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Maya Hawke Knows What She's Got

BY: Noah Lehava

“Journalists make me nervous,” Maya Hawke confesses one afternoon from her family home in upstate New York, where she’s been holed up since March. She recently packed up her belongings from her just-rented Manhattan apartment to move back indefinitely with her mother and siblings. 

The 21-year-old actress and singer-songwriter tells me that her apprehension in interviews is that she often has to remind herself that her words will be put to paper. “It always feels like you’re talking to a friend about your life and then you’re like, oh wait, but everything I say is on the record,” she laughs. “I thought I knew what I was getting into in a lot of ways. I felt like, oh, you know, celebrity is a complicated machine, and it was a complicated business, but if anyone can handle it, I probably can handle it,” she says. “But having eyes on you is so different. Reading interviews you did back and being like, oh my god, I sound like an idiot, and other people noticing you sound like an idiot, and writing that you’re an idiot, and [figuring out how to] handle that kind of criticism.” Despite all of this, when talking to her, Hawke is candid, comfortable, and vulnerable. 

But for a moment, “Oh, gosh, my head is trying to decide if this is too personal,” she’s particularly tuned in when I ask about life in isolation. “But I don’t think so,” she decides. “I’m re-learning how to let myself be mothered. You know, as a teenager, we often resist being taken care of. I had that in a really strong way. I was in a big hurry to get out of the house and take care of my own bills.” Like most 20-somethings, Hawke had big plans, but this year threw it all off-kilter.

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If you suck in too many movies, then you're going to stop getting [cast]."

Fortunately, Hawke knows what she’s got. She has that sort of brash self-awareness that roots her every word and knows she hasn’t faced the same challenges as most. After all, when you hail from cinematic royalty—her parents are Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke—life comes with doors cracked open. Hers has a Quentin Tarantino-sized door stop. But, don’t let that Hollywood birthright undermine her talent. She’s working for it, and she wants to prove it. “If you suck in too many movies, then you're going to stop getting [cast],” Hawke laments. This isn’t the first time she’s been posed with a question about growing up with famous friends and family. Just Google her name, it’s nearly always accompanied by a prefix. “If you're great enough times, eventually you will not need to have two asterisks before your name,” she pauses. “I don't think I'm entitled to just being Maya Hawke and not the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke—I think that someday, hopefully, I will be. And I'll have worked hard enough for long enough, and proven myself as an individual in this business that doesn't require context.”

Hawke’s pursuit of acting, as it were, didn’t always present itself as the glaring, glistening path. Love of art was the “communal language of our environment,” she tells me. But she saw the industry’s underbelly with its crass criticism (and unrelenting reverberation on social media); the loss of privacy; the drama. So for years, she avoided it. “I thought that I didn't want to go into having a creative career because I saw the toll that it can take on your life.” Yet, she struggled with dyslexia, especially in school, so poetry and songwriting became apparatuses to express her emotions and thoughts. In theatre class, she found ultimate joy in performing—the perfect outlet for someone who is as steeped in feelings as Hawke.

Before she finished school, just three years ago, she made her first appearance as Jo March in BBC’s mini-series, Little Women. Shortly after, it was announced that Hawke would star as the lead in Gia Coppola’s sophomore film, Mainstream, which wrapped filming just before the world came to a standstill and is set to premiere at Venice Film Festival in September. Tarintino gave Hawke a small role in his most 2019 film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Even though her career is at its infancy, Hawke has already demonstrated she has an unfaltering instinct in choosing roles. She’s a dazzling presence on the third season of Stranger Things, where she plays Robin Buckley, a sarcastic, willful, gay teenager who works at the nautical-themed ice cream shop, Scoops Ahoy, alongside Steve Harrington [Joe Keery]. Hawke plays the perfect mix of anti-ingenue—confident, smart, utterly charming, and a total badass—with the vulnerability of someone who fears being othered. It was her career-igniting role.

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I always loved the arts, and it was a part of the communal language of our environment and of our home."

While she’s carved out a cozy niche on the big and little screen, she conceded that acting doesn’t offer her as much creative freedom as she’d like. “Acting is amazing, but you don't have a lot of control over when you get to do it and how you get to do it. I needed another outlet.” Hawke would write lyrics on the sides of her scripts between scenes and on the back of airplane napkins. Whenever inspiration struck, she’d grab a pen and jot down her thoughts, complete or not. “I started using [music] as a way to talk to my friends, a way to express what I was going through.” Last year, she released her first bit of music, two dreamy singles, “To Love a Boy” and “Stay Open.”

Music had the same pervasive influence on her upbringing as sitting on the set of Kill Bill. Song put her to sleep when she struggled with insomnia—first it was the sound of rivers emanating from a bedside player, before she discovered CDs from India Arie and The Beatles. It bookmarked those blissful moments, and heartbreak that punctuated chapters of her life.

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Music is the score of all of our lives."

One of her fondest memories was when she was seven years old, “The first cover my dad and I did together was Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart.’ We are playing music together in our living room,” she says as she sinks into reverie. “Singing together is an essential part of our relationship—always and still.” A memory interrupts my next question. “I was in the car driving upstate with my mom. I was probably 12 [years old], and ‘The Redheaded Stranger’ [by Willie Nelson] came on the radio. It had been a song that my dad used to sing to me when I would go to sleep at night. It came on the radio and I remember crying because it contained so many memories and feelings. In every node and every line of the song, I felt something different and something new.” That’s the penultimate power of music. To jar you, at any moment, into another space and time.

What’s so alluring about Hawke is that she often speaks in metaphors, “Music is the score of all of our lives,” she crooned. She’s releasing her debut album, Blush, on August 21st. The initial release had been set for June 19th, but as she reflected on the current social climate, Hawke decided to push it. “While understanding that the fight against injustice is ongoing and must continue, I wanted to make space for voices that needed to be heard more urgently than my own.” We held our cover story too.

Blush is a compilation of melancholic folk songs that she put together with songwriter and producer Jesse Harris, who has worked with Norah Jones and has collaborated with Maya’s father. It was a two-year-long labour of love. She tells me that writing and singing for this album was a “way to score and journal and record my journey into becoming a woman.” She savoured the music-making process, and never felt pressure to turn on her creativity on command. Until she was in quarantine, that is. Like many of us, she felt compelled to use her free time to make something, even if the emotive burden of the state of the world didn't provide for a nurturing mental state for creation. But as Hawke hones her talent, she’s looking to pros like Harris to show her how to operate on a schedule. “I think my next step, as a writer, is figuring out how to move through those moments of no inspiration,” she says. “I need to tell myself to be creative, and I need to sit down and be creative. It’s a really different way of working than writing in moments of panic, joy, fear, or lovelorness in the back of a car somewhere.”

Hawke can’t wait for some semblance of normalcy to return—to hug her best friends and get back on stage with her band. She performed on stage for the last time in March. “It's the only experience I've had in my life that I felt like I was on a team. Like the way people talk about sports—looking back at your teammates behind you and being like, ‘Oh, I made a mistake, but you caught my mistake and you and I are on the same page.’ I really look forward to the day when I can play live again. Live performance has always been my favourite thing in the world—on stage and musically.”

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