On paper, Maya Hawke has had the world’s busiest summer. The 21-year-old actress joined the cast of Stranger Things this season as the level-headed Scoops Ahoy employee Robin, following that up a few weeks later with a memorable part as the would-be Manson murderer “Flower Girl” in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. She’s also currently starring in the disturbing psychological indie thriller, Ladyworld, and today, she’s releasing music for the first time—stream her new single “Stay Open” (from her upcoming debut album, out later this year) below, premiering exclusively on GQ. (What have you accomplished with your summer?)
“Although it all came out in about a month, the work of doing it happened last year,” Hawke says. “It’s funny, because it seems to people like everything’s happening this month, but for me, everything happened a while ago.”
That’s not to say that the actress has had a totally relaxing summer vacation this year. Even though Hawke is getting used to being a star—having already made an impression in PBS’s 2017 adaptation of Little Women, not to mention being Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter—she notes that it’s still a little nerve-wracking to actually show people what she’s been working on.
“The work of it all, I loved. I loved being on Stranger Things, I loved being in Quentin’s movie, I loved all the stuff I got to do,” she says. “This part, where everyone gets to see it, is the scary part.”
She has nothing to worry about, though. Hawke was uniformly praised for her surprisingly empathetic ice cream-slinger’s chemistry with Steve Harrington (and his luscious locks), as well as adding some much-needed non-male energy to Hawkins, Indiana. Her part in Once Upon a Time is smaller, but it’s a cheeky, memorable appetizer before the film’s gory conclusion. And her new music, which she says is intentionally simple, will likely win over listeners with her delicate voice and subtle melodies.
Last week, GQ caught up with Hawke to talk about her standout summer, including Robin’s evolution on Stranger Things, clearing up one wildly overblown misunderstanding, and what it was like to work alongside Tarantino after years of watching her mother do the same.
GQ: Let’s start with Stranger Things. What was it like dropping into the third season of such a big show, yet still feeling like your character totally belonged there the whole time?
Maya Hawke: I was really nervous to join the show at first, because the cast is already so established and everything. Everyone was so nice. The Duffer Brothers are so smart and collaborative and brilliant, and the cast is so generous and welcoming. It really wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be. If it seemed like I’d been there the whole time, it was only because everyone treated me like that. That kind of welcoming energy of the whole set allowed me to go in there and try my best to breathe as much life into Robin as I possibly could.
Recently news broke that it was originally your idea to make Robin a lesbian, rather than go with the initial plan of pairing her and Steve together. Are you happy with how that’s been received?
That was a total misunderstanding and then crazy press-blow-up of something I said. What I said was: the Duffer Brothers and the writers and I had a lot of collaborative conversations about what was the right storyline for Robin. It was 100 percent the Duffer Brothers and the writers’ idea to have Robin be gay. It wasn’t my idea at all. All I was saying was that they brought me into the conversation as the story unfolded.
I didn’t know that she was gay when I auditioned, but I think the Duffer Brothers did. I said something about that, about how collaborative they were and the conversations we had, and someone took that quote and turned it into this giant thing that now everyone is saying that it was my idea. It wasn’t, and I also never said that it was. So, there’s your inside scoop!
Are there any ways that you influenced Robin, though?
The Duffer Brothers are such intuitive, wonderful writers and directors. They really pay attention to the qualities and personalities of the actors they hire. Robin was much more sarcastic and grumpy than she ended up being, because I’m a more positive person. As the season progresses, she kind of gets brighter, and she becomes more and more herself, more comfortable in her skin, and more comfortable around Steve and Dustin and Erica. She gets sweeter and more positive and lets down those walls of sarcasm that were there in the first couple of episodes.
What do you think is next for Robin in Season 4? Your character didn’t really get much time with Eleven and Mike and the gang. How do you see Robin fitting in with the larger group now that she’s very much part of the whole Upside-Down conspiracy squad?
