NEW YORK — Arya Stark was no coddled child.
Born with a fiercely independent spirit, she spent her teens on “Game of Thrones” braving hardship, loneliness and combat. Physically small but handy with a sword, Arya’s creed seemed to be “You go, girl!”
Her latest challenge, imposed at the end of last season: She was struck blind as punishment for going rogue with a personal hit list. She still has bloody scores to settle. How will she cope now?
Among the legions of characters on “Game of Thrones,” Arya has remained one of its most popular throughout the first five seasons of this epic fantasy set in the make-believe continent of Westeros.
Now, as the sixth season nears (Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern time on HBO), “GOT” devotees are ravenous for any advance intel on the show and its stars — who include Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Aiden Gillen and Sophie Turner as well as Maisie Williams, now 19, who, since she was 12, has invested Arya with her feisty charm.
So far, no beans have been spilled by any “GOT” insiders — though producers revealed months ago that this season, the plot will veer away from the George R.R. Martin books on which the show is based. And rest assured, if you bother to press Williams on how Arya is dealing with sightlessness, she will say, in the nicest way possible, don’t waste MY time or YOURS.
Arya was the British-born Williams’ first acting job, landed after an open casting call — a splashy way to enter the profession.
“I didn’t know much about television or HBO,” she says. “The reason it was so exciting was not because I thought, ‘Oh, this could be a really big TV show.’ It was more like, ‘Oh, look! Maisie got cast in SOMETHING!'”
Of course, no one knew back then what a global phenomenon “Game of Thrones” would be. Williams says that hit home for her at the kickoff for season 3.
“We had our first proper premiere in L.A., and that was the first time I saw lots of fans in one place, and lots of paparazzi and cameras,” she says. “I never believed that kind of thing actually happened, and there I was, standing in the middle of it all. That was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, my life is changing.'”
Since the beginning, she and Arya — each growing and learning — have followed somewhat parallel tracks in their development.
“I was just like Arya when I was little,” she recalls. “I was no daughter of a lord like Arya, but I definitely preferred playing with my brothers more than with my sister. I used to watch my sister straightening and combing her hair and thought, ‘Oooh, that looks like so much effort!'”
More fashion-forward than her sackcloth-clad alter ego, Williams during a recent interview is her own version of the woman-child Arya is becoming. She is five-foot-one, chatty and candid (except for “GOT” spoilers), and, though richly punctuating what she says with giggles, she speaks thoughtfully about her future beyond “Game of Thrones,” whenever that may be.
“Just because I’ve had a very good opportunity and my foot is in the door doesn’t mean my career is going to last forever,” she says. “I have to fight for it. I have to prove that I can stay in this industry.”
But the role of Arya, and the opportunity it has given Williams to grow with it, may very well help carry her across that gulch that leaves so many child actors behind, helping her transition into future adult roles.
“We are both very different girls now than the ones we were when we first met each other,” Williams notes.
In the meantime, her current off-screen role includes keeping all those “GOT” secrets.
For instance: Even after seeing Jon Snow’s apparent death on last season’s finale, “GOT” fans have been dying to know whether Jon (Arya’s beloved older brother, portrayed by Kit Harington) is really finished — or if that scene might have been a bit of narrative sleight-of-hand.
“When we do press, everyone asks about it,” Williams says, “but we don’t answer. It’s like, ‘Oooohh, do you think I’m gonna slip up and tell?’
“People feel like they want to know what’s going to happen, but they don’t really want to know. They wouldn’t want it spoiled for them,” she insists. “So it doesn’t feel like I’m keeping a deep, dark secret. It feels like, ‘Just wait! It’s going to be so much better with you sitting down and watching it, than with me ruining it for you by explaining it now.'”
That leads her into a childhood recollection that unfolds like a wait-for-it parable for restless fans.
“My mom told me about this hole in the floorboard of her house when she was a girl,” says Williams, “and she was able to watch what her parents wrapped for Christmas. Every year she would sit and watch. And then, every year, she was like, ‘This isn’t fun!’ And so she covered the hole and stopped looking. She realized, ‘I would rather have the surprise.’
“‘Game of Thrones,’ says Williams, “is exactly the same thing.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore//www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore