Maya Hawke was wearing a vintage Taylor Swift t-shirt when she called me on Zoom from her temporary home in Atlanta, Georgia, where she’s been filming season 4 of Stranger Things since September. “I’ve had this haircut for a lonnng time,” she said, scrunching her choppy chin-length hair. It’s just one of several major changes the hit Netflix series has brought on for Hawke—the other being how she’s joined her A-list parents, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, on the path to fame. (Especially after last season’s big reveal: Her character, Robin, is gay.)
But that’s not how the 22-year-old views it. “I mean, Stranger Things is a hit, but it's a hit way outside of me,” she insisted. “I got lucky enough to get boarded on a train that was already going to hit land.”
Hawke broke out in 2017 with her portrayal of Jo March in the BBC’s adaptation of the Little Women series, followed by a role as a flower child in 2019’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. Her latest, Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, marks Hawke’s first lead role, as well as most fulfilling creative relationship yet. (Second only to her father and “teacher,” four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke, who played her father in the miniseries The Good Lord Bird last year.) She repeatedly heaped praise on fellow scion Coppola, who made her directorial debut with Palo Alto (with James Franco) in 2013, followed by The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll (with Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts) in 2016.
Coppola approached Hawke about her third full-length film in 2016, before Hawke had ever even appeared on-screen. (Though she always knew she wanted to join her parents in the industry; her parents often took her along to set.) Five years later, Coppola and Hawke sealed the deal. Mainstream, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September of 2020 and premieres on IFC Films on Friday, stars Hawke as Frankie, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who’s far more outgoing—and technology-obsessed—than Hawke is IRL. Her life changes after an encounter with Andrew Garfield, who plays Link, an ebullient, self-obsessed ball of energy who’s determined to make Frankie’s dreams of YouTube stardom a reality.
Armed with the moniker No One Special, Link evolves into an even more repulsive version of Jake Paul (whose brother Logan, also a YouTube star, briefly cameos). Link’s antics are harmful—even fatal—at worst, and incredibly obnoxious at best. Eventually, they become too much for the principled Jake (Palo Alto’s Nat Wolff), who works alongside Frankie at a lounge bar that forces them to embarrassingly perform onstage, and is the mastermind behind Frankie’s—and especially Link’s—success. Without Jake, the pair never would have been able to rack up more than 1,500 YouTube hits.
It all sounds like an allegory for YouTube, or the entertainment industry overall. But Hawke insists Mainstream is something else altogether: “an allegory for self-editing yourself into someone others would like more, instead of just letting yourself be yourself,” and the pursuit of popularity, celebrity, and simply money that comes after a breakthrough hit. It’s not surprising that Hawke takes such an approach: No matter how much she strikes out on her own, her parents will always be Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman.
In real life, the 22-year-old only goes on YouTube to look up, say, clips of Jimmy Fallon and old videos of Joni Mitchell. That was true even when she was preparing for the role. Hawke prefers emoticons to emojis—which at times pepper scenes in Mainstream—and the only app on her phone is Instagram. She mostly promotes her films and music, alongside the occasional selfie with her parents, and claims to think about deleting it every day. Otherwise, Hawke’s media consumption is limited to podcasts, standup clips, and ambient TV like Community, Grey’s Anatomy, and Schitt’s Creek. Hawke doesn’t subscribe to the concept of unplugging: “I mean, I’m not a technological device,” she said earnestly. “So I don’t require a charger to be plugged in.”
Next up for Hawke is a role opposite Camila Mendes in Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Alfred Hitchcock-inspired Strangers, but production is something of a ways away: Hawke first has to finish up her stint as a teenaged ice cream shop employee in Stranger Things. (While her latest roles have involved service jobs, Hawke has only ever worked one—though she’s not sure if it counts. Hawke lived the dream of working and staying at the storied bookstore Shakespeare & Co. in Paris.)
This season, Hawke’s younger brother, Levon Thurman-Hawke, joins her on Stranger Things. (His character remains a mystery.) She has yet to collaborate with her mom, but predicts she’ll do so eventually: “Whether a friend or a parent, when you have that kind of intimacy with someone, turning to someone else feels like cheating.”
Hawke seemed surprised when I asked about the first time she felt famous. “I still don’t feel famous,” she said. “I think the benefit of growing up with famous parents is that the barometer of fame is really high.” She admires them, and takes after, how they don’t acknowledge fame. To the Hawkes, it’s not about personality and popularity. It’s about the craft. Funnily enough, though, Ethan was actually the one who got his daughter into Instagram. “He was like, it's this cool photo editing software with all these filters.”
But at the rate things are going, it won’t be too long before Hawke finds out what fame is really like. She gets recognized “shockingly infrequently,” mostly by fans who are teenaged girls. As for the paparazzi who’ve followed Hawke’s whole family her entire life, she’s surprisingly neutral. “It’s the job, you know?,” she said after a pause. “It’s not awesome. Like, it doesn’t feel good getting mauled at the Stranger Things premiere or whatever, but that’s not what most of life is like. It’s like that for five minutes. And I love my work—I feel really lucky that I get to do it the way that I get to do it.”
So, “if people want to take pictures of me at the beach because of that, I’ll take it,” Hawke concluded. “If you’re going to complain about it too much, there are a lot of other jobs you can do.”