I have no idea. I don’t even think it’s officially been picked up for a fourth season yet. If there is one, I’m really excited to see what the Duffer Brothers write for her. I have utter and complete faith in them and that her journey will continue to be awesome.
It’s interesting that you were in a show that was very nostalgic about the ‘80s and Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, which is about the end of an era that, in a way, led to ‘80s culture. Neither of us were around in the ‘60s or ‘80s, obviously, but did anything about acting in either decade speak to you? Did you prefer one to the other?
I’ve always loved the music and the culture of the ‘70s and the Hippie movement. The music and the clothing and the styles that came out of that time period I’ve always really loved and held onto —maybe more than the ‘80s ever spoke to me, especially style-wise.
Both are special in different ways. The ‘70s are the era I love for music and culture and style and the ‘80s are the era that my mom and dad grew up in. I got to source my parents for information on everything from what teenagers do in a mall in the ‘80s, or what it feels like to work in an ice cream store in the ‘80s, or how acceptable it was to be a lesbian in the ‘80s. I really turned to them for a lot of cultural details. It’s their decade, and that makes it special to me.
Was your mom also able to give you advice about working with Tarantino? How did your part in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood come about?
People always ask me if my parents give me advice. But the funny thing about having parents who are in the business that you’re going into is that the advice is constant. And it’s not as important as the examples that they set. I got to watch my mom on Quentin’s set when I was a little girl and I got to know Quentin. By the time that I had a little part in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood I didn’t need that much advice. I’d been getting it through observation and listening for my whole life.
That said, it was a super special experience for me to get to do that, and it made me feel really close to my mom and understand something about her experience as a young woman that I didn’t really fully understand before. Quentin is such an incredible director. He’s so smart and so in love with making movies. More than almost anyone I’ve ever known, he has a passion for movies. It was unbelievable getting to work with him.
Are you glad that your character escaped a brutal death at Brad Pitt’s hands, or would that have been fun to shoot?
I’m so glad. [Laughs.] Violence in movies totally scares me and I get totally freaked out. I’m very glad I was able to run off in the getaway car. It was really fun.
Is there a reason Flower Child doesn’t really have a proper name, or one that you’re aware of?
There isn’t really a reason that I’m aware of. I know she’s based on a real person [editor’s note: possibly Linda Kasabian, who in real life stayed with the car while the other three Manson followers committed the murders]. I’m not sure exactly why Quentin decided to give her an imaginary name whereas all the other characters have names that are based on reality.
I loved that she was called Flower Child. There was some kind of wink, to me, of the positive aspects of the Hippie movement. Yes, there were groups of people that did these horrible, dangerous things and they joined bad cults, but there was also just this desire to be free from consumer society, and big money, and the treadmill. I think Flower Child is embodying someone who wanted to be free of the treadmill, wanted to exist in the Earth and the world and didn’t want to be involved in this scary murder. She joined the wrong cult, you know. I feel like maybe it’s a wink to that, but I have no idea what Quentin was thinking.
Your character in Ladyworld also has a spacey, flower child vibe, but she doesn’t keep as cool a head as your Once Upon a Time character. Do you see any similarities between the three characters you played this summer?
The similarity is me. I wasn’t doing a giant transformation anywhere. I was trying to keep pieces of myself in all the characters that I play. It can be hard to put yourself in situations that you’ve never been through, whether it’s being attacked by giant monsters from the Upside-Down, or being stuck in a house, or accidently joining the wrong cult. You have to really try to put yourself in that situation and imagine what it’s like. The consistency is probably just the “me” factor.
If there’s another consistency, I like to portray brave women. I think an intricate piece of bravery is also vulnerability. If you have no fear, then you can’t be brave. If you’re fearless and nothing scares you, then you’re not really brave because you’re not really overcoming anything. I wanted all the characters to have enough fear that when they overcame it, and when they do the right or the wrong thing, they’re really acting from a place of bravery. Maybe that’s a consistency, but I’ve literally never had that thought until just now.
The elevator pitch for Ladyworld is an “all-girls Lord of the Flies.” Do you think that’s an accurate description of the movie?
To me, it seems more of an opera. It’s less strictly an all-girls Lord of the Flies and more that these girls are put in an artificial trap in order to rise to their highest dramatic potential. The performances that all of these talented young women give—obviously excluding myself— are really operatic and big and dramatic. I love that [director Amanda Kramer] gave us all the opportunity to play and scream and scream and fear. It was really a fun set to be on because of the range of emotion that is allowed for.
What was it like seeing and—perhaps more importantly—hearing Ladyworld after you’d filmed it and it was all done? The score alone truly made me feel like I was having a panic attack while watching, so thanks for that.
It’s horrifying, yeah. The experience of making it was so much fun that it was hard not to have that be preserved in my experience of watching it. Getting to see those girls that I fell in love with and got to know on that set, and to see Amanda’s vision come true. It was exciting for me, so the creep factor couldn’t really infiltrate, but boy do I agree that that soundtrack is scary!
Your songs are much, much nicer to listen to. You said you’ve been working on them for years. Can you tell me a little bit more about where your music career is coming from?
I would hesitate to call it a music career. I would call it a passion project. I love acting, I want to be an actor, but the trouble with acting is that it’s always in someone else’s hands. You’re always waiting to get a call or to get that part or to get that opportunity. Sometimes that lack of control—that lack of opportunity to create something for yourself—can drive you crazy. So, in the last two years that I’ve been working and out of school, I wanted to have a project to work on when I’m not acting, when I’m just auditioning and in that terrible miserable waiting game they call life. It’s another place to put my energy and my art.
I started working with Jesse Harris. I’ve known him all my life so I asked him for consultation on a song I wrote, if he could help me make the chords more interesting or help sharpen up the melody. And then we started writing songs together. I would send him lyrics via email. Usually it would start with some kind of poem I’d written and I would shape it into a more basic song structure. I would send it to him, and he would write a melody for it and we’d get together and sing it and play around with it and change little pieces of the melody or lyrics to have the whole thing have a more cohesive feel. We just had a lot of fun together, and decided we wanted to share the fun we’d been having with other people. But, for me, I’m not trying to break out and become a big music star. I’m just trying to have another way to express myself and be creative and fall on my face and see what sticks.
One of the songs, “Stay Open,” really ties into what we were talking about earlier—how bravery requires vulnerability. You’re promising to keep your heart open for someone you love, but your voice shows some inherent apprehension that you’ll be hurt.
Well, thank you. I think on the first EP, the two songs are both love songs, as is almost every song on the album that I’m going to release, because I happened to fall in love during the time I was writing this album. I’m also just a 21-year-old girl and that’s kind of the focus of life, you know? [Laughs.]
The first one, “To Love a Boy,” is all about the aspiration of love—wanting to fall in love, wanting to meet the right person, wanting to love them wholly.
The second song, “Stay Open,” is about the feeling of actually being in love, and how scary it is to really fall in love. If you really give your heart to someone, if you really stay open for someone to be in your heart, it’s freaking terrifying because they can just break it at any minute. It’s nauseating, but it’s also so joyful. It’s the best part about life is being in love. So, it’s such a smart thing that you’ve pointed that out because that’s exactly it. In order to feel the joy, you also have to feel the vulnerability and the fear.
After such a big summer, release-wise, at least, what’s fall looking like for you? Are you working on a bunch of big projects that will come out the same month a couple years from now or are you taking some R&R?
[Laughs.] I just finished this movie Mainstream, which Gia Coppola directed, I filmed that this summer. I have a movie called Human Capital. I’m just kind of on a wave of that and going to Toronto for the premiere. And then there are a few projects that I’m really excited about that I’m auditioning for that I hope I get. I’m also excited to spend time with my family and be home and maybe get ready for a fourth season of Stranger Things if it gets picked up. I’m not super anxious to work, but if the right thing comes along, I’m really excited for it.
Drew Magary on a streaming show that may or may not be Stranger Things.
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Originally Appeared on GQ