‘Stranger Things’ star Maya Hawke: “I’m a showboat and a ridiculous clown”

The daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman is an inventive original with a heart of gold. As she gears up to release her debut album of melancholic indie tunes, NME meets the in-demand actress to talk 'Stranger Things', her love of Leonard Cohen and working with Quentin Tarantino

Maya Hawke is a ball of energy. Her words ooze passion, curiosity and depth, tumbling from her mouth at a pace that dares you to try and keep up. Sometimes she gets ahead of herself and pulls back with a hurried “Wait, no!” – and clarifies her point. “I wanna keep working with people who are excited and inspired to do their jobs ‘cos I’m excited and inspired to do mine,” she says, the latter half of that statement blindingly obvious if you spend even just one minute talking to her.

The 21-year-old’s job right now is as a rising star of not one but two creative fields. She only made her on-screen debut at the very end of 2017, playing Jo March in the BBC adaptation of Little Women. But she’s already marked herself out as one of the most exciting new actors on the block, largely thanks to her endearing portrayal of the ice cream-slinging, Russian-defeating Robin Buckley in Stranger Things season three (the world has taken even more interest in her because of her parents – now-divorced Hollywood heavyweights Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke). But acting isn’t her only talent – she’s also a gifted singer-songwriter, and is gearing up to release her debut album ‘Blush’ on June 19.

Maya Hawke
Credit: Noam Galai

In this strange world we’re currently occupying, there are two modes in the entertainment industry – postpone or push on and release. With ‘Blush’ already completed and ready to go – no human contact necessary – Hawke sees sharing it as “a harmless way to make things feel a little bit more normal”. “If fricking Phoebe Bridgers put out a new record right now, I’d be so happy!” she exclaims. “If Fiona Apple put out her record right now, I’d be so happy! It would be all that I’d want – a new record to have and to listen to on a walk through the woods and be like, ‘Oh my god, am I gonna die? Am I not? Is my grandma gonna die? Is it gonna be OK? Am I ever gonna make any money ever again? I dunno!’”

“I’m an Energiser bunny smile addict”

Right now, the actor and musician is holed up in Woodstock, New York with her family, “waiting out” the COVID-19 situation. Remove the terrifying global pandemic from the equation and it sounds like rustic bliss – a garden to plant food in come warmer months, woods to go walking in to clear your head. Even the landline phone she’s speaking to us from chimes with a life simpler and less hurried than her day-to-day home in NYC.

Maya Hawke
Credit: Noam Galai

“There are moments of total joy, of ‘Wow, I get to be here with my family and nature and watch spring come and that’s amazing,’” Hawke assesses her position. “And there are moments of utter, disorienting panic worrying about the world, my friends and family who work month-to-month, people who can’t work, people who are sick.”

Hawke is extremely aware of her privilege in life, which is why she’s donating a portion of her merch sale to Food Bank For New York City. She’s self-sufficient from her famous parents but acknowledges that she has the kind of safety net others can only dream of. “I struggle tremendously with my luck in this life,” she says. “I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how I can take the cards I’ve been dealt and manoeuvre that luck into good things for other people. The least I can do if I’m putting out a record in the middle of this trying time is to give away some of the money to people who really need food and help right now who don’t have the support system that I have.”

Stranger Things
Maya Hawke as Robin in ‘Stranger Things’. Credit: Netflix

Growing up, Hawke saw the behind-the-scenes life of an actor close-up. She sat with her parents in their trailers on set, accompanied them backstage at plays, and would sit and watch them filming iconic parts. “My favourite place to be was on set, behind the camera with headphones on, watching the monitors while my mum and dad did the same scene 100 times over from different angles, just sitting and learning,” she says fondly. “I used to think everyone wanted to do that – I’ve since learned that they don’t. I’ve brought people to set thinking ‘Oh, you’re gonna love this as much as I do’ and then I realise ‘Oh no, you wanna go home, it was terribly boring and I’m forcing you to destroy your day’”.

