Maisie Williams's hypnotic new indie film The Falling takes place at an all-girls school in the 1960s, where friendships border on Heavenly Creatures–style infatuations, unresolved tensions and long-hidden secrets are bubbling to the surface, and something seems to infect a group of girls with fainting spells. Could it be more than just mass hysteria? Williams's character Lydia fervently believes so and challenges her classmates, the school authorities, and her mother to find out the truth.
For Williams, who has grown up working on Game of Thrones, this was an opportunity to delve into a different process, even if aspects of it took her by surprise. The film is available now on VOD and in select theaters; before its release, the actress chatted with Vulture about her first sex scene, avoiding spoilers, and why she thought people hated her on set.
Let's jump right into it: Without giving too much away, there's a pivotal moment in this film where your character loses her virginity. This is your first sex scene, and it's a doozy. What was it like shooting that?
It was extremely awkward! But [co-star] Joe [Cole] was very sensitive to the fact that I had never done a scene like this before, and it was great to work with someone who was so considerate of that. We went out for a couple of lunches and stuff just to get to know each other, and we had days of rehearsal where we'd get to know our characters and spend a couple of hours with each other. So I knew him quite well, and we got along quite well. It all paid off in the end.
Lydia's fainting spells are tied to her sexual awakening and being in a repressive environment. But they're also connected to her relationships with the other girls. Many of those actresses were just starting out. Did they come to you for advice?
For most of the girls, this was their first film — so before we started shooting, I had this big conversation with a lot of them about what it was going to be like on set. I didn't want to boast or anything, but it can be scary if you're not exposed to that. People are talking to you and you have no idea what they're speaking about or what they mean. It was important to make sure they all felt comfortable, so I answered their questions as much as I could.
Then, during shooting, we all lived in a house together. We were sharing rooms and sharing beds, and we'd have heart-to-heart talks all the time. We'd also have evenings where we'd practice our fainting, which was pretty mental. Just falling on the floor, learning how to fall without injuring yourself. We went through it step by step, so you could fall to the ground quickly. It's a great thing to take with me to use in other projects, in my stunt training. It's like stop, drop, and roll. If I'm out and about and I have a really bad breakdown, or if I see someone who recognizes me, I can drop to the floor and not injure myself. It'll come in handy.
But I hear you didn't have a close off-set relationship with Maxine Peake, who plays your estranged mother. What happened there?
Carol [Morley], our director, told Maxine not to communicate with me and to keep her distance, so she wouldn't create a relationship with me — because within the story, our characters don't have a relationship. But Carol hadn't told me she was going to do this! So here I am, trying to make contact with Maxine every single day, trying to make it work, and her never giving anything back. I'd be like, "How was your day?" and she'd be like, "Mmmm," and walk away. Throughout the shoot I was so miserable because I thought she hated me. I thought all the adults hated me, and I had no idea why. I was just trying to prove myself and be a good actress.
The reason I wanted to play Lydia in the first place was that she's such a different character than Arya. When I look at scripts, I always worry that the director isn't going to see past me playing Arya Stark or that sort of character. So I fought for this role, and Carol was really open to letting me try out. She really gave me a chance, and I'm so grateful for that. But I wanted to prove myself. And then it felt like everyone was ignoring me and being really mean. It made me feel really sad and secluded and alone.
When did you realize what was actually going on?
The last scene we shot was the final one, where she grabs Lydia in the water, and we clasp each other and go, "I love you! There's nothing wrong with you!" It's all emotional and stuff. And this whole time, we hadn't spoken with each other. I'd never spoken properly to this lady! So I was like, "This is kind of crazy!" Then we had a wrap party just after shooting that scene, and she was like, "Um, sorry about all of that! Carol told me not to create a relationship with you, so I've been ignoring you this whole time. I didn't mean to be nasty or difficult." I was like, "Oh my God! So you don't hate me?! Perfect."
Had you never encountered an actor who used that method before?
I've never had that before! I know it's a common thing for people to do, to keep their relationships similar on set, but I've never been in anything where I needed a bad relationship like that. I've been on sets with people who were playing my parents and with people who were antagonistic towards my character. In both cases I've gotten on really well with them, had lots of conversations. I've never, ever had it where someone deliberately tried to avoid me. It was quite hard! I guess that's the way it had to be for the film, because the result was a lot of tension. It worked really well, and it was a great thing to have on camera. But next time that happens I'll know their game before they even tell me.
Are co-stars on other sets able to restrain themselves from pestering you for Game of Thrones spoilers? How do you handle it?
What would happen, like on the Doctor Who set, was I would threaten people with giving them spoilers if anyone would wind me up. I would threaten to spoil the next episode. Or I'd go, "I'll spoil the next season!" And everyone would be like, "No! No! No! Don't! You can't give any spoilers!" So that was really, really good. It was a power I had over the whole cast and crew.