How Maisie Williams and Bill Milner are growing up in the spotlight

The iBoy stars reveal the lost friends and tough choices of a childhood in the public eye

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As two people who’ve faced off against evil mutants, battled sword-wielding thugs and faced terrifying ghostly apparitions, you might think that little could scare young actors Maisie Williams and Bill Milner in their personal life.

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However, it turns out that one thing gives the heebie-jeebies to the former child stars above all else – actually dealing with people their own age.

“I’d sort of taken a step away from that, and then all of a sudden found myself in a group of my peers and I was like, ‘you’re all really scary.’” 19-year-old Williams recalls. “I feel a lot more comfortable walking into a room of adults than I do walking into a room of teenagers.” 

“Yeah, I feel the same thing,” 21-year-old Milner agrees. “We’ve just grown up with it being quite a natural thing to have a very grown-up conversation with people older than you.” 

I’m talking to the pair in a brightly-lit room at London’s Soho hotel to promote iBoy, a new film from Netflix that follows the adventures (and misadventures) of a boy called Tom (Milner) who gains iPhone-themed powers which he uses to protect his assaulted friend Lucy (Williams).

It’s a fun and well-cast story that the two actors are clearly passionate about, and for both it comes at an interesting turning-point in their careers – the tail end of their “child actor” days as they approach the prospect of more grown-up roles.

Both were thrust into the limelight at a relatively young age (Williams was 12 when she first appeared as Arya Stark in blockbuster fantasy series Game of Thrones, while Milner was the same age when he made his debut in critically-acclaimed film Son of Rambow), and as their careers have continued the pair have become close friends, bonding over their shared experience of growing up in the public eye – albeit to slightly different degrees. 

“I feel like I’ve really had to…not had to find out who I am, because everyone just does that in life anyway,” Williams says. 

“But like, the crucial years of my life that I really came into like my own, and really answered what sort of girl that I am, and the things that I stand for, and the things that I like and don’t like…and just sort of became like, a person, a full personality – I think that all just happened in the spotlight.”

Williams as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

She recalls one occasion when on an early Thrones photoshoot on a beach she wore what she describes as “like a full wetsuit” with a fur coat over the top, only to find viewers disapproved of what she was wearing. 

“People were writing ‘That’s not my Maisie,’” she says now. “Like, do people think they know who I am? I don’t even know who I am. I don’t know what my style is, so how can you have an opinion on whether or not this is me or not?”

Milner has had a slightly different experience. While Williams’ central role on Game of Thrones has kept her relatively consistently in the public eye, his parts have been more sporadic, ranging from a role opposite Michael Caine in Is Anybody There? to playing the younger Magneto in X-Men: First Class, and he considers his exposure to viewer scrutiny to have been significantly less intense.

“I was able to make those mistakes without people in the spotlight seeing that as much,” he says to Williams. “Which I think I’m happy for, because I think it gave me time to grow up, whereas I think you had to grow up a bit quicker.”

Milner as young Erik Lensherr/Magneto in 2011’s X-Men: First Class

Still, it’s clear throughout the interview that the duo have bonded over their shared experiences, chatting about their mutual friends (including The Boat that Rocked’s Charlie Rowe and Game of Thrones’ Eros Vlahos), constantly breaking into fits of giggles and sometimes finishing each other’s sentences. 

At one point, discussion takes a detour into the relative merits of the Shrek films (Williams disdains any after the first, while Milner believes Shrek 2 was a significant improvement, fact fans), and generally the meandering shorthand of their conversation has the familiar rhythms of a longstanding friendship.

“Can’t get away from her,” Milner deadpans. “She knows ALL MY SECRETS.”

Amusingly, Milner’s also a massive Game of Thrones fan, and recounts how he was fooled by Williams when he asked her Arya’s fate after a particularly tense cliffhanger.

“I lied to him and made him think that Arya was gonna die,” she smiles.

“It was brutal,” he tells me ruefully.

Milner and Williams in Netflix’s iBoy

Both agree the difficulties of maintaining friends their own age has made them treasure the relationships they do have, many of which were forged in the fire of filmmaking rather than on the playground.