“My truest love is the poetry in Leonard Cohen songs”

Acting and music have always been intertwined for her – as much as her childhood was spent on set, a large portion of her youth was also filled with song, from the living room jam sessions with her dad to the mixes he’d make her whenever he had to go away for work. “There’d be an Elvis playlist, or a Beatles playlist, or a Madonna playlist,” she recalls. “Or a ‘These are the songs I was listening to when I was your age’ playlist or a ‘This is what I think you’re going through’ playlist.” The Beatles one – compiled for her 13th birthday – later became a part of the storyline of Richard Linklater’s 2014 movie Boyhood, starring Hawke senior. In the film, Hawke’s character Mason Evans reflects real life, giving his son the so-called ‘Black Album’ – a compilation of the Fab Four’s solo tracks – for his birthday.

Stranger Things
Alongside Gaten Matarazzo and Joe Keery in ‘Stranger Things’. Credit: Netflix

The younger Hawke began to focus on acting more than music in high school, going on to study for a year at the renowned Juilliard drama school in New York. She dropped out “to join the workforce” – aka take the part of Jo March on that Little Women adaptation – and took a guitar her mum had gifted her for her 19th birthday to the shoot in Ireland. “As soon as I was part of the workforce I realised, even when you’re acting professionally, you have a tremendous amount of downtime whether you’re waiting for a job and auditioning, or waiting in the trailer to get to do your job,” she notes. “That downtime must be filled with some other creative expression – something to keep your mind going, something to keep you off your phone. So that’s when my relationship to music really came back into my life.”

Neither acting or music are the relative newcomer’s number one though. That honour goes to poetry, a subject she can (and does) wax lyrical about. “My truest love is the poetry in Shakespeare plays, the poetry in John Patrick Shanley plays, the poetry in Leonard Cohen songs,” she says, her voice picking up breathless speed again. “And that thread that connects all those things and makes them the same is the language. Acting and music are the two best ways to hear that.”

Maya Hawke
Credit: Noam Galai

You can hear her love of poetry all over ‘Blush’, from the country twang of ‘Goodbye Rocketship’ to its folky lead single ‘By Myself’. The latter started life as three separate sonnets before Hawke “messed it up and mushed with it” and set it to the melodies created by her collaborator, Jesse Harris. It, like a lot of her songs, also provides its creator with a method of self-improvement. “Every verse is addressed to myself cos I wanna improve myself and be a better person and treat myself – and other people – with more respect and kindness.”

When she’s not writing to herself, Hawke pens “hidden communications with the people in [her] life”, be they romantic partners, family or friends. She says she’s not nervous about any of those people hearing the album, though, because of her inability to keep her thoughts to herself. “I’m such a showboat,” she laughs. “There’s almost nothing I have to say to anyone at this point. I really can’t hold things in to save my life. I’m the sort of person where I’ll have a gig and I’ll walk up to someone after and be like, ‘So did you hear the third song? Did you get anything from that?’ I’m just a ridiculous clown.”

Maya Hawke
Credit: Noam Galai

There’s often a suspicion around celebrity offspring that whatever they’re working on is some kind of vanity project, facilitated by money and connections. Hawke describes her journey to this album as far more organic. Harris – who wrote all the music for this record – is an old friend of her dad’s who used to come over and jam in their living room when she was a kid. She would play him the songs she had written and he would give her advice. “He said, ‘Your lyrics are really strong and your voice is nice, but you’ve got to work on your melodies. So many people rely on their voice and their words to communicate the song but they don’t back it with a melody.’”

“I’m happiest when I get to act and play [music]”

Later, when she started writing again on the set of Little Women, she thought she’d finally come up with something special and immediately wanted to play it for Harris. “He was like, ‘It does have a melody, way to go!’ I told him if he ever wanted to write something together I’d love that, and then we wrote [2019 debut single] ‘To Love A Boy’.” From there, things snowballed.

Ethan Hawke
With dad Ethan Hawke earlier this year. Credit: Getty

“It wasn’t about creating a new music career for myself,” she explains. “It was about having a new way to creatively express myself and making new friends, like my band. Every time I go to the studio or go on stage with them, I learn more and more. I’m a real student of this, I’m a real true beginner, but I have wonderful teachers.”

Often in children’s lives, they hit a rebellious phase and hurtle in the opposite direction to everything their parents want or stand for. Hawke says she never had that inclination, but growing up around two incredibly successful actors showed her the realities of Hollywood up close. “My parents, by anyone’s standards, have had beyond the dream of what success would be like in this industry and yet both of them suffer endlessly,” she sighs. “‘Will I ever work again? What will I do for my next job? Am I totally irrelevant now? Am I too old?’ The pressures of this industry make you incredibly insecure and always vulnerable.”

