The 21-year-old actress and singer discusses her new music, her Stranger Things character's big moment, and how she really feels about getting asked about her parents. 

By Kimberly Truong
Aug 16, 2019 @ 8:45 am
Kurt Krieger/Getty Images, Getty Images

Join us for some Small Talk as we sit down with some of Hollywood’s biggest breakout stars.

Maya Hawke knows what you're thinking. As the daughter of actor parents, her critics say she's just "riding the coattails" of their careers, coasting on the success they've already built. But her summer slate is evidence enough that Hawke is putting in the work to make a name of her own. From her breakout role in Stranger Things to her part in the indie film Ladyworld, and a small but pivotal appearance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, she's doing Hollywood her way.

Over the course of our time together, the 21-year-old comes off as funny, humble, refreshingly aware of herself and the world around her, and, at times, self-deprecating. She's also sincere and even sweet (which you might not expect from someone who nailed her Stranger Things character's sardonicism so well), thanking me no less than ten times during the conversation for everything from our interview itself to calling out a reference in her album art. Most of all, she's fiercely devoted to acting, singing, and writing, and takes her work seriously.

Despite coming of age in a time when a social media following is equated with clout and even opportunity (Sophie Turner once said that social media helped her beat out another actress for a role), she doesn’t seem concerned with getting likes and followers. Hawke isn’t on Twitter, and isn’t especially active on Instagram, where she has over 2.6 million followers and counting. In fact, she longs for the days when actors could operate with some anonymity, a desire that certainly makes sense when you consider that her actor parents, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, aren’t just famous. They're practically cult icons. 

“I am a little bit nostalgic for the days where artists, musicians, and actors were their characters and you followed their careers through following their work,” she tells me. “Now, it seems more like everyone is sort of leaning into being a public personality, rather than a public artist. I don't really want to be a personality, I want to be a worker. I want to be an actor."

Figuring out the mechanics of being a public person might be a learning process, but what's clear is that she's already a star — or, as her father once put it, she's "the real thing."

The drama school dropout (Hawke left Juilliard after one year to begin working) is also well on her way to being a multi-hyphenate with two new songs out on Friday, cementing her status as a triple-threat. Not only does Hawke sing, she also wrote her own lyrics, something she says is one of her biggest passions. 

“My favorite thing about music is lyrics. All my favorite musicians are great lyricists, whether it’s Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, or Loretta Lynn,” she says. “I think music is the best way to communicate poetry, so I wanted to write some songs that were maybe not poetic, but at least striving to be poetic.”

Hawke collaborated on “To Love a Boy” and “Stay Open” with musician Jesse Harris, and the two are working on releasing a full album later this year. 

Ahead, Hawke talked to InStyle about her musical influences, how she got into acting, and why she isn't sick of being asked about her parents (yet). Oh, and she cleared the air about that big reveal involving her beloved Stranger Things character.

InStyle: You recently performed for the first time at Rockwood Music Hall [in New York City]. Was that like?

Maya Hawke: It was really, really fun. It was mostly friends and family [in attendance]. At that time I hadn't released any music yet, I just invited all my friends and my mom and dad, and it was a fun show. I was really, really nervous. There's almost nothing I can do that makes me more nervous. I pretty much blacked out. I love getting to perform on stage, whether it's theater or music. As nerve-wracking as it is, it's three times as rewarding. Once you try that, you don't understand why anyone ever does drugs. The high of performing live is so fulfilling.

When did you first know that you wanted to make music?

It's always been a hobby of mine and even with this releasing music, I still am considering it a hobby project. Acting is my passion and it's my profession, but the problem with the acting business is that you're always waiting for somebody else to call you. You're always waiting to get a job, or for that good script to come through, or whatever it is. With music, you really can create it yourself, you don't have to wait for anybody.

I've been writing poetry and songs since I was eight or nine years old. Hopefully they've gotten a little better over the years, but could potentially have gotten worse. It's just always been something that brought me joy and allowed me to hear my own voice, and figure out how I was feeling, and express [those feelings] clearly.

