Maya Hawke was partially trying to save on Ubers, and mostly calm her nerves, so she was walking around Los Angeles — miles and miles of walking. It was Oscar week, 2018, the city was abuzz, and she had just left a “funny little house” for her final audition for the new season of “Stranger Things,” the Netflix phenomenon from the Duffer brothers.
“Basically, a lot of things just fell into place,” Hawke says: She got the part, mid-meandering around the city, and though not entirely sure about what the part was, she knew it would change things for her.
And it already has. For Hawke — the 20-year-old daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke — it’s the beginning of her stand-alone moment in Hollywood, as she joins the Netflix series for its third season, out July 4.
She’s back home in New York now after spending seven months shooting “Stranger Things” in Atlanta. It’s hard to picture her anywhere but New York. She’s high energy, bopping around singing along to Gwen Stefani while browsing racks of clothes and climbing on top pianos, and is confident in the way city kids are. She also, refreshingly, has no ego about the fact that her parents are famous, and that the lineage has cleared a path for her.
“It makes [for] more expectations and it makes it so that people doubt your intentions and your ability and your place, but the truth is that you just have to work hard and hopefully you learn your place,” she says, having finished her lunch and settled into a more reflective state. “And there are all kinds of ways that it helps you get a foot in the door, but you’re going to get booted out the door if, once you’re in, you suck.”
Acting was not a shocking step for her to take. And it’s true, she acted in every school play she could growing up, went away to acting camps in the summer — the whole song and dance — but making it a profession gave her some pause.
“I resisted it a little bit, because it was the family business, until I realized that it made me the most happy and that it was what I was the best at,” she says.
Her junior year in high school, while everyone else was prepping college applications, Hawke found herself stuck.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know, do I want to get an English degree, what do I want to do?’ I was simultaneously doing a play at my school, and it was the only thing I liked doing. I didn’t like studying for my SAT, didn’t like writing essays, but I felt so alive and capable in the theater at my school,” she says, “and how do you say no to that?”
She enrolled at Juilliard for a year before landing the role of Jo March in the BBC’s production of “Little Women” in 2017, her first professional acting job.
In the year and a half since, the work has come somewhat steadily. She went from “Little Women” to a small indie, “Ladyworld;” a movie called “Human Capital” with Marisa Tomei, Peter Skarsgard and Liev Schrieber; a part in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and has just wrapped Gia Coppola’s latest, “Mainstream,” in a lead role alongside Andrew Garfield and Nat Wolff.
“Maya is an incredibly smart, fearless, strong, young woman,” Coppola says. “I’ve learned so much about how to approach life by just being around her. It’s no doubt she’s going be a big star – I just got lucky with the right time.”
If it all seems to be happening at once, Hawke says that couldn’t feel further from how she sees it.
“It’s not easy for anyone to deal with. Going back and forth between working 16-hour days where your eyes are bleeding to waking up at 12 and not knowing what to do that day is a total mind — am I allowed to say f–k? Is a total mind f–k,” she says. “But, it also is kind of the only way that I’ve ever known how to live. And it works for me.”
Her addition to “Stranger Things” remains closely guarded by Netflix: She was obviously aware of the show’s popularity — and though she had never seen it, her mom and brother were fans.
Luckily for her, the Duffer brothers slowly molded her character, Robin, into a version closer and closer to Hawke herself as the shoot went on.
“I’m a super joyful, exuberant person, especially on set; I bring a lot of energy, maybe from nerves or something, but they kind of tapped into that and then started to write the character more along those lines,” she says. “I came into it thinking, ‘OK, sarcastic, bored with her life, down to earth, Madonna wannabe, cool girl from school but that no one notices.’ And then throughout the season she became more and more like me.”
What is known is that Robin works with Steve, played by Joe Keery — and that’s about the extent of it.
“There’re three sentences I’m allowed to say,” Hawke says. The official Netflix talking points are that Robin is “an alternative girl who is equal parts sharp and playful. Bored with her mundane day job, she just wants a little excitement in her life…and gets more than she bargained for when she uncovers a dark secret in Hawkins.”
Joining the cast came with its own challenges: It was the breakout, to say the least, for all of the younger cast members, and they’ve had two seasons together of experiencing the insanity of fandom that has latched onto the show.
“It was hard to find my footing,” Hawke says. “But everyone who works on the show loves the show, everyone is really devoted to it, and so it was probably only me that made it hard. Just psychologically.”
If she weren’t acting, Hawke says she’d want to pursue a degree in poetry, or maybe agriculture. Both her grandparents and her mom have homes in Woodstock, and the fantasy of “playing in creeks and climbing trees and hanging out the laundry on a wire” is one she ruminates on.
She’s also musical, having recently publicly performed for the first time at Rockwood Music Hall, though she maintains it is strictly a joy project.
“I’m more nervous about it than any other part of my life,” she says of her jazzy-folk songs. “I’m not trying to say I’m an awesome musician or anything like that — I’m not. But I love music and I love lyrics and songwriting and I feel like it’s the way…people aren’t that interested in poetry these days, but lyrics are a way to present poetry to the world where they know how to take it in and how to absorb it.”
But for now, Hollywood seems to be taking to her — even if she’s still getting used to being the one in the spotlight.
“When I went for ‘Little Women’ and I showed up on set, they were like, ‘OK, we’re ready for you in hair and makeup.’ I was like, ‘Wait, me?’ Because I’m so used to being on set [with my parents], but the idea that I would be the one getting into costume was…I was like, ‘Me? OK. I guess so. Sure,’” she says. “So, yeah, it’s a combination of total familiarity and total alienation.”
More from the Eye: