In the dramatic thriller Heatstroke, a family trip in the African desert veers drastically off course when a research scientist (Stephen Dorff), his girlfriend (Svetlana Metkina) and his teenage daughter (Maisie Williams) come face-to-face with a group of dangerous arms dealers. They face the ultimate test of survival, as they attempt to evade the killers and stay alive until they can make it back home.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, 16-year-old actress Maisie Williams (who turned in a terrific performance as Jo O’Malley, when she was just 14) talked about being drawn to strong female characters, not having to audition for the role, what she related to with Jo, what a great time she had shooting in South Africa, and the experience of getting to work with hyenas. She also talked about being a part of the most-watched show in the history of HBO, as Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, when she realized that the show was getting to that next level in popularity, turning the page on who Arya used to be and becoming a much colder character, her favorite director to work with, and just how much she wants to go to Comic-Con in San Diego. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
MAISIE WILLIAMS: Thank you! That’s so sweet! Thank you very much.
Was it intimidating, at all, to take on something like this, where you’re one of the only people in the movie?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was a tiny, tiny cast. It was the first thing I did after Game of Thrones. We shot it about two years ago, so it’s been a little while, but I’m glad that people like it.
Since you work on a TV show that is so epic and extravagant, were you looking for something that is really pared down, like this film is?
WILLIAMS: To be honest, I’m still so new to this industry that I’m not in a position to be picking and choosing roles. When this came around, I was absolutely thrilled that I had landed something new, and I wanted to go to South Africa. But terms of the script and things like that, I didn’t have a clue. It just turns out that I really did enjoy it and I had a great time. I’m not going to pretend that I thought about the role so much ahead of time, which sounds unprofessional, but it’s true.
Do you just not get enough danger and death in your day job that you weren’t holding out for a comedy?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, exactly! It does seem like I’m doing a lot of these sort of roles, but it’s what I enjoy and it’s who I am. I know we call it acting, but we put so much of ourselves into our characters, and I think I fit this sort of girl, really well. I like these strong female characters. So, I’m so thrilled that people like it. People keep saying, “Oh, it’s another action movie. When are you going to do something else?” But, it’s only my fifth year in this world and I have plenty of time in my life to do anything that I want to. When someone sits you down in their office in L.A. and says, “Hey, would you like to come do a movie for six weeks in South Africa?,” of course, you’re gonna say yes.
Did you have to go through an audition process for this role?
WILLIAMS: It sounds pretentious and I hate it, so I’ve never told this story before. The way this came about is that they watched Game of Thrones Season 1. I went out to America about four months after the show had finished. As we were shooting Season 2, I went over for a little while. I went into their lovely office, and it was just after Drive had been released. We went in and they said, “Well, Ryan [Gosling] has been walking around quite a lot recently, so keep an eye out.” And I was like, “What am I doing?! This is crazy!” We were in this really fancy office and it was just the weird thing and completely alien to the world that I come from. So, I sat down and read the script, and we talked about it a little bit. My agent came in with me, and I thought it was an audition, but the vibe I got from it was that they were seriously thinking about me for the role. I think it was the best decision for me to go to America for those meetings because then I could actually meet them in person. They really liked me, so they wanted me, and I was just so happy. I know that doesn’t happen to people. I’ve been through the audition process, and it’s just the weirdest thing. And that hasn’t really happened since. I still audition for a lot of roles and still don’t get a lot of roles. You’ve never made it, in this world. So, when I walked in and they were talking to me like I had the part, it was the craziest thing. It was a real toe-dip into this crazy, crazy world.
WILLIAMS: There’s nothing mad about Jo, or different about Jo. The movie opens up on her as a very typical teenager in this world. The bit that I really liked about her was how she deals with life when things don’t go right. I’ve spoken to so many of my friends who have got these crazy backstories with their family and their parents splitting up. You hear stories about that, but you never follow someone through that. You only pick them up at the end, after they’ve been through the drama. What I liked about Jo is that you actually follow her through that. She’s stuck with this woman who she absolutely despising, and she’s forced into really difficult situations that make her put her ego behind her. For a 14-year-old girl who’s very self-obsessed and really only cares for herself to put all of that behind her and really step up to the mat, I really liked that. You don’t usually get to see that. I think she becomes a strong character in the film, which is lovely. A lot of the time, you meet a character already formed, but with Jo, you get to follow her through that. But at the time, I never even thought about it. It’s not until now that I’ve learned more about this world and I’m doing press for it that I’m like, “Actually, this was a great role to do.”