It's always been a kind of hobby and tool for communicating, for me, since I was a little girl. I'd write songs for my parents if I got in trouble, I'd write songs about the boy at school I had a crush on. 

I wish I'd thought to write songs when I got in trouble as a kid. Did the songs ever get you out of trouble?

I would say, yeah. Once.

Really? Do you remember what happened?

I do remember what happened. I won't tell you [Laughs] but I did write my dad a song to apologize for having lied. To sort of explain why I lied.

How did you and Jesse meet and start collaborating with each other?

I've known Jesse since I was a little girl because he and my dad are good friends and grew up in New York together, and he always would come over to our house.

I was working on my own songwriting, and I brought him a song I'd written because I wanted his help trying to make the chorus progression more interesting. Then from there, he made it somewhat more interesting, and then we had a bunch of songs that we'd written and we decided that we would record them and maybe start playing some shows just because we had enough songs for it.

When I was looking at the album art, it kind of reminded me of the cover for Patti Smith's Horses.

That was my inspiration! So there you go, thank you.

Mathias Goldstein

Did you have any musical influences growing up? Has anyone really inspired your work?

So many people. I grew up with my dad, and he and I would sing and play guitar together, like on the couch at night or in his trailer. It was just something we would always do. I would sing along with him to like Bruce Springsteen songs, Hank Williams songs, and Bob Dylan songs. We would sing all this old country music, like The Louvin Brothers. So my basis of where I learned about music was all kinds of old American folk and country music, and that is still where my favorite music and greatest influence comes from.

Now that you're starting to play live shows, can we expect a Maya Hawke tour sometime in the near future?

I don't know, I think we'll see how the shows go. I think you can definitely expect to see me playing around New York with Jesse every now and then. If the album comes out later this year, and it's a big hit, then maybe, but it's really a passion project and I'm not trying to make a career out of music. I'm just trying to do something I love. I am lucky enough that we live in a world where you can release music ... you don't need to get picked up by a label.

Awesome. Well, how did you get into acting? Is that something you were always interested in?

Yeah, I've always loved acting. I've always done every school play and every summer I did some kind of acting camp. It's always been the thing that made me so happy and was so fun for me and it made me feel like myself, and it made me feel capable, and like I had a seat at the table all throughout school. 

Though I never really thought I was going to go into acting professionally, I had this feeling in my gut where everyone was taking the SATs, and applying [for college], and all I wanted to do was do the school play. It was all I wanted to put energy into. So, I was like, "God, why don't I just do it? If this is the only thing I want to put my energy into, why don't I just put all of my energy in there?" So, I applied to drama conservatories, went to conservatory [at Juilliard] for a year and then I dropped out to start working. It's always been a passion, but I didn't know it was going to be a career until my senior or junior year of high school.

Your Stranger Things character, Robin, is getting so much love from fans, especially as the show’s first queer character. What has the response been like for you?

It's been really exciting. I mean, I'm not active on Twitter or that active on social media, so I haven't been that aware of what the fan response has been, except through getting recognized on the street and having people tell me that. I'm really happy that people fell in love with Robin. I fell in love with her. I think she's so brave, and smart, and cool. The Duffer brothers wrote and created such a brilliant character. I'm so honored to have gotten to participate in that and be the voice of their vision — it's [the Duffer brothers] that deserve the love, but I'm honored to receive it, too. 

You’ve done a few interviews at this point — are you sick of people constantly asking about your parents?

No. I mean, in some ways, yeah, but mostly no. I'm so grateful for my parents and I love them and we have a great relationship. They set an amazing example for me and taught me so much. It's such an advantage to have people that you're really close to that have both carved paths through the arts to give information and advice and insight. If I was already sick about talking about my parents and was annoyed that people ask me about that, it would be just so pretentious. I'm so grateful for what my parents have done for me.

If I carve my own path, people will stop asking me about them. But at this moment, I'm only at the beginning of my journey, and I owe a tremendous debt to them. I love them, and I'm happy to talk about them.

