Maya Hawke Is Going Through It
The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted life in ways that are tragic (the foregone funerals), burdensome (the homeschooling), and, above all, shockingly obvious in their scope (the 22 million unemployed). But there is also a subtler and perhaps less sympathetic, though no less dramatic, form of disturbance happening. For Gen Z adolescents, the momentous, hormonally charged first flush of adulthood — perhaps the most precious time of life — is evaporating. “I feel like the last three years of my life have been a dream and I’m just a kid again with my family,” the 21-year-old breakout actress and musician Maya Hawke tells me over FaceTime one afternoon early this month, from a quiet corner in her mother’s house in Woodstock, New York. Bare-faced, with a light smattering of youthful blemishes, and wearing a striped Breton long-sleeve, she’s just off a call with her therapist, with whom she’d been lamenting the struggle to stay creatively engaged during quarantine. “I moved out and got my whole life together and became a person,” Hawke tells me. “And this disease is like, ‘Ha ha ha, just kidding! You’re a kid, and you live with your parents.’”
Instead of gallivanting around Manhattan with her well-heeled friends or playing her new songs in Brooklyn bars, Hawke is holed up with her four younger siblings, alternating chore duties and fighting for real estate on the couch. While she hasn’t experienced coronavirus symptoms or been tested, she knows “a ton of people” affected — mostly young friends from her circle. She spends most of her days taking FaceTime meetings with agents and managers, reading an occasional script, helping her younger siblings with their online schoolwork, and “a significant amount of crying,” she tells me. “It’s constant anxiety and constant nothingness.”
"I'm in mourning for my life. That's a joke. I'm fine. I'm very fortunate. But totally depressed and confused."
Of course, Hawke’s young adulthood has been more exciting, and therefore maybe more painful to relinquish, than most. In mid-March, she was in Atlanta, filming the fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things. Since the beginning of Season 3, she’s been playing a new lead character named Robin, a clever, headstrong queer teen who works at the local ice cream shop and helps Steve and the gang uncover a hub of underground Russian activity. One day during shooting, the cast were called together and a dramatic announcement was made. Production would freeze at the end of the day and the actors would be sent home for quarantine. For Hawke, this didn’t mean she was returning to her newly rented adult apartment in downtown Manhattan, but to upstate New York, where she’s been shuttling back and forth between the houses of her parents, who happen to be Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. “I’m in mourning for my life,” Hawke tells me, quoting Chekhov. “That’s a joke. I’m fine. I’m very fortunate. But totally depressed and confused.”
“I’m going through the five stages of grief with it,” she says. “I was angry about it. I was in denial. And then I was bargaining: I’m going to fix it! And now I’m in resignation or whatever. I’m just sort of like, this is my new forever.”
Prior to the pandemic, Hawke had a different kind of new forever: that of a freshly minted starlet, the type of young Hollywood name who gets hired for prestige television and indie films beloved on the festival circuit. (With just three years of acting experience, she’s already got a niche, which she describes as “stubborn — the tough, tomboy girl. The nerd or the tough girl who has a heart of gold.”) As far as finished film projects go, Hawke recently wrapped a leading role in Mainstream, Gia Coppola’s new movie about love and artistic identity in the age of social media.
“She’s fearless, and in tune with a lot of different emotions. You have to have a lot of life experience to know what those things are,” Coppola says. “In a lot of ways, she’s very evolved. But she’s so sweet and young-hearted at the same time. To carry both of those dynamics is what you look for.”
A poet and a drama nerd at heart, Hawke tends to describe things in emotionally charged, flowing mixed metaphors. “It felt like walking over a tripwire. I was more like running over one, actually,” she says, describing the sensation of going from real life to quarantine. “It was a sprint to a stop, which will always take the wind out of you.”
Hawke has not found quarantine to be the creatively invigorating productivity chamber that some are making it out to be on social media. She thrives in a state of collaboration, not isolation, which is why she enjoys being on set so much. The one creative project she has been able to focus on is her music — a moody, acoustic-folk sound that began a few years back as an outgrowth of her poetry writing. “My brother [Levon, 18] is here, and he and I have been writing some music together,” she tells me. “I’ll sing a melody, and he’ll figure it out on the electric guitar or keyboard, and we’ll keep exploring.”
Typically, this process takes place with Jesse Harris, a musician and longtime collaborator of her father’s. (Harris soundtracked The Hottest State, a film Hawke directed in 2006.) Hawke worked with Harris on Blush, her plaintive debut record, which is still scheduled to come out on June 19. It’s the one plan that COVID hasn’t foiled — she wasn’t planning to take the record on tour until after Stranger Things wrapped up its remaining months of production. “No one has to interact or be together to put it out,” she says. “It’s definitely not party music.”
Growing up as a dyslexic and hapless kid — not to mention the spawn of Hollywood royalty — Hawke bounced around from private school to private school in New York City. Though she didn’t have plans to become a professional actor, the common thread between these schools was theater. When it came time to apply for college, she visited Amherst “because of a weird obsession with Massachusetts and David Foster Wallace,” and fell in love. When she realized that her SAT scores would nullify her application, she broke down crying and started applying to drama schools. After a year at Juilliard, she snagged the role of Jo March in the BBC’s 2017 episodic adaptation of Little Women, and dropped out of school. Thus began what she describes, as most famous people do, a career in Hollywood that felt accidental rather than predestined.
As the iconoclastic, ambitious and strong-willed Jo March, whom she cites as one of the most influential fictional characters in her life, Hawke became practiced in the kind of isolation and close-quartered, back-to-basics familial living she’s forced into now. In the isolation of wartime “Little Women,” she told me, “there is this intense, tremendous family bonding. And this is something we have an opportunity to do right now, whether it’s with a chosen family or a blood one. The people you are quarantined with are your people. Much more complicated dynamics emerge.”
How does Hawke fit into the dynamics of the Hawke-Thurman clan, then? “My family isn’t that different from the Marches in a lot of ways,” she explains. Her father Ethan, known for playing sensitive, brooding, intellectual family men onscreen, is in real life “brilliant and sort of a philosopher himself. You know, a loving father who really wants me to become my best self and is supportive and encouraging and has high standards all at the same time,” she says. Her mother, who split from Ethan Hawke when their daughter was just 5, she describes as “nurturing and loving and inspiring and safe and powerful.” Hawke likes to call her brother Levon a “passive optimist,” while she’s an “aggressive optimist” who requires a precise reading of the emotional temperature of every situation. “If you’re feeling sad, I have to know why!” she says. “I’ve always related to Jo March in her warmth and dedication to her family, and in her need to be understood, and her need to express. But I wouldn’t really call myself an iconoclast. I haven’t exactly brushed up against a lot of barriers the way she did.”
Most young people born to Hollywood royalty might resist accusations of nepotism, or struggle to break free of their parents’ shadows. But Hawke is part of a cohort — young, social justice-minded, digital native city kids — who understand how to intellectualize and process their privilege. Throughout our conversation, Hawke is candid about the advantages she’s had in her career. “Oh, god, I’m well aware that every part I get is somehow influenced by the history of who I am as a person and where I come from,” she says. “I’m a not-that-famous, not-that-successful young actress, but if I get cast in something, it will get PR. From a producer’s point of view, that’s a huge advantage. Which gives me a massive leg up. It was a massive leg up in getting an agent and a manager. All these sorts of extra things that people don’t think about when they think of people getting roles. My upbringing plays a part in all those interactions, all those moments, all that reasoning.”
“I will get the opportunities I get,” she adds. “I will try as hard as I can to be brilliant in them. And if I suck enough, I’ll stop getting chances.”
Besides, it’s not as if Hawke could escape her biography even if she tried, because Thurman and Hawke are imprinted so intensely into her physicality and personality. “Oh, man, she has a lot of Ethan in her: her energy, her enthusiasm, her eagerness to talk about life and explore and be honest,” says Harris, who’s collaborated with the young Hawke as well as her father. “I can remember going to dinner with Maya and Ethan together, and even when she was 15 years old, she was really fun to hang out with and to talk to.”
Physically, Thurman is an ever-looming presence in her daughter. Not just the strong nose, chiseled cheek bones, and naturally pursed lips, but, uncannily, in her self-expression: the gangly and articulate gesticulations, the deep inquisitive pauses between answers, the faintly husky voice, and excitability tempered with smolder. As if her face were not reminder enough of Hawke’s background, suddenly Thurman is there, in the background of a FaceTime interview with a journalist, waiting to pester her daughter.
“Are you OK?” Hawke asks her mom, vaguely dismissive.
“Yeah!” Thurman responds, mumbling something about a book.
“This house is very crowded,” Hawke tells me. “Five people.”
Thurman is still within earshot, lingering outside of the room and making ambient noise.
“Helloooooooo,” Hawke yells. “I’m trying to be interviewed here. I’m trying to talk about you!”
“Tell them the truth,” Thurman yells back.
“Uh, sure,” Hawke says, suddenly taking on the tone of a defiant teenager instead of the sage adult she’d been playing with me just moments earlier. “Always.”
The truth Hawke tells about her mother is pretty innocuous but insightful nonetheless. When she first began acting professionally, neither of her parents protested — the die had long been cast, since the days of her grade-school theater career. But the divorced actors had different flavors of advice to provide their daughter. Thurman, who opened up to Maureen Dowd about being sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein at the peak of the MeToo revelations, gave her daughter advice in the form of a warning about Hollywood. “Because this industry is so much tougher on women, my mom had reservations about me not becoming an actor, but becoming a public figure,” Hawke says. “The emphasis that the business puts on your appearance, the emphasis the business puts on your age — on all sorts of things that have nothing to do with your ability to act.” Thurman encouraged Hawke to cultivate perspective, to make sure that “you make the choices you want to make. And that you follow your gut and your instinct and the projects that mean something to you, and that you don’t get trapped in the starlet tornado. That you don’t value about yourself the things that the business tells you.”
“My mom understands in a different way from my dad how difficult that is,” Hawke explains. “Because the voices are not as strong, the whispers are not as strong in men’s ears.”
“I will get the opportunities I get. I will try as hard as I can to be brilliant in them. And if I suck enough, I’ll stop getting chances.”
I ask Hawke if she’s starting to think of her parents as peers. She laughs. “I think I’ll feel like the peer or colleague of my parents when I have kids,” she says. Hawke has been visiting movie sets since she was a toddler, which gives her a unique vantage into the world of Hollywood. Based on the changes she’s observed since the early-2000s and today, the path to Hollywood superstardom has all but vanished — even for those with a head start. When Thurman and Hawke were young, she explains, there was a concrete class of capital-M, capital-S Movie Stars. “It just used to be more glamorous,” she says, citing higher budgets for big dramatic feature films. “It’s not so glamorous anymore. There’s almost no such thing as a movie star anymore. There can be an appearance of one for a second. Now there’s a bajillion actors with a following. It’s a lot more everyman.” Her parents’ names might help her get jobs, but they won’t catapult her to their blue-chip Hollywood status — the new structure of the industry provides a natural ceiling of its own.
All this talk about the past and the future of Hollywood can be painful for Hawke right now, who is struggling to envision her life past the COVID. “It just seems impossible. I can’t even envision the future where I get on a new indie set. It sounds like it’s a million years away,” she tells me.
“I was talking to my friend the other day about this and we’re just so annoyed at our parents’ generation. They had it so easy. They were all just high and driving around in cool, gas-guzzling cars. Destroying our environment and voting for the wrong people, and having no wars and no plagues and no pandemics. We’re in our 20s, we’re supposed to be having fun, and doing drugs, and partying. But instead… We’re going to SoulCycle and trying to outlive our planet. We have a horrible president, and it’s just really irritating. They really fucked us.”
But right now, in indefinite self-quarantine, there is only today. Later that afternoon, Hawke will have two more virtual meetings. “And then I’m going to go on a walk, and await death,” she says, sighing.
Top image credit: Prada top, skirt, slip, shoes; Cherry Vintage cropped cardigan; Fendi socks; Chrome Hearts earring; Cartier ring; Martine Ali ring; Lizz Jardim rings.
Photographer: Luc Coiffait
Stylist: Kat Typaldos at Cartel & Co.
Hair: Peter Butler using Oribe at TraceyMattingly.com
Makeup: Gianpaolo Ceciliato using MAC Cosmetics at TraceyMattingly.com
Fashion Assistant: Ryan Gale
Manicure: Elizabeth Garcia using Cnd.