Maisie Williams on Catherine Dior in 'The New Look': 'I just wanted to do her story justice'

In “The New Look,” a period drama from Apple TV+, Maisie Williams stars as Catherine Dior, a woman who has received less attention than her older brother, legendary fashion designer Christian Dior, but is every bit as fascinating.

A member of the French Resistance who was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, Catherine Dior survived imprisonment at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. As depicted in “The New Look,” she returned to Paris in such a depleted physical condition that her beloved brother (played by Ben Mendelsohn) hardly recognized her.

Created by Todd Kessler, the series explores the powerful bond between Christian and Catherine — the alleged namesake for Miss Dior perfume — and the surprising way the trauma and deprivations of World War II inspired a new era of luxury fashion. New episodes stream on Wednesdays, and the finale is slated for April 3.

Williams, who was cast as Arya Stark in “Game of Thrones” when she was just 12, knew little about Catherine before she signed up for the series. In fact, she initially auditioned to play a different character in an earlier incarnation of the show. When that version was scrapped, Kessler gave Williams a call and suggested she read “Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture” by Justine Picardie, which became a valuable source for the actor.

WIlliams, 26, recently spoke with The Times from her home in Sussex, England, where she has lived for several years since relocating from London. “I just like the peace,” she said.

What do you make of the bond between Catherine and Christian? It seems they were unusually close.

I think that from Christian’s perspective, he didn’t have the closest relationship with a lot of people in his family. I think Catherine really saw him for who he was; I don’t think he ever had to hide any parts of himself from her. They had a connection that felt different to their other siblings and their parents.

When you’re part of a massive family, it can go like that. You have different degrees of closeness with different siblings at different times in your life. I’ve especially found that. Ben has too. It was nice for us both to speak very candidly about our personal lives. I have three brothers, which is the best, actually. I love being part of a massive family. If I have children, I’m like, “Can’t imagine raising more than two,” but then I’m like, “I loved having so many siblings.”

This role has a lot to tackle you do an accent, you shave your head, you lost a lot of weight. Was it daunting?

That’s the craziest part [of] auditioning for a role. Every time I would psych myself up and be like, “I have to show these people that I can do this and that perfect for this role.” Then afterward, it’s this slight fear: “Oh, God, now I’ve got to do it.”

No one asked me to shave my head or lose weight. Even the accent was something I suggested. None of those things were set out before me as tasks that I had to do. I just wanted to do her story justice. This woman went through so much. I felt like doing all these processes was a way for me to feel like I was really committing to her.

It came in waves. I was working with this amazing accent coach. He was almost like an acting coach in ways — we would talk very deeply about the character and the story. Every time I left a session, I felt overcome with emotion. Like, I’m finding something interesting here. Then there was [Catherine] returning from the camps and the weight loss. I was like, “What would that feel like, in terms of the physicality of her whole body changing?” Then the hair. It felt like quite an organic process.

How did you do all of that while keeping yourself safe, physically and emotionally, through all of this?

I do a lot of meditating. On this job, I told all my friends and family that I was really going to throw myself into it. I didn’t really have anything I was committed to outside of making the show. I would just spend a lot of time doing yoga, meditating, preparing my little food. I limited a lot of the other stressful things in my life. I’m in a very privileged position to be able to do that. When I would do those scenes, or think about things that were really painful, it felt like something I could separate from myself. I never felt like I was hurting myself — I was just unlocking a new mind, temporarily. When I was a kid, I used to cross over and actually be hurt when I was doing an emotional scene. I don’t feel like that anymore. I’ve managed to find a process that works better.

Any specific examples of this happening when you were younger?

I think about this one scene I did in the first movie I ever shot. [My character’s] dad is supposed to be shot in the head in front of her. They did a blood spray on my face and my imagination went way too wild. I got really overwhelmed with the idea of like, brains being on my face. Now I feel like I have a clear line in my own mind between fiction and reality. I don’t get them blurred.

You began acting professionally when you were very young and didn’t really have formal training. How did you develop a process that worked for you?

Whenever I had hugely emotional things to do [when I was a child], I found myself being really insular and in my imagination — having the dialogue in my head be really intense for the day of shooting a scene, talking to myself as if I am that character. That was something I naturally felt I needed to do in order to be able to cry — like, something to overwhelm my system.

Now when I get to set, I walk into a room of other people and all of their worlds that they’ve created. [In the past,] my process started and ended with myself and I wasn’t necessarily cooperating as beautifully as I could have with the people I was working with. It was really Ben Mendelsohn who pushed me into that place. He really connects with everyone he shares a scene with, and that pulled me out of my own mind.

How did he do that?

Right before they called action, he would improvise some line of dialogue from Christian to Catherine. I’d deliver him something, and he would bat it back in a completely different way than he had before. [He makes it] feel like you’re really having a conversation with someone. He pulled me into something that we were building together, versus lots of people on solo quests.

How did you find a way to tap into Catherine’s mind-set and understand the courage she demonstrated?

I don’t know that I will ever really fully understand what she went through or what it takes to live like she did. I listened to the audiobook version of “Miss Dior” every night before bed. Catherine never really spoke much about what happened to her. So what Justine does is take other firsthand encounters from the women who were at the same places she was. You get to fill in the blanks and imagine what Catherine was going through.

Depending on what [scenes] we were shooting, I would cut to [the relevant part] in the book and listen to it before bed. I was sleeping very lightly. Has your alarm ever become part of your dream? There were nights where I was in a haze listening to the book and then also dreaming at the same time and they would become intertwined. It was a really helpful tool for me.

On a lighter note, you are someone who clearly enjoys fashion. Did this give you any insight into the creative process?

I really loved the key thread that we have pushed with the show — that creation can be survival. I think I’ve connected to that in lots of ways in my work. Looking at that through the fashion lens and through this particular time in history, it just gave me huge respect for the foundations that the industry is built on.

Did you get to enjoy being in Paris?

Before making the show, my favorite thing to do in Paris was go for dinner until very late, and then sit outside and smoke and drink. On this, I was not really indulging in Paris in the same way. It’s an amazing city to walk around in, and sometimes I’d walk for hours, stroll around the city and listen to the book or music.

We are coming up on five years since the end of “Game of Thrones.” Now that you have some distance, how do you look back on that experience?

Every year that passes, I look back on it more and more fondly. I think with space, I can now start to see it for what it was. When you’re in it, you can’t even comprehend what’s going on. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of “Game of Thrones.” I feel so proud of the show that everyone came together to make. People wait their whole lives to do something like that. I feel so lucky to have been able to have that experience as my first.

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