What was it like to get to work with and around hyenas?
WILLIAMS: It was so weird. How many other movies have you seen with a hyena? It’s not something that you see. There’s Water for Elephants, and you see movies with lions and tigers and leopards, but a hyena is really alien. We never see that. So, I was really excited about that. I feel like we see a lot of big cats or giraffes, and animals like that. We’ve become desensitized to them because we see them every day in zoos. They live in captivity, which is absolutely awful. But you don’t see hyenas on safari, and there’s never a nature program about hyenas. It’s not something we’re exposed to, every day. So, when I was actually on set and could see these animals staring at me and walking around, I just remember being like, “I’m never going to get this opportunity again. This doesn’t happen.” It was amazing! Everyone is like, “Was it scary?” I guess it was a little bit scary. There’s a lot of adrenalin rushing. But apart from that, I had to stop smiling because I was beaming the whole time.
WILLIAMS: Well, it really hit me when I heard that. That’s when I realized that this is going to change my life. Anyone can watch the show, but to actually go online and find you personally, it’s not like I’m Arya Stark when I’m on Twitter. I’m Maisie, and it’s a world away from Game of Thrones. I just recently passed half a million followers, and that’s when I realized that it’s more than just a show now. People actually really want to see what I’m up to, and that’s crazy. It’s a really lovely feeling. It’s kind of scary, but a good scary. This is my world, and whether I like it or not, it’s completely changed. It’s a lovely position to be in. So many of my friends, at the moment, are finishing school and heading to sixth form, or making really big decisions about what they’re going to do with their future. I’m extremely lucky in the fact that I’ve been put into that, rather than actually having to figure it out. I’ve been given this amazing opportunity so young and I’m doing what I enjoy, which not a lot of people in this world can say that they do. Not a lot of people have jobs that they’re really comfortable with, but I’m one of those people. I feel like I’m the luckiest girl on earth, and that’s such a lovely feeling.
There’s been a real shift in this last season, from young girl to an almost callous and psychotic break with emotion. Did you consciously feel that shift happen?
WILLIAMS: I knew it was coming, but I almost didn’t want to do it until I found myself on set and the director came over and said, “Do this line a little more like this?” I could feel it happening, over and over again, in different scenes. Directors kept asking me to change it and cut off the emotion, more and more and more. I knew I had to do it, but it was so hard to let go of that Arya that I had fallen in love with and enjoyed playing and had auditioned for, years and years ago. It was really not nice to let that go. I shoot this show for half of the year, every year for the past few years. So, to pretend to be that dark girl and spend so much time living life through her, it was a weird season. It’s so lovely that she’s changing and that I, as an actress, get to play so many different sides to one character, but it was hard to let that go. It’s more just turning a page than cutting Arya off.
WILLIAMS: It changes, all the time. Because you work with so many and they all work so differently, it’s really hard to pick one. We have a director called David Nutter, and I get on really well with him, just purely because of the way he works. The way his brain works is the way that I work. Sometimes directors come in and they have an idea of what they want, but they change their minds throughout the day. And everyone has got their own way of working, which is fair enough. But I feel like me and David, a lot of the time, have similar ideas for the way the scene is going to go, which is always a really nice feeling. And not that anyone is ever right or wrong. It’s completely a mutual thing. But I feel like, when we come onto set together, we’ve always got the same idea about it, which is a good feeling, at the start of a really long day.
Will you get to attend Comic-Con, this year?
WILLIAMS: We’ll have to wait and see. When the guys went out the first year, they came back and said, “Even if you go and do it once, it’s a once in a lifetime thing.” You don’t get that in any other job, with that sort of fan reaction. And there have been years when we’ve been told we were going to go, but then it didn’t work out. Comic-Con and the Emmys come during the time that we’re shooting, and being a part of such a huge cast, someone has to stay home and shoot. A lot of the time, it’s been the kids, which is fair enough because it is overwhelming for us to be exposed to all of that. I’m hoping that this year they see us as being old enough to manage it, but it’s really up to them. Everyone is going to get their turn. We’ve just been [picked up] for another two years. If I’m not there next year or this year, I’m gonna flip a table. I wanna go to Comic-Con!
Heatstroke opens in theaters and is available on VOD on July 4th.