“Shooting a movie with someone is a TOTAL experience, like you see each other at the absolute best and the absolute worst,” Williams says. 

“And you see them when they’re hangry, and when they’re grumpy in the mornings, and you just go through this emotional journey together, and particularly if the film is dark and hard-hitting, and there’s emotional scenes, you see each other cry!” 

“It’s things that maybe with a lot of friends you don’t have that with, and it is like a real journey.” 

And of course, fellow actors are more understanding of the demands of filmmaking than most teenagers would be. 

“I used to have a lot of friendships with people who weren’t in the industry, who made me feel really BAD about not being there,” Williams tells me.

Milner demonstrates: “‘Oh my God, I never SEE you anymore!!!’”

Milner and Williams at the Empire awards 2016

“I find myself losing friends with people who can’t deal with that,” his co-star continues. “But gaining friends with people who are totally up for that, and like, won’t see you in months, and when we do we just make up for lost time rather than dwelling on the fact that we haven’t seen each other in a long time. It doesn’t make me any less of your friend.” 

“And also when people in our generation start working and stuff like that, they’ll also feel like that,” Milner adds, before citing his Son of Rambow co-star Will Poulter (now known for roles in Hollywood films like We’re the Millers, The Maze Runner and The Revenant, and who was coincidentally set to play Milner’s iBoy character in an earlier version of the project) as a good example of one such sporadic friendship. 

“He’s someone who I absolutely adore, we get on so well when we see each other,” he says. “But it is a very hard friendship to maintain, because he’s very busy and so am I. But at the same time, that means you make loads and loads and loads of those different friendships.”

Bill Milner (right) and Will Poulter in 2007’s Son of Rambow

The pair concede that this can make organising get-togethers of friends awkward – would their high school friends really want to hang out with their actor friends, and vice versa? – but it’s worth it in the end, and the relationships they have managed to hold onto from outside the showbiz bubble are treasured. 

Williams even admits that she’s “a little bit” jealous of friends who grew up outside the spotlight at times, from the social side she missed out on at school (when she did get a group of friends she says she felt “a year behind them socially”) and lack of opportunity to “go to uni and party hard” (in Milner’s words), as well as a need to hold herself back on social media, aware of the influence she now has.

Milner agrees that he has to censor himself online more than many of his friends, and recalls an occasion when he had to give up a chance at art school to work on a play instead – but he also says he was “lucky enough to treat acting like a bit of a hobby” at school, and doubts he missed out on much.

“I still do think about like, had I taken art…but, at the same time everybody has to make those sacrifices,” he says. “I made a career over education choice.”

Now, both careers are progressively nicely. Currently the pair are focused on promoting iBoy, and then both have film projects in the works. Milner has just finished shooting a Gothic horror film called The Lodgers, while Williams has just been announced as part of the voice cast of Aardman animation Early Man (above).

And of course, she has some shooting left on the final split series of Game of Thrones, the absence of which from her life she says will be “good scary’. 

“Up until this point my safety blanket has been Game of Thrones, and every year if I haven’t worked I haven’t felt bad about it, because I’ve known there’s something else that will keep my name current and still be seen by all the right people,” she says, happy to strike out on her own for the first time.

Bill Milner in iBoy

So really, it’s a new phase for the pair of them, entering their twenties with more experience that most actors their age (when I point this out, they high-five) and with only a handful of regrets for the ordinary childhoods they missed out on.

“I think that is a quote that I’m probably gonna misquote horribly, and I don’t even know who said it,” Williams says.

“Come on then,” grins Milner.

“Life is a series of phases and then you die. And it’s true, you just keep going through phases…”

“That’s SO not a quote,” interrupts Milner. “What?”

“That is a quote,” Williams insists. “And it is just a series of phases, a series of… ‘Oh, I did that in my 20s, and then I became like this, and then I became that in my 30s’.

“And actually you never stop, you never stop developing and changing and growing and forming new opinions. It’s not like you ever go ‘Oh I’ve grown up now, that’s it.’”

Change is still to come, then – and the world will be watching all the way. 

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iBoy is streaming on Netflix now