Uma Thurman
Alongside mum Uma Thurman at Paris Fashion Week. Credit: Getty

Having famous parents also taught Hawke early on about the pressures of being in the spotlight. “When I was a kid, there were days when I had to put an umbrella over my head to get to the car to go to school cos there were paparazzi outside,” she recalls. “That doesn’t happen often but there were days when things were traumatic, like when my parents went through their divorce, and having all that stuff out in public was incredibly painful [Thurman and Hawke separated in 2005 but remain on good terms]. I knew enough to know that and to fear it, but eventually my love overpowered my fear – I’m happiest when I get to act and play [music].”

“Quentin tarantino makes you feel like making movies is really important”

And thank god it did, or the world would be missing out on a promising new talent. Despite it being only a couple of years since she bagged her first professional role, Hawke is an in-demand name. She even scored a small cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, following in the footsteps of her mum who worked with the director on Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies, and has been called his muse. But in a 2018 interview, Thurman revealed she’d suffered permanent injuries to her neck and knees in a car crash on set after the director made her perform her own driving stunts (she’s since said she would work with him again, while Tarantino has called the decision “the biggest regret of my life”).

Maya Hawke
Maya Hawke performs in New York City earlier this month. Credit: Getty

“No one loves making movies more than he does,” Hawke says of her own experience with the director, noting she’s known him since she was “a little baby girl”. “He’s one of the only movie directors I know where, if he wasn’t a big shot director, he’d legitimately be working in a video rental store – as he did for a while. He makes you feel like making movies is really important. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t but, when you’re on his set, it really feels like it is.”

“Robin [in ‘Stranger things’] was meant to be a snarky, dark, almost gothic ‘80s punk… That wasn’t the actress that they hired”

When it comes to picking roles, Hawke looks for one thing – intelligent writing. Even when she auditioned for her part in Stranger Things and couldn’t read the script because it hadn’t been written yet, she had confidence in it because of the Duffer Brothers’ writing. “They have a style, they have a real unique sense of who their characters are and, not just that, but that their show is and they way people talk in it,” she gushes. “They build a world – a linguistic world, a world with real shape and rhythm.”

As season three was filmed, Hawke says she fell “deeper and deeper in love” with her character Robin. But, initially, the role was meant to be something quite different – a “snarky, dark, almost gothic ‘80s punk”. “That wasn’t the actress that they hired,” she explains. “I’m an Energiser bunny smile addict, especially when I’m nervous. So the character also shifted and became more like me as we were filming.”

Maya Hawke album
Maya Hawke’s debut album ‘Blush’ arrives on June 19

At this very minute, Hawke should be on set filming season four but, as with most things in the world right now, the coronavirus outbreak has put paid to that for the time being. When the show does return, expect to see even more of the young actor in her character. “I’m surprised this season by what the Duffer Brothers have written for me – they’ve almost done a caricature of me. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, is this what you think about me? OK!’”

Hawke isn’t the only member of the Stranger Things cast who does music on the side. Finn Wolfhard (Mike), Joe Keery (Steve), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin), and Charlie Heaton (Jonathan) have all been in or are still in bands, but Hawke says they haven’t gotten together for a between takes jam sesh – yet. Don’t expect to hear what goes on when it does happen though. “I guarantee you we would never [release anything],” she laughs.

Life is uncertain right now and, with so much on hold, it’s hard for Hawke to talk about her upcoming projects. She’s already completed work on Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, in which she plays shy but creative Frankie, and crime drama Human Capital. She was planning to tour around the album but can’t at the moment for obvious reasons, although she does say she’s got a new EP in the works. “My dream is that we as a nation heal from this and then I’ll finish season four of Stranger Things and then go on tour,” she says solemnly. “But first, a lot of healing has to take place – and hopefully some healing for our planet as well.” When the world eventually returns to normal, expect Hawke to get right back to sharing her creativity, buoyed by her unstoppable passion and excitement. Quite frankly, that time can’t come soon enough.

Maya Hawke releases her debut album ‘Blush’ on June 19 via Mom+Pop Music.