’re here for, and it was nice that they weren’t, and they weren’t tamed or anything like that. They were kind of wild.

DW: Were you kind of nervous about working with them, knowing they were wild and not trained?

MW: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I put all of my trust in Kevin, who was kind of their [handler]. And I just completely listened to everything he said. He knew what he was talking about. I mean, it was nerve-racking, but it was fine. I knew that he had it under control, and if I did what he said, nothing could go too wrong.

DW: This film is about two people who get stranded in the middle of the South African desert. If, hypothetically, you got stranded in the middle of the South African desert, who would you want to have as your companion? Who would be that person next to you?

MW: Oh, the Hound. I love Rory [McCann]. [laughs]

We’ve had such a great time so far that he’d come out into the desert if he could. [laughs]

DW: Your big break came in “Game of Thrones,” which is based on a series of books. “Heatstroke” is based on the novel, “Leave No Trace.” If you could take your favorite novel and have it adapted into either a feature film or television series, what would be that novel?

MW: Oh, goodness. I feel like every great novel that I would love to have turned into a movie kind of already has. [laughs]

I have no idea. I don’t know; I’m sorry. I’ve been put upon the spot. Usually, I don’t have an answer for everything like that. Sorry. [laughs]

DW: That’s OK. I mean, I don’t want to give you a lot of questions you’ve already been asked before. If I do put you on the spot, I apologize.

MW: That’s OK.

DW: Growing up, my parents were pretty strict on what I watched. There were some films and television shows I didn’t get to watch until later on in life. When you were 12 years old, you auditioned for “Game of Thrones.” Were your parents pretty strict before then, or did they not care at all?

MW: It wasn’t that they didn’t care; I think it was more like I told them, “I just got this part in a series,” and I told them what it was about.

They weren’t about to tell me that I couldn’t watch it, I guess. I mean, it’s all pretend; none of it is real. I was there for all of the graphic, gruesome scenes I was included in. I don’t think that it was a conscious, “OK, we’ll let her watch it.” It was more like, “Remember, this isn’t real, and if you do get scared, it’s not real.” [laughs]

DW: When we first meet your character, she doesn’t like her dad’s girlfriend; she’s really rebellious, but as the film progresses, the two of them become closer. Have you ever had an experience like with working with someone – you’re not sure, at first, but the more you work with them, you become closer and your relationship gets better?

MW: Yeah, I guess so with my stepdad – not quite as extreme as it is with Tally. I met him when I was eight, and he’s been a father figure for the majority of my life. I guess that’s kind of a similar situation – not quite as extreme as it is in the film, but [it has] that kind of feel where you kind of got to get to know someone, and you’re going to be living with a completely new person.

DW: Last week, there was an interview with Dakota Fanning published, and she was talking about how it’s been hard for her to maintain a private life now that she’s famous, and people watched her grow up from a child to now, she’s 20. With you being one of the most popular shows on HBO right now and with this film, has it been a little harder for you to maintain a private life and to keep out of the limelight?

MW: Yeah, I guess a little bit – nowhere near the scale of Dakota. But I can completely understand what she’s talking about; it is a strange life. You’re given a lot at this age. I feel like it’s so heartbreaking when it doesn’t go right for a child star.

Lindsay Lohan has had it so hard, and I feel like people don’t have a clue what it’s like and how overwhelming it is for someone of my age or younger… you’re still trying to find who you are in life. You’re trying to grow up and be normal like everyone else, but everyone is watching you and desperately waiting for you to do the right thing, and you don’t even know what that is.

I feel like people are so ignorant to how much this industry affects children; how much it affects kids. I’m not a child, but I feel like I still have so much to learn in life and in this industry. It is overwhelming at times, and I don’t think there’s enough information about it all. I guess we’re quite blind to it already and so just rude about people who don’t get it right and go off the rails a little bit.

I can completely see how it happens, and it is such a shame. And I really don’t feel like people should be flagging these child stars up for that. It’s such a hard industry, and it’s such a crazy world. I can see how it happens, and it is such a shame. And I really don’t feel like we should be knocking these people. It’s rough; it’s a crazy, crazy world.

DW: This is my last question for you. I know that you are very active on Twitter. If I’m on there, and I get a notification saying someone famous is following me, it surprises me because there are times where I’ve never met that person in real life – never done a phone interview or anything. With you being in the entertainment business, who’s the one follower on your account from whom you never expected to get a follow because you have yet to meet that person in real life?

MW: I’m followed by Ed Sheeran. I guess I never really expected that, and I’m massive, massive fan, so that was really strange when I realized he watched [“Game of Thrones”] as well. There are so many people that I wouldn’t have ever expected to watch the show, and there they are following me, and it’s kind of crazy. But it’s also exciting.

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