Maisie Williams, an English actress, made her professional acting debut in 2011 as Arya Stark of Winterfell in the HBO world phenomenon Game of Thrones.
Here is the full text of Maisie Williams’ talk titled “Don’t strive to be famous, strive to be talented” at TEDxManchester conference. This event occurred on February 3, 2019.
Margaret Constance Williams – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
Hi. I’m Maisie Williams.
And I’m kind of just waiting for someone to come on stage and tell me that there’s been some sort of miscommunication, and that I should probably leave. No? Damn it.
So, some of you may know me as an actress. Some of you may know me for my really average tweets. Oh, yeah.
And some of you may be finding out who I am for the first time right now. Hello.
Whether you knew me before or not, you’re probably wondering what I’m going to talk to you about today. And I would be lying if I said it didn’t take me one or two sleepless nights, trying to figure that out, too. At last, here I am.
Upon finding out the news that I would be giving a TEDx Talk, I did what I think most people do — and watched about 50 TED talks back-to-back, and read “Talk like TED” by Carmine Gallo for some inspiration.
Was I inspired? Yes and no.
Did it make me want to go out and change the world? Hell yeah.
Did it make me feel like a totally inadequate public speaker with absolutely no point to make, who was definitely in need of a big thesaurus if she wants to keep up? Indeed.
What could I possibly say that would have any impact? What point am I trying to make? And who the hell thought it was a good idea to give me a TEDx talk?
So here’s the part where I tell you what I know: I’m the youngest of four siblings.
My parents divorced when I was four months old. I really was the icing on the cake of a terrible marriage. I have two step siblings who are younger than me and a half brother who’s older than all of us.
I grew up in a three-bedroom council house with four of my six siblings just outside of Bristol. I went to a very ordinary school. I got very ordinary grades. I wasn’t quite good enough to get a gold star, and I also wasn’t quite bad enough to be kept after school.
I walked that nice center line where if I kept my mouth shut in class, then I could probably get away with not being spoken to you by teachers for weeks on end. Everything about me was pretty damn ordinary, except for how I felt on the inside. I had big dreams. Shock!
From as young as I can remember, I have dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. There are certain memories from my childhood that I would really rather forget. But during those times of immense pain, I found myself instinctively walking over to my mother’s CD player, cranking up the volume to drown out the noise and letting my body move to the beat. It’s hard to describe how it felt.
I was harnessing emotions that I didn’t even really know the names of yet. I was summoning all of this energy and feeling it flow through my body and out of my fingertips. I was alone in my own head, and I felt the most alive.
I didn’t really know much about the big wide world then, but I knew that this feeling was addictive; and I was going to stop at nothing until I made it my profession.
At eight years old, I was enrolled in dance class. And by 10, I informed my mother that I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I wanted to be like Billy Elliot and go to stage school. This was the first opportunity or challenge I was presented with.
Even as young as 10, I was willing to give up all of my friends and go away to board at a private school, away from my siblings, away from my mom. She would repeatedly ask me, “Are you sure this is what you want?” And to me, it was a no-brainer. I didn’t just want this; I needed it.
My grubby knees and crooked teeth were not on the list of requirements for becoming a professional dancer. And when I look back now, both myself and my mother looked severely out of place. But at the time, I was just too young and naive to feel inadequate. I didn’t care.
If Billy Elliot could do it, so could I. Once my audition was done, I returned home for two weeks of staring out the window, waiting for the postman, waiting for my ticket out of my sleepy village and into a world of jazz hands and dorm rooms.
It was good news followed by bad news: I had got in, but the fees to attend a school like this were not cheap. And despite my best efforts, I had not received any government funding.
I auditioned again the following year. And this time, I received 40% funding, but this was still just money that we didn’t have, and it broke my heart.
I was good enough I made the cut. But I wasn’t going anywhere. It was a blessing in disguise, although if anyone had said that to me back then, I probably would’ve given them the finger and told them to jog on. I wasn’t willing to give up that easily.
So at age 11, I was bursting with excitement when my dance teacher informed me of a talent show which boasted opportunities of making you a star. This was the second opportunity I was faced with.
I entered into singing, acting, dancing and modeling. The talent show consisted of workshops and seminars with specialists who would help train you up for your performance at the end of the week.
After meeting a woman called Louise Johnston in an improvisation acting workshop, she gave me the words “bowling ball,” and asked me to create a short scene inspired by these words.
After making her laugh with a fictional story, of how I threw a bowling ball at my brother and it bounced, she asked me to join her acting agency. I didn’t really know what this meant. I knew that I would do auditions for films and maybe become an actor, but I still had big dreams of becoming a professional dancer.
So this woman was going to have to work a lot harder than that if she was going to convince 11-year-old me that I was going to become an actress. Was this going to take time away from the 30 hours of dancing I was doing a week?
And what if I didn’t get the part? Was this going to be too upsetting? And do actresses have teeth like mine? Because if they do, I’m yet to watch any of their movies.
After meeting Louise in the February of 2009 and trying but failing to land the part in the hit sequel “Nanny McPhee” to “The Big Bang,” my second audition was for a show called “Game of Thrones.” This was the third opportunity or challenge I was presented with.
