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Apr 15

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By JEREMY EGNER

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — It’s a bright afternoon here, and Arya and Sansa Stark are singing.

The song is “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith, and the British actresses Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, who play the Stark daughters on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” are managing about as well as most of us might.

The young women, friends since their first audition together, are cavorting through a rare joint photo shoot near the end of a week of parties and press in California to promote the fantasy epic’s much anticipated fifth season, which begins April 12. The sparkling sunshine makes the gloom of Winterfell, the Stark ancestral home, seem meteorologically impossible.

“We should do more shoots together — that was fun,” Ms. Turner said during an interview afterward. “Just do like the cover of Vogue, or something small like that.” She was joking, but don’t bet against it. Because while Ms. Turner, 19, and Ms. Williams, 17, spent the early years of “Game of Thrones” stuck at the kids’ table — their characters under various oppressive thumbs and the actors themselves left behind as co-stars jetted to Comic-Con — their current story is one of emergence, both on the show and off.

The new season finds the Stark girls transforming into drivers of the action, joining a coterie of female “Thrones” characters coming to power. Though the show has taken heat for scenes of sexual violence against women and abundant nudity, “Game of Thrones” has also been notable from the start for its strong female roles.

After more than a season spent as half of an engaging Mutt-and-Jeff duo with a rough character named The Hound (Rory McCann), Ms. Williams’s Arya is heading for a new land to continue her warrior training. Ms. Turner’s Sansa, who thrilled fans last year by finally getting wily after several seasons of sullen victimhood, is off for uncertain adventures with Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), her Mr. Miyagi of Machiavellian cunning.

“She’s a powerful young woman now,” Ms. Turner said. “Rather than being a pawn in everyone else’s game, she’s playing her own.”

The actors have begun to assert themselves beyond Westeros as well. Ms. Williams recently wrapped a feature film, an indie drama called “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” Ms. Turner has two films coming out this year, a drama called “Alone” and “Barely Lethal,” an action comedy. (“People think it’s a porno,” she joked.) She will soon begin shooting “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the latest in the Marvel film franchise, where she will take on a younger version of the Jean Grey role played by Famke Janssen in earlier installments.

But first, there was last month’s headlong plunge into “Thrones” mania in California. Fans thronged the United States premiere at a San Francisco opera house on March 23, shrieking and Instagramming as the cast walked the red carpet — the die-hards huddled for hours outside the after-party at City Hall, waiting for autographs. Inside, Ms. Williams held hands with her mother and flitted from table to table, gabbing with co-stars. Ms. Turner was spotted mugging for photographs in a replica Iron Throne. The next day, Ms. Williams aced her first late-night appearance, on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

“People say, ‘Do you ever miss being a normal teenager?’ And we don’t really know what that is, I guess,” Ms. Williams said. “Because this is normal.”

Ms. Turner and Ms. Williams, respectively 13 and 12 when “Game of Thrones” started filming, have grown up on the show. Their characters haven’t crossed paths since the Season 1 beheading of their father, Ned Stark; thanks to the series’ sprawling logistics, the actors are often shooting in different countries. (That’s mostly been chilly Northern Ireland for Ms. Williams and the warmer Croatia for Ms. Turner, but they traded places for the new season. “I’d been rubbing it in Maisie’s face for the past four years,” Ms. Turner said.)

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Still they spend time together when possible, visiting each other during the summers — Ms. Turner lives in London, Ms. Williams in Bath — and meeting up for more conventionally normal teenage pursuits like last June’s Glastonbury Festival.

Together they comprise a tight two-person bubble inside an international phenomenon — a “little girl gang,” as Ms. Williams put it, whose members spent puberty in castle sets and on horseback, dodging grizzly men on-screen and crazed fans in the streets — and otherwise living lives that “are sometimes mental.”

“Our other friends don’t 100 percent get it,” Ms. Williams said. “Sometimes it is nice to just be with the one person who does.”

“No one else gets it like you get it,” Ms. Turner said to her, sincerely, before turning playfully mawkish: “No one gets me like you do.”

Willowy and nearing six feet tall in heels, Ms. Turner is the more ethereal of the two but also the one most prone to jokey asides. Ms. Williams is petite and more earnest, offhandedly eating French fries that Ms. Turner refuses.

