Monday, January 5, 2015

Interview with Maisie Williams, star of Cyberbully

17 year old Maisie Williams, who shot to fame playing Arya in Game of Thrones, stars as Casey in Cyberbully, a one-off drama about the dangers lurking on the internet, which airs on Thursday 15 January at 9pm on Channel 4.

Casey is a teenager who experiences the worst the web has to offer – from peer-to-peer bullying to advanced computer hacking – and fights to overcome her ordeal.

Your new project is Cyberbully. You play Casey. What’s her story?
Casey begins as a young teenager who’s struggling to express herself, and the only way she feels safe is to do that anonymously through the internet. She finds that, using a fake name, she can post honestly about things that annoy her, things that make her laugh, things that make her happy and sad. That’s the way she gets teen angst out of her system, I guess. When we meet her, she’s battling with sharing her best friend with her best friend’s boyfriend, which is a common issue for a lot of teenagers. We see that first-hand in the first few minutes. As the story picks up, she realises that, through hacking and whatever, people can take anything that you’ve written, anything you’ve recorded, pictures you’ve taken, anything like that, and they can turn it into something you never meant it to be. Really, anyone with the power of their computer taken away from them and used against them, even the nicest and most genuine of people can be portrayed as something they’re not, which is something extremely current at the moment. It’s something we’ve seen a lot of, with phone hacking, computer hacking, iCloud hacking, in the news recently. That’s something that really attracted me to the project.

Explain a little more about that. Why were you attracted to this role?
I feel like Cyberbully is a really honest representation of interactions between teens and their parents, and each other. A lot of the time things aren’t always at they seem. Teens get it hard for being grumpy and being rude, and this shows the other side to that, and actually what could be going on behind closed doors, I guess. In a pretty extreme way. She battles with anxiety, and that comes into its own story arc during the hour. We never leave her, we never cut away to anything else, we only see her in her bedroom, and other characters are only referred to through shadows or video clips or pictures and Skype calls. Apart from that it’s just her, in a room – that’s something that’s very different to other things I’ve done.

The fact that it’s really just you, on your own, on screen for the whole time – has that made it quite an intense experience filming it?
Yeah, of course. It’s been one of the most intense two weeks of my life. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, but it’s come with its difficulties. For the first week I was quite ill, so that didn’t help at all. But it’s been really exciting, and I’m so glad to have done it. As a young actor, you’re constantly looking for things that are going to push you out of you comfort zone, and show different emotions. With this, I feel like it’s got everything all in one. Such a range of emotions. That’s something you really look for. There’s not very many good, honest teenage roles written, without them being just a platform for the lead character. Teenagers are written pretty poorly, and this was such a good representation of a normal teen, who doesn’t have some extreme family issue or mental issue, or is a drug dealer or something. She’s just a normal girl who gets her life completely changed.

Have you been acting against a blank screen, or have you been interacting with stuff that’s happening on the screen?
We’ve got a full package, which, when you load looks like your home screen and your Facebook page and whatever, but isn’t. That’s really been helpful, actually being able to type, and being able to send messages and minimise browsers and all sorts, all within this one package. It’s been really, really great, and was something that, for our director Ben, was really a must. To really be reacting to a computer screen that’s actually using these words and photos.

Have you even met the other people who have acted in this [appearing on skype calls and in videos etc]?
We had a big rehearsal about a week before we started shooting, which was very beneficial, and we did a big run-through of the whole four acts. That was great, to meet everyone, but apart from that, during shooting I haven’t seen anyone. It’s been intense for that reason, but also necessary.

The story is pretty frightening, in terms of how much a person can hack into and destroy someone’s life. Is everything that happens genuinely possible?
Yeah, of course. There is no one story that Cyberbully is based upon, but everything included is very much possible, or has happened to various different people.

Has it made you think about internet security and what you do online?
Yeah, definitely. From the age of 12 I’ve been on the internet, on Twitter and Facebook and things like that, and I’ve had a very different experience of it from most teens of my age. But I can very much see the difficulties it presents, and the difficulties it has caused some of my friends and things like that. I think people always assume that it’s going to happen to someone else. It may not all play out the way it does in Cyberbully, but just because someone isn’t there hacking you and talking to you and manipulating your screen doesn’t mean they’re not there looking at you. In America, for example, everyone always puts a sticker over their webcam, little things like that, which really makes you stop and think. It’s something we’re all very new to. In the grand scheme of things the internet is still so young, and we know nothing about it. So it’s something we need to all think about. You think something’s safe just because it has a password on it, but that’s not always the case.