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You've mentioned being on the sets of your parents' movies, and I imagine you've picked up a lot of things about being a working actor from that, but have they given you advice about navigating life as a public person, like when it comes to doing interviews?

I mean they're fun, it's fun to talk to people like you and it's fun to talk about yourself. I like it. There's nothing awful about it — it's not like walking on coals or anything.

Totally. But I imagine that this isn't the part of the job that you initially fell in love with.

It's not what I went into the business for, yeah. It's not the thing I went into it for, at all. If anything, the celebrity aspect and the public figure assets that deterred me from wanting to be a professional actor for most of my childhood and teenage years.

When did that change?

Eventually, I just fell so deeply in love with acting that that stress became just too small in comparison to my love for it.

[My parents have] given me a lot of advice, but it's a hard line to walk. You want to tell the truth and you want to be yourself, but you also want to protect yourself and be careful not to say the wrong thing that gets taken out of context. They showed me by example and with advice, that you really just learn through practice. You're going to make mistakes and you're going to say the wrong thing, but it's okay.

Even just the other day, I talked about how collaborative the Duffer brothers were and how we had a lot of conversations about Robin's sexuality and how that should go, and they were really open with me about it. Then, there's like a bajillion articles out about it that it was my idea to have Robin be a lesbian. It wasn't at all. It was totally the brothers's idea, but me saying that they were collaborative got totally taken out of context.

So anyway, it's hard, but it's worth it and it's also fun.

Zoë Kravitz once said that as the daughter of two famous people [Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz], she felt a lot of pressure to work harder to prove herself. Have you ever felt that way?

Totally. I mean, 100%. I think that's really well put. 

I feel like there's a pressure where it's like, if I were to be really bad in something and everyone were to think I was really bad in it, they'd be like, "Oh, this person sucks. They're just riding the coattails and they suck at acting." You're not in as forgiving a position as young actors who aren't already in the public eye. You can make a lot of mistakes and do a lot of bad stuff while you're learning and figuring out how to be good, and because you're not famous yet, it doesn't brand you forever. 

But for someone like Zoë or for someone like me, as soon as you're working, people are noticing. As soon as you're doing anything in public, you're gonna get noticed and commented on. There's no anonymity or time to practice. It's scary and there is a lot of pressure, but there's also a lot of advantages, you know? It's a double-edged sword.

Small Talk:

What does a typical day look like for you?

There is no such thing as a typical day. A typical day, I guess, looks like spending time with my family, trying to spend some time with friends, trying to exercise, trying to read, and probably an audition. That's probably a typical day for me unless I'm on set working — then a typical day is being up at 6:00 AM, straight to set, and then go home and watch Netflix, and fall asleep.

If you were stranded on an island and you could only listen to one album, what would it be?

Bob Dylan's Desire.

What was your most memorable concert experience?

Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus was the first concert I ever went to. I loved her and she was amazing. It was in the Hannah Montana phase — she did half the show in the blonde wig and half the show without it. It was a thrilling experience.

What's your favorite song to dance to?

“Say My Name” by Destiny's Child.

Do you have a go-to when it comes to karaoke?

Oh, what's that song? [Sings] Islands in the stream, that is what we are… Sail away with me...

Oh, the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, “Islands in the Stream”?

Yes!

What posters were on the wall of your childhood bedroom?

I didn't have posters on my wall as much as I had photos of family. So, I think it was mostly family photos, but I have a poster now in my room of the movie Paris, Texas.

How would you describe your style?

Sexy English teacher/70’s street rat. I don't know.

Robert Kamau/Getty Images

What do you wish more people knew about you?

That's tough. What do I wish more people knew about me? I guess I wish more people knew how earnestly I love art and that I got into acting because there was nothing else I could imagine doing. 

All I want to do is be the best actor and the best artist, singer, whatever I can be and try to add something to the landscape. And also, use my privileged position, being born with the name that I have, to try to help the arts be more diverse, and making better stuff that speaks to more people, and to help my friends rise up and get to do the work they want to do. I don't know. Maybe that's too preachy. [Laughs]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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