They bonded in their first audition together, they said, after Ms. Williams endured a string of very polished, very actorly would-be Sansas until a more grounded Ms. Turner arrived. “I was like, ‘Save me from these scary girls!’ ” Ms. Williams recalled. “And that came across on camera.”

Ms. Turner added: “I remember a lot of high-fives being thrown around that day, like ‘Woo! Friendship!’ ”

Indeed, it was the girls’ naturalism that won the show’s creators over. Ms. Turner “didn’t seem like she was acting,” D. B. Weiss, who created the show with David Benioff, said. Ms. Williams’s inherent pluckiness, meanwhile, finally brought an end to what was the most extensive casting call for any “Thrones” character.

“She’s got the moxie but there’s also a wounded thing about her that makes her incredibly appealing, so she’s not just a little badass with no soul,” Mr. Weiss said.

Once shooting began, the Stark girls were exposed to a world that, as Ms. Williams joked on Kimmel, was arguably too TV-MA for even her 87-year-old grandmother.

“These two young women have been asked to shoulder more adult dramatic weight than any two young women I can think of on television,” Mr. Weiss said.

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A beheaded father was but one of a number of disturbing events the characters would both endure and perpetrate. Sansa was subjugated in King’s Landing, the capital city of the show’s central kingdom, while Arya made for the forest, shoving swords through the throats of her enemies along the way.

“Maybe the most uncomfortable situation I’ve ever been in,” Mr. Weiss said, “was sitting between Sophie’s mom and dad during rehearsal for the scene in Season 2 in which a bunch of extremely unsavory characters are trying to do some extremely unsavory stuff to Sansa.”

Said unsavory characters failed, it should be noted. But reasonable people might wonder: Do things ever get too dark?

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Apparently it’s the opposite that’s the problem. “The one time I saw Sophie genuinely frightened was when she had to sing” in Season 2, Mr. Benioff said. Ms. Williams’s most difficult scene, her mother, Hilary Pitt, reported, was one in which she had to laugh on cue. (As for all the sex and violence surrounding her daughter on the show, “it’s just TV,” she said.)

Ms. Turner allows that she watches the show apart from her parents, because the awkwardness of being in the same room with them during her castmates’ sex scenes is too much to bear. But over all the teenagers, who had almost no acting experience before “Game of Thrones,” shrug off the gruesome stuff and have impressed their adult co-stars with their maturity and poise.

“I never thought of them as kids, really,” said Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth, the towering warrior charged with finding and protecting the Stark daughters (unsuccessfully so far). “They were always very intelligent and present, like the other actors, and so good on the show.”

This season finds the show’s many female characters coming into their own, with the death of the patriarch Tywin Lannister in King’s Landing opening potential paths to power for both his daughter, Cersei, and Margaery Tyrell, an opportunistic widow in line to become queen. In the east, meanwhile, the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen shows signs of finally joining the fray after several seasons of dithering on the fringes.

So, too, are Arya and Sansa taking more control of their destinies, the creators confirm, although “that doesn’t mean that confidence is necessarily going to lead them to bright, sunshiny places,” Mr. Benioff warned.

Arya is en route to Braavos and the House of Black and White — a new location for the show but one that will be well known to readers of the books by George R. R. Martin. There she aims to learn the ways of the Faceless Men, an enigmatic order of assassins.

Sansa, meanwhile, has shifted into Black Swan mode, both in wardrobe and in attitude, and is emerging as more of an equal to her master-plotter escort. “She’s really becoming her own lady and surprising everyone, including Littlefinger and perhaps herself,” Mr. Gillen wrote in an email.

To what end is still unclear: The new episodes begin April 12, running for 10 weeks, with some unknown number of seasons beyond that, throwing who knows how many more murders, bad marriages and whatever other obstacles into Arya and Sansa’s paths. (Their story arcs, as with a greater proportion of the series this season, will also be diverging more from the Martin books than in the past, though Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss declined to get into specifics.)

Back in Beverly Hills, the immediate future for the actors who play them was simpler: bowling, maybe, followed by a sleepover in one of their hotel rooms; flights back to Britain the next morning; “X-Men” costume fittings a few weeks later.

You know, normal stuff.

Source: NY Times


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