WSJ Feature & Interview

Contains spoilers for Stranger Things season three.

Even though Maya Hawke couldn’t read a full script for the third season of Stranger Things before accepting the role of Robin, she knew she wanted it. The story was still being written when she auditioned, but she liked that Robin seemed independent, strong-willed and above all else, funny. Though 21-year-old Hawke has acted for almost her whole life, she’d never really gotten to play a funny character, she says—not even in school plays.

“In the beginning, Robin’s really dry and sarcastic and tough, and I’m not,” Hawke says. “I’m really excitable and hyper and warm, especially on set.” Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of the Netflix show, had an idea of who Robin was but, as Hawke explains, the character evolved as the season progressed, becoming more and more like the actress in real life.

Some reviewers immediatelyhailed her as the breakout star of the new season following its premiere earlier this month. In addition to critical praise for her portrayal of cool, smart Robin, she received many appreciative tweets for playing a queer character on screen, while a BuzzFeed story pointed out how closely she resembles both of her famous parents, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. Last week, she made her big screen debut in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, playing a drifting ’60s flower child. Her own fanbase has appeared virtually overnight—from five hundred thousand Instagram followers ahead of the July 4th premiere of Stranger Things to, currently, over two million.

In the Stranger Things world of small town Hawkins, Indiana, Hawke’s character Robin works with Steve (played by Joe Keery) at Scoops Ahoy, the ice cream shop in the shiny-new Starcourt Mall’s food court. The two have a bantering, sometimes acrimonious relationship at first. When things once again go terribly wrong in Hawkins, Robin and Steve are part of the “Scoops Troops” quartet alongside the younger kids Dustin (played by Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica (Priah Ferguson), fighting Russians who have an underground command center beneath the mall. She and Keery’s character bond when they’re imprisoned by the Russians. They escape while high on truth serum, their antics making for some of the season’s funniest scenes. “Joe is one of those actors who walks into a room and immediately sees all the things in the room that could be funny,” says Hawke. “That’s a really exciting person to work with, to bounce off of that.”

For much of the season, it seemed like Steve had finally found a romantic interest in Robin, who could both handily make fun of him and translate Russian communications with impressive speed. But when he tries to tell her as much, she surprises him by coming out. “Throughout filming, we started to feel like she and Joe shouldn’t get together, and that she’s gay,” says Hawke. “Even when I go back and watch earlier episodes, it just seems like the most obvious decision ever.”

For someone spending her 21st birthday cooped up in an interview, Hawke is cheerily untroubled—and barefoot, having unbuckled her white patent sandals and curled her feet under her, chatting about how she’s already celebrated while swiveling around in an office chair. “I was in upstate New York, which is where I grew up [spending] weekends, and I had six or seven friends out at my house out there with my mom,” she says. “We just cooked dinner from food we grow out in the garden.”

Her slight flower-child persona is in evidence at work, too; she walked into the premiere of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood last week in a full gilded flower crown, having played a hippie-ish Charles Manson follower who’s having a moral reckoning. The film is a retelling of the 1969 murders through the eyes of Sharon Tate’s fictitious neighbor, a Hollywood has-been played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his stunt double/handler/friend (Brad Pitt). “No one gets to make a movie the way Quentin gets to,” Hawke says. “We did the scenes a hundred times in different ways and shot it from every possible angle and it was really freeing and fun and playful and we pulled [four] all-nighters or something exhausting like that.”

Her voice drops to an almost-growl when she describes working with the famously challenging director, who’s known her since she was two years old. “To me, the way he pushes just feels like joy and love of the movie business and relishing in the opportunity to get another take. He loves the movies so much, and he wants you to be so good in it,” she says. “And if you do something he likes, he fucking loves it, you know?”

Her mom Uma Thurman is perhaps best known for her roles in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Volume 1 and 2. Last year, Thurman accused Tarantino of pressuring her into driving an unsafe car, in place of her stunt double, while filming the latter, which resulted in multiple injuries and permanent neck pain. She said a few months later that she’d consider working with him again, though. For his part, Tarantino said getting Thurman to do the stunt was the “greatest regret of his life.” (Thurman did not return a request for comment.)

Hawke says she’s close with both of her famous parents. “I’m always running decisions by them,” she says. “They both have similar levels of success but really different experiences within the business. I think that’s the biggest advantage [I have], that I have information about the pitfalls and the good things. Hopefully it’ll keep me from making some mistakes that young actors can make.”

After performing in school plays and summer camps while growing up, Hawke realized she wanted to go into acting professionally during her junior year of high school. Applying to college made her really unhappy, the opposite of how she felt doing school plays. She started applying to acting conservatories, got into Julliard and attended for a year before dropping out to play Jo March in the BBC’s three-part Little Women series.

The series, also starring Emily Watson, Angela Lansbury and Kathryn Newton, was her first screen role, and Jo is in almost every scene. Every day was like a new acting class for Hawke, a “crash course,” where she did five or six scenes. “I’ve loved Little Women since I was a little girl. I always struggled with reading and writing but I loved storytelling,” she says, “and Jo’s storytelling drive was inspiring to me, and her work ethic was inspiring to me, and I loved her. I fell in love with her. I’ve always wanted to play her. And now it seems like they make fricking Little Women every other year, but I didn’t know that that opportunity would ever come around again, and I had to take it.”

Still, the decision to leave Juilliard wasn’t completely straightforward. “The most drastic thing about dropping out, or even deciding to go to an acting conservatory, is that you’re losing touch with your generation,” she says. “People in your generation are going to college, and you’re not. And so, how do you stay connected to your generation? How do you feel its heartbeat within you?”

To do that, she likes working on projects with friends, like writing music and lyrics and directing music videos. She loves doing her own writing, too, and reading, noting how important her self-education is to her. She says she feels lucky to come into acting at the same time as others she grew up with in the city who are “doing great right now,” like her friends Lucas Hedges and Fred Hechinger, as well as those she didn’t know like Timothée Chalamet and Ansel Elgort. “Even the people you don’t know that well, it somehow makes you feel less alone,” she says.

Not that being alone is so bad. “I have more money, so I don’t have to ask my parents for it anymore. That’s amazing,” she says of standing newly on her own, before pausing. “Yeah, let me go back in time and not sound like I just saw that in print and wanted to throw up,” she deadpans. “Let’s put it this way: I have a lot more independence and freedom. And I really think that nothing improves your relationships more than independence. The less you need from anyone, the more you can really see them and get along and love each other. And so, that’s been the biggest change probably—is that freedom creates possibilities.”

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