You mention being on Facebook and Twitter and stuff. With your profile, does that mean you’ve experienced negativity and trolling?
Yeah, of course. Trolling is the biggest thing that anyone faces, and it’s easy to dismiss, but it does hurt. As much as we like to say we don’t care, of course we do. People laugh at me when I try to stop people from behaving like that. Just in my followers, not on the internet in general. But I don’t want that. I don’t want Twitter to be that sort of place. People laugh at that, saying “If you’re trying to teach manners on the internet, you’ve got another thing [sic] coming.”

69 per cent of young people say they’ve experienced some form of Cyberbullying. That’s an extraordinary statistic, isn’t it?
Yeah,it is. Everyone I know is on Facebook, and if they’re not it’s because they’ve had a negative experience with it. That’s just awful. People turn a blind eye to stuff like that until someone’s gets really fucked up and goes too far.

One of the things that struck me about the script is that Casey has inadvertently done a bit of cyberbullying herself. Is that part of the problem, that people just don’t really realise the damage they may be doing to others?
Exactly! You don’t even realise that what you’re saying really does hurt people. And it kind of spirals out of control. “Oh, she’s saying it, so I can say it too.” That’s what was so interesting about it. It’s not all that straightforward. There’s not just an honest victim and an honest predator. We all say things that we regret, and especially on the internet. That was an eye-opener for me. You need to ask yourself “Would I ever say that to somebody in person? Would I be happy for my mum to see that I’d just written that?” Just because you’re hiding behind a fake name doesn’t mean you’re not talking to real people.

Your first ever professional acting role was as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, a lead in one if the biggest dramas ever on TV. How has your life changed in the last few years?
Completely! But it’s like I’ve never known anything else, really. I was a child, and then I started doing Game of Thrones, and now all of a sudden I’m growing up, I’m nearly 18 and I’m nearly officially an adult. It’s been a brilliant experience for me, I couldn’t really have asked for a better opportunity. So many kids of my age are struggling to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, or what subjects they’re going to take, or what they’re going to do at Uni. I’ve been so lucky to have been given the opportunity to do something I love for the rest of my life.

Do you get recognised a lot? What’s that experience like?
I get recognised a lot, and it’s usually very lovely. People are always really nice, and it’s the price that you pay for doing this job. It’s still awfully strange. People forget that they don’t know you. Sometimes people get a bit – particularly when its parties or festivals and people are a bit drunk – it gets very intense, and people forget that you’re actually a person, and they’re not allowed to just grab you and pull you by your arm and grab your t-shirt. They’re never trying to be nasty, but sometimes that’s really overwhelming. Sometimes that’s not okay. But usually it’s a very, very positive experience. I’ve got more used to it.

How have you kept up with studies? Are you going to continue with studying, or carry on with acting full time?
We tried to juggle school and film, but it was very difficult. My school weren’t very supportive of it all. So we decided to drop that and do home tutoring, which went well for a few years. It came round to my GCSEs and I landed a role in an Irish movie called Gold, and I ended up not doing the exams and doing the film instead. So to this day I haven’t got any GCSEs, because I haven’t stopped, and that was a conscious decision. We decided that I was going to do acting, and school will come later. I’m still very happy with that decision. At the moment it’s going so well, I’m getting to do so many fantastic roles, I’d rather just stay doing this. That doesn’t mean in the future I’m not going to go back. I’d love to be treated normally as other kids, and not have horrible things written about me because I didn’t do this exam or haven’t got that qualification. But at the moment it’s the decision that we made, and it feels like the right one.

What one message would you want young viewers to take away from the drama?
Some people on the internet are never going to be satisfied with any reasoning. The answer is just to close your computer and walk away, because it doesn’t matter. Don’t try reasoning with the trolls or the bullies, don’t engage with them, just walk away. You can’t win, so just walk away, and find people who really care about you.

Cyberbully airs on Thursday 15 January at 9pm on Channel 4.

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