I climbed the steps to the Methodist Church with my mother’s hand in mine. I perched my tiny bottom in one of the seats outside the audition room and listened to an annoying girl with her even more annoying mother tell me all about the number of auditions she had done prior to this one. And also about her pet fish.
My name was called, then I stepped inside. I had a hard Bristolian accent and dark rings around my eyes that were so big they took up half my face and a hole in the knee of my trousers which I tried to cover with my left hand as I was talking to the kind lady who taped my audition.
But as soon as she pressed record, it all drifted away. Much like when I was dancing in my mother’s living room, I harnessed all of my insecurities and self-doubt and let it flow through the words that came out of my mouth. I was cheeky. I was loud. I was angry. And for this, I was perfect.
After getting the part and shooting the pilot episode, the show slowly grew to become one of the biggest shows in television history. To this day, we’ve smashed previous HBO viewing records. We’ve been nominated for over 130 Emmys, making us the most Emmy-nominated show to ever exist.
We’ve recently finished shooting our eighth and final season, which is predicted to smash records that we’ve already broken. And nearly a decade to the day since my first audition, I’m still wondering, when am I going to get to be Billy Elliot? I joke, but in all seriousness, I have absolutely no plans of slowing down.
Throughout my time in this industry, it has been a minefield. I have grown from a child into an adult, and from four feet tall into a whopping five feet tall. I have constantly been trying to say the right thing, accidentally saying the wrong thing, trying not to swear too much and trying to stop saying “like, like” all of the time.
In February of 2017, a friend of mine, Dom, and I were swigging beers in my kitchen, and he confessed to me that there is a huge problem with the creative industries. I agreed.
The series of events that had got me to that point were based mainly on luck and timing and were unable to be recreated. He suggested to me that we create a social media, but just for artists to be able to collaborate with one another and create a career. This was the fourth opportunity or challenge I was presented with.
“Great,” I thought, “how the hell do we do that?” And Daisy was born. Of course, everyone who I spoke to about my latest endeavor thought that I was mad; however, I know that this is something that I can help change.
This last year in the industry, we’ve seen a huge shift with the Me Too movement. The industry is built with gatekeepers holding all of the power and selecting who they deem talented enough to advance to the next level.
More often than not, it’s easier to catch the attention of those people if you have graduated from an expensive school. But even then, I have so many friends who are fresh out of art school, having trained for years and are still no closer to creating a career.
Now, I’m not claiming that with Daisy I can make everybody a star, but I do believe that the key to success within creative industries is collaborating. Actors are only as good as their writers. Musicians are only as strong as their producers.
And designers need their teams. To start the company, we self-funded. I had a pot of cash from “Game of Thrones” that I was free to invest wherever I liked. Dom had a series of businesses from the age of 16, which meant he was also left with a pot of cash. We threw our money together 50:50, and we built a team.
Now, Lady Gaga has repeatedly said that there could be a room of 100 people, and 99 don’t believe in you, but it just takes that one person to believe in you, and they can change your life.
Well, now we have a team of six. Over the next 16 months, we built our MVP. Now, if you’re wondering what an MVP is, I only found out what it is about six months ago. And from what I can gather, it’s a product which proves as a problem worth solving with the minimum team effort.
So basically from my point of view, you’re marketing something which you know is going to be good one day, but is a little bit bad right now. And for us, that was an iOS app. The six of us made an office in Dom’s garden, and on August 1, 2018, we released our version one. We had over 30,000 downloads in the first 24 hours and over 30,000 comments asking when the Android version was going to be coming.
Despite our app being imperfect, buggy and literally built by one man alone, this was exactly what we needed for people to invest. We learned a lot from our angry users and our scary investors.
And over the last six months, we have grown our team to 16 people. From then till now, we’ve been building version two, which we will be launching in April.
Within the industry, there is a common phrase which I think we’re all pretty familiar with. And that is, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
And with Daisy, I hope to give that power back to the creator. I want to encourage people to create a list of contacts that they will work with and support as they take their first steps into the fickle and often challenging creative world.
I am of the generation who grew up with the Internet. I’ve never known anything else. We are connected, we are aware, and we are the future.
I hope Daisy can breathe new life into the slightly dystopian, ad-riddled hellscapes that social media platforms have become. I hope to create a space where people can boast their art and creativity rather than what car they are driving and whether or not they bought it in cash or on finance.
In a world where literally anyone can be famous, I hope to inspire people to be talented instead. Talent will carry you so much further than your 15 minutes of fame.
So why am I telling you all this? The very fact that I’m here giving a TEDx talk right now is so far from anything I thought that I was capable of.
Even writing the bio for my speech made me realize that in a decade, everything in my life has changed. I am an Emmy-nominated actress, an entrepreneur and an activist; yet I have no formal qualifications to my name.
When I left school about 11 years ago, I made it my mission to continue learning even though I never wanted to set foot in a classroom again. Who knows what’s going to happen to my life in the next 10 years? I surely have no idea. I’ve never had an end goal.
It’s working out okay so far. So trust that you’re good enough. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned is that there truly is a place for everyone. Ask questions, and laugh in the face of people who say that they’re stupid questions. Be open to learning and admitting when you don’t know what the hell is going on.
Refuse to hold yourself back, and dare to dream big.
Thank you for listening.